Existential Psychotherapy

by Monica Ross

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. And by that we mean that before we might make any global assumptions about people--say that people are largely a product of their genetic makeup or that people are fundamentally selfish.

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 CBT which aims to look at evidence for and against negative core beliefs that we might have.

For more information on existential psychotherapy see Emily 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 Counseling & Psychotherapy by Emily va Deurzen and Martin Adams as the text.

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