Existential therapy is aimed at dealing with people and their existence and letting them have the freedom to make choices in shaping their life. This type of therapy tries to help the client improve their self-knowledge and then helps them to make their own decisions about life (Szasz, 2005). The therapist makes the client aware that they are responsible for their own life. Existential therapist are also more focused on the present and the future and do not focus as much on the past. Although they may talk about the past, it is more as a reference to help the client learn from the past so that they can improve their present. There are six main concepts that existential therapy try to address with clients: self-awareness, freedom and responsibility, identity and relationships, anxiety, feeling of meaninglessness, and death (Szasz, 2005).
When the client learns to increase their self-awareness they learn that they chose their actions so they can basically create their own destinies. Also they become aware that they have the potential to act or not to act, it is a decision that they have to make. Some of the awareness that the therapist helps the client realize is that they are not living in the present because they are preoccupied with the past (Corey, 2005). Which in return they come to the conclusion that they are not condemned to a future similar to the past. They have to use the past and learn from it and that is the awareness that the therapist tries to show their client.
The next concept to be talked about is freedom and responsibility of the client. In existential therapy the client has full freedom to do what they may, but they also learn to take the responsibility for their actions. Clients who refuse to accept responsibility by blaming others for their problems will not profit from therapy (Szasz, 2005). The client has to learn that they shape their own lives and they are the ones making decisions for them and therefore they are responsible for what happens. The therapist is there to talk to the client about how others may influence the client’s decisions and encourage them to move towards make their own choices (Corey, 2005).
Everyone is trying to make their own identity and be someone who is unique. People also make relationships because we are naturally driven to connect with others, but we must open up to others and also care for them too or else the relationship will not last (Corey, 2005). This is where existentialist talk about loneliness because clients may see themselves as failures if they cannot develop relationships. The trouble with relying too much on relationships is that people may learn to trust their directions, values, or beliefs instead of trusting in themselves to find their own answers or values (Corey, 2005).
Existential therapy can really help clients challenge the meaning of their lives. Meaninglessness in life leads to emptiness and hollowness, or a condition that Frankl calls the existential vacuum (Corey, 2005). When dealing with a client and trying to help them with having feelings of meaninglessness, the therapist’s trust is important in teaching clients to trust their own capacity to discover a new source of values. The client may experience some major anxiety when dealing with getting rid of or altering old values. This anxiety may even get worse if they do not find appropriate ones to replace them with (Corey, 2005).
Anxiety is one of the major concepts that existential therapist’s deal with. Anxiety arises from personal strivings to survive and to maintain and assert one’s being. The feelings anxiety generates are an inevitable aspect of the human condition. Existential therapists differentiate between normal and neurotic anxiety. Normal anxiety is an appropriate response to an event being faced. Existential anxiety is a constructive form of normal anxiety and can be a stimulus for growth (Corey, 2005)
. Existentialist’s do not view death negatively and think that awareness of death as a basic human condition gives significance to living. Frankl believes that death should not be considered a threat; rather death provides the motivation for us to live our lives fully and take advantage of each opportunity to do something meaningful (Corey, 2005). When people are too afraid of death it begins to run their life and they may not do something they want to because they are scared of what might happen. With existential therapy they talk to the clients and let them know that death is not something they should be scared of and it should not run their lives.
Two important foundational theorists in existentialism were Viktor Fankl and Rollo May. Viktor Frankl called his form of existential therapy logotherapy, which is derived in part from the Greek word logos, which can mean to study word, spirit, God, or meaning. It is this last sense Frankl seems to focuse on the most, with his logotherapy Frankl postulates a will to meaning as the key motivation of the human being.
‘Frankl also uses the Greek word noös, which means mind or spirit. In traditional psychology, he suggests, we focus on “psychodynamics,” which sees people as trying to reduce psychological tension. Instead, or in addition, Frankl says we should pay attention to noödynamics, wherein tension is necessary for health, at least when it comes to meaning. People desire the tension involved in striving for some worthy goal, making the bumps in the road of life worth it for the journey.’ (Boeree, 2006)
The other important theorist, Rollo May, is for he uses some traditional existential terms slightly differently than others, and invents new words for some of existentialism’s old ideas. ‘Destiny, for example, is roughly the same as thrown-ness combined with fallen-ness.’ (Boeree, 2006) ‘It is that part of our lives that is determined for us, our raw materials, if you like, for the project of creating our lives. Another example is the word courage, which he uses more often than the traditional term “authenticity” to mean facing one’s anxiety and rising above it.’
May is also the only existential psychologist who discusses a type of staging of development. Starting with Innocence, going through rebellion, ordinary, and ending with creative. These are not stages like those of Freud or Erikson. They are different in the sense that at any given developmental stage a person may experience any of these. A child can be at the innocent, ordinary or creative stage at any given time.
Existentialism deals with people and existence. The therapy is aimed at helping a client improve and enhance their hold on choice making, freedom, and their self-knowledge. Making them responsible and capable in their own lives.
Boeree, DR. George C, Rollo May: Personality Theories, 1996, 2006 & Viktor Frankl: Personality Theories, 1998, 2006 http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/may.html
Corey, G. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling and psycotherapy . Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Szasz, T. (2005, January). What is Existential Therapy Not?. Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 16(1), 127-130. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.