Counseling Theories: Existential Therapy
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It was Irvin Yalom who brought existential psychotherapy into the forefront of modern psychotherapies aimed at addressing the existential concerns of human beings.
- Existential isolation
Over the years, I have learned more and more about each of these existential concerns, enriching my understanding of them and using them in expanded ways as part of my psychotherapeutic approach. Its true meaning and clinical applications evaded me. Was I talking about loneliness?What are Existential Therapy and the Existential Crisis?
I believe I would often move toward concepts of the importance of connectedness: I would even describe connectedness, love, and transcendence as antidotes to the terror of isolation existential isolation. Martin Buberin describing existential isolation, would cite the differentiation of the I—Thou relationship versus the I—It relationship.
The I—Thou relationship brought one more authentic and deeper connection to another human being, but this concept was in fact likely the genesis of my tendency to see this type of connectedness with the other as an antidote to transpersonal isolation rather than existential isolation.
No matter how close one becomes to another a child, a parent, a loverthere is an ultimate unbridgeable gap. I once described the process of caring for my dying mother in the pages of this journal. As opposed to isolation or loneliness, existential isolation is an intrapersonal experience. Existential isolation really refers to the concept that each of us is responsible for creating our own lives and living that life authentically. So, in fact, we are completely unique in every aspect of our existence and our death.
Deep loneliness is inherent in the act of self-creation. Ignorance of our condition may have brought contentment along with a feeling of partial deadness, but as we open the doors in our world, we can expect more struggles as well as the potential for more fulfillment. Because of the reality of this essential freedom, we must accept responsibility for directing our lives. Existential guilt is being aware of having evaded a commitment, or having chosen not to choose.
This is the guilt we experience when we do not live authentically. It results from allowing other to define us or make our choices for us.
A Breakdown of Existential Therapy in 8 Points
For existentialists, being free and being human are identical. We are the authors of our lives in the sense that we create our destiny, our life situation, and our problems. Assuming responsibility is a basic condition for change. Clients who refuse to accept responsibility by persistently blaming others for their problems will not profit from therapy. His basic premise is that freedom is bound by certain limitations. The therapist assists clients in discovering how they are avoiding freedom and encourages them to learn to risk using it.
Not to do so is to make them neurotically dependent on the therapist. Two central tasks of the therapist are inviting client to recognize how they have allowed others to decide for them and encouraging them to take steps toward autonomy. Rather than trusting ourselves to search within and find our own answers to the conflicts in our life, we sell out by becoming what others expect of us. Our being becomes rooted in the expectations, answers, values, and beliefs that come from the important people in our world.
The courage to be: We struggle to discover, to create, and to maintain the core deep within our being. A client might say: How do they feel now?
Are they condemned to stay this way forever? Is there a way out? Can they create a self if they find that they are without one? Where can they begin? Once clients have demonstrated the courage to recognize this fear, to put it into words and share it, it does not seem so overwhelming.
In other words, invite clients to accept the ways in which they have lived outside of themselves and explore ways in which they are out of contact with themselves. The experience of aloneness: Part of the human condition is the experience of aloneness. The sense of isolation comes when we recognize that we cannot depend on anyone else for our own confirmation; that is, we alone must give a sense of meaning to life, and we alone must decide how we will live.
Before we can have any solid relationship with another, we must have a relationship with ourselves. We are challenged to learn to listen to ourselves. We have to be able to stand alone before we can truly stand beside another. There is a paradox in the proposition that humans are existentially both alone and related, but this very paradox describes the human condition. To think that we can cure the condition, or that it should be cured, is a mistake.
Ultimately we are alone. The experience of relatedness: When we are able to stand alone and dip with ourselves for our own strength, our relationships with others are based on our fulfillment, not our deprivation.
If we feel personally deprived, however, we can expect little but a clinging, parasitic, symbiotic relationship with someone else Perhaps one of the functions of therapy is to help clients distinguish between a neurotically dependent attachment to another and a life-affirming relationship in which both persons are enhanced.
The therapist can challenge clients to examine what they get from their relationships, how they avoid intimate contact, how they prevent themselves from having equal relationships, and how they might create therapeutic, healthy, and mature human relationships.
Struggling with our identity: Due to our fear of dealing with our aloneness, some of us get caught up in ritualistic behavior patterns that cement us to an image or identity which we acquired in early childhood. Some of us become trapped in a doing mode to avoid the experience of being.
The therapy process itself is often frightening for clients when they realize that they have surrendered their freedom to others and that in the therapy relationship they will have to assume their freedom again. By refusing to give easy solutions or answers, existential therapists confront clients with the reality that they alone must find their own answers.
What do I want from life? What gives my life purpose? Where is the source of meaning for me in life? Are you pleased about who you are and what you want for yourself, what are you doing to get some clarity? One of the problems in therapy is that clients may discard traditional or imposed values without finding other, suitable ones to replace them. Clients may report that they feel like a boat without a rudder.
They seek new guidelines and values that are appropriate for the newly discovered facets of themselves, and yet for a time they are without them.
Perhaps the task of the therapeutic process is to help clients create a value system based on a way of living that is consistent with their way of being. They will experience anxiety as a result of the absence of clear-cut values. Will what I do be forgotten once I am gone? Given the fact of mortality, why should I busy myself with anything? Meaninglessness in life leads to emptiness and hollowness, or a condition that Frankl calls the existential vacuum.
Related to the concept of meaninglessness is existential guilt. This is a condition that grows out of a sense of incompleteness, or a realization that we are not what we might have become. It is the awareness that our actions and choices express less than our full range as a person.
This guilt is not viewed as neurotic, nor is it seen as a symptom that needs to be cured. Instead, the existential therapist explores it to see what clients can learn about the ways in which they are living their life.
Human suffering the tragic and negative aspects of life can be turned into human achievement by the stand an individual takes in the face of it. Yet meaning is not something that we can directly search for and obtain.
Paradoxically, the more rationally we seek it, the more likely we are to miss it.
Finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement, which is a commitment to creating, loving, working, and building. Existential therapists differentiate between normal and neurotic anxiety, and they see anxiety as a potential source of growth.
Normal anxiety is an appropriate response to an event being faced. It can be used as a motivation to change. Neurotic anxiety, in contrast, is out of proportion to the situation. It is typically out of awareness, and it tends to immobilize the person. Being psychologically healthy entails living with as little neurotic anxiety as possible, while accepting and struggling with the unavoidable existential anxiety that is a part of living.
When we make a decision that involves reconstruction of our life, the accompanying anxiety can be a signal that we are ready for personal change.
Opening up to new life means opening up to anxiety. Existential therapy helps clients come to terms with the paradoxes of existence — life and death, success and failure, freedom and limitations, and certainty and doubt.
Facing existential anxiety involves viewing life as an adventure rather than hiding behind securities that seem to offer protection. The therapist must guide clients in finding ways to deal with anxiety constructively. The therapist can help clients recognize that learning how to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and how to live without props can be a necessary phase in the journey from dependence to autonomy.
When a client becomes more self-confident, the anxiety that results from an expectation of catastrophe will decrease. It is necessary to think about death if we are to think significantly about life. Death provides the motivation for us to live our lives fully and take advantage of each opportunity to do something meaningful. If we realize we are mortal, we know that we do not have an eternity to complete our projects and that each present moment is crucial.
Without being morbidly preoccupied by the ever-present threat of nonbeing, clients can develop a healthy awareness of death as a way to evaluate how well they are living and what changes they want to make in their lives.
Existential therapy is best considered as an invitation to clients to recognize the ways in which they are not living fully authentic lives and to make choices that will lead to their becoming what they are capable of being.