The movement of Existentialism started with philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in 19th Century. The philosophy puts forward the idea that each individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to life, and living it passionately and authentically, but in order to truly achieve this one has to face the reality of what it means to be a human being and exist in this world.
Existential Psychotherapy helps individuals make a serious enquiry into what it means to be human, which often involves facing up to aspects of humanity that are ordinarily avoided and evaded such as death, freedom, existential isolation and meaninglessness. At some level we are aware of these aspects of our existence but our denial of them at a conscious level may cause distress and be expressed through mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and other common problems.
A central tenet of Existential Psychotherapy is that having meaning in one’s life can make existence more tolerable in the face of suffering. A book that powerfully demonstrates this is Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl wrote about his experience in the Holocaust and described how those who could hold on to a meaning, a reason, or a purpose to get through their suffering could, at times, find the strength to hold on to life even in the most terrible of circumstances and survive. Hence his use of Nietzsche’s quote:
“He who has a Why can bear almost any How.”
In a world where suffering is commonplace and finding meaning in this is challenging it is the existential therapist’s role to support the clients to make sense of life through the willingness to face it and its problems. Ultimately the goal is to help an individual explore what it is to be human and within the limitations and contradictions this brings, live more authentically and purposefully.
There is not an author I have found who has explained Existential Psychotherapy in such a precise and eloquent manner as Dr. Irvin Yalom. Yalom states that Existential therapy is different to other models of therapy as it puts forward the idea “that individuals fall into despair because of their confrontation with the pain inherent in the human condition. Individuals have pain not only because of unbridled destructive drives, not only because of parents who were too caught up in their own pain and neurotic struggles to provide the child the necessary support and cherishment, not only because of half-forgotten shards of traumatic experiences, not only because of current interpersonal, economic, occupational stress, but also because of the anxiety inherent in the raw facts of existence. What are these raw facts? That we are mortal, that we face inevitable death, that we enter and leave existence alone, that we are, to a greater extent than we realize, the authors of our life design and of the shape of reality itself, and that we are, by nature, meaning-seeking creatures, who have the misfortune to be thrown into a universe without any intrinsic meaning and hence must set about constructing our own meaning – one strong enough to support a life.”Losing meaning in one’s life, being faced with life-changing decisions, loneliness and/or facing up to the reality of our finiteness are common causes of anxiety and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. It is through Existential Psychotherapy these can be explored and help an individual be empowered and begin to live their more authentically. If you feel you would benefit from this type of therapy do not hesitate to get in touch.