Existentialism derives from philosophical and religious thinkers (Soren Kiekegaard primarily, then Fredrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl and most famously Jean-Paul Satre) around the 1850’s. Believing that the vastness of the human dimension is extremely difficult to understand yet often the most influential in people’s behaviour and understanding of life, the argument went on to state that life couldn’t be understood simply in behavioural or emotional terms.
Existential Therapy developed from philosophical ideas and writings into a therapeutic model that aims to give clients knowledge of themselves. Knowledge in the sense that allows them to be truthful with themselves, have a wider worldview than their previous awareness and a way to know of the past events and move into the future with a positive attitude, understanding the limitations of the human dilemma. This dilemma comes about by the paradoxical limitations of the human condition versus the ultimate freedom this dilemma enlightens. A circular augment but that is part of the dilemma of explaining existentialism. Hence: ” I think, therefore I am.”
Existential Therapy, like all counselling, aims to liberate the client from past, current and future fears and the resultant inhibiting thoughts and actions. Existential therapy is executed by establishing a dialogue where the therapist will ask “what” and “how” but never “why”, leading to an existential understanding. A task not often satisfactorily completed, given: (a) the complexity of the human condition; and (b) adequate layman’s language to explain.
Understanding It is believed that this “understanding” of the client’s world in this existential way will allow him/her to more fully take on responsibility (in existential terms “freedom”) for their beliefs and actions. This responsibility to their selves and the rest of humanity is the key if a client is to be in control (feel free) of their lives. It is the therapist’s task to demystify this complex philosophical model/therapy, as it is often perceived, and help the client come to an understanding.
“What is required is not formal explication: the task of philosopher, and of the therapist as well, is to de-repress, to reacquaint the individual with something he or she has known all along. This is precisely the reason that many of the leading existential thinkers (for example, Jean-Paul Satre, Albert Camus, Miguel de Unamuno, Martin Burber) prefer literary exposition rather than formal philosophical argument. Above all, the philosopher and the therapist must encourage the individual to look within and to attend to his or her existential situation.” (Yalom, 1980. p16.)
Existential Therapy is best suited for clients facing developmental issues, which can include adolescent struggles for identity, middle-aged crisis, relationship breakdowns, and where advancing toward old age. It is in the human being’s major life changes when existential questions are asked, so it is fitting that this philosophical and therapeutic modality should provide an effective way to tackle life issues.
Self-understanding/self-awareness, relationship improvement, spiritual development, mind/body awareness and integration, and personal empowerment are all amenable to Existential Therapy. It is interesting to note that so many human problems can be helped by an existential approach and this attests to the belief of Yalom that the Existential Therapy founders aim was
“…that existential key concepts and themes will become integrated into all therapeutic schools rather than existential therapy be(ing) a separate school.” (Corey, 2001. p161.)
On the downside Existential therapy is often seen as mystifying rather than demystifying human behaviour due to its complex philosophical language:
“Both beginning and advanced practitioners who are not of a philosophical turn of mind tend to find many of the existential concepts lofty and elusive. And those counsellors who do find themselves close to this philosophy are often at a loss when they attempt to apply it to practice.” (Corey, 2001. p 162.)
I suggest that the main problem with Existential Therapy is that even when completely understood by a counsellor or therapist a problem might be that telling a client that “life is just plain bloody unfair” and that is “man’s lot” and that is the “dilemma you must face if you want to move on” might not be helpful. Most clients come to counselling in pain. They may not want a philosophical discussion right now thank you.