Existential therapy is a psychotherapy heavily influenced by existential philosophy. It states that our inner conflicts are a reflection of our confrontation with the givens of existence: death, freedom, responsibility, isolation and meaninglessness.
Navigating our way through the givens of existence
Existential therapy has an unusual place in the repertoire of psychological therapies. It is a pragmatic therapy that springs from work in 19th and 20th philosophy into such abstract issues as how we embody our sense of self in relation to our social surrounding in everyday life.
It deals more with how we enact our sense of who we are than in scrutinising our thought-patterns or skills—although these issues are involved at a different level. In the negative, it deals with death, the risks of liberation from others’ expectations, isolation, responsibility, and the challenge of the meaning of life with all its paradoxes. Not exactly the same as the Monty Python film, although that does show a lot of insight into the issues!
In the positive, existential therapy is a way of looking at how we grow as individuals while we deal with things that are all-too-often denied in society, particularly independence. Following a traumatic loss of some sort, we may suddenly feel alone or alienated, and all our reference points broken from our sense of the world.
Our relationships to and with others are often what gives us a sense of meaning in our lives and when those relationships have changed suddenly or gone, we have to deal with the loss of our assumptions about life—assumptions based on what we were taught as a child and while in our society as an adult. Exploring these assumptions is one way in which existential therapy relates to other psychotherapeutic styles such as transactional analysis, schema therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, etc.
If you have suffered a major loss such as being made redundant from a career that has previously defined you who are, are suffering a shocking divorce or an empty home, have lost a child or become disabled, your sense of meaning and purpose in a world has completely changed for you: your hidden assumptions about life are laid bare and your connection to what gave you meaning has been broken.
Existential therapy addresses how you rebuild these: who you think you are, how you want to relate to other people, what you want to do with your life, how you want to live as ‘you’.
Existential therapy spurs you to authentic relationships and actions—and to disengage from inauthentic ones. It galvanises you to a continuing awareness of your freedom, your possibilities, and your choices, and the effects that they can have on you and on others. It rouses you to find and to animate your courage. It fuels you to rebuild your life, perhaps with a new sense of self. Even though we all have constraints on our lives, they are often much less than we think and we can still choose how and who we want to be with full awareness. There will only ever be one ‘you’ and it stimulates you to be the best ‘you’ possible, making your life as meaningful and clear as it can be in a life well lived.
Image credits Wikipedia — Jean-Paul Sartre