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The Importance of the Lived Experience

When a person enters therapy the most important information they bring to their own care and to their psychologist is their own unique lived experience, their own ‘story’. We each understand the world in a totally unique way. While two people can be in exactly the same situation, there will be two totally unique lived experiences of that situation. As Lumley (1994) said:

‘Experience is not an unstable irrational and emotive concept but rather it is the world, it is knowing’.

Our lived experience is how we know the world and what has and is happening to us. This uniqueness is because each of our brains is unique and it is in our brain that we process what happens and how we understand it. Each experience that we have and we remember is composed of three inter-related aspects we process within our brain.

• The Sensory Aspect. These are the things we picked up through our senses at the time – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the ‘touches’. These sensory aspects can be very powerful reminders of an event. For example a lot of people don’t like the ‘smell’ of hospitals after an accident or illness. For others a certain flower reminds them if a loved grandparent.

• The Emotional /Affective Aspect. These are the feelings we have at the time that we remember such as feeling scared by a large barking dog, or the feeling of confusion after an accident.

• The Cognitive / Behavioural Aspect. These are the thoughts we have or the behaviours we show at the time. Thoughts may be about the person ‘I am hopeless at this’ or about the event ‘This is too hard to do’ or others ‘You can’t trust people’. Behaviours may be about how we react like being startled, getting angry, running away, or grabbing someone’s hand

These different aspects of an experience may be stored or processed in different parts of the brain but are all interconnected to give us our own unique experience of an event. The balance of these aspects in the way we process an event will determine how we experience it inside of us. Different people who may have even been through the same event may experience the event quite differently as the balance of the sensory, emotional and cognitive-behavioural aspects ca be quite different. So for example if three people have been involved in the same traffic accident, one person may find reminders of the sights or smells at the time overwhelming while another may experience the fear as overwhelming or another a thought of ‘ I am not longer safe to drive is worse. And so their lived experience of the same accident can be quite different.

How different each experience means that it is vital that a psychologist can get to know your particular lived experience as told by you and not assumed. As there are these three aspects to any experience, it also means that different psychological techniques can be used to enter these different aspects of your experience. For example for someone whose sensory experiences are overwhelming we may need to work on helping you feel some control over these sensations before we tackle other aspects. This means that if we understand your lived experience as much as we can, we are better able to shape your care to suit your particular needs in dealing with your own experience.

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