Existential Therapy: Coping With the Human Condition
by Amy Scholten, MPH
As we go about our daily lives, we often confront anxieties, difficult choices, and crises. We also search for meaning in our experiences. At certain times we might ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there no ultimate meaning? Am I alone in an arbitrary world where my life can have little impact?”
Existential therapy is a dynamic type of psychotherapy that can help us to get in touch with these questions and the ultimate concerns that often underlie many of our conflicts, anxieties, and motives. These ultimate concerns include:
A Therapy With Philosophical Roots
Existential therapy stems from a branch of philosophy known as existentialism, which examines the meaning of existence. It can be traced back to the last century and the work of philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzche. Other famous existentialists include Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Jean Paul Sarte, and Irvin Yalom.
Existential therapy is based on the understanding that each person is the creator of his own life and has the freedom to choose how to respond to each moment of existence. In the existential approach, the therapist seeks to understand how the patient experiences life from his unique perspective. This approach addresses the causes rather than the symptoms of psychological problems and doesn’t follow rigidly prescribed procedures.
The Goals of Existential Therapy
Existential therapy often focuses on the following issues:
Increasing Self-awareness and Authentic Living
People often avoid listening to themselves and their real needs and desires; instead they make decisions based on the influences of society, family, and peers. This sometimes results in painful inner conflicts, unhappiness, and feelings of powerlessness. In existential therapy, the challenge is helping the person find his “inner authority” and become more truthful with himself and authentic in the choices he makes.
Taking Responsibility for Decisions
Existential therapists help people to become more aware of their choices, their freedom to make decisions, and the consequences of their actions. This type of therapy helps people develop a better sense of how they are the “authors” of their lives.
Finding Personal Meaning
Existential therapists often believe that emptiness and meaninglessness are pervasive problems in modern society, which lead to despair, many psychological illnesses, and destructive activities. Therapists help people to uncover meaning in their lives (including meaning from painful experiences and crises) through deep personal reflection and subsequent action. The therapist will pay attention to the person’s emotions, beliefs, and talents. The person is encouraged to find her own meanings and truths.
Coping With Anxiety
All people share certain conscious or unconscious anxieties. Personal values and goals aren’t always clear-cut. During different stages of life, people often experience a painful bewilderment and anxiety of not knowing what direction to take. Existential therapists can help people examine roots of some of their anxieties and learn how to better cope with them.
Living in the Present
The therapist helps the person to understand that we live in the moment—that everything passes and nothing lasts. The goal is to get the person to believe that life is his experience in the here and now, and they should live more fully in each moment.
The benefit of existential therapy is that it helps people to clarify and choose among different ways of living, and ultimately lead richer and more meaningful lives.
International Society of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy
Canadian Mental Health Association
International Network on Personal Meaning
Coleman JC. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. 11th ed. Allyn and Bacon; 2000.
Existential therapy. International Network on Personal Meaning website. Available at: http://www.meaning.ca/. Accessed August 13, 2008.
Messina JJ. Existential therapy. Available at: http://www.coping..... Accessed August 13, 2008.