Writing in 1946, Franz Alexander coined the term “corrective emotional experience” to describe what he thought of as the key aspect of psychotherapy treatment. In his work, he expanded on Freud’s discoveries of half a century earlier. Freud maintained that people in a sense forget their traumatic experiences by repressing the memory of those experiences. However, the psychic charge of that trauma remains and manifests itself in neurotic symptoms. Freud believed that it was through recalling that trauma, re-remembering, that healing was promoted and symptoms resolved.
Alexander maintained that in dealing with a person’s past traumatic history, it was not enough to have insight (memory) about that experience. He believed that insight had to be accompanied by a new experience for the client which was achieved in the relationship with the psychotherapist. Alexander wrote, “the main therapeutic result of our work is the conclusion that, in order to be relieved of his neurotic ways of feeling and acting, the patient must undergo new emotional experiences suited to undo the morbid effects of the emotional experiences of his earlier life.”
The term “corrective emotional experience” implies that in the therapeutic experience, a person has the opportunity for a different sort of emotional experience which can repair the traumatic influence of previous experiences. In the safe and nonjudgmental atmosphere of therapy, a client can experience being understood, cared about, and thought about. This experience is “corrective” for those who come into therapy having had key experiences in their past that were vastly different. For those who have experienced some sort of neglect, harsh criticism, or forms of abuse, the therapeutic experience provides a healing alternate experience. This is true for those who have suffered explicit abuse, but is not restricted to the severest forms. The notion isn’t, of course, that one can go back and “correct” or change that earlier experience. Rather, that the new experience, found in the therapeutic encounter and then fostered in other relationships in one’s life, can help displace the residue of the past. That residue may take the form of beliefs a person has about others (people are essentially critical or incapable of understanding) or about oneself (one is helpless or powerless). From this new therapeutic experience, a person experiences and can thus believe that he can be understood, that others do care, and that he matters.
This corrective experience is also possible when the client does not feel understood or cared about. Often in psychotherapy, as in the rest of life, an interpersonal conflict may emerge. The client may feel judged or criticized by something that the therapist has said. Or the client may be feel hurt by what the therapist has not said. He may feel that he is not understood. In these situations, the client has the opportunity to express his feelings of hurt or rejection and be met by an encouraging and receptive response. I believe a great deal of corrective emotional experience comes from such encounters when a client can tell me that he felt misunderstood or judged. In those situations, we have the opportunity to work out that conflict. More than likely, in experiences in his past when he felt similarly, there was not the chance to express himself, at least not without the possibility of retaliation or rebuke. Alexander wrote, “Re-experiencing the old, unsettled conflict but with a new ending is the secret of every penetrating therapeutic result.”
While there is much good to be experienced through the corrective emotional experience, there is still more to the therapeutic process. This “more” has to do, in my opinion, with delving into those earlier experiences of hurt, rejection, and misunderstanding. These experiences from the past continue to exist in a person’s life; often they are in the background and exert a significant influence. To truly heal from such experiences means not only having new and different experiences to replace them with, but also doing the necessary emotional work – which often involves a process of grief – in the presence of another (in this case the therapist). In such experiences, it isn’t only the critical things that a parent said or the instances of neglect that injure, it is also what was missing in the experience. If a person grew up with a harsh, authoritarian type of father, there was the absence of more understanding and beneficent father. If a person lived with an out-of-control mother, there was also the absence of a soothing and comforting mother. To move through those experiences is to grieve what was both present and missing, what a person deserved that was not there. As is the case with grief, in order to progress, to move through the loss and then resume one’s life, one’s relationships, the process involves experiencing a range of feelings. And what is key to the healing process is to experience those feelings in the presence of another person. To not be so alone.
Psychotherapy, in my view, provides the opportunity for healing old wounds by offering a different experience than one had in the past and by providing a process to grieve and move beyond those past wounds while accompanied in the journey by another human being.
Alexander, F., French, T. M., et al. (1946). Psychoanalytic Therapy: Principles and Application. New York: Ronald Press.