“A rich tapestry of intersecting therapeutic practices, all of which orientate themselves around shard concern: human lived experience” (1)
What is existential therapy? I’m asked this a lot. I even ask myself from time to time. In some ways it could be described as an attitude held by the therapist. It is certainly, in my experience, a continually unfolding enterprise due in part to its emphasis on relationship, non-directive stance, non-structured framework and an openness to wonder and mystery rather than reduction and categorisation.
In this blog, and future blogs I will begin to reflect on some understandings within existential therapy.
It is perhaps safe to start with reiterating what many have said before: there are as many ways to be an existential therapist as there are existential therapists (2) (and clients may I add). I am aware how vague that sounds, however, I believe it is actually what makes existential therapy so valuable. Its variety and openness invites connections and relationships to be developed in an authentic and unique way with each client. It also challenges some illusions regarding life (and therapy) including that it is and can be objective, manualisable and unambiguous.
Existential therapy is framed around a variety of existential thinkers, and other philosophers. Many have been influential in its development. At times the diversity of understandings about human existence reveals contrasting understandings which can be confusing. However, this is also the very ingredient that permits the aforementioned subjectivity, diversity and disagreement.
Existential therapy recognises the significance that each individual interprets from their particular context, therefore rejecting the notion that one size fits all. It invites every individual to recognise and bring forth their unique potential. Its very nature permits consideration of life in all its complexity and nuance, and recognises how uncertainty is intricately connected with living life.
What underpins existential therapy is the starting point: May (1958) (3) described existential therapy as an exploration that seeks to understand individuals as being. It invites a person to experience and have awareness of their own being, their own existence, their own aliveness, their own relation to one’s self and one’s world as a precondition for unraveling and working through their difficulties. Its focus is on the existence of each individual being sitting with the therapist, and what occurs between them. It does not disparage investigations about behaviour patterns or dynamisms but it recognises these elements are only really understood in the context of each individual’s structured existence. It is existence, or as May (1958) described the ‘I am’ experience, that underpins everything else.
So what does this mean in practical terms? Typically, existential therapy does not employ diagnostic frameworks to label or categorise personal characteristics or experiences. Abstract knowledge about a person, an assessment report or a theoretical understanding about a certain type of experience or behaviour is less important than the reality and experience that emerges between two people (client and therapist for instance) encountering each other in a room.
How else does this show up in an existential therapeutic session? In other ways, and always depending on the client’s needs, clients may be encouraged to understand their relationship to, and come to terms with, the ‘four ultimate concerns’ of existence as understood by Irvin Yalom (1980). Yalom described these as death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.
Additionally, clients may be invited to consider how they are being and relating to four basic existential dimensions (4). This may take the shape of exploring their relationship to personal, spiritual, physical and social aspects of their existence.
As mentioned in other blogs what has been written above and before is not a blueprint for what to expect in existential therapy. It is also not an exhaustive discussion of ideas within existential therapy. However, if you are interested in reading about other significant ideas in existential therapies, as I understand them, please read my other blogs.
Susanna Petitpierre, BACP Registered, is an experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor, providing long and short term counselling. Her approach is primarily grounded in existential therapy and she works with individuals. Susanna is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice and Lewes Practice.
Further reading by Susanna Petitpierre –
(2) Cohn, H. (2002) Heidegger and the roots of Existential Therapy. London: Continuum
(3) May, R., (1958) Origins of the existential movement. in Existence. (Eds: Rollo May, Ernest Angel & Henri, F Ellenberg) USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, (p. 31).
(4) Van Deurzen, E. (2012) Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice. London: Sage