Existential therapy is a ground-breaking style of psychological therapy that emphasizes the human condition and its paradoxical nature as a whole. In existential psychotherapy, a positive approach is used that acknowledges the capacities and aspirations of people while acknowledging human limitations.
The human experience does not have a prescribed manual and therefore existential therapy can be looked at as more of an attitude concerned with human suffering. It questions the nature of a person and how it is connected to the nature of life.
What is Existential Therapy?
Existential therapy is a revolutionary form of psychotherapy. This existential-humanistic approach to psychology and therapy is focused on a person’s free will, their self-determination and their search for meaning.
The human condition is regarded as a whole and as existential therapy holds human capacities in high regard, individuals are encouraged to take full responsibility for their own success.
Through this approach, a person’s own ability to make rational choices is emphasized and this helps to develop their maximum potential.
The following points form important pillars of the existential approach:
- All people are capable of self-awareness
- Every person’s unique identity can be discovered only through their relationship with other people
- Seeing as the “meaning of life” constantly changes, people need to constantly re-create themselves
- Anxiety is an undeniable component of the human condition
The existential approach is concerned with the here and now which is highly contrasting with approaches that are used to delve into the past. It is also interesting to note that with existential therapy, emotional or psychological difficulties are regarded as part of an inner battle which is sparked by the individual’s confrontation with the ultimate concerns of existence.
The Existential Therapy Theory
Existential therapy is based on the assumption that we, as human beings, are free and that we are therefore responsible for our own choices and actions. We write our own stories and we are the designers of the pathways we choose to follow.
While psycho-analysis focuses on the results of unconscious forces, past events and irrational drives and behaviorists argue that individuality is a product of socio-cultural conditioning; the existential approach rejects these deterministic views.
Existential therapy rather focuses on assisting people in the journey of exploring the existential givens of life. The four main existential givens are:
- Our freedom and the responsibility that comes along with it
- Our inevitable death
In existential psychotherapy, it is believed that all people experience internal conflict that results from their interaction with the conditions that form an integral part of human existence.
How Does Existential Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?
The theory of existential therapy argues that the ultimate concerns of living are often ignored or plainly denied and that by addressing these concerns people can experience greater meaning in life.
Existential therapy considers themes like mortality, freedom, responsibility, meaning, isolation and anxiety seeing as they relate to the person’s immediate or current struggle.
The existential assumption that we can only be what we choose to be, gives light to the idea that we cannot fall victim to circumstance. Therefore, the principles of existential therapy suggest that once we can start the process of recognizing how we often passively accept surrender control to circumstances; we can start taking steps toward shaping our own lives.
How Does Existential Therapy Cause Change?
The main goal of existential therapy is to invite people to reflect on life and to recognize the fact that, in life, there are alternatives among which we can choose. Even though we can’t control life events that are forced upon us, existential therapy teaches us that we have the freedom to choose our own responses to such events nonetheless.
The practice of existential psychotherapy invites an individual to confront the ultimate concerns of life fairly and honestly.
By confronting the uncertain conditions connected to human existence an individual is filled with a kind of dread that we can refer to as existential anxiety. This anxiety can be regarded as a force that reduces a person’s awareness albeit physical, psychological, social or spiritual and this may lead to devastating long-term consequences.
What Happens in an Existential Therapy Session?
According to Irvin Yalom (a contemporary existential psychotherapist), the universal concerns of death, freedom, isolation, and emptiness form part of the human experience even though each person experiences their own distinctive concerns.
Existential therapy is mainly concerned with the anxiety that results from confronting these internal conflicts and the therapist plays a central role in fostering the idea that each person needs to realize that they are responsible for making their own decisions.
Basically, a therapist can be seen as a traveling companion on the journey through life who uses support and empathy to guide the traveler toward gaining insight into their state of existence.
The essence of existential psychotherapy is to address the core question of how one exists in the face of the ever-changing state of life and uncertainties like conflict or death.
Existential therapy practitioners work with individuals in therapy in a way that helps them to discover and explore life choices that lie before them instead of focussing on the past. The past may, however, be used as a tool for promoting newfound assertiveness and a sense of freedom.
Through existential therapy, the person becomes enabled to let go of the things that have been in the way of their true freedom.
Techniques Used in Existential Therapy
The existential approach is not technique oriented and even though other techniques of psychotherapy may be incorporated, the main focus stays within the context of gaining insight into a person’s subjective world. The interventions employed by existential practitioners are essentially based on philosophical views involving the nature of human existence.
- Increasing self-awareness
One of the core concepts in existential therapy is to increase self-awareness and this includes being aware of alternatives, influencing factors, motivations and personal goals.
The therapist aims to assist the client in learning that there is a price to pay for increased awareness. Ignorance may have caused a feeling of contentment, but by facing reality, more turmoil can be expected; however, this may also create the potential for greater fulfillment.
