A lot of clients want to understand or gain a bit of background into what existentialism and existential theory is and how it relates to therapy or coaching. In this blog, I have very broadly given the definitions and background to existential theory, so please bear in mind there is a lot that has not been included, including how existentialism actually works in a therapy or coaching session. In time, I will be looking more into the various parts of existentialism and existential therapy, but for now, I hope this gives you a brief overview of what it actually is and where it stems from.
Existential theory can be described as very philosophical in nature, with its perspectives based on some of the most basic questions us humans tend to ask ourselves, such as “what is the point of life?” (Vos, Craig & Cooper, 2014). Psychopathology, or mental distress, is believed to occur when a person who is struggling has a lack of awareness or answers to these existential questions. Therefore, the goal of existential therapy is to help the client develop their awareness and start to take responsibility for their choices and lives (Corey, 2021). Some of the major contributors to this theory were Viktor Frankl with his Logotherapy, Rollo May with his work on existential anxiety, and Irvin Yalom with his work on the existential approaches to psychotherapy (Corey, 2021). Others include James Bugental, who developed his therapies around the idea of resistance, or the push against being fully present and aware, as well as Emmy Van Deurzen who has made a large impact to the modern existential therapy space (Corey, 2021).
Existential Therapy is phenomenological (how we perceive and give meaning to phenomena) in nature, implying that the worldviews, perspectives, and experiences of the client are at the centre of understanding and meaning.
Existential therapy is described as based on six philosophical assumptions (Vos et al. 2014. pp. 1, 2): “1. Human beings are orientated to, and have a need for, meaning and purpose; 2. Human beings have a capacity for freedom and choice, and function most effectively when they actualise this potential and take responsibility for their lives; 3. Human beings will inevitably face limitations and challenges in their lives, and function most effectively when they face to – rather than avoid or deny – these givens; 4. The subjective, phenomenological flow of the individual’s experiencing — including all senses, both negative and positive experiences – is a key aspect of being human, and therefore a central focus for psychotherapeutic work; 5. Human experiencing is fundamentally inter-related with – rather than separate from – the experiencing of other human beings and with its world”. Through these assumptions we can understand existential therapy as a Humanistic in nature, and therapists must empower clients to take control and responsibility of their lives and their human experiences, instead of being disabled or defeated by them. This is an incredibly empowering journey that we go on through our sessions.
There are several different schools of practice within existential therapy including Daseinanalysis; Existential-Phenomenological Therapy; Existential-Humanistic and Existential-Integrative Therapy; and Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (van Deurzen et al., 2019). Daseinanalysis is said to be existential therapy’s first systematic approach created by psychiatrists Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss around 1963 (van Deurzen et al., 2019). The German word “Dasein” can be translated into existence, being or presence (van Deurzen et al., 2019), “Daseinanalysis” thus translating to “the analysis of a human being”, or more clearly, what it means to be human (van Deurzen et al., 2019. p. 33). The concept of “being” was then described into three different meanings: 1. particular being, meaning the concrete ways of being in the present moment, in our current environment; 2. Being-ness, referring to those things that make us human; and 3. Beingness-as-such, which posits the question “what does it mean to be human?” (van Deurzen et al., 2019.). Daseinanalysis aims to allow for the freedom and depth of language and conversation within the therapeutic setting, focusing on the foundations of what it means to be human from the clients perspectives (Corey, 2021).
The second school of thought is Existential-Phenomenological Therapy which has it’s foundations firmly in philosophical schools of thought. The phenomenological side of this therapy aims to describe the clients experience (the phenomenon) of existing from their own perspectives (van Deurzen et al., 2019. p. 133).
The third school of thought is Existential-Humanistic and Existential-Integrative Therapy. This school of therapy aims to help a client to gain freedom from their self-imposed restrictions by taking responsibility for their choices or non-choices, becoming fully aware, and building meaning (van Deurzen et al., 2019. p. 231, 232).
The fourth school of thought, Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, is based on giving life and our lived experiences meaning and purpose (van Deurzen et al., 2019. p. 231, 305). Logotherapy and Existential Analysis is a holistic, person-cantered type therapy that aims to help clients take back control of their lives, promote self-awareness, and enable them to make decisions that are authentic and having meaning to them (van Deurzen et al., 2019. p. 319).
It is important to note that Existential therapy is dynamic in nature, and often no one particular school of thought is followed exactly, but instead are utilised and moulded as needed for each individual client – for no one person see’s, experiences, or gives meaning to life the way YOU do.
I hope this allowed a bit more understanding on the background and general basis of Existentialism. Look out for future blogs where I will be going more in depth on the various parts of existentialism and how an existential coaching session might look.
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Vos, J., Craig, M., & Cooper, M. (2014). Existential therapies: A meta-analysis of their effects on psychological outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(1), 115-128. doi: 10.1037/a0037167
Corey, G.T. (2021). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy: A South African Perspective (3rd ed). Cengage.
van Deurzen, E., Craig, E., Längle, A., Schneider, K. J., Tantam, D., & du Plock, S. (Eds.). (2019). The Wiley world handbook of existential therapy. Wiley Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119167198