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Technique of the Week: Existential Therapy

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Existential therapy is a form of therapy focused around a humanistic approach. This type of therapy recognizes both a human’s capabilities and limitations (“Existential Psychotherapy”, 2019), and stresses the importance of self-determination, free will, and finding meaning in life (“Existential Therapy | Psychology Today Canada”). It is as a therapy that aims to better understand clients’ lived experiences and what they mean, as well as exploring the client’s implicit understanding of them (Walsh & McEwain, 2002).

Not only does existential therapy help better understand and alleviate negative emotional symptoms such as anger, guilt, rage, resentment, depression, and more, but it also emphasizes the importance of experiences such as love, relationships, courage, acceptance, caring, and self-actualization to try and improve a client’s sense of self-awareness and help them develop a better understanding of themselves (“Existential Therapy | Psychology Today Canada”). Here is what you need to know about existential therapy.

How Existential Therapy Developed from Philosophy to Modern Technique

The root of the concept of existential therapy can be traced back to two famous philosophers, both of whom had theories that would help with the technique’s development. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard posited that internal wisdom could be used to overcome human dissatisfaction, while German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would later use concepts like personal responsibility and will power to further develop the concept of existentialism (“Existential Psychotherapy”, 2019). Following this, the importance of experience in helping someone achieve wellness became increasingly acknowledged, and psychoanalyst Otto Rank would become one of the first active existential therapists (“Existential Psychotherapy”, 2019). A counselling therapist interested in existential therapy may find it interesting that the theory of existentialism began gaining momentum during the Great Depression and World War II, as these were two events challenged that many people’s ideas of whether a “natural order” could control our very existence (Ackerman, 2019).

Part of existential therapy is accepting and overcoming life’s various anxieties

Philosopher Paul Tillich also described existential psychotherapy as being a concept that tackles life’s “ultimate concerns” such as meaninglessness, loneliness, and suffering (“Existential Therapy | Psychology Today Canada”). Existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom has also said the most universal concerns in a person’s experience are death, emptiness, freedom, and isolation (“Existential Therapy | Psychology Today Canada”). As a whole, existentialism is built on the idea that there is no inherent meaning in the world, and that the individual is the one who derives any such meaning from it (Ackerman, 2019). Furthermore, it suggests that individuals are free and responsible enough to make decisions for themselves, and depending on others to make such choices impedes their personal development (Ackerman, 2019).

What Students in Therapist College Programs Should Know About How it Works

The concept of existential therapy (also known as existential psychotherapy) emphasizes four different ideas: the presence of anxiety as part of the human condition; the idea that everyone has a unique identity that needs to be better understood through interpersonal relationships; the need for people to frequently reinvent themselves due to the meaning of life itself often changing; and the capacity for self-awareness held by all people (“Existential Therapy | Psychology Today Canada”). Existential therapy has been considered effective for treating emotional and psychological dysfunctions over life anxieties, which can include conditions such as depression, addiction, and substance abuse (Ackerman, 2019). More specifically, it acknowledges how there are four existential “givens” in life that can make someone feel a sense of existential anxiety. These are: death, freedom and its associated responsibility, isolation, and meaninglessness (“Existential Psychotherapy”, 2019).

Each of these four levels are what an existential psychologist uses to evaluate the client’s experience (“Existential Therapy What Is It?”). Given the emphasis of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual wellness in therapist college programs (“Rhodes Wellness College: Professional Counsellor Diploma”), students can apply what they’ve learned in school to a form of therapy essentially based around each of those types of wellness. The core values of existential therapy focus on creating our own meaning in life, being responsible for our choices, and how those choices make us unique human beings. This is in addition to coming to terms with resulting feelings of anxiety, and the knowledge that anxiety is a natural part of life (Ackerman, 2019). In doing so, clients can work towards living in a more authentic fashion (Ackerman, 2019).

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Works Cited

Existential Psychotherapy. (2019, November 18). Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/existential-psychotherapy.

Existential Therapy | Psychology Today Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/existential-therapy.

Walsh, R. A., & McElwain, B. (2002). Existential psychotherapies. Humanistic Psychotherapies: Handbook of Research and Practice., 253–278. doi: 10.1037/10439-008

Existential Therapy What Is It? (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2019, from https://www.crchealth.com/types-of-therapy/what-is-existential-therapy/.

Rhodes Wellness College: Professional Counsellor Diploma. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2019, from: https://www.rhodescollege.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Professional-Counsellor-Diploma-Program-Outline-April-2019.pdf

Ackerman, C. E. (2019, December 9). Existential Therapy: Make Your Own Meaning. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/existential-therapy/.

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