Existential Therapy

Overview of Existential Therapy

The core idea behind existential therapy is that people are defined by the choices they make. Because people largely control the choices they make, they are responsible for their physical and mental state of being. The goal of existential therapy is to help patients realize in what ways their choices are affecting their lives. Then, the patients are challenged to take control of their decisions and thus, their lives.

Brief history of existential therapy

Existentialism is the philosophical notion of self awareness. The idea of existentialism started in the late 19th century with philosophers like Kierkegaard. He believed that people were constantly struggling with the aspects of life which were limited and those which were limitless. This struggle led to problems of developing a sense of self and finding meaning in life. Another existentialist, Nietzche, believed that society and civilization were restricting people’s free will. He encouraged people to discard these constraints and live free.

Some psychotherapists of the time attempted to incorporate the ideas of existentialism into therapy. However, existential therapy was not truly developed until the 1960s. As part of their belief in letting patients discard the normal restraints of society, early existential therapists founded an experimental center where patients could freely exhibit their symptoms without receiving any treatment; treatment was not considered necessary because the patients were just being their natural selves.

Core ideas of existential therapy

The core idea of existential therapy is that humans are alone in the world. Despite this ultimate aloneness, humans want to connect with others. This can result in feelings of loneliness, depression, and other emotional distress. Because of this core principle, existential therapy has been criticized as being pessimistic or even morbid. However, supporters of existential therapy will refute that it is being rational and realistic about the facts of life. While the realization of aloneness in the world may initially bring out emotional distress, people can overcome distress by accepting that aloneness and realizing that they can only rely on the self.

Existential therapy focuses on exploring the facts of life which include death, freedom, loneliness, suffering, and other existential facts. The therapy will also focus on the emotional reactions which result from dealing with these facts.

Under existential theory, all humans have the ability to choose how they want to live their lives. Thus, under existential therapy, there cannot be any psychological disorder because all problems are the result of a person’s choice. Instead of trying to “cure” a person, existential therapy will instead focus on the patient’s individual choices and how to change them so the person can be happier with his or her life.

Existential therapy does not encourage patients to escape their negative emotions which occur when the existential facts of life are confronted. Rather, it teaches patients to accept these facts of life and then embrace their own freedom to make choices.

Goals of existential therapy

The main goal of existential therapy is first to help patients realize that they are in control of their own lives through the decisions they make. Once patients realize their autonomy in life, they are challenged to freely make choices about how they want to live.

Existential therapy process

Confrontation is commonly used as part of existential therapy to help patients realize how their actions/choices are responsible for the current condition. In order to do this, the therapist will focus on understanding the patient’s current experience. There are no specific techniques involved in existential therapy. Therapists can use approaches from all ranges of therapy or methods. However, the focus of the therapy will always be phenomenology – the process of consciously putting aside pre-formed ideas and dogmas in order to help unveil the patient’s mental being.

Existential therapy does not deny that past events can shape the present. However, those issues are not addressed unless they arise during the course of treatment. The focus of existential therapy is on the patient’s current state of being and sense of self and choices which will shape the future.

An existential therapist will not hold any other diagnosis as valid. Rather, they focus on the traits which are evident amongst all humans. Further, existential therapists believe that all assessments must be done by looking at the patient’s subjective world and not objective world.

The role of the therapist

Existential therapists have a role very different than therapists utilizing other approaches. Therapists are not restricted to being passive or required to hide their own individual selves behind a professional persona. Rather, the real relationship between the patient and therapist is stressed. The relationship may be very personal but still supportive and structured.

During therapy, the existential therapist will not “sugar coat” situations or realities to make the patient feel better. Instead, the therapist will display honesty about the existential facts of life and the patient’s role in creating his or her own current situation. Once these facts are accepted, then the therapist can help the patient assert control over his or her own life.

Diamond, Stephen. “What is Existential Psychotherapy?” Psychology Today, Evil Deeds. www.psychologytoday.com. 21 Jan 2011. Web. Sept 2011.

Yalom, Irvin D. Existential Psychotherapy. USA: Yalom Family Trust, 1980.

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