Article Writer: Christina Manfredi
Psychological Counsellor; Existential, Gestalt, & Transpersonal Psychotherapist
“The purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free”
– Rollo May
The history of existential theory that informs therapy is rooted in ancient times throughout Socratic, Renaissance, Romantic and Asiatic sources. It was in the mid 19th Century that Existential philosophy became more recognised and started to later inform psychotherapy.
The word ‘existentialism’ comes from the Latin root exsistere, which means to ‘stand forth’ or ‘become’ (May, 1958, p.12). Existential Therapy is interested in understanding the process of who it is we are ‘becoming’, how we come to know ourselves more deeply, our values, our ideals, our meaning makings in life, our attitudes, our ethics, our self responsibility, and our conscience that can inform choiceful action in any given situation.
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”
– Carl Jung
Existential Therapy draws upon time immemorial philosophies, theories and beliefs of what it means to be truly human, to be fully and subjectively and inter-subjectively alive. It is a holistic approach to therapy that acknowledges the interrelationship of mind, body, spirit, relationships, and environmental context.
An existential therapist is interested in helping the client find their unique meaning in the face of anxiety by choosing to think and act authentically and responsibly. Each person’s meaning is absolutely unique and Existentialists believe there is no inherent meaning in life. Meaning is discovered as we experience life and look within to make sense of it. An Existentialist considers that we are not fixed static entities, in-fact we are continually making, and remaking ourselves via the values, behaviours, and choices that we make each day. Fritz Perls stated that the ‘self’ is not a formulated fixed state of being, and that the ‘self’ is made and found in the environment to which it relates. Further as Spinelli states the ‘self’ is continually constructed and arises out of ‘being in the world of others, culture, society, and the environment. As Jean-Paul Satre stated “We are our own choices”. This in itself is very empowering as there is a freedom to become who and how we wish to be in congruence with our values, ethics, morals, and desires. We do not have to be defined by any fixed belief that ‘I am this or I am that’, we do not have to be defined by anyone, any situation, or anything that has happened to us in the past. Our life belongs to us and we create who and how we wish to be within our capacity to be flexible to the unique context we live within.
According to existential therapy, the central problems people face are embedded in the actualities of life. The ironic fact of the realisation that our life does belong to us, we are responsible in it’s creation within our unique context can in itself be overwhelming. Loneliness, isolation, despair, suffering, feelings of meaninglessness, and ultimately death are all the tough givens of being alive.
It is through creativity, love, self-acceptance, authenticity, and free will, that we can potentially choose transformation. Via these pathways people are able to live uniquely meaningful and purposeful lives in the face of life’s uncertainty and adversity. We have all suffered losses (e.g., friends and partners die, relationships end), and these losses can cause anxiety because they are reminders of our own human limitations, mortal finiteness and inevitable death.
There are 9 primary foundations and values of Existential Therapy. These are:
- Freedom to become one’s authentic self within the context of our uniqueness and environmental context. The focus in upon developing the capacity to choose whom we become, the freedom to choose our response and action to and in the world. This is a very empowering possibility if we choose to embrace it.
“A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.”
– Simone de Beauvoir
- The capacity to understand the meanings we construct and impose upon our choices, and the recognition of the implication of our choices and attitude to life.
- The capacity to act in a present full bodied aware way in expressing our choices.
- The capacity to take responsibility for our choices and our agency in the world.
- To embrace the immediacy of the ‘Here and Now’, to notice the our kinesthetic somatic sense, the affective, the cognitive, the spiritual, and our way of relating and being in the world.
- To assist clients to not only experientially understand and accept their part in having created limiting patterns of living, but also to assist them to accept the ‘givens of existence’ that they may have previously denied, avoided, or repressed. The acceptance of how we have created our existence is fundamental to existentialism.
“Self-acceptance too often is intertwined with attempts to rationalize ourselves as being right or justified in our mistakes instead of embracing our humanity as imperfect creatures. Authentic self-acceptance requires that we are honest with ourselves about responsibility. Instead of seeking to justify our mistakes, we embrace them.”
– Louis Hoffman
- To assist client’s to accept what ‘is’, i.e. the undeniable more challenging givens of existence of anxiety, distress, loneliness, isolation, suffering, grief, despair, meaninglessness, emptiness, death, and hardship, and for clients to choose the attitude they wish to embrace towards these inescapable realities.
