‘Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice’ offers a remarkably accessible introduction to existential work which will be of interest both to practitioners and to clients evaluating this approach.
Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice, 2nd Edition
By Emmy van Deurzen, 2002. ISBN 0761962247. Sage. 239 pages.
I admit that I did not expect to like this book, a slightly updated and retitled second edition of van Deurzen’s 1987 Existential Counselling in Practice. Having never read van Deurzen before, I had wrongly assumed that her exploration of existential counselling would be heavy with the same kind of theoretical language I associate with many writers in existential and phenomenological philosophy — language which, for me, anyway, serves more often to obfuscate than to stimulate insight. I could not have been more wrong.
Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice provides, instead, a refreshingly down-to-Earth treatment of its topic that will be accessible to practitioners, students, and prospective clients considering the existential approach. Organized into 6 main chapters and a brief conclusion, the book covers the basic aims and approach of existential counselling, the starting points of working with a client, the exploration of a client’s worldview and the taking stock of her life, and developments in the later stages of the therapeutic relationship. Van Deurzen’s chapter on ‘Creative Explorations’ delves into areas like dreams and imagination which will feature throughout the therapeutic relationship. The most obvious change from the first edition is the addition of short summaries at the end of each chapter. An evident tendency toward what I call ‘rolling stone’ writing — repeating many of the same ideas in slightly different ways, like a stone rolling back and forth over the same patch of ground — represents what is perhaps the single concession to the linguistic habits of some Continental philosophers whose work forms a backdrop for existential counselling.
The book is packed with case examples illustrating the existential approach at work, and these demonstrate clearly the value of existential counselling in a very wide range of settings.
What is Existential Counselling?
Nowhere in this book does van Deurzen offer a straightforward bullet point summary of the main features or aims of existential counselling. However, the ‘rolling stone’s tyle makes it fairly easy to extract and summarize some of its salient features, even at the cost of missing some nuances and subtelties carried by van Deurzen’s own re-expressions of ideas from varying angles.
First and foremost, existential counselling is “a process of exploration of the value and meaning that an individual can find in her life” (p. 31). Crucially, the emphasis is on the client’s identification of value and meaning. The point is not for the therapist to provide meaning, but for the client to identify, elucidate and elaborate on her own values, priorities and ideals, and to gain in the ability to live authentically — i.e., in a way that is informed and motivated by them and true to herself. Clients are encouraged to examine their assumptions and their underlying value systems, but this investigation is not of the dry, intellectual variety. Rather, it is best characterized as reflection and a deliberate movement toward increased awareness. As van Deurzen describes this exploration,
â€¦it involves deep thinking about one’s way of being so as to reach to an inwardness, which will become the core of one’s actions and outward relations. This thinking is not the thinking of cerebral analysis, but the thinking of reflective attention to what is already there; it bears great similarity with meditationâ€¦ Bringing to light in oneself what is already there is a matter of paying attention and respect to oneself and it is not dependent on having a high IQ. (pp. 168-169)
The existential approach also emphasizes awareness of the ‘boundary conditions’, or ‘givens’ of an individual’s life, such as the individual client’s limitations and weaknesses, her obligations and responsibilities and, ultimately, the fact that she is going to die. Mortality and change occupy very important places in this existential context. Existential counselling takes change and transformation as an inherent part of living and takes death as the ultimate boundary condition; a client’s own personal way of relating to this essential change and to her own ultimate death is deemed to be of great importance:
Progress, from an existential perspective, is seen as leading to the ability to live in time. Living in time is that mode of existence where people are aware of their own inevitable progression from birth to death. This progression is not avoidable and therefore change and transformation are not avoidable. Progress is therefore defined as the gracious reception and active governing of one’s process of ageing and transformation. (p. 199)
In one of the book’s more profound sentences, van Deurzen says simply, “Awareness of the nothingness that one came from and the nothingness one is heading for will be a constant reminder of the relative freedom of the moment” (p. 200).
Contact Points With Other Approaches
This book does not by any means set out to be a comparative study, but nonetheless some interesting points of contact with other traditions are touched upon briefly. For example, van Deurzen explicitly contrasts the existential approach with cognitive therapies:
Although many cognitive approaches emphasize the importance of examining assumptions, all too often the assumptions are then either seen as the negative result of some learning process which needs to be corrected, or they are simply challenged as wrong. The existential method seeks to encourage clients into further examination of their assumptions and their underlying value system. What ultimately matters in existential work is to determine what it is that really matters to the clients, not what ought to matter to them. (p. 106)
Without van Deurzen’s mentioning it directly, I couldn’t help but think of rational emotive behaviour therapy when she indicates that,
Throughout the therapeutic sessions clients will refer to their pasts as the cause of their current troubles. They will present themselves often as moulded by certain events or experiences. At first it will be simply necessary to draw attention to the way in which they are presenting themselves to the world in doing this. (p. 200)
She follows shortly thereafter, differentiating the existential approach from rational emotive behaviour therapy:
There is no need to insist that the client take responsibility for her active part in the construction of her reality. She has a perfect right not to take responsibility as long as she does not want to do so. (p. 201)
The general cloud of ‘humanistic’ approaches elicits comment from van Deurzen perhaps more frequently than any other, usually in a way indicating van Deurzen is skeptical that humanistic approaches offer a balanced approach to the human condition. For instance, early on van Deurzen suggests that, “The humanistic stance puts the accent on human freedom and choice at the expense of a healthy recognition of its counterpart of necessity and determinism” (p. 12). And later,
The humanistic practitioner might simply seek to encourage the client in the exploration of her potential. She will feel confident that increased awareness of the internal process will be a gain and will lead to growth and positive change. The existential practitioner will be less certain of human goodness and she will take into account people’s weaknesses as well as their strengths. Cultivation of intense emotional release for the sake of catharsis is not an aim of the existential approach. (p. 51)
In what she views as another contrast with humanistic approaches, van Deurzen is frequently at pains to point out that what is on offer from the existential therapist is not primarily sympathy or other forms of emotional involvement, but an open mind and disciplined assistance in exploring and understanding the client’s life and way of being.
Unsurprisingly, various comments peppered throughout the rest of the book also suggest van Deurzen is not particularly enamoured of psychoanalytic/psychodynamic approaches.
Overall, it is difficult to find much to quarrel with in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice. As a book which sets out to provide a practical and concrete framework for existential therapy, it succeeds admirably. If there is any criticism to be made, it is on a side issue which is not central to the book’s task: namely, many of van Deurzen’s critical comments seemingly intended primarily to contrast the existential approach with other traditions may strike some readers as superficial disparagement. The author does not make it clear whether she declines to engage more seriously with other traditions because of a deliberate judgement that doing so might detract from her main project (which I suspect is the case), or whether she simply does not bring enough depth of familiarity with those traditions to do an adequate job of such engagement.
This minor complaint aside, however, the book remains a valuable addition to the literature and offers a clear and accessible introduction to an increasingly important branch of counselling and psychotherapy. Both thought-provoking and inspiring, I have found it a welcome addition to my own library.
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