Existential approaches to counselling and psychotherapy focus on exploring the challenges and paradoxes of human existence, rather than psychopathology.
Underlying Theory of Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy
Largely dispensing with psychological constructs and theories about personality, the existential approach characterizes human beings as creatures of continual change and transformation, living essentially finite lives in a context of personal strengths and weaknesses as well as opportunities and limitations created by their environment. With attention given to this entire context of the client’s life, the existential approach is all about exploring meaning and value and learning to live authentically — that is, in accordance with one’s own ideals, priorities and values. Authentic living means being true to oneself and honest about one’s own possibilities and limitations, continually creating one’s own identity even in the face of deep uncertainty about everything in the future except for the eventual arrival of our own death. Authentic living means living deliberately, rather than by default.
Psychological health, from an existential perspective, is characterized by an ability to navigate the complexities of one’s own life, the world, and one’s relationships with the world. Disturbance, on the other hand, is taken as the outcome of avoiding life’s truths and of working under the shadow of other people’s expectations and values. Self deception about these factors provides a powerful psychological defense mechanism. Existential counselling maintains that disturbance is an inevitable experience for virtually everyone; the question is not so much how to avoid it as it is how to face it with openness and a willingness to engage with life rather than a tendency to retreat, withdraw or refrain from responsibility.
Therapeutic Approach of Existential Counselling
The role of the existential therapist is really to facilitate the client’s own encounter with themselves, to work alongside them in the job of exploring and understanding better the client’s values, assumptions and ideals. The therapist is concerned to engage seriously with what matters most to the client, to avoid imposing their own judgements, and to help the client to elucidate and elaborate on their own perspective, with an ultimate view to the client’s being able to live life well and in their own way.
Great emphasis is placed on the therapist’s responsibility to be aware of — and to question — their own biases and prejudices. The therapist must be self aware and able to set aside as much as possible their pre-conceptions and to encounter the client’s world with an open mind. The therapist brings a sort of deliberate naivete to the therapeutic relationship, with a goal of understanding the client’s meaning rather than their own and recognizing the client’s assumptions and underlying life themes with a clarity which the client may not yet be able to muster. The therapist will be sensitive to and help the client explore their weaknesses, limitations and responsibilities as well as their strengths, opportunities and freedoms. Above all, they will value the meaning which the client creates in their own emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and personal history.
In the course of exploring the client’s world, the therapist may appeal to a 4-part framework encompassing the client’s existence in the physical dimension of the natural world, the body, health and illness; the social dimension of public relationships; the psychological or personal dimension, where we experience our relationship with ourselves as well as intimacy with others; and the spiritual dimension of ideals, philosophy and ultimate meaning. Crucially, however, this framework of four dimensions is not imposed on the client by the therapist; it simply informs the therapist’s understanding of the client’s world so that, for instance, if a client never mentioned intimate relationships, the therapist would become aware of a deficiency in their understanding of the client’s personal dimension.
The existential approach seeks clarity and meaning in all these dimensions and thus, in a sense, it begins with a significantly broader view of human existence than those approaches which focus on specific psychological mechanisms or which focus on the self as a meaningful entity, separable from its relations and interactions with the surrounding world.
Criticisms of Existential Counselling
Although sometimes criticised for ‘intellectualizing’ the client’s life situation, this characterization is on target only to the extent that reflection, self examination, and self awareness are ‘intellectual’ activities. As one leading author puts it, “The approach is not about intellectualizing, but about verbalizing the basic impressions, ideas, intuitions and feelings a person has about life”.
Nonetheless, as discussed below, this quality of existential counselling means that it is perhaps more narrow than some other approaches in terms of the client set whose concerns it can most successfully address. (Of course this criticism cuts both ways, and many other approaches may be less able to help clients who specifically approach life with something like the spirit favoured by existential counselling.)
Best Fit With Clients
Generally speaking, clients who view their problems as challenges of living, rather than symptoms of psychopathology, and clients who are genuinely attracted to increasing self awareness and self examination, will be well served by existential counselling. The approach will appeal to clients who are interested in the search for meaning and in deeply personal philosophical investigations. The approach is well suited to those who are attempting to clarify their own personal ideology and/or those who are facing significant personal adversity or change; some existential practitioners suggest the approach is particularly appropriate for those who feel at the very edge of existence, including those with terminal illnesses or who are contemplating suicide, or perhaps those who are just beginning a new phase of life in some way.
Clients who are less inclined to examine and explore their personal assumptions and ideals, or who would like to achieve immediate relief of specific psychological symptoms — as well as those who would like advice or diagnosis from their counsellor — will probably find less value in existential counselling.
Unfortunately, a clear empirical picture of factors influencing efficacy in existential counselling has not yet emerged in the research literature.
Further Reading on Existential Counselling
Our annotated bibliography contains pointers to additional reading on this and other therapeutic approaches. One of the most accessible book-length treatments of this area is Emmy van Deurzen’s Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice, which is reviewed here at this site. The quotation about existential counselling and intellectualizing is from van Deurzen (2002b), p. 189.
A separate paper (“Existential vs. Person-Centred — Critical Engagement”) critically compares person-centred and existential counselling.