Existential Psychotherapy – Values & Assumptions underpinning practice

Existential Psychotherapy – Values & Assumptions underpinning practice

Existential psychotherapy and counselling is based on the principles of existential philosophy.  However,  anyone who has grappled with the concepts of existential philosophy will appreciate the difficulty of applying it to their own life, yet alone the psychotherapeutic relationship. The writings of Nietzsche, Sartre or Heidegger for example, whilst original and innovative, are complex and difficult to grasp. Their ideas also challenge the premise on which much of Western thinking is based. Sartre suggested that ‘Existence precedes Essence’ and that we are free to create ourselves in any way we wish. Heidegger, contrary to Cartesian Dualistic ideas, offered the concept of Dasein – we are an existent, ‘thrown’ into a world not of our own choosing and challenged to respond to the ‘Call of Conscience’ – to authentically engage with what it is ‘to be’.

Clearly our values and personal philosophy of life influence our choices in life and, as psychotherapists, our choice of therapy and the modality within which we work. These values and beliefs subtly influence how psychotherapists think ‘people tick’ and what they need to do to feel better. Whatever our modality, psychotherapy is something about increasing wellbeing.

What are the values and philosophical assumptions underpinning existential psychotherapy?

We have choice and free will

We are doomed to choose. In our own lives and with our clients, we see examples of denying this and also never tapping into the wide array of options available to us. We say ‘’I can’t do this’’ Ï shouldn’t do this’’ – all examples of denying the freedom we have – ultimately to be who we want to be.  In an attempt to make sense of the infinite possibilities of life, we create myths or unquestioned assumptions which hoodwink us into believing there is an objective world.  In The Myths of Life and The Choices We Have (2005), I examine how myth develops and limit our potential to choose our own being.

Intrinsic Flexibility of human nature

We create our reality and ourselves by being-in-relation to others. This means it is possible to make sense of life by engaging with this reality. We create our reality and ourselves by being-in-relation to others/things. We are not fixed but beings-in-relation who experience the world through Intentional Acts.

There are limitations to our freedom

We do not have unlimited freedom to choose but are bounded by our circumstances and social, physical and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Existential psychotherapy is a philosophical endeavour

It is a tutorial in the art of living as Van Deurzen (1997) says. It is not about pathologising and considering people to be sick but struggling with the very problem of living and making sense of their particular circumstances.

Focus on problems of living and not personality problems

Existential psychotherapy does not focus on personality differences and approaches in trying to understand a client’s behaviour.  In fact, existential psychotherapists are not there to understand their clients – they assist their clients in understanding their own worlds and use themselves as an instrument to reveal that to clients.  They also focus on the Ontic, lived experience of the client within Ontological givens to which the therapist is also subject.

The goal of existential psychotherapy is Authenticity

Authenticity is a Heideggerian concept that is not to do with being genuine or truthful but embracing the concept of Dasein or ‘being there’.

Individuals are unique and their way of seeing the world is valuable

Focus on the individual’s subjective world is key in existential psychotherapy and the therapist is trained to assist the client in understanding further their worldview, and valuing it, even if it is considered to be destructive or contrary to social or cultural norms.

Therapists face the same challenges of living that the clients face

Existential psychotherapy is not about identifying and modifying aspects of an individual’s self or behaviour.  Therapists start from the premise that we are all ‘at life’ and subject to ontological given e.g. birth, death, relatedness, existential angst, choice, freedom.  Our ontic experience is how we live against the backcloth of these ubiquitous existential givens.

Therapists as a Self is changed in the process of conducting psychotherapy

Psychotherapists are changed in the process of working with clients and a client that visits one therapist will be different from the same one who visits another therapist.  As existents in the world, we are co-constructed and do not exist in isolation.  Not only will the story and content shared with another therapist be different, but phenomenologically the person exists only as a function of their co-construction in the counselling relationship. Thus the client – and therapist – are unique and the stories which emerge are also unique, in how they are given and in how they are received.

We alone are responsible for choosing how to be

Because we must all choose our being (even if we choose not to choose), we must take responsibility for those choices and see our part in creating the lives we lead.  This can be challenging for many people who might appeal to external forces to explain their or others’ behaviour.  Existential psychotherapy serves to empower clients to identify and own how they create everything in their lives.

Mann, C.E. (2005) The Myths of Life and The Choices We Have. Australia: Koromiko Publishing.
Van Deurzen-Smith, E. (1997) Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy. UK: Routledge