Self-relations therapy, a relatively new therapeutic approach developed by Stephen Gilligan, focuses on the relationship individuals have with their inner self. According to this theory, psychological symptoms occur when the body and mind attempt to draw attention toward an area of dysfunction or impairment potentially requiring attention.

A therapist trained in self-relations therapy can, through a process known as sponsorship, help people identify and apply skills to empower the self and heal.

Development of Self-Relations Therapy

Gilligan, who studied extensively with Milton Erickson and eventually became a leading teacher of Ericksonian hypnosis, began developing his own method of psychotherapy in the 1980s. Inspired in particular by Erickson's theory of naturalistic trance, he incorporated elements of hypnotherapy, Buddhism, and Aikido into his original approach, which is known as self-relations therapy. Gilligan utilized supervision and residential training groups to present these ideas to therapists across the country. Today, he continues to present his ideas in the United States and worldwide, through trainings, workshops, and talks and videos.

Theory of Self-Relations Therapy

This approach is grounded in the belief that certain symptoms of emotional and mental health concerns represent an internal aspect’s attempts to be heard. Self-relations therapy supports healing through a reconnect of the mind and body—the cognitive-self and somatic-self, respectively—and by highlighting the aspects of challenges and disturbances in ordinary function that may have a positive impact. In self-relations therapy, change is said to be achieved through a process called “sponsorship.”

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Sponsorship is a declaration of connectedness between the self and the world. All events and experiences have the potential to awaken aspects of good within the self, whether the experiences are positive or negative. It is humans who give meaning and value to experiences; experiences have no value until they are “sponsored” by the individual.

Thus, self-relations therapy does not attempt to simply eliminate a person’s symptoms. Instead, a therapist works to help those in therapy reach a state of inner awareness through the exploration of internalized feelings of past negative experiences that may have caused disconnect between the somatic-self and the cognitive-self. Through positive sponsorship, people may be better able to challenge the negative feelings influencing faith in their inner selves and support and affirm aspects of themselves they had previously neglected.

How Does Self-Relations Therapy Work?

Self-relations therapy supports the idea of healing being attainable through internal dialogue and discovery. Inner conversation is a vital element in the process of self-healing, and therapy focuses on facilitating a clear flow of communication between the person in therapy and that individual's inner self, in order for the individual to fully heal mind, body, and spirit. Essentially, self-relations therapy aims to help individuals find positive value in experiences disturbing them.

Therapists practicing self-relations therapy work from what is known as a "soft focus," following general guidelines and principles rather than adhering to a rigid technique. Many different variations of traditional therapies and other methods of inner guidance and steering are incorporated into this approach. The relational connectedness between therapist and the person in therapy is considered to be crucial to the practice and application of this technique, as the therapist helps the individual remain grounded in the present while exploring past experiences, an often difficult process, in order to identify exactly when, where, and how a particular challenge occurs. The therapist may ask the individual questions such as "When is life not a problem for you?" or "If I were accompanying you throughout an ordinary day, when would I see this problem occur?" Through this process, the person in therapy may be able to isolate and identify the trigger that has changed a life experience from simple unpleasantness to a recurring problem or symptom. 

The therapy process may be disconcerting and uncomfortable for some, as the goal of therapy is to uncover and explore inner workings of the self that may have been previously neglected or hidden. To find relief from difficulties faced, people are encouraged to respect the importance of personal history, biology, and societal impact, but recognize and acknowledge themselves as greater than these contributing factors. Centering practices, which are individualized to each person in therapy, may also be used to help individuals overcome disconnects or blockages affecting the internal sense of self. Walking, meditating, creating art, and talking to a friend are examples of some centering practices often used. 

Limitations of Self-Relations Therapy

One criticism of self-relations therapy is the limited research on its effectiveness in therapeutic practice. It has been thought to be helpful with people who wish to have a deeper understanding of themselves, but the approach may not be effective for all individuals. Some may find it challenging to accept that certain negative experiences have a positive aspect, for example. 


  1. Gaudioso, A. (n.d.). What is self-relations psychotherapy? Retrieved from 
  2. Gilligan, S. (2015, April 2). The principle and process of sponsorship. Retrieved from 
  3. Gilligan, Stephen. (1996). The relational self: the expanding of love beyond desire. In M. Hoyt (Ed.), Constructive Therapies V2 (pp. 211-237). New York: The Guildford Press.
  4. Rossel, R. D. (2007). Foundations: the Ericksonian legacy and self-relations psychotherapy. Retrieved from