Existential Theory and Therapy
- Today we’ll be focusing on existential theory and practice.
- This approach is very much about philosophy and meaning.
- Frankl (1969) noted:
“. . . man also only returns to himself, to being concerned with his self, after he has missed his mission, has failed to find meaning in life (p. 9).
Key Figures and Historical Context
- The roots of existential philosophical thought are diverse.
- Majors players in the early formulation of existentialism are:
- Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Key Figures and Historical Context II
- Jean-Paul Sartre:The Existentialist Prototype
“Freedom is existence, and in its existence precedes essence” and “Man’s essence is his existence” (Sartre, 1953, p.5).
- Viktor Frankl and the Statue of Responsibility
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” (Frankl, 1963, p. 121).
- Rollo May: From Existential Theory to Existential Practice
Key Figures and Historical Context III
- More contemporary key figures include
- James Bugental (1915–2008)
- Irvin Yalom (1931– )
- Emmy van Deurzen (1951– )
- Kirk Schneider (1953– )
- The I-Am Experience
- This is also referred to as the ontological experience.
- ‘‘Dasein choosing,’’ which is translated to the-person-who-is-responsible-for-his-existence choosing, is also used.
Theoretical Principles II
- Four Existential Ways of Being
1. Umwelt: Being with nature or the physical world.
2. Mitwelt: Being with others or the social world.
3. Eigenwelt: Being with oneself or the world of the self.
4. Uberwelt: Being with the spiritual or over world.
- The Daimonic
“The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” (May, 1969. p. 123)
Theoretical Principles III
- The Nature of Anxiety
- Normal anxiety
- Neurotic anxiety
- Normal and Neurotic Guilt
- Normal guilt is sensor
- Neurotic guilt is minimized version of normal guilt
Theoretical Principles IV
- Existential Psychodynamics
- These are also referred to as ultimate concerns:
Theoretical Principles V
“Death whirs continuously beneath the membrance of life and exerts a vast influence upon experience and conduct” (Yalom, 1980, p. 29).
Existentialist’s view: Humans are condemned to freedom, and existential therapists have followed suit by articulating the many ways in which freedom is an anxiety-laden burden (Sartre, 1971).
Theoretical Principles VI
“An unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being.” (Yalom, 1980, p. 335)
Classical existential crisis: “What is the meaning of my life?”
Theoretical Principles VII
- The question “Is life meaningful?” can be answered in many different ways:
- Dedication to a cause
Theoretical Principles VIII
- Existentialism and Pessimism
- Existentialism is often linked with depressing thoughts about life’s ultimate concerns.
- But the goal is not pessimism or depression, but to embrace life and foster hope.
Theoretical Principles IX
- Humans are always looking at themselves and engaging in self-discovery.
- Bugental (2000) stated:
“There is no final or definitive statement to be made. About psychotherapy, about human psychology, about life. We are always in the process of sketching possibilities, of discovering, of becoming.” (p. 251)
Theoretical Principles X
- Theory of Psychopathology
- Emotional numbness or automation living
- Avoidance of one’s anxiety, guilt, or other meaningful emotions
- Avoidance of inner daimonic impulses.
- Failure to acknowledge and reconcile life’s ultimate concerns
The Practice of Existential Therapy
- A Word (or Two) on Specific Therapy Techniques
- Existential practitioners are generally reluctant to discuss therapy techniques because technical interventions are viewed as artificial or phony.
- The I-Thou interpersonal existential encounter is viewed as the change agent and not technique.
The Practice of Existential Therapy II
- Forming an I-Thou Relationship and Using It for Positive Change
The Practice of Existential Therapy III
- Personal Responsibility
- Empathic Mirroring and Focusing
- Topical focus (take a moment to see what’s present for you).
- Topical expansion (tell me more).
- Content-process discrepancies (you say you are fine, but your face is downcast).
The Practice of Existential Therapy IV
- Feedback and Confrontation
- Without a strong therapeutic connection or alliance, feedback and confrontation can be too painful to integrate.
- Buddhist approach
The Practice of Existential Therapy V
- Existential Therapy Techniques
- Paradoxical intention
- Cognitive reframing
- Awareness and Existential Integration
- Constriction, expansion, and centering
Cultural and Gender Considerations
- Existential therapy continues its paradoxical preoccupation with polarities.
- Some view it as culturally and gender insensitive.
“Only in existentialism and the movies do people possess unlimited freedom, construct their own meanings and execute boundless choices. Save it for the wealthy, worried well.” (Prochaska & Norcross, 2003, p. 133)
- Others view it and enact it in a way that is exceptionally respectful of the individual.
- “The existential movement in psychiatry and psychology arose precisely out of a passion to be not less but more empirical.” (May, 1983)
- There is a small amount of empirical research supporting existential group therapy.
- Wampold (2008) noted that Existential Integrative Psychotherapy is scientific.
- Existential therapy is about finding meaning. It’s about facing the fact that we die and often we feel very much alone.
- “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver).