Can You Show Me How The Transformation Can Last?

by Alvin Mahrer

I Think I Finally Got It!

I have spent the last fifty years or so trying to become reasonably clear on what this thing called psychotherapy can bring about.   What kinds of wonderful things could psychotherapy help bring about?   What were some marvellous changes that psychotherapy could help achieve?

I was kind of clear about the answers provided by the profession.  I could recite the authoritative answers to what psychotherapy is for, what it can do.   Somehow I was drawn toward the further reaches, the more exciting possibilities that would be fascinating and compelling to me.

I was not very clear what I was looking for, and it took almost five decades to be clear.  I was searchimg for almost miraculous changes that just might be brought about by some kind of psychotherapy, and I was searching for what such a psychotherapy might look like.

Only in the last few decades does it seem like I have found some answers. I do believe that I now have a relatively clear picture of what I have been searching for, what psychotherapy can achieve that has been so compelling for me for so many years.  And I have a reasonably clear picture of what a psychotherapy can look like that can help bring about these exciting changes.

Here Is What I Think I Finally Got

If the person is ready and willing, I can show the person how to undergo a wholesale transformation into actually being a radically different person, a qualitatively different person.   Picture a quantum shift, a leap, into becoming the entirely new person that the person is capable of  becoming. Picture a person as entering the session as the person that the person is.  Now picture a transformational change so that the person actually is qualitatively a whole new person.  This new person is what the old person is capable of becoming.  This new person thinks in different ways, feels differently, has a different outlook, has different experiencings, acts and interacts in different ways.

If I can borrow, and play with, the name of the journal, the person has undergone a wholesale change from ‘inside out’.  The person has been able to dicover a truly deeper and unknown part of the ‘insides’, a part that is far below what the conscious and aware person can know, an almost inconceivable part of the ‘insides’, and the person has undergone the wholesale leap into losing one’s self in becoming that alien, other, truly deeper part. What emerges, what comes ‘out’, is the altogether new person who includes the deepest ‘insides’. What has ocurred is a qualitative transformation, from ‘inside out’.

And there is a wonderful bonus.  If the person started the session with some trouble, concern, worry, unhappiness, some painful feeling in some painful situation, all of that washes away when the person becomes the whole new person.  What might have been painfully, front and centre for the old person in the session is now no longer a part of the transformed new person.  The painful feelings in the painful situations are gone because the person has disengaged from being the person with the painful feelings in the painful situations.

With the person who is ready and willing, I can show the person how to accomplish these magnificent two changes in a session that takes one to two hours or so (Mahrer 1996/2004). A psychotherapist whose way of thinking is friendly to this ‘experiential’ way of thinking, and who has learned the skills of this experiential psychotherapy, can likewise help bring about these two magnificent changes with a person who is ready and willing.  A person who is ready and willing, and who learns the skills, can also bring about these changes in a session by oneself (Mahrer 2002).

But There Is A Problem

These two related, magnificent changes can and do occur in most experiential sessions. If you listened to audiotapes of sessions, you would almost certainly be able to tell that these transformational changes actually happened in most of the sessions.

Sometimes the magnificent changes last till the end of the session.  Sometimes they are still there for an hour or so after the session.  Sometimes they are still there for days or weeks or longer.  Sometimes they spread out to most of the situations in the new person’s new life and world.

My problem is that I can bring about these two magnificent changes for perhaps five to forty minutes during a session, but I don’t know how to keep the changes alive and well for hours, days, weeks. My problem is when the changes extinguish, go away, by the end of the session. My problem is when the magnificent changes are still there when the session ends, but dissipate away by the time the person is strolling along the sidewalk after the session.

Imagine that you could help bring most dead people back to life, and you think of that as an almost unbelievable change, a miraculous change, but it happens most of the time. Your problem is that it lasts for less than an hour for most of the people you have helped bring back to life, except that there are some glorious exceptions, who stay alive for months or years and years.

How can the miraculous, radical, transformational in-session changes last till the end of the session, last beyond the session, last for hours and hours, days and weeks, and perhaps forever?  That is my problem.

Here Is What I Am Not Asking From You.

Largely because I am so focused on finding answers to my problem, I hope you can excuse me for mentioning some of the things I do believe are not especially helpful in finding answers.

It does not seem especially helpful to diminish these two changes that can be achieved in most of the sessions. By ‘diminishing’ I mean such things as questioning what they are, doubting if they actually happen, reducing them or translating them into some other vocabulary, making them more familiar by talking about them in the language of other kinds of valued changes in other therapies, picking at what I have tried to describe as radical, qualiative, transformational changes.

It does not seem especially helpful to try and impose your own way of thinking on what I have tried to describe.  If I have departed from or violated some truth that you know is true, please do not force me to accept your way of thinking about psychotherapy or the transformational changes I have described

It does not seem especially helpful to shift the focus of attention onto something altogether different.  My fascinated curiosity is with how to develop, perpetuate, continue the magical magnificent changes that can occur in these sessions.  If shifting attention onto something else can help solve the problem, that seems helpful.  If shifting attention onto something else does not help solve the problem, then that does not seem especially helpful.

It does not seem especially helpful to rise to a dizzifying high level of abstraction or generalisation.  Humanistic and integrative conceptual systems can pull discussion onto high-level ideas about process, contact, restoration, awakening, liberation, mindlessness, relativity, collective consciousness, transpersonal ego.  High levels of abstraction may not be especially helpful in providing workable solutions to my problem.  On the other hand, if it helps, thank you in advance.

Here Is What I Am Asking From You.

Have you also found these kinds of in-session changes so powerfully compelling?

Does what I am trying to describe make some sense to you? Are you and I living in friendly conceptual worlds (Mahrer, in press)?  If so, then can you show me how the transformation can last? Please help me find ways of helping these magnificent in-session changes last to the end of the session, last beyond the session, last as long as they seem appropriate to last.

I am appreciative of the declared of the journal to invite dialogue and discussion. Perhaps you might write to me by regular mail: Al Mahrer,PhD.,  School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Canada K1N 6N5.  Perhaps you might correspond with me by email;

Al Mahrer, PhD., is Professor Emeritus at the University of Ottawa in Canada and is finally getting the hang of doing experiential psychotherapy.


Mahrer, A.R. (1996/2004)  The Complete Guide to Experiential Psychotherapy Boulder, Colorado;  Bull

Mahrer, A.R. (2002) Becoming the person you can become.  The complete guide to self-transformation.  Boulder.  Colorado.  Bull

Mahrer,A.R.  (in press)  Theories of truth, models of usefulness; Toward a revolution in psychotherapy.  London; Whurr.