10 Essential Elements of Carl Whitaker’s Theory and Therapy

Lighting a candleBy the mid-20th century, family therapy pioneers were overturning conventions. Chief among them stirred Carl Whitaker—country boy-turned-OB/GYN-turned-psychotherapeutic provocateur who Rich Simon, editor of Psychotherapy Networker, once called “fearless and idiosyncratic.”

In the vein of existentialist philosophers, Whitaker largely regarded his treatment paradigm as protest against the reduction of human existence to mere behaviors, cognitions, or even theories.

There were at least 10 integral elements of Whitaker’s richly evocative therapeutic ethic. These are explored below.

Psychopathology as Distraction

Whitaker saw “symptoms as mere signals of, or even noisome distractions from, the real existential problems faced by families—birth, growing up, separation, marriage, illness, and death” (Luepnitz, 2002).

Whitaker contended: “Psychopathology is proof of psychological health. The individual who is distorted in his thinking is essentially carrying on an open war in himself rather than capitulating to the social slavery. His delusion system and his hallucinations are a direct result of this war with his lifetime situation—the stresses of his living and his efforts to defeat those stresses rather than become a non-person and a social robot” (Whitaker and Ryan, 1989).

Responsibility of People in Therapy

Whitaker’s emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility derived from philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, who considered the psychological implications of existentialist thought. Ludwig Binswanger (1967) assimilated these ideas into psychotherapeutic formulation, emphasizing “freedom and the necessity to discover the essence of one’s individuality in the immediacy of experience.”

Throughout Whitaker’s writings and therapeutic example, he conveyed existentialist presuppositions: anxiety and suffering can be growth inducing; people have power to choose to be responsible; elements of the human condition which exist in clients’ relationships with each other exist between clients and therapists.

Rousing awareness of change processes, Whitaker coaxed people toward ownership. He declared, “The integrity of the family must be respected. They must write their own destiny” (Neill and Kniskern, 1982).

Value of Courage

Whitaker regarded existential anxiety as an “irresolvable dialectic,” contending: “The effort to solve living as a problem is impossible. … The process of facing the dialectic life … is endless, irresolvable, and poorly understood. … Security alone equals slavery. Exploration alone equals danger and death. The flux is always exciting but never an answer, only a courage-inducing impetus to more of the individual’s right to decide on the next move and to discover more and dare more” (Whitaker and Ryan, 1989).

Transformative Nature of Vulnerable Encounter

By daring to be vulnerable with people in therapy, Whitaker exposed families to an existential encounter. When the family comes “face to face with part of your insides, they have to decide what to do. … They’re free to produce their own extrapolations, depending on how it reverberates inside of them” (Whitaker and Bumberry, 1988).

The concept of the “I-thou” relationship stems from the writings of Buber (1937), who philosophized that the nature of our interactions with others are often more “I-it” than “I-thou.”

One of Whitaker’s common therapeutic goals was for family members to begin to experience themselves more openly and nondefensively with one another; that an existential shift occur on a systemic level.

Primacy of Affective Experiencing

During one session, Napier and Whitaker (1978) hypothesized, “They [are] most afraid of what many couples find the threatening aspect of their marriages: deadness.”

Keith and Whitaker (1982) wrote, “We presume it is experience, not education that changes families.”

Whitaker often redirected attentions from the content of conflict to the emotional process: “I would guess that almost anything you focused on together would bring out this disagreement. … It feels more like a fear of conflict that’s the problem, rather than some particular issue you are fighting over” (Napier and Whitaker, 1978).

Power of Artful Communication

Whitaker developed the notion of symbolic communication as interactional metaphor based largely on George Herbert Mead’s concept of symbolic interactionism. Whitaker stressed the importance creating and shaping meaning between people and, consequently, facilitating shifts within the family emotional system.

Whitaker saw his role as engaging a family by raising the intensity within its relationships and communicating symbolic meaning through experiential interaction in such a way as to catalyze the family toward intimacy.

Spontaneous Evocation as Healthy

Whitaker advocated a spontaneous and evocative presence with people in therapy as a means of engaging them at the hidden symbolic dimensions of awareness. Perhaps his most well-known display of spontaneity in therapy was when he wrestled with a teenage boy who had knocked Carl’s glasses off in a moment of rage: “As Don had struck out in panic and anger at Carl, Carl had tackled him, and the two of them went down onto the Oriental carpet, a tangle of limbs” (Napier and Whitaker, 1978).

This unplanned and, arguably, unprofessional encounter was certainly one of Whitaker’s more radical therapeutic moments. Yet it was also indicative of Whitaker’s view of therapy.

Whitaker went as far as to advocate “craziness”—nonrational, right-brain experiencing—as a measure of health in both therapist and family (Whitaker and Keith, 1981). Whitaker explained, “My craziness [has given] other people the freedom to be more spontaneous, to be more intuitive, to be crazy in their own ways.”

Necessity of Present-Centeredness

Whitaker was careful to observe and allow himself to react quickly and intuitively to interactions between family members, both to prevent unhelpful more-of-the-same dynamics and to highlight potential signals of underlying emotional patterns, often the very mire in which the family is stuck.

Whitaker saw the problems that families brought to therapy as failures to adapt together to common problems of life and the here-and-now as the necessary moment for creative intervention and change. He urged, “Life isn’t mind over matter, it’s present over past and present over future” (Keith and Whitaker, 1982).

Developmental Growth as Necessarily Relational

Every person must counterbalance needs for individual autonomy with needs for relational connection. Whitaker believed that therapy must stimulate the growth of the person alongside the growth of the system.

