Existential Theory: A Different Approach to Meaning

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Existential Theory: A Different Approach to Meaning

Existentialism has a unique perspective on meaning that sets it apart from the mainstream philosophies that preceded it – namely, that there is no inherent meaning.

This is not to say that there is no meaning at all, just that there is no inherent, built-in, or “default” meaning in our world. Whatever meaning is derived from our world is given it to it by the individual.

It’s no coincidence that this controversial and radically different philosophy gained traction during the severity of the Great Depression, the horrors of World War II, and the following recovery. Faced with the realities of war, widespread famine, and poverty, many people began to question whether there was any natural order or set of rules that governed our existence.

After all, if war could bring devastation on the massive scale of World War II, what or who is allowing the devastation to happen, and for what purpose?

Suddenly, the allure of looking to the churches, the government, or another source of authority for meaning was tarnished. With the usual sources of authority undermined, people began to look inside themselves for meaning, rather than casting a wider external net.

Existentialism proposes that people have the freedom, and the responsibility, to make our own choices and that leaning on institutions or other individuals to tell us how to make our moral choices is inauthentic and hinders our personal development. According to existential thought, we must look within ourselves to find meaning, to assert our values, and to make the decisions that shape our lives.

For a succinct and easy to understand description of what existentialism is, check out this video from Crash Course Philosophy:

Existentialist thought has been proposed and passed around between philosophers since the time of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (early to mid-1800s), but this philosophy has grown in popularity since the foundation-shaking events of the 1940s and 50s. Given this rise in popularity and its resulting influence on mainstream thinking, psychology took a renewed interest in this philosophy.

A new kind of therapy grew out of these conditions as a way to help people deal with the struggles inherent to the human condition – existential therapy.

What is Existential Therapy / Psychotherapy? A Definition

Existential therapy (or existential psychotherapy) is based on some of the main ideas behind existentialism as a philosophy, including:

  • We are responsible for our own choices.
  • We are all unique individuals due to the choices we make, and we are constantly remaking ourselves through these choices.
  • We make our own meaning in life.
  • Anxiety is a natural feature of human life.
  • We must come to terms with this anxiety to live authentically (Burnham & Papandreopoulos, n.d.).

Built on these foundations, existential therapy aims to aid clients in accepting and overcoming the existential fears inherent in being human. These fears include:

  • Freedom and responsibility
  • Death
  • Isolation
  • Meaninglessness (Vallejos, 2016)

Coming face to face with any of the above, or realizing that you will confront one or all of these eventually, can provoke an overwhelming sense of dread or anxiety, potentially leading to a multitude of psychological and emotional dysfunctions.

While it may be comforting to simply not think about the inevitability of death or the loneliness we all experience from time to time, or to deny this inevitability, avoiding reality will not help us to live to address the real issues. Without accepting and finding a way to live with these realities of being human, it is impossible to live authentically.

Existential therapy will guide clients in learning to take responsibility for their own choices and making choices that align with their values and help them to live more authentically. This form of therapy will not focus on fancy techniques or assigning homework to reach the desired results. The point is not necessarily to learn certain skills or pick up a particular habit but to form a realistic and authentic relationship with life.

Similarly, existential therapists are not the cold and aloof professionals or the white tower intellectuals of psychoanalysis, nor are they experts who assign the magical combination of exercises and assignments that allow a client to heal. Rather, existential therapists are fellow humans undergoing the same journeys and dealing with the same inevitable truths of the human condition (Diamond, 2011).

Founders of Existential Therapy

While the original philosophers credited with their contributions to existentialist thought may be considered the founders of existential therapy, there were a few practicing therapists who did the legwork of incorporating existentialism into a cohesive therapy.

Rank could be considered the “founding father” of existential therapy, given his initial foray into combining existentialism with psychoanalysis (Good Therapy, 2013). While he began his career mostly in sync with Freud and the theories behind psychoanalysis, Rank became more focused on the present than the past and more accepting of the emotions that are inherent in being human.

Paul Tillich and Rollo May carried on the existential therapy torch and helped bring it into the mainstream in the mid-20th century (Vallejos, 2016).

Irvin Yalom, another important personality in existential therapy, added his eleven therapeutic factors to group therapy in general, which included the importance of accepting and learning to exist with existential fears. This contribution helped popularize existential therapy as a type of therapy, while also adding a touch of existential therapy concepts to all group therapies that embraced Yalom’s eleven factors (Good Therapy, 2015).

The Right Circumstances for Existential Therapy

Existential therapy is not appropriate for every individual or for every situation. Like all other forms of treatment, there are circumstances in which this therapy is most effective and circumstances in which another type of therapy would be advised.

Existential therapy is an excellent method for treating the psychological and emotional instabilities or dysfunctions that stem from the basic anxieties of human life (as noted above, freedom and responsibility, death, isolation, and meaninglessness). This can include depression and anxiety, substance abuse and addiction, and posttraumatic stress.

It will be especially effective for people who are open-minded and willing to explore the heavier themes in life, as well as those searching for and struggling to find meaning (Vallejos, 2016).

Due to the nature of existentialism, existential therapy is likely to help clients bring about a lasting change in their perspective, rather than encouraging short-term effort that the client may lose motivation to continue as soon as the sessions end.

However, existential therapy’s focus on the main anxieties of human life may result in blindness to more immediate concerns or ignorance of the underlying issues a client is facing. It’s all well and good to help a client overcome their fear of death, but if they are also facing paranoid delusions, overcoming the existential dread of death may not be the top priority at the moment.

This type of therapy may also be harmful to those who do not wish to dive into the existential depths, especially those who are purposefully avoiding confrontation with these ideas. While it is to every individual’s benefit to come to terms with these inevitabilities, not every individual is ready to embrace existentialist ideas at any moment.

For some individuals, pushing them into consideration of death, isolation, and meaninglessness may result in unintended consequences, including deep depression, suicidal thoughts, or even suicide attempts.

Similarly, an individual who is only looking for a quick fix to his or her current challenges may not be ready or willing to dive into such an intense form of therapy (Vallejos, 2016).

The Existential Therapy Relationship

While the therapeutic relationship is vital in any form of therapy, it is especially important in existential therapy. As mentioned earlier, the therapist is not a distant expert who is magnanimously guiding a client through self-discovery; rather, he or she is a fellow human who has also experienced existential anxiety and fear and aims to guide others through the difficult process of accepting and living with the inevitabilities of human life.

The therapist is not a passive or neutral presence in the therapy room. He or she is an active participant in the therapy sessions and must engage authentically with the client in order to facilitate healing. In existential therapy, putting up a composed and professional front can harm more than it helps – clients need to be able to connect with the therapist on a personal level.

Besides existential techniques, Existential therapy may incorporate techniques or ideas from other forms of therapy, including cognitive, behavioral, narrative, and others, but all existential therapy sessions depend on the productive and close relationship between therapist and client to succeed (Diamond, 2011).

A Take-Home Message

This short piece introduced the idea of a form of therapy based on existentialism.

I hope it has given you a good understanding of what existential therapy is, how it works, and what it can do for you or your clients.

What do you think of existential therapy, and existentialism in general? Do you think we each create our own sense of meaning or purpose in life? Have you tried existential therapy, as a client or as a practitioner? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

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