What is Existential Psychotherapy? – How It Works And When It Is Used

When existential psychotherapy was created it was quite revolutionary, insofar as it believes in finding ways to improve well-being not by looking at psychology or medicine, but at philosophy. You may have a certain set of assumptions or associations in your head when you hear (or read) the word “existential”, perhaps you think of movies or books where “everyone dies”, that seems to be the main message.

Perhaps you remember philosophers you read about in high school or college, those who, based on the portraits that accompany the relevant passages in your textbook, seemed to be in some kind of competition for most expressions. delinquent. You could think of grumpy teenagers who wear black and listen to the kind of music that practically oozes with anguish and screams identity crisis.

While these may be manifestations of a preoccupation with existentialist themes or a novice philosopher’s view of existentialism, they are certainly not a representative snapshot of what existential theory really is. The average existentialist is not constantly depressed or obsessed with death!

What is existential psychotherapy?

It is a style of therapy that emphasizes the human condition as a whole, uses a positive approach that applauds human capabilities and aspirations while acknowledging human limitations. Existential therapy or psychotherapy shares many similarities with humanistic psychology, experiential psychotherapy, deep psychotherapy, and relational psychotherapy.

It is talk therapy that recognizes that the meaning and purpose we feel in life is extremely important to our sense of well-being. When we doubt our purpose we find ourselves anxious and distressed, or in a state of despair, therefore instead of trying to figure out your life simply by looking at your psyche and personal background, existential psychotherapy helps you look at the human condition in your life. whole and its place within it.

Today, many modern therapists will integrate existential ideas into their work with clients, helping them see their core beliefs, perspectives, and values. But existential therapy itself, and psychotherapists who identify as purely existential, still stand out as unique in the face of a sea of ​​largely psychoanalytic and cognitive approaches.

It focuses on free will, self-determination, and the search for meaning, often focusing on you and not the symptom. The approach emphasizes your ability to make rational decisions and develop your full potential.

The existential approach emphasizes that:

  • All people have the capacity for self-awareness.
  • Each person has a unique identity that can only be known through relationships with others.
  • People must continually recreate themselves because the meaning of life is constantly changing.
  • The anxiety is part of the human condition.

Brief history of existential psychotherapy

You could say that it started a long time ago with the great philosophers like Socrates, and the beginnings of questioning who we are as humans. Although most would say that existential psychotherapy has its roots in the rise of the 19th century existential philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. They were the fathers of a movement that rebelled against the tradition of seeking order and structure in the world, suggesting that, as humans, it is up to us to find meaning in what is largely a meaningless universe, embrace our existence and use our free will and ability to choose.

Other well-known existential thinkers who followed include Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Edmund Husserl stood out for exposing the theory that life is experiential over logic, it must be understood as understood, this was called «phenomenology», and it was the bridge for existentialism and psychotherapy when Otto Rank, an Austrian psychoanalyst who separated Freud’s, he decided to apply this concept to his work with clients.

Other notables to later expand the marriage of philosophy and psychotherapy include Paul Tillich in America, whose work influenced humanistic psychology, and Viktor Frankl, the creator of logotherapy , who contributed the valuable insight that we choose to make sense. in all experiences, even difficult ones (he himself was a survivor of a concentration camp).

England played an important role in the existential psychotherapy movement as it was the birthplace of several experimental and alternative therapeutic communities in the 1960s and 1970s. This was largely an anti-psychiatric movement, questioning how useful the methodology of medicine and institutionalization really was, and offering safe and compatible places for people to live their so-called ‘insanity’, with some existential psychotherapy leaders like Emmy. van Deurzen even living on the premises.

Two of these associations still exist today, including the Philadelphia Association and the Arbours Association in North London, which still manage residential centers.

Dimensions of existential psychotherapy

Existential thinkers seek to avoid restrictive models that classify or label people. Instead they look for universals that can be observed across cultures, there is no existential personality theory that divides humanity into types or reduces people to component parts.

Four basic dimensions of human existence can be distinguished: the physical, the social, the psychological and the spiritual.

In each of these dimensions, people meet the world and shape their attitude based on their particular perception of experience, their orientation towards the world defines their reality.

Physical dimension

In the physical dimension, individuals relate to their environment and to the elements of the natural world that surrounds them, this includes their attitude towards the body they have, towards the specific environment in which they are, towards the climate and towards objects and material possessions, toward other people’s bodies, toward his own bodily needs, toward health and disease, and toward his own mortality.

Social dimension

In the social dimension, individuals interact with others while interacting with the public world that surrounds them, this dimension includes their response to the culture in which they live, as well as to the class and race to which they belong (and also those to those who do not belong).

Some people prefer to withdraw from the world of others as much as possible, others blindly pursue public acceptance by following the rules and fashions of the moment. Otherwise, they try to rise above them by becoming themselves, by acquiring fame or other forms of power, individuals can temporarily achieve dominance over others. Sooner or later, however, everyone is faced with failure and loneliness.

Psychological dimension

In the psychological dimension, individuals relate to themselves and in this way create a personal world, this dimension includes points of view about their own character, their past experience and their future possibilities. The contradictions here are experienced in terms of personal strengths and weaknesses, people seek a sense of identity, a sense of being substantial and having a self, but inevitably many events will confront them with evidence to the contrary and plunge them into a state of confusion or disintegration.

Facing the ultimate dissolution of self that comes with personal loss and the face of death can bring anxiety and confusion to many who have not yet given up on their sense of self-importance.

