In Existential Psychotherapy, attention is paid to the human condition as a whole, hence the term existential. To a certain extent, It is part of the Positive Psychology school which emphasizes not only our capacity for happiness and well-being, but also our capacity to work toward our dreams and aspirations. Existential psychology also works with our limits as individuals, incorporating this into the framework of therapy. Existential Psychotherapy is closely linked to the Humanist school of Psychology, as well as the Experiential Approach, specifically because of this reliance on what people bring to therapy. In these approaches, the therapist has no authority over the client, they are not gurus. Instead, they trust that the client senses what is inherently wrong in their life and the therapist supports their journey toward change, acting as a guide. The stance is more “we’re in it together”, rather than “I know what’s best for you”.
Being human holds a certain amount of pain, sometimes misfortune, but also joys and happiness. The Existential Approach understands this, accepts it, and uses this knowledge as leverage during the therapy. This may seem pessimistic but it is, in fact, quite the opposite. This approach encourages us to deal with our “existential concerns” (see below), allowing access to a solid foundation on which we can build a life where well-being and joy find a firm hold.
There is undoubtedly a link between Existential Therapy and philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre and Nietzsche (and this is a non-exhaustive list). In short, we start with internal wisdom and personal responsibility, to end up in the role of investigation and interpretation (for a great introduction on Existential Philosophy).
The key idea is to experience your life and not merely analyse it on an intellectual level, in order to achieve psychological well-being and a form of balance in one’s life.
Psychologists like Otto Rank, Paul Tillich and Irvin Yalom developed Existential Psychology. Irvin Yalom, in particular, wrote many books and novels which are very easy to read and which give a clear idea of what existential therapy is.
Existential therapy postulates that we all experience conflicts related to four major areas of life (the physical sphere, the social sphere, the psychological sphere, and the spiritual sphere) and, sometimes, their difficult interaction:
- the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love;
- the freedom to make of our lives as we will;
- our ultimate aloneness;
- and finally the absence of any meaning or sense to our life.
However grim these givens may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption.
Yrvin Yalom (1989)
If I asked you to answer the question: “who am I?”, you could choose between different answers, or all of them:
- physical = I’m a tall person
- social = I’m more of an extravert
- psychological = I’m anxious
- spiritual = I’m Christian or I love nature
But you would also make reference to these in light of how you feel about the four existential concerns of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Difficult confrontation with one of the areas can sometimes have serious consequences for a person. For example, our relationship to death can generate terrible anxiety and lead to the denial of the reality of death and its importance to our existence. Conversely, on the other side of the spectrum, by not thinking enough about death, some people may miss important cues that give life meaning or even be essential to survival. Finally, people who are too focused on the relationship to death can fall into neurotic or even psychotic states.
The ideal is to try to achieve some form of balance between these states in order to make decisions that will have a positive impact on life. Nietzsche refers to the eternal return, which is a good illustration of this: living your life as if you had to come back again and again and again, eternally, and always reliving the same things. In this sense, he advises to think carefully before making a decision, because it commits you to a kind of eternity.
Overcome your fears
Existential psychotherapy encourages us to resolve our emotional issues through some form of commitment, but also to take responsibility for the decisions that helped generate the problems.
Yalom, I. D. (1989). Love’s executioner and other tales of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Emmanuel Chabreiron is a French Psychologist. He works with clients from around the world, helping them deal with existential issues and develop resilience. As well as offering therapy, he writes regularly (for blogs and publishing houses) on psychology topics.