Existential psychotherapy is a unique style of therapy that puts emphasis on the human condition as a whole. Existential psychotherapy uses a positive approach that applauds human capacities while simultaneously maintaining a genuine perception of the limitations of the human being, human spirit, and human mind. Existential psychotherapy was developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rollo May, James Bugental, Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, Kirk Schneider, Stephen Diamond, and Myrtle Heery. Existential psychotherapy shares many similarities with humanistic psychology, experiential psychotherapy, depth psychotherapy, and relational psychotherapy.
Existential therapy developed from the philosophy of Nietzche and Kierkegaard beginning in the early 1800’s. Kierkegaard theorized that human discontent could only be overcome through internal wisdom. Nietzche further developed the theory of existentialism by introducing the idea of free will and personal responsibility. In the early 1900’s, philosophers such as Heidegger and Sartre, began to explore the role of investigation and interpretation in the healing process. Over the next several decades, other contemporaries started to acknowledge the importance of experiencing in relation to understanding as a method to achieving psychological wellness and balance.
Otto Frank was among the first existential therapists to actively pursue the discipline in the middle of the 21st century, followed by Ludwig Binswanger. Soon after, psychologists Paul Tillich and Rollo May brought existential therapy into the mainstream through their writings and teachings. In the late 1900’s, the popular approach began to influence other theories, including humanistic psychology and logotherapy. At the same time, British philosophers expanded existentialism further with the foundation of The Philadelphia Association, an organization dedicated to helping people manage their mental illness with experiential therapies. Other institutions that embody the theory of existentialism include the Society for Existential Analysis, founded in 1988, and the International Community of Existential Counselors, created in 2006.
Existential psychotherapy encourages people to address the emotional issues they face through full engagement and to take responsibility for the decisions that caused them to develop. People who undergo this form of therapy are guided to accept their fears and are given the skills necessary to overcome them through action. By gaining control of the direction of their life, the client is able to design the course of his or her choosing. This creates in the client a sense of liberation and a feeling of letting go of the despair associated with insignificance and meaningless. Existential Psychotherapy involves teaching the client to give birth to, grow, and embrace his or her own life and to exist in it with wonder and curiosity. By doing so, a client is able to view his or her life experience as a journey rather than a trial, and can eradicate the fear associated with death.
Therapists who practice existential psychotherapy do not focus on the client’s past, rather they work with the client to discover and explore the choices that lie before him or her. Through retrospection, the client and therapist work to understand the implications of the past choices and the beliefs that led those to take place, only as a means to shift to the goal of creating a keener insight into oneself. The emphasis never dwells on the past, but uses the past experience as a tool to promote freedom and newfound assertiveness. By coming to the realization that they are not unique and destined for a specific purpose, the client is allowed to release the obligatory chains that encumbered him or her from existing in fullness from moment to moment. When that happens, he or she is truly free.
Last updated: 01-15-2014
Existential Psychotherapy Articles