Existential Therapy and Its Emergence

Existential Therapy is more a way of thinking, or an attitude towards psychotherapy, than a particular style of practicing psychotherapy. It can be best described as a philosophical approach that influences the counsellor's therapeutic approach. Irvin Yalom, who is one of the pioneers of this school of therapy reinforces this when he says, "Existential Psychotherapy is an attitude towards human suffering that has no manual." It focuses on exploring themes such as morality, meaning, freedom, responsibility, anxiety and aloneness as these relate to a person's current situation/struggle.


Existential Therapy was not founded by any particular person or group. Many streams of thought contributed to it. It arose spontaneously in different parts of Europe in the 1940s and 50s drawing from a major orientation in philosophy. Many Europeans found that their lives had been devastated by WWII, and they struggled with existential issues including feelings of isolation, alienation, and meaninglessness. Early writers focused on the individual's experience of being alone in the world and facing the anxiety of this situation. Some of the most influential philosophers and writers of this concept were Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. These major figures of existentialism and existential phenomenology and their cultural, philosophical and religious writings provided the basis for the formation of existential therapy.


In his book, “Man's Search for Meaning”, when opening the chapter on Logotherapy (a branch of existential therapy), Viktor Frankl, another pioneer in the field, recounts the episode of an American doctor who asked him to explain the concept of Logotherapy in one line, especially in comparison to Psychoanalysis. Viktor Frankl asks the doctor to first explain psychoanalysis in one line, to which the doctor says, "During psychoanalysis, the patient must lie down on a couch and tell you things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell." To this Frankl responds by saying, "Now, in Logotherapy, the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear."


The goal of the therapy, therefore, is to assist clients in their exploration of the existential 'givens of life' and how sometimes they are ignored, denied or taken for granted and how addressing them can ultimately lead to a deeper, more reflective and meaningful existence. It rejects the deterministic view of human nature that is espoused by the more traditional schools of psychotherapy. It is grounded on the assumption that we are free and therefore responsible for our choices and actions. We are the authors of our lives and we design the pathways we follow.


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