Family Therapy paper


Experiential Family Therapy


Experiential Family Therapy

Michelle Washburn-Busk

Origins & Main Ideas

Here and Now

Humanistic wing of psychology

Origin of Problem & Change Vehicle

Root of family problems is emotional suppression (denial of impulses, suppression of feelings)

Dysfunctional families are locked into self-protection and avoidance

Want to promote people to relax defensive fears so that deeper and more genuine emotions can emerge

Choose: 1) pursuit of connection or 2) self-protection


What Promotes Change?

Change mechanism: honest emotion

Arose out of the emphasis on behavior and cognition in some problem-solving approaches

Executed through 1) challenging emotional defenses, and 2) aggressively attacking defenses to promote emotional expression

“You make me mad” vs “I’m hurt”


Systemic therapists see roots of symptoms in the dance of family interactions

Experientialists view those interactions as a result of family member’s shadow dancing with the projections of each other’s defenses

Rather than facilitating insights that  new behaviors, or prescribing new behaviors that can  new perspectives/insights, experientialists believe that new behaviors and new perspectives evolve out of new experiences

Order of Operations

1. Help individuals uncover their honest emotions

By relaxing defensive fears so deeper and more genuine emotions can emerge

2. Forge more genuine family ties out of this enhanced authenticity

Carl Whitaker, M.D.


Trained psychiatrist

Most irreverent and whimsical of the founding figures

Called his approach “therapy of the absurd” by driving a family sane by appearing more crazy than them

1943 started bringing spouses into session with patients

1946 Chief of Psychiatry at Emory University

Inventor of co-therapy

1978 wrote the book “The Family Crucible”

Experiential Family Therapy

Authenticity vs. Theory

“My theory is that all theories are bad except for the beginner’s game playing, until he gets the courage to give up theories and just live. Because it has been known for many generations that any addiction, any indoctrination tends to be constrictive and constipating (Whitaker, 1976, p. 154)”



Battle for Structure

Battle for Initiative

Use of “craziness”


Growth through shared experience

Experiential Family Therapy

Virginia Satir , MSW


Only woman pioneer and only one with social work background

Responsible for popularizing the family therapy movement

Was charismatic and genuine

Believed all individuals all autonomous,

interdependent, and unique.

Experiential Family Therapy



Experience is more important than intellectual thought

Important to experience a full range of affect

Therapist as a real person

Importance of spontaneity and creativity

Freedom of choice

Inherent ability of families to heal themselves

Experiential Family Therapy

Role of the Therapist



Self disclosing

Not to be used for creating connection or showing empathy

Used as a teaching moment, and relevant to current situation

Responsive, positive, warm

Alternate between provocation and support

Consultant , inconsistent with the family

Experiential Family Therapy

Theory of Pathology


Patterns of inauthentic communication present in 4 ways: 1) blaming, 2) placating, 3) being irrelevant, 4) being super reasonable

Behind these patterns of inauthentic communication is low self-esteem

“scapegoat” provides relief from anxiety

Intolerance of interpersonal distress

Rigidity in roles

Symptoms are nonverbal messages

Experiential Family Therapy

Theory of Change


Shared experience leads to growth

Increase in the family’s ability for creativity, spontaneity, and play

Readiness for change – no one presents “not willing” to change, just believing that they’re not capable of it.

Experiential Family Therapy

Communication Shorthand


Identified five basic ways of communicating (page 134)

Placating (go along to get along)

Blaming (“you” statements)

Super reasonable (denies others emotion)

Irrelevant (joke, change subject)

Functional coping stance (attempts at congruence)

Experiential Family Therapy

Blaming Stance

Placating Stance

Super-Reasonable Stance

Irrelevant/Distracting Stance

Communication Roles


In-class journal #5

What did it FEEL LIKE for you to be in the blaming stance?

What did it FEEL LIKE for you to see someone blaming you?

What did it FEEL LIKE for you to be in the placating stance?

What did it FEEL LIKE for you to see someone placating to you?

In-Class Journal #5

Which Satir Communication stance did/do you take in your FOO most often?

Does your go-to stance change depending on the context? How so?

What does a congruent coping stance look like for you?




In-session experiences/interaction

Sculpting (Satir) – illustrates perceptions

Parts party (Satir)

Experiential Family Therapy

Sculpting Activity

In-Class Journal #5

Which of Satir’s stances do you see occurring in your family case in class? (the family you’re doing therapy on)

What function do you think each of these stances serve given the family’s presenting problem(s)?

Therapist use of Self


Experiential Family Therapy


In-Class Journal #5

Which coping stance do you foresee yourself struggling with as a therapist?

Which coping stance do you tend to use during:

school-related stress?

Romantic relationship-related stress (if you haven’t been in a romantic relationship, you don’t have to answer this)?

Friend-related stress?

Work-related stress?

Lum, 2002


“If therapists are to promote health and wellness of their clients, then they must also be actively pursuing health and wellness within their own lives”

Experiential Family Therapy


Risks for not dealing with personal issues

Reaction to client’s problems

Getting stuck

Avoiding the issue

Skewing the information

Losing focus