What is Existential Therapy?

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Existential Therapy – Finding the Light in the Darkness

You may be thinking, I’ve never heard of existential therapy before. It sounds so negative, dark, heavy, pessimistic and/or depressing. I’m not sure if it will make my life more depressed and anxious than I already am.

While it’s very true that due to the existentialist view that suffering can be embraced as part of the human existence, existential psychology can be read as pessimistic. This is not an encouragement of suffering, though, only recognition of the fact that it is an inescapable part of being human. What existential therapy does do is encourage people to embrace the reality of suffering in order to work through and learn from it. 

Not Advocates of Despair

Existentialists are not advocates of despair. Instead, they campaign for a resolute and courageous attitude that is willing to commit to life’s projects despite the inherent absurdity of living. This allows us to be authentic and have decisive dedication to whatever it is we choose to accomplish in our lives

Consider seeing existential anxiety as a teacher and guide rather than something that is considered irrational or pathological – how does that impact your view?

We believe that clients are the experts of their own lives. Having the capacity for self-awareness means that we as humans can reflect and make choices. Existential therapy can help expand your awareness through realising that:

  • we are finite: time is limited
  • we have the potential and the choice to act or not to act
  • meaning is not automatic – we must seek it
  • we are subject to loneliness, meaninglessness, emptiness, guilt and isolation

Facing Distressing Symptoms Instead of Suppressing Them

Existential therapy is different from other therapies in that it grounds itself in a philosophical worldview. We are generally less focused on diagnosing psychopathology and providing rapid symptom relief per se than other forms of therapy. Instead, distressing “symptoms” such as anxiety, depression or rage are recognized as potentially meaningful and comprehensible reactions to current circumstances and personal contextual history. We avoid diagnostically labelling or pathologizing people. We treat people not labels.

As such, existential therapy is primarily concerned with experiencing and exploring these disturbing phenomena in depth: directly grappling with rather than trying to immediately suppress or eradicate them. Its principal aim is to clarify, comprehend, describe and explore rather than analyze, explain, treat or “cure” someone’s subjective experience of suffering.

Existential therapy is not directive but directional. The core emphasis of therapy is on the therapeutic relationship and actual experience of the client. The therapist does not impose their worldviews, values, thoughts and feelings onto the clients.  The therapist is committed to exploring their clients’ questions with a receptive attitude, rather than a dogmatic one: the search for truth with an open mind and an attitude of wonder is the aim, not the fitting of the client into pre-established categories and interpretations.

I Don’t Like Philosophy

Therapists use existential philosophy to guide them in their work with the client and allow the client to see your difficulty with a more existential perspective. However, the work in session focuses only on what the client brings in. The therapist strives to stay with whatever material the client brings. Contrary to what you might be thinking, existential therapy isn’t for intellectuals! You won’t be talking about theories or about philosophy in therapy. It is not necessary for a person to be a philosopher or scholar to benefit from the principles of existential therapy, and many people who are actively struggling with mental health issues can also be helped by the approach. 

Existential therapy has slowly been gaining recognition; in 2016, there were 136 existential-therapy institutions in 43 countries across six continents, and existential practitioners in at least 48 countries worldwide. A range of well-controlled studies indicates that certain forms of existential therapy, for certain client groups, can lead to increased well-being and sense of meaning. There is a good deal of evidence indicating that one of the core qualities associated with existential therapy – a warm, valuing and empathic client or patient-therapist relationship — is predictive of positive therapeutic outcomes. Additionally, existential therapy’s central emphasis on finding or making meaning has been shown in general to be a significant factor in effective treatment.

References

https://www.nspc.org.uk/about-the-school/the-existential-approach

https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/existential-psychotherapy

https://counsellingtutor.com/counselling-approaches/existential-therapy/

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/01/existential-therapy-you-can-ask-big-questions/579292/

Vos, Craig & Cooper, 2014

Norcross & Lambert, 2011

Wampold & Imel, 2015

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