Existential Psychotherapy

Existential psychotherapy is a form of psychotherapy based on the existential philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries and has been developed as a therapeutic school under Otto Rank.

According to existential psychotherapy, people are unhappy and live in an unauthentic manner due to the fact that they are permanently under the pressure of existential anguish. According to Yalom (1980), one of the most highly regarded exponents of contemporary psychotherapy, the anguish is caused by the inevitability of death, the concept of freedom, the responsibility for one’s own existence and, finally, by the feeling of a supreme meaningless (Diamond, 2009).

These preoccupations are analogous to the four dimensions of human existence – physical, social, personal, and spiritual and the problems that arise in one of these dimensions turn out to be when thoroughly analyzed, most probably caused by its respective anguish.

History

Existential therapy was founded as an orientation at the beginning of the 20th century, when Otto Rank, Freud’s student, broke off from his mentor and started analyzing patients in a new way, that places greater importance on the personal and spiritual dimensions of the individual. The principles of his analysis had their roots in the thinking of great existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, or Sartre. According to existentialist theory, people are constantly in a state of anguish, and the need for believing in God or in science are ways of coping with anxiety. People do not really need morals (Nietzsche, Husserl) and, in order to get rid of anxiety, they should have the courage and the freedom to explore the world and themselves without prejudice, through their own means of analysis and their own understanding of the world.

The principles of existential psychotherapy

People are fundamentally alone in the world, yet they still have a burning need to be with others. People need a purpose in their lives, yet they come to the realization that there is no supreme purpose to existence, and this brings on anxiety. People have a need to be appreciated, to feel that they have a purpose in the world and for those around them. This need for validation cannot, however, do anything for them but harm because they seek an external validation that will never be sufficient in the absence of internal validation. Psychological dysfunctions are explained through a heightening of anguish when confronted with the four major existential problems (death, freedom, responsibility, and meaning) up to the point where it can no longer be managed by the individual alone.

In order to live a healthy, satisfying life, people need to accept their condition and live their lives as a wonderful exercise in freedom, in which they can do whatever they like and be whatever they want as long as there is no destiny or universal purpose. Accepting the idea of an inevitable demise, of a fundamental solitude, but also of the freedom to live the way you choose and of a responsibility for your own life and actions is the only way through which people can make their existence not simply bearable, but even valuable to themselves and those around.

The three modes of the world

According to May, Angel & Ellenberger (1958), existential analysts take into account three dimensions of the world: world-around (umwelt), the environment or the biological world, with-world (mitwelt), the world of being of one’s own kind (humanity) and own-world (eigenwelt), the mode of the relationship to one’s self.

Furthermore, May et al. (1958) believe that anxiety can be caused by any of the dimensions of the individual and, avoiding living in the present moment, may increase that anxiety. By confronting and exploring it, the individual comes to transcend the anxiety and enrich his/her life experience (Dasein).

Is it for me?

Existential therapy is focused on the present moment and attributes minimal importance to the past. Even though it does not dismiss life experience, values internalized in the past, or the fact that people from our childhood influence our life views, existential therapy has the purpose of connecting the client to who he/she really is now, in the present moment and to what he/she can do in the future for a better life. The healing comes as a result of connecting the client to his subjective way of perceiving the world and of making the client accept this personal way and not through forcing the client to accept reality for what it is.

Existential therapy believes that there is no complete objectivity for humans, and to encourage them to search for it is only a way of encouraging their anxiety towards life.

Thus, if you are somebody who wants an innovative therapy oriented on results, that does not set out to dig up your past in order to exorcise your personal demons, a therapy that rather teaches you to accept your fear, your anxiety, and your pain towards life (which is inevitably difficult and naturally causes anxiety), it could be that existential therapy would fit perfectly with you and would help you with changing your existence for the better.

If you want to learn more about what psychology can do for you, visit Estadt Psychological Services.

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