Existentialism is scientific in that it operates on absolute truth. The problem though is that very little is absolute. We are all born, we live and we die. Apart from this, there is no other truth. Because there is so little to solidify, it can be tricky to use existentialism as a counseling theory to operate from; it is as fundamental as air itself. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore whether or not existentialism can offer a foundation as a counselor by examining specific incidences of the application of existentialism and some of its authors.
Historical and Theoretical Components
While it is difficult to define existentialism, it is comprised of four elements, emphasized human existence, choices, responsibilities, and truth (Start). There is a premium placed on the experience of life. Whatever happens, happens. We live in the present, look at the past as a gift to learn from and look forward toward the future. How we utilize choices, responsibility, and truth is similar to Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). We can make more of the gifts we have been given, and all can be redeemed—even the worst of atrocities—through the responsibility of making good choices based on the truth we have. It can be composted for future fertile ground, or we can let it all go to waste, not to make an investment of any of it and writing it all off as bad.
One of the most important concepts is authenticity. It, “…does not permit itself to be imposed upon by anything else, either laws, principles, other people, or even one's previous promises” (Bahm, 1993). Individuality is found in the form of personal consent, that based upon what the individual allows or does not allow into their life, they are empowered and even more importantly, present to the moment (E., 2013). The more present the individual is, the “easier” it is to live (E., 2013). Being present involves the capacity to deal with emotions. Emotions offer sensory information that indicates the individual's current state. In other words, if the individual's emotions and rationality do not line up, it causes depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. which indicates that something is not right in the life of the individual.
Or there is another way of looking at it. Existential psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, postulates that there are four truths in the lives of individuals. Every individual has the capacity for freedom and responsibility, and the choice to do nothing is still a choice. Every individual is ultimately isolated because of their individuality and their personal life experiences. Meaning is created by the individual. Everyone eventually dies (Start). Typically, existential therapists believe that these truths are difficult to cope with and that problems occur for individuals when they have a difficult time managing the way they manifest in life (Start). In any case, the point is that there is a reason for pain and the goal is to get to the bottom of it.
Existentialism is not merely a cognitive therapy; it promotes the strength of the individual to make sense of their own story from a holistic approach—emotions, cognitions, physical responses, etc. When the individual engages with their past, they can find the meaning in their story and how it affects them here and now which enables them to learn and grow (E., 2013). Existentialism does not stop at finding meaning in the past or living in the present, there is a focus on practical application for the future as well (E., 2013). What follows then after the discovery of meaning is the development of a path and then the decision to dedicate oneself to that path (E., 2013).
Existentialism first existed in Europe as a philosophy with its roots founded in Heidegger, Husserl, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and others (Diamond, 2011). It was not till the 20th century that Existentialism first became recognized as a therapeutic approach by European clinicians like Otto Rank, Karl Jaspers, Medard Boss, Ludwig Binswanger and later Viktor Frankl (Diamond, 2011). It exploded all over Europe very rapidly in a way that none of its supporters were aware of each other. It was a natural response to popular theories in mental health of the time (May et al. 2004).
Frankl was a psychiatrist that wrote his accounts of what it was like to survive the holocaust in his book titled, Man’s Search for Meaning (1984). In the book, while telling his story, he also lays out the premise of his therapeutic approach called Logotherapy. Inspired by Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology, a logotherapist helps the individual find their meaning in life (n.d.). According to Frankl, life must have meaning. He refers to this as “The Will to Meaning.” The purpose of this therapy then is to help individuals find meaning. For example, he explains that the way he survived the concentration camps was by recognizing that the meaning of his life was to help others find the meaning of theirs. Through this process, he was able to help many other prisoners find a will to survive the war (Frankl, 1984).
In this way, existentialism proves to be very useful when dealing with issues such as suicidal ideation. He writes in his book, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Frankl, 1984). Particular to the needs of Holocaust survivors and the like is an external issue that causes the individual so much internal turmoil and pain that they consider ending their life. Existentialism, in this case, can offer an inward strength—an acceptance of a dreadful reality and things that cannot be altered and the inward resolve to survive it as a result of having discovered a will to live. He explains, “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’" (Frankl, 1984). This is the sort of mechanism by which existentialism shines brightly.
Arguably, Existentialism did not make it’s way into North America until 1958 when the book Existence was released (Keddy, 2011). The book sought to answer emerging questions in mental health: “Can we be sure… that we are seeing the patient as he really is, knowing him in his own reality; or are we seeing merely a projection of our own theories on him?” and “How can we know whether we are seeing the patient in his real world, the world in which “he lives, moves, and has his being,” and which is for him unique, concrete, and different from our general theories of culture?” (May, et al., 2004). Both these questions emphasize the struggle between classical systems and the individuals they serve. Again, there is the use of this mechanism—the fight between an external reality and the effects it has internally on the individual. Rollo May—both the editor and co-writer of Existence—stepped out as one of the most important figureheads for humanistic-existentialism in North America. May’s work emphasized human potential and the desire for self-fulfillment.