Spiritual dimension

Here individuals regard the world as “ideal,” and where religion, beliefs, values, and transformation are included. It is in this dimension where meaning is given to life and is considered the realm of transcendence.

When is existential psychotherapy used?

What else is it recommended for? Psychological problems, such as substance abuse , result from an inhibited ability to make authentic, meaningful, and self-directed decisions about how to live, according to the existential approach. Interventions aim to increase self-awareness and self-understanding.

Existential psychotherapists seek to understand and alleviate a variety of symptoms, including excessive anxiety, apathy, alienation, nihilism, avoidance, shame, addiction, despair, depression , guilt, anger, resentment, bitterness, purposelessness, psychosis, and violence, as well they focus on life-enhancing experiences such as relationships, love, caring, commitment, courage, creativity, power, will, presence, spirituality, individualization, self-actualization, authenticity, acceptance, transcendence, and respect.

How does existential psychotherapy work?

This practice, due to its focus on existence and purpose is sometimes perceived as pessimistic, but it must be a positive and flexible approach. At its best, according to 20th-century philosopher Paul Tillich, existential psychotherapy fairly and honestly addresses life’s “core concerns,” including loneliness, suffering, and meaninglessness.

Specific concerns are rooted in each individual’s experience, but contemporary existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says that universals are death, isolation, freedom, and emptiness. Existential therapy focuses on the anxiety that occurs when you confront these inherent conflicts, and the role of the therapist is to foster personal responsibility for making decisions.

People in therapy who are willing to explore the reasons for their intrapsychic conflicts and the decisions that led to their current circumstances can greatly benefit from existential psychotherapy. There are many behavioral and mental health problems that can be successfully treated with this therapeutic approach, including depression, anxiety, substance dependence, and post-traumatic stress as a result of exposure to military combat, rape, child sexual abuse, interpersonal violence, or other threat. for life experiences.

For whom is existential therapy good?

Existential therapy is not appropriate for each individual or for each situation, like all other forms of treatment, there are circumstances in which this therapy is more effective and circumstances in which another type of therapy is recommended.

Existential therapy is an excellent method for treating psychological and emotional instabilities or dysfunctions that result from the basic anxieties of human life. It will be especially effective for people who have an open mind and are willing to explore the most important issues in life, as well as those who search and struggle to find meaning.

Due to the nature of existentialism, existential therapy is likely to help clients achieve a lasting change in their perspective, rather than encouraging short-term effort so that the client loses motivation to continue as soon as the sessions are over. . However, focusing on the major anxieties of human life can result in blindness to more immediate concerns or ignorance of the underlying issues a client faces.

It is all very well to help a client overcome their fear of death , but if they are also dealing with paranoid delusions, overcoming the existential fear of death may not be the highest priority at this time. This type of therapy can also be detrimental to those who do not wish to plunge into the existential depths, especially those who purposely avoid confrontation with these ideas, although for the benefit of each individual to come to terms with these inevitabilities, not all individuals they are ready to embrace existential ideas at any time.

For some people, pressuring them to consider death, isolation, and senselessness can have unintended consequences, such as deep depression, suicidal thoughts, or even suicide attempts Similarly, a person who is just looking for a quick fix to their current challenges may not be ready or willing to dive into such an intense form of therapy.

Common concerns and limitations of existential psychotherapy

Like other types of therapy, it can be defined very badly by people who have no knowledge of the subject. It can help develop awareness of principles, theories, and facts before and during participation in treatment.

Misperceptions include the following beliefs:

A distinctive existential theory, united, free of internal tension, covers all the basic assumptions of existential psychology. In fact, there are at least five categories of the approach, and most scholars see this as a strength of the approach, as it leads to a consistent examination of the basic assumptions of the approach and allows for greater adaptability.

There is no difference between existential psychology and existential philosophy. Although there are points of agreement between them, there are also points of difference, and the variation in the perspectives of the leading pioneers and scholars of the two fields helps contribute to the development of each approach.

Existential psychology takes an anti-religious or anti-spiritual approach , for example, denying the existence of God. Although it is not innately religious and discourages people from following a person or religion without question, it is also not anti-religious, and many of the leading scholars and pioneers were Christian theologians.

Existential and humanistic theories are the same thing. Although there is agreement between the two theories, they are not identical, the disagreements between these two schools of thought tend to be more degrees of emphasis and less complete divergences.

to existential psychotherapy takes a negative, dark or pessimistic view of life. Because the scriptures can be read as pessimistic, due to their view that suffering can be accepted as part of human existence, this is not an encouragement for suffering, but the recognition of the fact that it is an inescapable part of being. human. What existential therapy does is encourage people to embrace the reality of suffering in order to work and learn from it.

People of any level of intelligence are capable of becoming aware of their own humanity and being able to make sense of their emotions and anxieties. It is not necessary for a person to be a philosopher or scholar to benefit from the principles of existential therapy, and many people who are actively struggling with mental health issues can also be helped by this approach.

Because existential psychotherapy focuses on the underlying factors of perceived mental health and behavioral concerns, an existential approach may not directly address the primary problem a person in treatment is experiencing. Because of this, it is used in conjunction with other treatment approaches. Combining approaches can help maximize the effectiveness of both and promote greater recovery.


Georgia Tarrant
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Hello, how are you? My name is Georgia Tarrant, and I am a clinical psychologist. In everyday life, professional obligations seem to predominate over our personal life. It's as if work takes up more and more of the time we'd love to devote to our love life, our family, or even a moment of leisure.