Class 5: Symbolic Experiential FT

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Symbolic experiential therapy (basics)

  • Whitaker
  • “therapy of the absurd,” highlighting unconventional and playful wisdom
  • Emphasis on emotional logic rather than cognitive logic
  • Focus on the emotional process and family structure
  • Two battles in therapy
  • Battle for structure
    • Should be won by the therapist, who sets boundaries and limits for therapy
    • Therapist should make sure the necessary people attend, therapy occurs frequently enough to make progress, and session content and process will produce change
  • Battle for initiative
    • Needs to be won by the client because the client should have the most investment
    • Therapists should never work harder than their clients
    • May be comfortable and marked by silence of “I don’t know” answers


  • Used to perturb or wake up the system in a compassionate and caring way
  • Sometimes speaking a truth no one else is willing to say, humor, playfulness, silliness
  • Paradoxical techniques

Therapist’s presence

  • Authentic use of self
  • Persona integrity
  • Responsibility- responsive to the family without being responsible for the family
  • Stimulating mutual growth of therapist and clients
  • Spontaneity, play, and “craziness”
  • Use of cotherapists—one is nurturing and one is more confrontational

Assessing the system

  • 1. Authentic encounters and the affective system (feel out the system)
  • 2. Trial of labor

Trial of labor

  • Observing how family responds to the therapists interventions and interactions
  • Therapists tries to understand each person’s preferred family roles, beliefs about life, values within relationships, etc
  • Therapists attends to two patterns”
    • Structural organization of family
    • Emotional processes and exchanges within the family

Assessing structural organization

  • part of the trial of labor
  • Permeable boundaries within eh family
  • Clear boundaries with extended family and larger systems
  • Role flexibility
  • Flexible alliances and coalitions
  • Generation gap
  • Gender-role flexibility
  • Transgenerational mandates
  • Ghosts- decease/ living extended family members who are creating cross generational stress

Assessing emotional process

  • part of the trial of labor
  • Differentiation and individuation
  • Tolerance of conflict
  • Conflict resolution and problem solving
  • Sexuality
  • Loyalty and commitment
  • Parental empathy
  • Playfulness, creativity, humor,
  • Cultural adaptations
  • Symbolic process