Existential Therapy – what happens in a session?
Existential therapy is qualitively different from other forms of psychotherapy. It assumes that people are not sick but that symptoms indicate an individuals unique responses to life’s challenges. This might sound simple or even dismissive of the sufferer an individual has – it is not; instead it puts aside traditional notions of labelled mental ill-health and sees that we are meaning-making beings who create our own being (good and bad) through interactions in the world. Symptoms like depression, anxiety or general unhappiness are seen as experiences which we have a part in creating – which we might deny we have a part in but which are chosen unconsciously to ultimately heal ourselves.
Instead of pathologising the individual or their symptoms, the existential therapist assists the individual to identify the meaning behind their experiences. Assumptions are challenges and a client assisted to see where they are denying they have choice in their situation or failing to see where it is available. Existential themes of aloneness, uncertainty, death and the inherent choice and freedom to choose our own way of being, are highlighted and embraced. Presenting symptoms like anxiety, depression, bipolar condition and addictions are openly explored to uncover the unique and subjective meanings attributed to them by each individuals experience. Thus, the debilitating and distressing symptoms are sensitively handled to explore how they might be an individuals conscious or unconscious means of denying responsibility for their own life.
Why might someone choose the debilitating effects of depression or other traditionally labelled conditions? It seems ridiculous maybe to even suggest that someone would do this. However, what if mental health conditions were powerful signals that all is not well – that conformity to other’s expectations, contrary to our values or meaning-making result in us creating dis-ease which masquerades as depression – when it fact it is an invitation to look ourselves squarely in the eye and start choosing for ourselves? This ‘Call of Conscious’ named by the German Philosopher Heidegger presents in many forms and when it does, don’t ignore it – it is an invitation to yourself to know yourself.