Based on Søren Kierkegaard’s works on existentialism, existential therapy seeks to provide a more realistic understanding of human beings and the complexity of their existence.
As you can imagine, topics such as the meaning of life or the purpose of our existence can be the source of doubt, dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety. Existential therapists believe that once people find their own answers to these great philosophical mysteries, – and integrate this knowledge into their daily life – they can overcome emotional struggles and enjoy a purposeful life.
A daring challenge that figures like Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, and many more took upon themselves to conquer and distill into a therapeutic approach that guides people to find their true path in life.
With questions like,
- What does it mean to live?
- What is the purpose of my existence?
- What motivates my day-to-day actions and decisions?
- What is my final goal?
existential therapy gives rise to a process of self-exploration and self-discovery through which clients take charge of their lives and carve out their own meaning.
Table of Contents
Existential Therapy: What is it?
The existential approach places a strong emphasis on the idea that counseling and psychotherapy shouldn’t be a collection of techniques, but a way of understanding people’s lives and how they resonate with the world. Another central idea that existential therapists promote is that the meaning of our lives isn’t fixed but in a continual process of change and development.
The primary objectives of existential therapy are to help people be more honest with themselves, to broaden their perspective on the self and the world around them, make peace with their painful past, and cultivate stable values that will guide them toward a better future.
Existential Therapy Theory
Unlike traditional psychology which focused heavily on personality and behavior, the existential approach explores themes such as anxiety, death, freedom and choice, guilt, and the meaning of life.
How Does Existential Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?
Existential therapy goes beyond the mechanistic views promoted by behaviorists and cognitivists and adopts a more complex perspective on the inner workings of the human mind.
Advocates of this approach seek to understand how the mind draws meaning from even the simplest actions and decisions. As one paper on the Existential Theory of Mind (EToM) highlights, in the context of EToM, meaning is viewed as an embedded conceptual property that a life event either does or does not possess.
Furthermore, by including the concept of philosophical-religious reasoning, existentialists present human reasoning as a complex mechanism that transcends biological explanations (without excluding them). In other words, the human mind can produce more than just observable and measurable behaviors.
By understanding the meaning behind actions, decisions, and events, we can gain a clearer perspective on the world and our existence
How Does Existential Therapy Cause Change?
In existential therapy, the therapeutic strategy is similar to that of other dynamic therapies. The therapist starts from the assumption that clients experience partially-unconscious anxiety states caused by existential conflicts.
Clients often try to deal with anxiety through a series of ineffective coping mechanisms which can temporarily alleviate anxiety at the cost of mutilating the individual’s ability to experience a fulfilled life. As a result of these internal conflicts, clients can end up dealing with more pronounced states of anxiety that impact their lives in a profoundly negative manner.
The first step in dealing with existential anxiety is getting the client involved in a self-investigation process. By understanding unconscious conflicts and identifying ineffective coping mechanisms, the clients can then focus on tackling anxiety.
This goal is achieved by correcting restrictive methods of interaction and developing new strategies to deal with existential anxiety – the core of their ‘secondary’ problems.
What Happens in an Existential Therapy Session?
Just like in many other therapeutic approaches, the therapist is neither the expert nor the safety net, but a guide that helps you find the answers that are most relevant to your own experiences.
Although this approach doesn’t focus heavily on the past, therapists often encourage clients to explore the implications of past choices and their underlying beliefs, but only to achieve a deeper insight into the self.
If you choose to tackle your emotional issues through existential therapy, be ready to assume responsibility for your life, confront your internal conflicts, accept your shortcomings, and be actively involved in designing a better future.
Techniques Used in Existential Therapy
Being a non-directive, philosophical approach, existential therapy doesn’t rely on a thick body of methods. Therapists who approach mental health from an existential perspective don’t expect to reach particular outcomes by following a strict set of rules.
Instead, they focus on several defining strategies that help clients discover their own means of dealing with existential issues.
One of the techniques used in existential therapy is retrospection. In other words, the therapist encourages clients to discover themselves by looking back at their past choices and the rationale behind them.
Through meaningful questions like What is the purpose of my existence? or What do I want to achieve in life? clients gain clarity and learn to take charge of their future.
In the end, self-exploration and self-discovery are the central themes of existential therapy, aiding clients in becoming responsible adults who can successfully handle obstacles and existential dilemmas.
Does Existential Therapy Work?
Despite intense debates regarding the validity and internal consistency of this approach, existential therapy has helped countless individuals overcome their existential anxiety and enjoy the beauty of a meaningful life.
To understand why existential therapy can produce significant changes, we need to look at its core components.
According to a 2014 paper, the three pillars of existential therapy are:
- relational focus,
- emphasis on working with emotions and experience,
- meaning-centered approach.
Experts from all therapeutic approaches can agree that a solid therapeutic relationship/alliance – one of the pillars of the existential approach – can generate favorable outcomes.
By focusing on emotions and experiences, existential therapists can take the entire healing process at a deeper level.
Furthermore, a 2015 meta-analysis concluded that despite the small number and low quality of studies, some existential therapies appear beneficial for certain populations. Based on the same research, it seems that psychoeducation and open discussions about the meaning of life are among the key elements of existential therapy.
What Kinds of Concerns is Existential Therapy Best For?
Considering the philosophical nature of this approach, it’s obvious that existential therapy might not be the best options for severe psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar and related disorders.
However, people who struggle with anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness, or a general and inexplicable sensation of emptiness can be the ideal candidates for this therapeutic approach.
Ultimately, as one article published by Psychology Today points out, existential therapy is an exceedingly practical, concrete, positive and flexible approach, tackling profound existential concerns such as death, freedom, finitude, suffering, loneliness, and loss.
How Are Existential Therapy Specialists Trained?