An existential therapist regarding licensing and education typically looks the same as any other licensed counselor on paper. But it is suggested that since this theory is based on philosophy, it would be appropriate to take courses on philosophy, mainly dealing with the subject of existentialism (Start). Perhaps an existentialist practitioner receives a bachelors in philosophy and a masters in counseling. While it is unnecessary for licensing particular to existentialism, to become more familiar with existentialism, there are certificate programs worldwide (n.d.).
Review of Literature
Most therapists today feel that individuals suffer from illnesses and disorders that are related to heredity, circumstances, etc. Whereas, existential therapist tend to think that individuals cause these issues with their own poor choices and the inability to process the pains of life (Start). No single individual created existentialism. It belongs to a community. It does not put down other therapies, but instead seeks “to analyze the structure of human existence—an enterprise which if successful, should yield an understanding of the reality all situations of human beings in crisis” (May et al. 2004). In other words, Existentialism is a cooperative perspective that first and foremost seeks to aid the individual in understanding the meaning of existence in whatever way that person may need even if it necessitates the aid of other therapies.
One of the reasons for its universality is because it based less on empirical evidence. A hallmark of the existentialist tradition is founded in a concern for a mechanistic society. While existentialists can embrace technology and science, the matter is that individual loses a sense of what it means to be human. This care particularly shines through in the way May warns in his later years that mental health professionals ought to be careful with how clients are diagnosed.
As mentioned before, existentialism is scientific in that it relies on absolute truth. It is by no means speculative albeit less empirically based then therapies like CBT (Diamond, 2011). Dr. Alfried Längle explains, “Part of our lives are lost and no empirical data can help us recover it. With empirical data, we can construct techniques, and we can prove what we are doing… but empirical data cannot replace personal experience. Personal experience is the center, the access to human life… If we can understand other people, we can understand ourselves” (E., 2013). Humanistic-Existentialism is commonly misperceived as dark and pessimistic when in reality clinicians such as May and Frankl are notably positive in their theories, holding high regard and hope for humanity, as previously mentioned (Diamond, 2011; Rollo, 2017; Frankl, 1984).
To make absolute truth the foundation of my life’s philosophy and counseling practice may in a sense be more concrete. It can also be labeled as inefficient and cumbersome because there is not much absolute truth. But efficiency for efficiency sake takes from the human experience. Sometimes we have to go through something as opposed to going over or around it. The pain really does have to be both the siren that tells us something is wrong and the teacher that shows us how to deal with it. This again, reflects back on what Frankl intended when he spoke of redeeming pain.
Within this issue, there is a particular sort of reverence that ought to be held for the individual’s world. I refer to it as holiness. The individual has a set of experiences that only they can understand fully. As a counselor, I should be careful when entering that world because it is not mine. In the same way, we as individuals pick and choose what we will allow in and out of our lives, existentialism can do that as well on an individual client basis; it is accepting of other therapeutic approaches. Existentialism is like EMDR in that it focuses on discovering the meaning behind pain through a holistic approach to the moment—sensations felt in the body, emotions, thoughts and all external aspects such as what the other person said or did. Existentialism looks like mindfulness practices in that there is an awareness of what is happening in the “now” as a means to being in tune with the human experience. But also concerning the here and now, it feels connected to Gestalt therapy, that consideration is taken for how the past is affecting the present, and how that changes at this moment. Existentialism also shares ground with behavioral therapies in that existentialism recognizes the importance of taking responsibility for self and taking the necessary actions to commit toward a direction in life. The list goes on and on of ways in which this theory can easily apply.
As much as I share Frankl’s sentiments that it is essential to assign meaning to pain, many do not need or want that level of attention brought to the past (1984). They do not care about the “why” for their problem and they are not even interested in a resolve perhaps because their issues do not resemble a power struggle. They want to be heard. Others do not have the mind for this kind of thought process, and unlike the wilderness metaphor do not need to labor through their experiences to be healthy. Even still, that is an issue to be aware of, and not a mountain to conquer. The simple rule for all clients, regardless of how they see their situation is that we are not at that moment so that I can insert my perception into their reality. Paradoxically, as an existentialist, my ideas and philosophies are repressed so that I can offer the client whatever it is they need that will drive them toward empowerment.
Being that the ultimate goal is personal responsibility and empowerment, it is important to give external forces as little control as possible and to accept what cannot be altered. But to also consider that while something cannot be altered now, perhaps with more life experience and knowledge, those external forces can be altered later. When looking at the past, the individual ought to be careful to place blame where blame is due. God did not blame the serpent in the garden. He blamed Adam and Eve for eating the fruit because He granted the responsibility to them and they were the ones that made the decision (Genesis 3). While mental illness is real and can be hereditary, we ought to be careful to not write it all off as impossible to work around without medication. Is it possible that some mental illnesses are caused by experiences, that can be resolved if the individual takes responsibility where she can and seeks help when she needs it? There is evidence in other modalities such as EMDR to suggest that an individual can recover from symptomatic behavior typical of addiction, depression and even PTSD. The Existentialist is undoubtedly open to such forms of treatment as well.
The ultimate goal of existentialism is individual empowerment. It offers hope to the hopeless, that in the face of insurmountable experiences, decisions can be made to continue and survive. While existentialism provides a foundation as a counselor, it is great to know that this theory is universal and that I can use other theories to empower individuals to move toward a better life as well.
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