Monday, February 16, 2015

Experiential Family Therapy (e.g. Carl Whitaker)

A) Assumptions
1. Based on a pragmatic stance with the belief that theory can hinder clinical work
2. Each family member has the right to be themselves
3. Based on the belief of the family being an integrated whole, not as a collection of discrete individuals
4. Familial togetherness and cohesion is associated with personal growth
5. Emphasis on the importance of involving extended family members in treatment (especially the expressive and lively spontaneity of children)
6. Basis of this bold and inventive approach to family therapy was the result of Whitaker’s spontaneous and creative thinking
7. Stresses the importance of genuineness
8. Techniques are secondary to the therapeutic relationship
9. Whitaker believed in this a theoretical approach based on the assumption that many times, theory is way for therapist to create distance from clients; it also helps to control the anxiety of therapists by allowing them to hide behind their “theory”.
10. Emotional expression is thought to be the medium of shared experience and the means to fulfillment (personal and family).
11. Whitaker suggested that self-fulfillment depended on family cohesiveness.

B) Why People Do What they Do? (What Motivates Them?)
1. To be authentic and able to freely express oneself
2. Being autonomous while also feeling they are a part of the family
3. To have intimacy
4. Self-actualization and self-determination

C) How Do People Get In Trouble?
1. Symptoms and interpersonal problems stem from the lack of emotional closeness and sharing among family members.
2. The needs of the family may be suppressing the rights of the individual.
3. Keeping family secrets can lead to the dysfunction of family members.
4. The family has infringed upon its individual members’ growth and freedom.
5. Personal choice has been comprised.
6. Families put on a fa├žade which restrains its members from being authentic.

D) How To Help People
Goals of Experiential Family Therapy
• The primary goal of experiential therapy is to reduce defensiveness and unlock deeper levels of experiencing by freeing the clients from their impulses.
• Goals for the family

  • o improved communication and reduced conflict
  • o growth, not stability: symptom reduction is secondary to greater freedom of choice
  • o increased personal integrity (congruence between inner experience and outer behavior)
  • o less dependence,
  • o expanded experiencing
  • o emphasis on the feeling side of human nature
  • o improved autonomy for each member
  • o improved agreement about roles
  • o merger of needs for individual growth and strengthening the family unit.

1. The therapist’s active and forceful personal involvement and is the greatest way to bring about changes in families with the goal of promoting flexibility among family members.
2. A goal of therapy is to help family members open up and more fully be themselves by freely expressing what they are thinking and feeling.
3. The therapist conducts a family therapy session with the intent of it being a growth experience for him/herself, thereby inspiring the family to do the same; therefore, the therapist helps family members focus on the here and now by the therapist “being with” the family.
4. Focus on expanding immediate personal experiences and increasing the family’s awareness by achieving a higher level of intimacy.
5. Unmask pretense, create new meaning, and liberate family members to be themselves.
6. Aim for authenticity as there is no right or wrong way to be.
7. Attempt to unmask and tap into family secrets.
8. Guide the family through three specific phases: engagement (the most powerful), involvement (dominant parent figure, adviser) & disentanglement (more personal, less involved).

E) What Techniques And Skills Are Used?
1. Whitaker pioneered the use of co-therapists as a way to maintain objectivity.
2. Incorporates highly provocative techniques/interventions intended to create turmoil, turn up the emotional temperature, and intensify what is going on here and now in the family while then coaching the family how to get out of the turmoil.
3. Believed in doing therapy with a “crowd” in the room.
4. The therapist is active and directive to help create an intensified affective encounter for family members which allows for the family’s own healing and self-actualizing processes to take hold.
5. Therapist takes a theoretical stance as a way to intensify what the family members are presently experiencing and encourage them to reach into their unconscious to understand what is really going on in the family.
6. Facilitation of individual autonomy and a sense of belonging in the family.
7. Encourage spontaneity, creativity, the ability to play, and the willingness to be “crazy”.
8. The therapist's role is more of a facilitator. Through the use of reflection, he/she exposes the process of family interaction while joining the family process as a genuine and non-defensive person.

F) What Are The Limitations On Those Skills Or Techniques?
1. A great limitation is that this approach de-emphasizes theory and the use of “one-size, fits all” techniques.
2. Therapy follows a subjective focus and centers around the subjective needs of the family members (leaving room for bias or skewed perceptions).
3. This approach relies on a highly involved therapist model where the therapist must be visible, take risks, and get involved with family in the sessions.
4. Since success depends on the collaboration of several people, drop-out rates are high.

G) What Are The Professional Implications?
1. Whitaker typically relied on his own personality and wisdom, rather than any fixed therapeutic techniques to stir things up in families, so it is a hard theory to “teach” in terms of technique.
2. Whitaker believed in a confrontative approach which may not work well with fragile families.
3. This method incorporates an intuitive form of therapy which lower-functioning families/family members may not grasp.
4. He also acquired the reputation as the most disrespectful among family theorists since he often attacked or sought to overthrow traditional or popular ideas in family theory.
5. Some families may not appreciate the unrestrictive, intuitive, non-interventionist, and sometimes outrageous nature of this approach.
6. Rather than focusing on alleviating symptoms, this approach focuses on enhancing the quality of life of the family members. Although some focus on changing the family system may develop, it is not the primary goal. Therefore, this method may not be well suited for families who are looking for crisis management. offers online prep for NASW. Unlimited access to practice exams, case studies, simulations, video, audio, and flash cards 24/7.