I was extremely fortunate to undertake my professional training at the University of Surrey, where I benefited from some heavy-weight existential therapists, such as Emmy van Deurzen, as visiting lecturers.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the essence of existential therapy as I have indeed grappled with profound questions, such as the purpose of my life, the meaning of it all, and fears of death and dying. Existential Therapy does not shy away from questions such as these. Rather it delves in and shakes them to their core.
I loved studying philosophical thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzche, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jean-Paul Satre, who helped me make sense of my constantly evolving and growing identity as I went through life, adapting and changing on the way.
Existential therapy is like standing at a crossroads, where each path is a different choice you can make in life and existential therapy is like a wise sage that guides you along the way.
What is Existential Therapy?
Existential Therapy Explained:
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, believed that the primary goal of humans is to find life’s meaning. If you have not read his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, I encourage you to do so. Based on his experiences and observations, he developed logotherapy, a precursor to existential therapy. In the same vein, psychologist Rollo May emphasized a humanistic approach that highlighted the existential perspective.
Fast forward to today, and we have psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, who introduced four main challenges in life:
- The reality of death.
- The struggle to find meaning.
- The challenge of isolation.
- The weight of freedom in making choices.
Essentially, existential therapy helps people navigate these challenges. It’s not about digging up the past but focusing on the present and future. Think of it like learning to sail: the past winds might have directed you here, but now you need to adjust your sails and steer towards your chosen destination.
Existential therapy integrates various methods, from deep conversations to dream analysis. A common theme is understanding one’s fears and anxieties about the ‘four challenges.’ For instance, if someone resorts to substance abuse due to fear of isolation, the therapy would focus on facing and understanding that fear.
Imagine a painter scared of using certain colors because they remind him of past failures. An existential therapist might encourage him to explore those colors, helping him find new meanings and perhaps create a masterpiece.
Who Can Benefit?
If you’ve ever felt:
- Anxious about life’s purpose.
- Depressed or trapped.
- A sense of meaninglessness or isolation.
- Overwhelmed by choices.
Then existential therapy might be the compass to guide you. Various studies suggest its potential benefits for a diverse range of individuals, from cancer patients to older adults in care homes.
Existential Therapy in Clinical Practice
Existential therapy is dynamic, adjusting to the individual’s unique experiences. It emphasizes understanding one’s fears and anxieties concerning life’s challenges.
For instance, consider John, a man battling substance abuse. Instead of merely treating the addiction, existential therapy delves deeper, exploring John’s fears—perhaps the dread of isolation or the weight of freedom in choices, leading him towards misuse. The therapy then assists John in understanding and confronting these fears, laying a foundation for recovery.
In another example, Lucy, diagnosed with terminal cancer, grapples with the reality of death. An existential therapist aids Lucy in embracing this reality, guiding her towards a life of quality, finding moments of joy, and ultimately, a meaningful existence.
Existential therapy is versatile, incorporating varied techniques like in-depth discussions, dream analysis, and guided introspection. It encourages individuals to face their fears and anxieties head-on, thereby helping them find new interpretations and perspectives. An essential aspect of this therapy is the therapist acting as a “fellow traveler,” providing empathy and support.
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- Solomon, R. C. (2006). The existentialist’s survival guide. Philosophical Explorations, 9(3), 279-295.
- Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
- May, R. (1983). The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology. Norton & Company.
- Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books.
- Vos, J., Craig, M., & Cooper, M. (2015). Existential therapies: A meta-analysis of their effects on psychological outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(1), 115.
- Breitbart, W., Rosenfeld, B., Pessin, H., Kaim, M., Funesti-Esch, J., Galietta, M., … & Brescia, R. (2015). Meaning-centered group psychotherapy: An effective intervention for improving psychological well-being in patients with advanced cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 33(7), 749-754.
- Leontiev, D. A. (2013). Existential potentials and meaning in life crises. Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 5(1).
- Hoffman, L., Vallejos, L., Cleare-Hoffman, H. P., & Rubin, S. (2015). Existential-humanistic therapy and psychopathology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 43(2), 103-120.