In Stress and Coping

Some words about psychotherapy and counselling (Part 2): Existential Psychotherapy.

Counsellors and psychotherapists, especially existential specialists, have discovered that they cannot cure anyone of life. Life, as someone once put it, is a terminal disease which can only be remedied by death. There are certain life events, such as immigration, bereavement of a loved one, loss of a job and many other sorts of losses that can throw even the most balanced person out of kilter. We cannot avoid the realities of human living; neither can we always bear them when they come. Life is hard, and people are not always equal to its challenges. But life is also rewarding for those who are willing to put their shoulder to the plough and carry on regardless.

Counselling and psychotherapy, at least from an existential perspective, are about helping people in finding the courage to face their predicaments and struggles. They are about helping people to bring back some passion into their lives. Paradox and passion are the bedrock and fuel of psychotherapy work and it is by opening ourselves to our full impact on the client that new purpose can be generated and sustained.

“The fundamental contribution of existential therapy is its understanding of being. The distinctive character of existential analysis is, thus, that it is concerned with ontology, the science of being, and with Dasein, the existence of this particular being sitting opposite the psychotherapist” (May, 1958, p.37).

Existential psychotherapy does not seek to cure or explain; it merely seeks to explore, describe and clarify in order to try to understand the human predicament. It aims to do so with an open mind or at least with a willingness to observe candidly the ways in which the mind is closed. The objective is to enable people to stand courageously in the tensions of life in a way that revitalizes them taking into account the context of the world in which they live.

Existential practitioners, on the whole, tend to reject systems and schools, preferring freedom and individuality. Efforts to summarize and systematize such an approach are inevitably counterproductive and, because of this, the profile of the approach can never be raised without damaging its integrity.

We are meaning-seeking creatures… who must deal with the inconvenience of being hurled into a universe that intrinsically has no meaning” (Yalom, 1999, p.5).

Thus, entering into an agreement to reveal the most intimate aspects of one’s life indicates a willingness to delve into oneself. Embarking on our existential journey requires us to be prepared to be touched and shaken by what we find on the way and to not be afraid to discover our own limitations and weaknesses, uncertainties and doubts. It is only with such an attitude of openness and wonders that we can encounter the impenetrable everyday mysteries, which take us beyond our own preoccupations and sorrows and which by confronting us with death, make us rediscover life.

Existential analysis facilitates the process of intensifying a person’s experience, expressing, articulating and clarifying it, aiming at acceptance and understanding. Existential analysis substitutes an understanding of both the past and the future as humanly meaningful in terms of choices and values. Values are seen as what we deem important and meaningful.  In infancy: love, care, nourishment; in childhood and adolescence: approval, success, status among peers and autonomy from parents; in adulthood: those which transcend the immediate situation in time and encompass past and future, extending outward toward the good of the community and the larger world. Without functional values, we are alienated from the world and lose our sense of identity, worth, and significance; there is a sense of helplessness and aimlessness. Mature values allow a person to deal effectively with reality, to empathize with others, and to form meaningful interpersonal relationships, and to be future-oriented; without an adequate system of values, people depend on things outside themselves to indicate worth and significance—status, income, possessions, prestige.

According to May (1967, p.42), “anxiety occurs because of a threat to the values a person identifies with his existence as a self…” Most anxiety comes from a threat to social, emotional and moral values the person identifies with himself.

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