Whitaker worked to facilitate family cohesion, ensure family members were meeting each other’s needs in the process of their own individuation, and were developing increasing proclivities for spontaneity, creativity, and attunement within the family unit. For Whitaker, the individual cannot grow in a relational vacuum.

Need for Holistic Versus Reductionist Goals

Whitaker saw the trajectory of therapy moving toward, for example, a heightened sense of competence, well-being, the development of compassion, self-esteem, role flexibility, awareness, self-responsibility, greater sensitivity, learning to recognize and express emotions, achieving intimacy with a partner, and so on.

Carl Whitaker died in 1995, and this April will be the 20th anniversary of his death.


  1. Binswanger, L. (1967). Being-in-the-world: Selected papers of Ludwig Binswanger.Needleman, J., translator. New York: Harper & Row.
  2. Buber, M. (1937). I and Thou (2nd), translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark.
  3. Keith, D. V., and Whitaker, C. A. (1982). Experiential-symbolic family therapy. In A. M. Horne and M. M. Ohlsen (Eds.), Family counseling and therapy. Itasca, IL: Peacock.
  4. Luepnitz, D. A. (2002). The family interpreted: Psychoanalysis, feminism, and family therapy. United States: Basic Books.
  5. Napier, A. Y., and Whitaker, C. A. (1978). The family crucible. New York: Harper & Row.
  6. Neill, J. R., and Kniskern, D. P. (Eds.). (1982). From psyche to system: The evolving therapy of Carl Whitaker. New York: The Guilford Press.
  7. Whitaker, C. A., and Bumberry, W. M. (1988). Dancing with the family: A symbolic-experiential approach. Levittown: Brunner/Mazel.
  8. Whitaker, C. A., and Keith, D. V. (1981). Symbolic-experiential family therapy. In A. S. Gurman and D. P. Kniskern (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  9. Whitaker, C. A., and Ryan, M. O. (1989). Midnight musings of a family therapist. New York: Norton.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Evie

    December 12th, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    I am personally a proponent of the whole theory that stresses one’s own responsibility that he or she must take in the therapeutic process. Without taking some responsibility for your own actions then how would there ever be any growth and learning? Those who sit around blaming others for everything that ails them? They are destined to always be stuck in a cycle and game of blame another so that you can shirk the role that you personally play in it.

  • Buck

    December 12th, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    I have to say that might freak me out a little if my therapist started wrestling with me during a session.

  • Nicci

    December 12th, 2014 at 11:44 PM

    lol funniest comment ever ;-)
    I would not want to wrestle with mine ha ha ha ha

  • Jenni L.

    December 12th, 2014 at 7:34 PM

    Blake. Started not to read this without a dictionary by my side, but I did! It is very good and I am in total agreement with a good deal of this philosophy. You are so brilliant .

  • Steven

    December 14th, 2014 at 5:05 AM

    I can relate to the first tenet of his thought process so much because I have spent so many of my years fighting against the pathology of my family. They don’t mean to but they have some serious problems that have always caused me to become weighted down too even though they were not my own.
    So I have tried to learn that as this pathology is not my own, it is also not mine to cure nor carry the burden of. I wish them well, but in order for me to not develop this pathology of my own, I must bid them adieu.

  • Clara

    December 15th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    If he pushed for the present over the past, does that mean that he did not believe that you had to go back and work on your past events in order to be whole? That you could gloss over those things in the past as long as you stayed focused on the here and now?>

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    December 15th, 2014 at 8:03 PM

    Clara, First–Let me say that this article highlighted Whitaker’s values and approach to therapy, and I would caution you away from attempting to read into his therapeutic methodology for client sessions principles for applying to life. Rather, they are–moreso anyhow–principles to consider in the context of psychotherapy.

    Whitaker’s focus on “present-centeredness” was not a glossing over of the past. He saw clients and client families as stuck in their way of dealing with problems. And he valued–rather than perpetually rehashing the past in order to hope for some unlikely life-changing enlightment–to engage his clients’ problems in a power-packed creative, spontaneous, and emotional encounter in the here-and-now.

    He believed that we tend to perpetuate our past troubles in symbolized ways in how we perceive and also how we communicate. That we often don’t notice the ways that we are priming the world around us to relate to us precisely as we’ve chosen for them, even when it is not what we ultimately want. It’s that old idea of the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

    He believed that effective therapeutic guidance observes the patterns and processes and has responsibility to give them voice–“the pink elephant in the room,” if you will. He thought that if he, as the facilitator, could be bold enough to speak the unspoken for the family, as a surrogate family member, then he could help from within to guide the family to more constructive ways of perceiving and communicating. He could model for them how to be more bold and passionate and loving.

    But he believed that families “must write their own destiny,” and he believed his therapeutic leadership would help give them tools to do so. Again, this did not mean they shouldn’t face up to and work through unresolved issues from their past. It’s just that this was not on HIS agenda with the family in-session. He trusted that they once they began to act with one another like bold and passionate and loving family members, then his role with the family had met its limit.

    These beliefs and this approach arose out of his own unique temperament and personality, experiences and philosophy as a family therapist. He felt that this was, perhaps counter-intuitively, the most honoring and authentic way that he could personally lead clients to openness and genuineness and wholeness.

  • Clara

    December 17th, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    thanks for some clarification- this is all pretty deep for someone who does not have a therapy background

  • Colleen S

    September 2nd, 2015 at 8:35 PM

    Fantastic stuff on this site! Very interesting posts. Awesome work!

  • Veronica

    February 12th, 2024 at 12:04 PM

    I am a grad student in a Clinical Mental Health Counselor program.

  • Teresa

    March 16th, 2024 at 10:17 PM

    Why is it so difficult to find more professionals who can ado assessments for adults with ADD, dysgraphia, dyscalculia? I’m a psych major struggling to find one.

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