“Though the fact of death destroys us, the idea of death can save us. In other words, our awareness of death can throw a different perspective on life and incite us to rearrange our priorities.”
– Irvin D. Yalom
- Existentialism believes that there are no universal meanings of life. Rather it explores the subjective unique meanings arising out of an intersubjective reality, and values that we give to our experiences and the world. Meanings and values implicitly and explicitly guide our choices and actions. A lack of meaning represents what Viktor Frankl referred to as the ‘existential vacuum’, the place of the inner void and inner emptiness. This is the place of what the Buddhists refer to as the realm of the hungry ghosts. This can be experienced as the ‘dark night of the soul’.
- Existentialism advocates that it is through experiences of creativity, love, authenticity, and free will that we can access potential pathways toward our transformation, enabling us to live meaningful and purposeful lives in the face of uncertainty and suffering.
“Thus human existence – at least as long as it has not been neurotically distorted –
is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself, be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter lovingly”
– Viktor E. Frankl
Existential Therapy is particularly concerned with assisting clients to develop intentionality of how to accept and fully embrace response-ability and responsibility in the creating of their lives. In this way clients can reclaim their lives and transform past limiting conditioned ways of being, and more fully live into an authentic, integrated, embodied and liberated sense of self and being in the world.
“If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself,
how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness,
how you produce your existence –
the very moment you get in-touch with yourself –
growth begins, integration begins.”
– Fritz Perls
Our therapists at the Existential, Transpersonal, and Gestalt Centre are particularly influenced by the existential approaches of the phenomenological philosophy and method of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl. In this regard we are particularly orientated to Existential Phenomenological Therapy, and Humanistic Existentialism. The key figures that have influenced our approach to Existentialism include:
- Franz Brentano‘s influence in phenomenological psychology
- Martin Buber’s Dialogic relational method of therapy
- Gabriel Marcel‘s orientation to Presence
- Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis.
- Irvin Yalom
- Ernesto Spinelli
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Jean Paul Satre
- Rollo May
- Otto Rank
- Paul Tillich
- William James
Martin Buber advocates that ‘all healing is through meeting” (Friedmann: 1985; p. 5). Specifically what this means in the therapeutic encounter is that the existential, phenomenological, and authentic dialogic relational aspects of therapy provide the ground for healing to occur. Buber also regards that the transpersonal phenomena, something greater and beyond one’s ego self, a third reality (more than yours, more than mine) arises when 2 people authentically meet in connection, acknowledgement and confirmation of each other’s unique humanness.
“Spirit is not in the I but between I and You”
– Martin Buber
Existential Therapy offers great empowerment. With a process of depth awareness and insight in therapy we are free to transcend our past, to live our authentic choiceful uniqueness. We may live into a coherent expanded sense of self, with a greater capacity for intimacy, meaning and spiritual connection in our life. We are free to be uniquely our true self however we may meet life and life meets us.
“The individual is defined only by his/her relationship to the world and other individuals; s/he exists by transcending her/himself, and freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.
The individual justifies (personal) existence by a movement, which like freedom springs from the heart but which leads her/him outside of the self.”
“Indeed there is nothing more arbitrary than intervening as a stranger
in a destiny which is not ours.”
– Simone de Beauvoir
Final conclusion. In memory of Daniel Rosenblat a Gestalt therapist who once personally gave me one of the most memorable and most challenging gifts in therapy:
“We all have a right and the gift of our own life journey”
– Christina Manfredi
“To deny someone their ‘necessary’ suffering
is to deny them life”.
– Daniel Rosenblat
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Friedman, M. (1985). The healing dialogue in psychotherapy. New Jersey, NJ: Jason Aronson.
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Krug, O.T. (2009, Summer). James Bugenal and Irvin Yalom: Two masters of existential therapy cultivate presence in the therapeutic encounter. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 49, 329-354.
Perls, F. (1971) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. New York: Bantam Books.
Spinelli, E. (1997) Tales of unknowing:Therapeutic encounters from an existential perspective. London, England: Duckworth.
Spinelli, E. (2105) Existential analysis and Humanistic psychotherapy. A rejply to John Rowan. In K. J. Schneider, J.F. T. Bugental, & J. F Pierson (Ed). The handbook of humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
Yalom, I (2002). The gift of therapy. New York: HarperCollins.