Existential psychotherapy and counseling is based on the principles of existential philosophy. However, anyone who has grappled with the concepts of existential philosophy will appreciate the difficulty of applying it to their own life, yet alone the psychotherapeutic relationship. The writings of Nietzsche, Sartre or Heidegger for example, whilst original and innovative, are complex and difficult to grasp. Their ideas also challenge the premise on which much of Western thinking is based. Sartre suggested that ‘Existence precedes Essence’ and that we are free to create ourselves in any way we wish.
Heidegger, contrary to Cartesian Dualistic ideas, offered the concept of Dasein – we are an existent, ‘thrown’ into a world not of our own choosing and challenged to respond to the ‘Call of Conscience’ – to authentically engage with what it is ‘to be’. Clearly our values and personal philosophy of life influence our choices in life and, as psychotherapists, our choice of therapy and the modality within which we work. These values and beliefs subtly influence how psychotherapists think ‘people tick’ and what they need to do to feel better. Whatever our modality, psychotherapy is something about increasing well being.
What are the values and philosophical assumptions underpinning existential psychotherapy?
We have choice and free will. We are doomed to choose. In our own lives and with our clients, we see examples of denying this and also never tapping into the wide array of options available to us. We say ”I can’t do this” Ï shouldn’t do this” – all examples of denying the freedom we have – ultimately to be who we want to be. In an attempt to make sense of the infinite possibilities of life, we create myths or unquestioned assumptions which hoodwink us into believing there is an objective world.
Intrinsic Flexibility of human nature. We create our reality and ourselves by being-in-relation to others. This means it is possible to make sense of life by engaging with this reality. We create our reality and ourselves by being-in-relation to others/things. We are not fixed but beings-in-relation who experience the world through Intentional Acts. seawall tieback anchors
There are limitations to our freedom. We do not have unlimited freedom to choose but are bounded by our circumstances and social, physical and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Existential psychotherapy is a philosophical endeavor. It is a tutorial in the art of living. It is not about pathologising and considering people to be sick but struggling with the very problem of living and making sense of their particular circumstances.
Focus on problems of living and not personality problems. Existential psychotherapy does not focus on personality differences and approaches in trying to understand a client’s behavior. In fact, existential psychotherapists are not there to understand their clients – they assist their clients in understanding their own worlds and use themselves as an instrument to reveal that to clients. They also focus on the Ontic, lived experience of the client within Ontological givens to which the therapist is also subject.