Becoming an existential therapist isn’t that different from choosing any other approach. The only notable difference between existential psychology and other schools of thought are the principles and theories that guide your practice.
To gain admission into a master’s program that focuses on existential psychotherapy, you must obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree. During your bachelor’s program, you must complete specific courses such as developmental psychology, statistics, experimental psychology, abnormal psychology, theories of personality, and research methods in psychology.
Furthermore, you need to focus on gaining work experience by volunteering or doing an internship at a mental health clinic.
Since many experts predict a significant increase in the demand for mental health professionals, pursuing a career in existential therapy might be a great option.
Concerns/Limitations of Existential Therapy
Just like any other therapeutic approach, existential psychotherapy has certain limitations that have often been the subject of criticism from supporters of different approaches.
One of the limitations of existential therapy is its philosophical roots which led many experts to catalog it as a non-scientific approach with “sketchy” validity and questionable results. However, advocates of existentialism have begun to conduct extensive research to establish existential therapy as a reputable approach to mental health.
Another possible concern regarding existential psychotherapy is its anti-spiritual approach, which denies the existence of any divine entity. This, of course, can create friction between the therapist and client, resulting in a weak therapeutic alliance. However, as long as the therapist is capable of manifesting empathy and understanding towards a client’s spiritual views – which are part of his/her authenticity – the therapeutic process can remain ‘untainted.’
Lastly, the existential approach is often described as too intellectual and beneficial only to those of high intelligence who are not struggling with chronic conditions. While there are certain mental conditions that existential therapy cannot address, it’s fair to say that people of all intelligence levels can benefit from this client-centered approach that highlights the importance of self-discovery and self-awareness.
Important Practitioners in Existential Therapy
Rollo May was an American psychologist, author, and one of the “founding fathers” humanistic psychology and existential psychotherapy. Two of the titles that placed him among the world’s most renowned psychologists are Love and Will and The Meaning of Anxiety.
Inspired by the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Rollo May brought significant contributions to existential psychology, focusing heavily on challenging topics such as love, guilt, and anxiety.
In his views, existential psychotherapy strives to empower and place the person – and his or her existential choices – back at the center of the therapeutic process.
Last but not least, Rollo May argued that human development is divided into five stages, each with its own specific challenges: innocence, rebellion, decision, ordinary, and creative.
James F. T. Bugental
James Bugental was another strong advocate of the existential-humanistic approach. With a Ph.D. from Ohio State University had a lucrative career as writer, teacher, and therapist.
In his famous book The Search for Authenticity, Bugental postulated five key principles of humanistic psychology:
- Human beings cannot be reduced to components.
- Human beings have in them a uniquely human context.
- Human consciousness includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
- Human beings have choices and responsibilities.
- Human beings are intentional; they seek meaning, value, and
As a therapist, James Bugental encouraged his clients to overcome emotional struggles by developing presence and authenticity. Furthermore, he was among those who pushed for a more integrative approach to psychotherapy.
Irvin Yalom is an American psychiatrist, best-selling author, and emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He is one of the most emblematic figures of existential therapy.
Many of his works focused on complex topics such as death, isolation, freedom, and emptiness. In fact, Existential Psychotherapy, one of Yalom’s most complex literary works, is a mandatory read for any soon-to-become psychiatrist or counselor.
Being one of the world’s most respected psychotherapists, Irvin Yalom often uses his novelist style to bring down a popular myth – that a specialist of his size has the answers to all questions.
Overall, the core message of his literary works and therapeutic approach is that instead of struggling to overcome our fear of death, we can learn to coexist with this thought and cherish life by living it to the fullest.
How to Find a Therapist
Finding the right therapist can be a challenging task. Nowadays, the market is flooded with “experts” and self-proclaimed healers who present themselves as therapists but lack the necessary training and experience.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
To make sure you’re in good hands, always check is the therapist you’re planning to see has valid certifications. A bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology are a ‘must.’
Regardless of his/her therapeutic approach, a competent mental health professional should:
- Have legit credentials,
- Have solid theoretical knowledge,
- Be empathetic,
- Be an active listener.
If in doubt, ask for a referral from someone whom you trust.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
- Can you tell me a bit about your training background?
- How long have you been working as a therapist?
- How do you typically approach a client’s problem?
- In what mental health problems are you specialized?
Find a Therapist Now
Whether you’re dealing with existential dilemmas or severe mental health problems, addressing a licensed mental health professional should be your #1 priority.
If left unchecked, emotional and behavioral issues can interfere with your personal and professional life and prevent you from living a healthy and fulfilling life.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to regain control over your life. Start looking for a therapist right now!
If you’re not sure where to begin or just don’t have the time to go to an office, online therapy may be a better solution. ThriveTalk offers a range of experienced therapists ready to start helping you with the challenges you face today.
Final Thoughts on Existential Therapy
Far from being the perfect therapeutic approach, existential psychotherapy is a dynamic and ever-growing field which aims to help people reconnect with their inner self and discover the true purpose of their life.
The quest for meaning is the noblest and most important journey of your life, and existential therapy can offer you the means to reach your destination.
Bering, J. M. (2002). The Existential Theory of Mind. Review of General Psychology, 3-24.
Diamond, S. A. (2010). What is Existential Psychotherapy? And Why it Matters Today. Retrieved from Psychology Today: www.psychologytoday.com
Hoffman, L., Vallejos, L., Heatherlyn, C.-H. P., & Rubin, S. (2015). Emotion, Relationship, and Meaning as Core Existential Practice: Evidence-Based Foundations. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 11–20.
Vallejos, L. M. (2018). Existential Psychotherapy. Retrieved from GoodTherapy: goodtherapy.org
Vos, J., Craig, M., & M, C. (2015). Existential therapies: a meta-analysis of their effects on psychological outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.