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Cooper on Existential Therapies

This book achieves what it sets out to do: “to introduce readers to the rich tapestry of existential therapeutic approaches”. I found it concise and easy to read, despite the fact that it deals with some fairly complex ideas. I found much in Mick Cooper’s book of interest and have found myself using some of the therapeutic interventions he describes, with my own clients.

Rating: 4

Existential Therapies
By Mick Cooper, 2003. ISBN 0761973206. Sage Publications. 192 pages.

Cooper-Existential Therapies

I came to this book with little knowledge of existential psychotherapy or existential philosophy. I think it is fair to say the book achieves what it sets out to do: “to introduce readers to the rich tapestry of existential therapeutic approaches”. I found the book concise and easy to read, despite the fact that it deals with some fairly complex ideas.

There is a chapter introducing some of the main themes and writers of existential philosophy (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Buber, Jaspers, Tillich, Marcel, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus). This is followed by a series of chapters on different therapeutic approaches that to a greater-or-lesser extent are based in these philosophical ideas: Daseinsanalysis (Binswanger, Boss), Logotherapy (Frankl), The American Existential-Humanistic Approach (Bugental, Yalom, Schneider, May), The British School of Existential Analysis (van Deurzen-Smith, Spinelli, Cohn). There is also a chapter on the work of R.D. Laing and another on Existential Time-Limited Therapy (Strasser & Strasser).

Interestingly, as Cooper points out, several of the central figures whose work is described here, do not identify themselves as ‘existential psychotherapists’. Both Yalom and May apparently state that their practice is not existential therapy, but a “therapeutic approach informed by existential concerns”. Similarly, Laing’s approach is described by Cooper as “existentially informed”. By the end of the book I was under the (maybe correct) impression that those approaches under the existential umbrella have more to distinguish them than to unite them, even concerning central themes. To give a flavour, let me quote (p. 140):

First, there is a contrast between those therapies that encourage clients to discover the meaning and purpose of their lives (For instance, Frankl, 1986), as opposed to those approaches which encourage clients to accept that life is devoid of intrinsic meaning (for instance, Yalom, 2001). Second, there are those approaches that encourage clients to face their fundamental aloneness (for instance, Yalom, 1980), in contrast to those approaches that encourage clients to acknowledge their fundamental beingness-with-others (for instance, Cohn, 1997). Third, there are those approaches that encourage clients to face up to their existence with resolution and fortitude (for instance, May, 1958a), in contrast to those approaches that put greater emphasis on helping clients adopt an attitude of openness, contemplation and Gelassenheit (for instance Boss, 1963).

This quotation is from the chapter Dimensions of Existential Therapeutic Practice in which Cooper attempts to draw the existential approaches together into a more unified framework. He lists (on half a page) the shared therapeutic practices. These do differentiate existential therapies from classical psychodynamic psychotherapy, but don’t seem to go much beyond that. He then organizes the different existential approaches along nine dimensions such as: Directive/Non-directive, Spontaneity/Techniques, Pathologising/de-pathologising etc. This did give me a certain overview. But again, I could not really see how this unified the approaches, or indeed distinguished them — as a group — from other non-existential approaches to therapy. Maybe this is why Cooper chose to call his book Existential Therapies, rather than Existential Therapy.

Cooper does not argue in favour of any one therapeutic approach. Instead, each relevant chapter contains a short section entitled Critical Perspectives in which he introduces some of the critics of the approach discussed. This gave me a flavour of the arguments, but not really enough to start forming my own opinion on the merits or demerits of the different approaches. There are, however, references for further reading at the end of each chapter with brief comments by the author about their content and style. On the whole, I found much in Mick Cooper’s book of interest and have found myself using some of the therapeutic interventions he describes, with my own clients. As a starting point for those curious about the existential therapies, I recommend the book.