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Language as an Experiential Tool in Therapy

Language as an Experiential Tool in Therapy

It is widely accepted that language plays tricks on people, both those who suffer from psychological difficulties and people in general. Therapists are called to reconnect clients to those elements of these experiences which may hold value and use in the therapeutic process. In their chapter in The Big Book of ACT Metaphors, Matthieu Villatte, Jennifer L. Villatte, and Jean-Louis Monestes assert that therapists must use language in an experiential way, and this is exactly the path chosen by ACT and other third-wave psychotherapies. 

There are a wide range of experiential techniques that can be used throughout the course of ACT. Mindfulness is one of the most well-known and empirically supported sets of exercises employed in therapies that emphasize contact with experience over changing thoughts (Hayes, Villatte, Levin, & Hildebrandt, 2011). Typical mindfulness techniques consist of a variety of meditation exercises in which clients are trained to observe every perceivable event—both external, such as sounds and smells, and internal, such as thoughts and sensations. From an RFT perspective, this is done to increase attention to nonarbitrary aspects of the environment, including the mental environment.

Metaphorically, we can say that this process widens the holes of the filter created by language, letting in more direct experience. For example, when clients observe their bodily sensations for a long period of time, as in a body-scan exercise (Kabat-Zinn, 1991), they are encouraged to notice the full range of intrinsic features of these sensations and allow them to simply be, letting go of judgments and evaluations produced by language. More concretely, if a client feels pain in his arm, he is encouraged to observe the multiple facets of this sensation, while reactions of judgment are weakened by instructions to “let go.”

Interestingly, even verbal forms of control can help decrease certain sources of verbal control, as in the instruction “Let go of judgments.” From an RFT point of view, this isn’t paradoxical, as verbal control per se is only problematic when the insensitivity it generates leads to ineffective behaviors. If clients are encouraged to observe the course of their thoughts without reacting to them, their behavior is indeed controlled by a rule, but a rule that increases the likelihood that they will adopt new behaviors more adapted to their environment.

In ACT, mindfulness is considered to be a combination of processes, including acceptance, defusion, contact with the present moment, and self-as-context (Wilson & DuFrene, 2009). Each of these processes can be targeted with relatively specific techniques, even if interactions between the processes are quite common (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011). For example, a client may be encouraged to “make room for a painful emotion” after the evocation of a difficult memory. In RFT terms, the therapist creates a verbal context that triggers a painful psychological event and encourages the client to contact the consequences of not trying to escape it.  While the client may originally think that painful emotions ought to be avoided, directly experiencing acceptance may expand the range of her future reactions to painful emotions and make certain actions more available (e.g., accepting the feeling of anxiety in order to be able to speak in public, or accepting feeling depressed in order to be able to do meaningful activities again).

Next time, we’ll take a look at two more types of experiential techniques that are used in ACT: defusion and self-as-context.

References

Hayes, S.C., Villatte, M., Levin, M. & Hildebrandt, M. (2011). Open, aware, and active: Contextual approaches as an emerging trend in the behavioral and cognitive therapies. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 7, 141-168.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1991). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delta.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy, second edition: The process and practice of mindful change. New York: Guilford Press.

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