Existential Therapy explores clients’ challenges through a philosophical perspective. This approach focuses on the human as a whole, and emphasises that we have the responsibility and freedom to make choices. It focuses on themes such as meaning, freedom, anxiety, responsibility, and aloneness in relation to clients’ difficulties.
Existential Therapy is based on an existential premise that we are not victims of circumstance, because we choose our actions. Main ideas of existentialism are:
- We assume responsibility for our actions
- Meaning is self created
- Anxiety is a normal part of life
- Death gives significance to the living
- Freedom suggests that we are responsible for our lives
According to existential therapy, confrontation with the four “givens of life”: death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom with the associated responsibility leads to existential anxiety. This anxiety arises as we realise that we are mortal and need to struggle for survival.
Even though it might be comforting to not think about death and isolation, existential theory suggests that thinking about these themes are needed to live authentically. This approach guides clients to make choices based on their values, and to take responsibility for those choices. With more freedom, our responsibilities of our actions or inaction increase.
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are the main philosophers in the 1800s that developed Existential Therapy. Kierkegaard theorised on anxiety, guilt, and wisdom. He suggested that willingness to take risks is needed to make choices. Meanwhile, Nietzsche theorised the roles of death, will, and responsibility.
During the 1900s, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger explored the roles of responsibility, meaninglessness and choice. Subsequently, Otto Rank actively pursued existential therapy in his practice. It was further popularised by Paul Tillich and Rollo May.
In the 1970s, Irvin Yalom developed existential therapy in relation to group therapy. He also developed the “givens of life”, the four ultimate human concerns. Viktor Frankl, was another central figure in bringing existential therapy into the mainstream. Frankl developed logotherapy, which is therapy involving meaning. He theorised that people have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. He believes that meaning is self created.
Existential Therapy aims to assist clients to recognise that their choices are able to make them lead more fulfilling lives. Clients learn to live in authenticity rather than deceive themselves.
This therapeutic approach is not technique oriented. Instead, existentially oriented therapists may incorporate techniques from other approaches.
Existential Therapy may be unsuitable for clients that want a directive approach, as this therapeutic style lacks systematic practices. Clients that select this approach also have to be capable of profound understanding of their own humanity, and make meaning of their own emotions. Highly inapplicable for clients that are victims of racism or violence. Clients must also be willing to explore heavier themes in life.
To see therapists specialised in this field, visit thetherapy.co
Janna is our in-house blog writer and therapy specialist. She is supporting The Therapy Platform users towards successful therapy experience.
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