Change and corrective emotional experience

The concept of experience has always been recurrent in psychology and is subject to different definitions. According to the psychoanalytic approach, it is up to theinsight generate change, from which new experiences can then arise. From this perspective, light is first shed on the removed shadow areas, then the patient's thinking is changed and, finally, their actions can be changed.

The first to talk about corrective emotional experience it was two psychoanalysts, Franz Alexander and Thomas French; departing from the Freudian position, in their 1946 book they wrote: “… a new corrective experience can be provided by the transference relationship, by new life experiences, or by both. Such intense and revelatory emotional experiences give us the key to understanding those enigmatic therapeutic results obtained in a considerably shorter time than is usual in psychoanalysis ”.

Over 30 years ago, Paul Watzlawick and Giorgio Nardone took up the concept of corrective emotional experience and extended its meaning, to the point of making it one of the cornerstones of strategic brief therapy.

The strategic model is based on a vision of human problems as a product of the pathogenic interaction that the person has with reality, we are talking about pathogenic perceptive-reactive system meaning the redundant way in which people, depending on how they perceive reality, react to it by implementing a series of dysfunctional actions and behaviors.

In strategic therapy it is believed that in order to interrupt the dysfunctional redundancies that the patient weaves in the relationship with himself, with others and with the world, it is necessary to restructure his vision of reality.

To this end, the therapist tries to produce in the patient a "corrective emotional experience", Or a"discovery effect”Which allows the person to change perspective and see the observed reality transformed. The construct of corrective emotional experience, as an essential driver of change, brings together scholars, researchers, therapists and problem-solvers of theoretical-methodological approaches that are also very different from each other.

It is an experience that triggers a change:

  • in the patient's way of feeling
  • in the way of perceiving reality
  • in the actions taken to manage one's life

Corrective emotional experience can be generated:

- in session, as an effect of the strategic dialogue, the communication technique of choice of the evolved strategic approach, or ...

- through behavioral prescriptions on the part of the therapist, which generate "planned random events", or events in the patient's life that seem random but are actually carefully prepared by the therapist.

From this perspective, the corrective emotional experience is what drives change, its driving force.

Sometimes it causes a kind of positive shock in the patient, producing a catastrophic change; at other times it can insinuate a doubt, scratch a belief that initiates a more gradual change ... But, catastrophic or gradual, the change will become inevitable; first it will impact on the patient's emotional and perceptive experience, then in actions, and only at the end will it have effects on the cognitive sphere.

It is true that fortune favors the daring but ... when fortune peeks out in therapy it is particularly popular: in fact, it can also happen that the corrective emotional experience occurs in patients thanks to the contribution of chance, as happened to a patient of mine, a young man. a musician who came to therapy because he was a slave to his own intestine, or rather, a slave to the attempt to control his own intestine.

He was desperate: he was a talented, tireless and sought-after musician who just when his career knocks on his door opens it without enthusiasm because he is blocked by fear. He is afraid of a disastrous future because in the presence of other people he happens to have to go to the bathroom, he holds back for the shame that others see where he is going and imagine what he is going to do. This attempt at constant control distorted the relationship with himself, with others, and with music, preventing him from living fully.

But the day after our first session, casually he happens to enter the rehearsal room while he is on the phone with his girlfriend, while the other musicians are already intent on tuning their instruments ... he feels the cramp that heralds the stimulus and, continuing his phone call, goes to the bathroom and does what he must do.

He tells me: “When I went out I saw that the others had not only not noticed that I had gone to the bathroom, but also that I had already arrived. So I realized that they can't care less about what I do! ”. And he adds: "Overlooking the effect my girlfriend has on me, how could I have been so stupid all this time?!".

I quote cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant and answer him:

"Some changes are so slow that you don't notice it, others are so fast that they don't notice you."


Dr. Lara Twenty-seven

Psychotherapist, official researcher and lecturer at the Strategic Therapy Center


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