What the Heck is a “Corrective Emotional Experience”?

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I’ve learned to ride a bike. I cannot unlearn this, unless through a physical event such as a stroke or accident. I cannot replace this learning by learning to ride a motorcycle or any other vehicle. I can not forget how to ride a bike.

Given this premise, then how does a person unlearn an automated, established thought pattern or action, e.g. repeated emotional or physical abuse learned as love?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

Two ways: Abstract, introspective thought; and actual, personal experience.

Let’s say you learned to experience ‘love’ as psychological abuse by an adult, when you were a child. As you grow older—or even while still a child—you can observe others, think, or imagine. You can read stories or even watch movies. You can discover, ‘What they call love isn’t what love has to be, or ought to be.’

Once you have this knowledge—that something better and different actually exists, and is possible—you’re on your way.

It’s the same principle not only with love, but with other kinds of human experiences. But bad experiences in personal relationships are often the ones with which so many struggle.

In psychology and therapy, there’s something called the ‘corrective emotional experience.’ This is what happens when you experience something, first-hand, that challenges a previously held, and false or distorted, belief.

For example, you conclude or feel, let’s say from childhood experiences, that ‘people are malevolent, and can never be trusted.’ Logically speaking, once a young adult, you might find this a bit oversimplified or irrational. But you deeply feel it, all the same.

Then let’s say you have a positive experience in a friendship, or even romance, where you discover the person can be trusted. It’s nothing like the abuse or harshness you’ve known in the past. It’s not like what your emotional responses tell you at all. This would qualify as a corrective emotional experience. It might not ‘correct’ all of your emotions for all time; but it will take you a substantial part of the way.

Is this corrective emotional experience a replacement for the abstract, intellectual or introspective thought required to challenge false beliefs? Very likely not. I have found that if people don’t spend some time introspecting about their experiences and their subconscious assumptions, they’ll tend to plunge into situations with destructive, self-fulfilling compulsion.

In other words, let’s say somebody has bad experiences with personal relationships growing up, because of physical, emotional or even sexual abuse. Certain emotionally held evaluations are formed from these experiences. An example of an emotionally held evaluation might be, ‘Whenever I trust someone, they’ll turn on me, or I’ll find out they have some kind of hidden agenda.’ I call this an ’emotionally held evaluation’ because it’s not a consciously advocated belief, not necessarily. But it’s emotionally, and subconsciously, influencing the person’s actions all the same.

If that subconsciously held belief isn’t brought out into the open, then the mistrusting person will go into a relationship on the defensive, always looking for the ‘other shoe to drop,’ so to speak, often creating fights that didn’t need to exist, and what have you. Or, such a person might actually select people like the untrustworthy, manipulative family members he once knew. I have seen evidence of this many, many times. People who have a certain bad set of experiences, if they fail to look at those experiences introspectively and objectively, tend to keep repeating those experiences and going towards what they know—not what’s good for them, but what they know.

This is one reason why I’m a strong advocate of good psychotherapy in one’s early twenties, or perhaps late teens. This is a time when young adults are capable of looking back with some distance on their past interpersonal experiences, but still early enough in life not to have established destructive or otherwise disappointing or hurtful relations with new significant others.

Sometimes psychotherapy itself can be a corrective emotional experience. I am a cognitive therapist, not a psychoanalyst or insight-based therapist. This means I help people identify their false beliefs and work on correcting them in their present lives. Some people think I refuse to focus on the past at all. Not true. But when looking at past experiences—abuse, for example—I encourage people to identify what kinds of unspoken, distorted or mistaken generalizations or beliefs they have formed as a result of those experiences. These beliefs can get in the way of satisfying interactions in the present, and going forward, if left unchallenged or outside of awareness.

The very process of doing this with a psychotherapist can sometimes itself be a corrective emotional experience. Your therapist is more of a psychological ‘coach’ and mental trainer than a friend, or someone with whom you have any kind of personal relationship outside of the therapy context. However, this in itself sometimes becomes very meaningful and part of the ’emotional correction’ process.

It’s not a matter of ‘unlearning’ bad relationship experiences as you would in the impossible task of ‘unlearning’ to ride a bike or drive a car. Instead, it’s a matter of learning new, therapeutic, positive and corrective experiences—both intellectually and emotionally—regarding close connections with significant others in your life. You cannot “unexperience” bad experiences. But you can prove to yourself, first-hand, that good or great experiences are indeed possible.


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