- Realizing Freedom and Responsibility
Another central theme that is characteristic of existential therapy is that people have the freedom to choose among alternatives and by doing so; they play a major role in shaping their own destiny.
The role of the therapist in this regard is to help a person discover the ways in which he or she may be avoiding freedom and to encourage the risk of using it. It is also the task of the therapist to teach people to accept the fact that they always have choices and that they need to take responsibility for these choices.
- Personal Identity and Relationships with Other People
Part of the existential therapy journey is for people to realize how they have lost touch with their true identity especially by allowing other people to design their lives. The therapeutic process can be a frightening experience because people may realize that they have surrendered their personal freedom to others and that they need to assume their freedom again.
An existential therapist will ask the individual to intensify the idea that they are nothing but the sum of other people’s expectations. The person will then be asked various questions that may give them the courage to recognize this fear, to add words to the picture and to realize that the whole concept is not as overwhelming as they may have thought.
The person is also confronted with the reality that he or she alone can find the answers to their own questions.
- The Search for Meaning
It is human nature to have a certain interest in finding meaning and satisfaction in life. Therefore, people strive to commit themselves to creating, working, building and loving. Meaning is created from a person’s idea of what is valued and by committing to the search for true meaning they may find a purpose which makes living life worthwhile.
The therapist may ask different questions on the subject in order to provide a conceptual framework in which people can explore meaning in their lives.
- Anxiety as an Unavoidable Condition of Living
Anxiety may arise from an individual’s personal efforts to survive and to assert their existence and the feelings generated by anxiety are an unavoidable aspect that forms part and parcel of being human.
An existential therapist aims to help people recognize that learning to deal with uncertainties is a necessary part of moving away from dependence and toward autonomy.
Anxiety should diminish as the individual becomes increasingly satisfied with new ways of being; and along with gained self-confidence, the anxiety coupled with expectations of catastrophic outcomes will likely lessen.
- Awareness of Death
The existential theory does not have a negative view on death. It rather sees how the awareness of death as an inevitable human condition can add to the significance of living.
Existential therapists recommend that the reality of death should be discussed directly as the fear of death is an ever-present haunting thought in life. Some believe that avoiding the topic creates a message that death may be much too overwhelming to explore.
By acknowledging death we can turn our fear of the death of other people and even our own inevitable death into a positive force.
Does Existential Therapy Work?
Existential therapy works for people who struggle with making healthy life choices and with accepting the consequences of the choices they make.
Because existential psychotherapy is mostly concerned with the underlying factors of mental health and behavioral concerns this approach might not address the core issues that some people are struggling with. Therefore, other approaches may be used along with the existential approach and by combining approaches, therapy can be more effective and this could lead to greater success in the recovery process.
People who are open to engaging in honest self-evaluation will benefit the most from existential therapy.
What Kinds of Concerns is Existential Therapy Best For?
Interventions based on existential therapy are aimed at increasing self-understanding and self-awareness.
Seeing as various psychological conditions may result from a person’s inability to make meaningful self-directed choices; existential psychotherapy can help with concerns like excessive anxiety, anger, alienation, apathy, addiction, avoidance, depression, resentment, psychosis, violence, and feelings of shame, despair, guilt or purposelessness.
The existential approach may also help to make life-enhancing experiences more meaningful and these may include: love, acceptance, caring, committing, being present, spirituality, self-actualization, and authenticity.
How Are Existential Therapy Specialists Trained?
There are several additional training programs in existential therapy. Different universities and institutes provide learning opportunities in existential therapy. Such opportunities may range from presentations, symposiums, and workshops to professional degrees.
Concerns/Limitations of Existential Therapy
Existential psychotherapy can be misunderstood by people who don’t grasp the fundamental principles thoroughly or by people who do not understand the scope of the theories associated with existential therapy.
In order to make this approach more comprehensible, a great solution would be to create awareness about the principles and theories concerned with existential therapy before and during treatment.
Important Practitioners in Existential Therapy
The existential therapy theory was not founded by one particular person. In fact, the collaboration of various streams of thought brought it to life. Some popular names of existential therapy practitioners include:
- Rollo May
- James F. T. Bugental
- Irvin Yalom
How to Find a Therapist
Various online resources provide search options to make sure that you find the ideal therapist for your needs.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
Existential therapists usually have a background in philosophy in addition to being trained as mental health practitioners. Most existential psychotherapists have graduate degrees in counseling or psychology and they should also have completed supervised fieldwork concerned with existential therapy.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
If you are curious about the existential approach, speak to a professional in the area of existential therapy. They should have the answers that you need to make an informed decision about the therapy.
Don’t waste another day of your life; find an existential therapist today!
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Take charge with existential therapy!
Existential therapy can help you to face the anxieties of life and to embrace the freedom you have to make your own choices and to take responsibility for these choices. You deserve to find a way to live a meaningful life in our ever-changing world.
- Corey G. Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Nelson Education; 2015 Nov 24.