Carl Whitaker's Symbolic-Experiential Theory of Counseling: Therapy of the Absurd?
The ultimate basis for Carl Whitaker's Symbolic-Experiential theory of counseling can be traced back to Alfred Adler and the use of an holistic theory of personality and model of psychopathology in combination with a humanistic philosophy. Adlerian psychotherapy speaks of challenging clients through a type of Socratic dialogue where they are encouraged to "correct mistaken assumptions, attitudes, behaviors and feelings about themselves and the world … The objective of therapy is to replace exaggerated self-protection, self-enhancement, and self-indulgence with courageous social contribution … We do not reduce psychotherapy to a by-the-numbers procedure, but practice it like an art requiring creative innovation" ("Basic Principles of Classical Adlerian Psychology," 2000).
Whitaker, considered one of the mavericks and originals in that he does not fit into any ready-made category, took the notions of "Socratic dialogue" and expanded it into this new family systems therapy approach. Because this was not only a new approach to therapy but also a new way of looking at behavior (described "as a kind of communications research focusing on the face-to-face relationships of people in ongoing groups" (Hoffman, 1981, p. 17), Whitaker felt he needed a new stance between the therapist and the family. He found this in what he called the "therapy of the absurd" (Whitaker, 1975). Whitaker's symbolic-experiential therapy consists of pushing events to the edge, making seemingly outlandish suggestions. According to Whitaker (1975): "Psychotherapy of the absurd can be a deliberate effort to break the old patterns of thought and behavior. At one point, we called this tactic the creation of 'process koans'" (p. 11).
In his sessions, Whitaker does not speak of individual symptoms and, in fact, has said that symptoms are of no interest to him. According to Luepnit...