Existential Psychotherapy

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I want to talk a little bit about existential psychotherapy since it is another modality I lay claim to operating within. For existential psychotherapists, a primary concern in working with clients isn’t so much about focusing on defects due to mental illness or flaws in character or personality. What existential psychotherapists want to get at in working with clients is to assist the client in uncovering where the client draws meaning and purpose in life and to encourage the pursuit of that meaning and purpose. Existential psychotherapy takes into account the fact that we all exist here on this earth and therefore have challenges in life to face as a result. But for each of us our existence precedes our essence.

That before each of these statements about a person comes the verb “are”—people “are.” We exist. That’s the starting point for all of us.

In a way, we are thrown into this existence.

And because we exist and because human life is finite, the task becomes then to make something of our existence despite all the things that may have been thrown upon us at birth. For example, we may have been born into poverty, we may have been born with a genetic defect, we may have been born male/female, etc.

Existential psychotherapy concerns itself with four dimensions of existence in particular—the physical, social, personal, and spiritual—and each of these dimensions has its own paradox. We break that down like this.

Physical

At some point we will physically die. If we deny that our existence is finite, we run the risk of wasting the life that we have. If however, we keep within our awareness the idea that we will one day cease to exist, we might be motivated to live our lives more fully.

Social

The paradox of the social realm is that we exist on this planet with others. Our option is to either live in conflict or cooperation with them. Because we are aware of our separateness, we can develop the capacity to relate and respect the separateness of others. At the same time we are individuals with a need to be part of a greater whole.

Personal

In the personal realm we discover that there are no hard and fast rules to life and that we all have vulnerabilities. Because of that, taking on personal responsibility becomes of way of creating rules for ourselves. If we deny our vulnerability and refuse personal responsibility we might lose the strength and stamina that come from the freedom to choose.

Spiritual

We develop our own value systems outside of the context of absolute truth and this is where we relate to that which is unknown. We make up our own ideas for the reasons for our being here on earth and determine for ourselves what we believe to be right or wrong. Here, too, is where we create meaning and where we find purpose in life. This is where we get our worldview.

This type of therapy is very future focused. It acknowledges that the past, though seemingly fixed, is in fact changing because our view of the past can change over time. In addition, life presents a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty and the goal often becomes developing the ability to tolerate the anxiety that this may produce.

For existential psychotherapists the mind and body are connected and not functionally distinct. In other words, it’s not so much that we have a body but that we are a body. We are also connected to the world we exist in so that how we think about ourselves is often a reflection of our experiences with our environment and how we interpret the outer world.

Because life is in constant flux and ever changing, the meaning that we make of our lives is also in flux, but to be able to make meaning of the life that we are in is an essential thing. The loss of a sense of meaning in life can lead to depression.

We are all born into the world with assumptions and biases that influence our actions. The first step is to become aware that we have biases. That having been said, it is possible to do reality checks to verify our assumptions. This fits very nicely with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which aims to look at evidence for and against negative core beliefs that we might have.

For more information on existential psychotherapy see Emmy van Deurzen’s work. Much of the information contained in this post comes from a class I took on existential psychotherapy with Skills in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy by Emmy van Deurzen and Martin Adams as the text.

The following are existential authors taken from one of Emmy’s presentations.

 

Another Suitcase in Another Hall

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

There have been times in my life when I have had more money and less. And I’ve worked with clients who have been much wealthier than I and others much more impoverished. There was a time once that I was so low on funds that I stood in line at a church for assistance with paying a utility bill and for help with obtaining food. I can also remember times when I’ve had enough money to take vacations to Miami, Kauai, Tahoe, Europe.

But my earliest memories involved growing up in a family that lived below the poverty line. I had an aunt and uncle who were both counselors and who worked at a nonprofit helping families in need. They helped my family out with food, for instance, in our times of need.

I have to balance these memories with the memories of attending a very expensive private school in San Antonio that my grandparents paid for me to attend from Grade 3 to Grade 9. I sat in class with classmates who talked about their ski vacations while my immediate family struggled, as I said, to put food on the table at night.

I take stock of all these memories and moments. The moments when I was a sixth grader volunteering to open passenger side car doors for other students as their parents dropped them off at the school. I opened the Jaguars, the Porsches, the Mercedes, the BMWs as they rolled in.

And at the end of the school day I had to carpool and commute almost an hour in traffic back to my small hometown and listen to my mother and stepfather complain of money troubles. I moved over 13 times between the ages of 5 and 18 and all of those moves were within a 15 mile radius. And this was because my mother was forever chasing cheaper rent and different scenery and by my observation was forever restless.

Not only were we changing physical locations constantly, I would also come home to a house where the furniture itself was rearranged every few weeks. It was constant change and what for the better part felt like constant chaos. And somehow in that whirlwind of an environment I survived.

We all have our stories of times of ease and times of struggle on varying degrees. And because I know that, I feel completely comfortable sharing a bit about mine here. Today I just wanted to raise the topic, though, of restlessness.

How do we balance the days when we have $4 to our name and the inability to obtain loans or credit cards to the days when we are flying high and taking trips to Europe? I have had clients who have to balance the days of making millions on selling drugs to the days of homelessness—it’s not that much different.

I think one has to develop a strong sense of self and a strong core to weather that kind of change. One way of thinking of it is like tempering metal. Tempering metal is the process of increasing the toughness of metal by heating and then cooling it.

The purpose? It’s done to increase the metal’s ductility. The tempering process makes the metal less brittle and assists with the ability to stretch it.

And that’s my extent of knowledge about that. But the point is, resilience. That came up in the last post too. So maybe resilience is about going through all of those highs and lows in the hopes of stretching ourselves. The more we stretch, the more flexible we become and the greater capacity we have for adapting to differing environments and future change.

But this idea of restlessness, which Merriam-Webster defines as lack or denying of rest and continuously moving, with synonyms like anxiety, disquiet, edginess. What about that—the anxiety and disquiet? When you’ve lived in environments that have been breeding grounds for that kind of thing it’s good to do some work on bringing things to some kind of resting state, if possible.

It’s good to have spent some time doing some work on oneself, and sometimes for some people that means seeking therapy. And that doesn’t mean you have to lose the good things that come with growing up in a restless home like having a sense of drive and thinking on your feet and overall survival skills, but it does mean, I think, that it’s good to have the ability to balance that out with repose, with calm and quiet.

There are a few quotes that come from the Bible that I like and I think one of them applies here. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

 

 

Black and White Thinking

Next up is a discussion of living in the extremes or black and white and thinking. It’s the fifth unhelpful thinking style, so we’re half way through this journey together on the 10 unhelpful thinking styles of CBT.

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