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What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

Since the beginning of my training in counselling psychology I have been required to ponder and define my theoretical approach to human behaviour and psychotherapeutic treatment. It is not an easy task, as each approach has its clear merits. After reading one book, or receiving supervision from one clinician, you start to think that you 'for sure' are an 'x' therapist. That is, until you read your next book.

The easy answer is to say that your approach is eclectic. Which is true of most therapists today, as often different presenting concerns might fit with different modalities or theories. The risk there however, is that some 'eclectic' therapists may lack direction and purpose in their therapy. Theories anchor a clinician with a clear concept of where the client is, where they need to go, and how they can get them there through the work done in therapy. Without a solid base in a certain theoretical core, it becomes difficult to find the traction necessary to foster change.

Of course not all theories are equal, nor do they all fit with every individual. I recognize that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is probably the most effective approach. I use some of its interventions but I know that if I had a CBT therapist, it would drive me nuts. I can't practice from a CBT base because it just doesn't fit with my core beliefs about human behaviour. Nothing against them though. They do great work.

After years of study and trying on different theoretical uniforms, I have continuously drifted back to Existential Therapy. I hesitate to call myself an Existential Therapist because I hold that title with such regard that I'm not certain I'm worthy of it yet. But if you're wondering what therapy will look like from me, your google search should start with Existential Therapy.

An Existential Therapist distills the problems of humanity into four categories; death, isolation, freedom, and emptiness. The idea is that whatever is ailing you, at its source, is really a matter of uncertainty or conflict in relation to these four themes. If this doesn't strike a chord with you just yet, don't worry. These truths are usually realized after years of analysis and self discovery. What's important to note is the question of, "What does this all mean? Or what does it all matter?" When confronted with mortality are you energized with more purpose and clarity or are you struck with anxiety?

My goal in life, both professionally and personally, is to reduce human suffering. I am especially interested in helping people so that when they reach that inevitable day when they are nearing their last breath, they will review their life with pride and accomplishment because their life had meaning. Meaning is the ultimate currency and I continue to study how to mine it for myself while helping others discover it as well.

Existential therapy places importance on personal responsibility. The question is often, "What is it that I do that makes my life worse, and how can I change that?" By working on that for which a person is responsible, we can make the quickest and longest lasting changes.

Related to personal responsibility is the focus on meaning. Nietzsche said, "he who has a 'why' to live can bear almost any 'how'." By discovering and developing more meaning in your life you will find the resources to overcome almost any other adversity. Victor Frankl said that "Suffering ceases to be suffering once it finds its meaning."

Common concerns that lead people to choose an existential therapist include:

  • Addiction. It's hard to stay sober without being able to make authentic, meaningful, self-directed choices.

  • Excessive anxiety. Anxiety is a part of the human condition but anxiety in excess can, and should be, remedied.

  • Nihilism, apathy, purposelessness, and lack of motivation.

  • Alienation, isolation, shame, and guilt.

  • Anger, rage, and resentment.

Existential psychotherapy is also beneficial in helping people foster better relationships, stronger commitments, spirituality, courage, greater presence, more transcendence, and awe.

Notable existential therapists include Victor Frankl, Irv Yalom, Paul Wong, and Jordan Peterson.

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