Existential vs. Person-Centred Counselling: A Critical Engagement, Page 1

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While roughly in agreement in many areas, existential and person-centred approaches to counselling each reveal weaknesses in the other as well as offering straightforward ways to augment therapeutic practice.

Brief Overview of Existential Counselling

By way of introduction, I will briefly summarize the existential approach to counselling, providing a backdrop for the more serious discussion which follows. A somewhat more detailed explanation of the existential approach can be found on the page on Existential Counselling, while the page on Person-Centred Counselling offers more details on that approach.

Underlying Theory

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 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 defence 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

The role of the existential therapist is really to facilitate the client’s own encounter with himself, to work alongside him in the job of exploring and understanding better his values, assumptions and ideals. The therapist is concerned to engage seriously with what matters most to the client, to avoid imposing her own judgements, and to help the client to elucidate and elaborate on his own perspective, with an ultimate view to the client’s being able to live life well and in his own way.

Existential counselling places great emphasis on the therapist’s responsibility to be aware of — and to question — her own biases and prejudices. The therapist must be able to set aside as much as possible her 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 her 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 his weaknesses, limitations and responsibilities as well as his strengths, opportunities and freedoms. Above all, she will value the meaning which the client creates in his 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:

  1. the physical dimension of the natural world, the body, health and illness;
  2. the social dimension of public relationships;
  3. the psychological or personal dimension, where we experience our relationship with ourselves as well as intimacy with others; and
  4. the spiritual dimension of ideals, philosophy and ultimate meaning.

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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 her 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 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.2

Theoretical Commitments and Underlying Assumptions

Authors differ in their views on the underlying assumptions of person-centred theory,3 but the central features of Carl Rogers’s own beliefs are well expressed in his major theoretical treatise (Rogers 1959), one of his main formulations of the core conditions (Rogers 1957), and the summary of the person-centred approach published very late in his life (Rogers 1986). In terms of existential counselling, several authors are available, but the most accessible resources to my knowledge are van Deurzen (2002a) and van Deurzen (2002b); van Deurzen-Smith (1997) offers some entry into the more philosophical underpinnings of the approach, including the work of several existential philosophers.

It is more than an interesting historical footnote that the philosopher probably most frequently mentioned by Rogers — and always in very approving terms — also contributes significantly to the thought underlying existential counselling: Soren Kierkegaard.4 And authors like Rollo May and Paul Tillich strongly influenced the development of both US existential thought and the person-centred approach; as van Deurzen observes, there are “obvious existential elements” in the person-centred approach (van Deurzen 2000, pp. 331). My intent, however, is not to develop historical connections between the two traditions; nor is it to paint a complete theoretical picture of either. Rather, I will pick out some specific underlying assumptions and explore them in more detail.

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