Saturday, February 22, 2014

Experiential Specificity: Helping Clients Be Specific about Their Experiences

(R. Elliott, EFT Network Note, 22 Feb 2014)

Note: I wrote this EFT fact sheet in response to a query about the interpretation of the Experiential Specificity item on the Person-Centred Experiential Process Scale.

A. Experiential specificity: an important but under-valued aspect of PCE practice in general and EFT in particular.
1. Interest in experiential specificity goes back to Laura Rice’s writings on client experiential processing in the 1970’s, but it is also an important aspect of Focusing
2. Related concepts:
            • Differentiation of experience (Rice)
            • Pain compass (specify what hurts the most) (Greenberg)
            • Emotion scheme elaboration (Elliott)
            • Referential activity (=access to sensory vs verbal experience; Bucci)
            • Mental imagery (Paivio)
            • Metaphor (Sarbin)
3. Helping clients be specific about their experiences helps them to access episodic as opposed to general or script memories
• Episodic memory: autobiographical memory of a specific thing that happened to you (stored in the hippocampus): Making experiences “come alive”
• General or script memory: a type of semantic memory for the kind of thing that typically happens (widely distributed in the neocortex)
• Low levels of episodic as opposed to script memory are common in depression
4. Experiential specificity is theorised to be helpful because it helps people:
• Access and reflect on implicit aspects of their experiences, such as subtle triggers in situations
• This allows them to step back from (become disembedded from) their usual ways of experiencing themselves and others, which in turn allows them to consider alternative ways of experiencing self/others
• They thus have better access to and become more fluid and flexible in their experiencing
5. Emotion scheme model and experiential specificity:
• The opposite of experiential specificity is purely conceptual processing
• Can specify the other emotion scheme domains: especially situational-perceptual; bodily expressive; felt emotion; even action tendency
6. Differentiation of emotions: eg, bad => angry => boiling
• Exercise: see how many different words for anger (and different kinds of anger) you can come up with.

B. Specificity in different therapeutic tasks:
1. Focusing: checking with the felt sense; getting the symbolic representation exactly right; rejection of simple emotion labels
2. Narrative retelling: re-experiencing episodic memories; locating
3. Systematic Unfolding: scene building, differentiating the experiential reaction; specifying the salient stimulus/trigger
4. Two Chair work: Specify the criticisms; differentiate the emotional response
5. Empty Chair Work: Imagine the other concretely
6. Clearing a space: specify the things that are keeping you from feeling good right now

C. Examples of experientially specific responses:
• Can you think of a specific time when you felt this way/when that happened?
• What are/were you experiencing right at this/that moment? 
• What did you notice (situational-perceptual)?  What was going on in your body?  What did you feel inside?  What were you thinking to yourself just then?  What did you need/want to do?
• What do you mean by “bad”?
• What kind of sadness is that?
• What is/was the worst (scariest) part of that?  What hurts the most?
• What is/was that like? (=metaphor inquiry)
• Take me back into that moment with you, like it was a movie.
• There you were…
• [In chairwork: Imagine him/her right there.  How do they look?  What are they wearing?  What expression do they have on their face?  How are they holding themself?]

How much does the therapist appropriately and skilfully work to help the client focus on, elaborate or differentiate specific, idiosyncratic or personal experiences or memories, as opposed to abstractions or generalities? 
E.g., By reflecting specific client experiences using crisp, precise, differentiated and appropriately empathic reflections; or.asking for examples or to specify feelings, meanings, memories or other personal experiences.

No specificity: therapist consistently responds in a highly abstract, vague or intellectual manner. 
Minimal specificity: therapist seems to have a concept of specificity but doesn’t implement adequately, consistently or well; therapist is either somewhat vague or abstract or generally fails to encourage experiential specificity where appropriate. 
Slight specificity: therapist is often or repeatedly vague or abstract; therapist only slightly or occasionally encourages experiential specificity; sometimes responds in a way that points to experiential specificity, at times they fail to do so, or do so in an awkward manner.  
Adequate specificity:  where appropriate, therapist generally encourages client experiential specificity, with only minor, temporary lapses or slight awkwardness. 
Good specificity: therapist does enough of this and does it skilfully, where appropriate trying to help the client to elaborate and specify particular experiences.
Excellent specificity: therapist does this consistently, skilfully, and even creatively, where appropriate, offering the client crisp, precise reflections or questions.

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