What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Exitential Psychotherapy

For the past two weeks we have had lectures on Existential Psychotherapy. This is a philosophical method of therapy that operates on the belief that inner conflict within a person is due to that individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence. However, there is no such uniform body of therapy known as existential psychotherapy. Rather there are many existential therapists who practice many forms of therapy. I will though use the term existential psychotherapy, in this post, for ease of reference.

Our lecturer encouraged us to see these lectures as a bridge between psychoanalysis and the transpersonal (which is the core focus of the third year).

The givens of life in existential psychotherapy are:

1)    Inevitability of death This is one of the certainties in life. Ego does not accept the concept of death, it only wants pleasure in the moment. The ego can play tricks and can seek to alter reality. Clients need to distinguish between normal anxiety (which is good for us) and neurotic anxiety (which is out of proportion).

Woody Allan once said he didn’t mind the idea of death, he just didn’t want to be around when it happened.

2)    Isolation/We’re all alone The belief is that you are born alone and die alone. These issues can be disguised in problems of addiction.  Individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol could be seen as seeking to make a connection. By having clients broaden their level of self-awareness this automatically leads to personal growth. Therapists help clients by offering a listening space.

Certain people can suffer from isolation more than others. Beautiful people can lead lives where nothing seems to go right. We see this every day in beautiful stars of stage and screen. Extremely gifted people can also be more susceptible to isolation as they have a conduit from their unconscious to their conscious and can suffer from isolation.

3)    Freedom/responsibility The more freedom  you have the more responsibility you have. Why do rock stars trash hotel rooms? Too much freedom can lead to anxiety.  Do we all need structure? Elvis Presley had a lot of freedom but struggled with a life of excess.

Clients have the freedom to create their own destiny and are responsible for that destiny which they create. When clients realise this principle, they are empowered to change  the condition which currently afflicts them, and stop being a victim.

4)    Search for meaning It is the job of the therapist to help clients to realise that they need to find meaning and purpose in life by living and confronting challenges in their lives. (The difference with transpersonal psychotherapy is that in existential therapy meaning is given.  In transpersonal the meaning is already there). Sometimes something seemingly adverse happens at one stage of one’s life but with hindsight that adversity can be seen in a different light.

What does existential psychotherapy look like?

The art of existential psychotherapy is to understand the concept of not knowing.  The language is conversational. Existential psychotherapists are well educated in philosophy. Existential therapy starts with the premise that although humans are essentially alone in the world, they long to be connected to others. Anxiety comes from the realisation that our validation must come from within and not from others. There is a huge emphasis on the relationship between client and therapist. Whereas the here and now is important for the analyst in terms of the past, for existentialists the here and now is more about the future.

The techniques of existential psychotherapy can include Freudian, Jungian, Gestalt, cognitive, behavioural or other methods. However, the fundamental technique shared by all existential therapists is phenomenology. Phenomenology is defined as being the philosophical doctrine that advocates that the basis of psychology or psychotherapy is the scientific study of immediate experience.

Existential psychotherapists will talk about great healing that takes place if the client brings warts and all issues to the sessions. But unlike Transactional Analysis there is no concept of a cure, although Yalom hinted at a cure.

Early thinkers

European clinicians like Otto Rank, Karl Jaspers, Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger were among the first to apply existential principles to the practice of psychotherapy in the second half of the 2oth century. These were followed prominently by Frankl (Vienna), R.D. Laing, May and Yalom.

It is a fallacy to see existential therapists as Godless.

The major thinkers in existential philosophy (in addition of course to ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle) are:

Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian and was born in Copenhagen in 1813. He had a deep concern about conformity.Kierkegaard’s central problematic was how to become a Christian in Christendom. For Kierkegaard there is no truth, only relative truth.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher, poet, composer, cultural critic, and classical philologist. Nietzsche’s radical questioning of the value and objectivity of truth has been the focus of much debate, especially in the continental tradition. It was important to tell the absolute truth regardless. There was no moral issue with sleeping with many people at the same time. It was crucial to live passionately. Nietzsche condemned institutionalized Christianity for emphasizing a morality of pity, which assumes an inherent illness in society.

Martin Burber (1878-1965) was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher and was best known for his philosophy of dialogue.  Philosophy of dialogue is a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. Among Buber’s early philosophical influences were Kant’s Prolegomena which he read at the age of fourteen, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian and is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. One quote from Tillich Language… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. How about another one? The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was a French philosopher as well as being a leading Christian existentialist.  He was also an author of a number of plays. His main philosophical interest entailed focusing on the modern individual’s struggle in a technologically dehumanizing society. He also talked about the importance of hope and the fidelity and openness with others.  For Marcel, hope is the final guarantor of fidelity; it is that which allows one not to despair, that which gives one the strength to continue to create oneself in availability to the other.

Martin Heidegger (1889 –1976) was a German philosopher who was known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the “question of Being” or ontology. Heidegger found resolution in the face of anxiety, guilt and death. However, Heidegger is a controversial figure, essentially for his links with Nazism. Heidegger is known for his post-Kantian philosophy.  Heidegger criticized the tradition of Western philosophy, which he regarded as nihilistic.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism and was a French existentialist philosopher as well as being a playwright and biographer.  Sarte was not into God, but advocated the practice of confession. Sartre’s primary idea is that people, as humans, are “condemned to be free”.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.  He was also influenced by Sartre (who later stated he had been “converted” to Marxism by Merleau-Ponty). At the core of his philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role that perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world.

Albert Camus (1913 –1960) was a French Pied-Noir author, journalist, and philosopher. Camus was not pleased with the continued reference to himself as a “philosopher of the absurd”. Camus had less enthusiasm in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). In order to distinguish his ideas, scholars have sometimes referred to the Paradox of the Absurd.

I noticed that one of Camus’s plays Cross Purpose is currently running at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington.

See also

See here for courses in existential psychotherpy.

The Society for Existential Analysis (SEA)