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Corrective Emotional Experiences Explained

Even though many therapeutic orientations hang their hat upon insight—knowledge about oneself and one’s patterns—I have found that insight can be flat. In other words, there are many ways in which learning truths about oneself is not helpful. As an example, there is an old psychoanalytic joke about a man who goes to analysis because he is wetting the bed. Twenty years later, he is still wetting the bed—but now he knows why.

There are certainly positives to insight, or self-knowledge. For one, it is difficult to change a pattern we are not aware of. Secondly, if we know the cause of a behavior, we can direct our interventions at the cause and not the behavior. Finally, many people enjoy the process of coming to know themselves a little better, in a similar way that it is enjoyable to know another person.

But the reason insight does not always work is that it represents an intellectual approach to what is often an emotional blockage. We might be aware of the fact that we have a difficult time saying “I love you” to our partner because our parents never said it to us, but does that remove, or in any way ameliorate, the uncomfortableness of saying “I love you”? Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t.

This has led many theories to aim for what is called a “corrective emotional experience.” A corrective emotional experience (CEE) is sort of like re-doing a previously unfulfilling moment. For example, if a loved one died before we were able to tell them how we felt, the CEE might be saying how we felt in the therapy hour, with all the important emotions present. Or it might be responding to something a parent said a long time ago, that we were never able to respond to.

As you would imagine, there are varying opinions about how strongly a therapist should encourage his or her client to undergo a CEE. I fall on the side of the spectrum that advocates waiting until the client is ready, for the sole (and important) reason that if a client is not ready, his or her defenses are going to be on alert. Defenses being, in short, what we erect to protect ourselves from painful emotions, it is important that they are down if a CEE is to take place. Forcing someone into a CEE may elicit emotions, but chances are, it won’t be corrective.

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