What is Existential Psychotherapy?
Existential psychotherapy is based in the core tenets of being a human being born into the life that we are a part of and our ability to deal with life’s givens: mortality, isolation, meaninglessness and freedom. It is an exploration of meaning from the perspective that we are fundamentally alone yet at the same time require connection to others to find context. It seeks to guide individuals into the most authentic state of experiencing possible.
History of Existential Psychotherapy
Existential Psychotherapy is based in the tenets of Existential Philosophy that expounds the concepts of individual existence, freedom and choice, conveyed through the work of philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Otto Rank, a college of Freuds, is widely regarded as the first existential psychotherapist, developing the concept of Life and Death Fears suggesting that we have a ‘life instinct’ that pulls us towards individuation, independence and autonomy, and a ‘death instinct’ that pulls us towards merger, union and community. Viktor Frankl was another existential psychotherapist who suggested that anxiety and apathy that had the potential to cause severe neurosis was derived from existing in an ‘Existential Vacuum’ – a state of boredom or apathy largely due to a combination of the ability to mediate rather than simply act out our instinctual drives and in more modern times also due to a dereliction of the customs and traditions that help us direct our actions through religion and ritual. This gave rise to the existential approach of ‘logotherapy’. Ronald Laing, a psychotherapist in the 1960s who worked largely with schizophrenic and psychotic patients, argued that there are essential psychic challenges of existing against which we all must necessarily defend and results from ontological insecurity – when a firm sense of one’s own being has not been established and an individual has not acquired unquestionable self-validating certainties or finds themselves in a position whereby those certainties have become compromised. The argument that Laing puts forward is that human being necessarily require continuous and stable environments in order to generate positive and stable emotional states which in turn give rise to meaning, and is therefore ontologically secure. The absence of this and the associated chaos and anxiety is a significant contributor to neurosis.
The more modern existential approaches are driven by therapists such as Irvin Yalom who proposed that the avoidance of death is a common cause of neurosis and that although contemplating one’s own death is akin to staring at the sun, it is also something essential in allowing us to enter life in a more rich, compassionate and real manner.
Key Terms in Existential Psychotherapy
- Ontological insecurity
- Existential crises
- Four worlds
- Death anxiety
- Life and death instinct
- Existential vacuum
- Life’s “givens”: mortality, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom.
- Terror management theory
- Socratic dialogue
Where Existential Psychotherapy is useful
What sets Existential Psychotherapy apart from other approaches is that it is fundamentally concerned with the fears and anxieties faced by us all in existing as part of the human condition, rather than eliciting explicit details of behaviours, familial history or ingrained patterns of relating specific to an individual. It is therefore not explicitly concerned with the pathology or presentation of an individual, but their frame of meaning and ability to handle the existential realities all of us must face.
It can be extremely beneficial for helping with:
- Mid-life crises
- Apathy and meaninglessness
- Fear of death
- Existential isolation
- Freedom and responsibility
Where Existential Psychotherapy may not be useful
Existential therapy relies largely on methods to elicit and discover meaning and position in the world to gain perspective. It does not look intently at behavioural or subconscious aspects that have contributed to current patterns of behaving and relating. It looks at the person in the ‘here-and-now’ rather than the context of their familial and societal history. While in some respects this can be refreshing as a therapeutic approach, this can sometimes contribute to a lack of perspective in what an individual may be lacking in their emotional and relational capacities due to their familial context and regulatory capacities.