Existential Theory: What It Is And How Psychologists Apply It

By Rachel Lustbader

Updated January 02, 2019

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Philosophical theories, such as existential theory, can seem so abstract that we wonder how they could influence our lives in any real way. We may think philosophy is interesting, but we ask ourselves, 'What place does it have in the real world?'

That view is beginning to change. Many philosophical dilemmas have presented themselves because of recent advances in science, technology, and medicine. Still, we might wonder, 'What does that have to do with my life right here and now, and who applies these theories?

The existential theory isn't just for intellectuals, though. It's a way of thinking about the world that can lead us to make better decisions and experiencing our lives more profoundly. Psychologists who practice existential psychotherapy use it and teach their clients how to apply it to everyday decisions. So, what is an existential theory? How is it used in psychotherapy?

Brief Definition Of Existential Theory

The existential theory is a branch of philosophy that deals with what it identifies as existential questions. These are questions about the meaning of life. Examples include:

  • Why do humans exist?
  • Why do I exist?
  • How shall I exist?
  • What choices are mine to make?
  • What do I value?
  • Who am I?
  • How can I contribute to my world?

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Humanism Vs. Existentialism

Both Humanistic and Existential psychotherapy assume that people want to live a better life. In Humanistic Psychology, the assumption is that we strive to be our best selves. In Existential Psychology, the assumption is that we strive to live meaningful lives. While these two concepts are similar and may lead to identical results, the idea and the psychotherapeutic approach is different.

What Is Existential Anxiety?

When humans come to the point of doubting that their lives have to mean, they experience existential anxiety. This may set them on a quest to search for a meaning that will satisfy their need to relate to the world in a way that makes sense to them.

We may also experience existential anxiety when the meaning we have made for our lives conflicts our life circumstances. We may become stuck, feeling confused, powerless, and anxious. Existential psychotherapy's goal is to help you resolve these dilemmas in a way that is meaningful to you.

How Psychologists Apply Existential Theory

Existential psychotherapy takes a unique viewpoint that's based on existential theory. Rather than looking at anxiety as an emotional problem that needs to be eliminated, existential therapists look at this anxiety as a signal that you're ready to make changes. As you explore the existential questions behind the anxiety, you gain in wisdom and begin to understand your power.

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Personal Power

Existential theory recognizes the power of the individual to choose their actions. In existential therapy, you can examine your situation more clearly, become more aware of your power in your situation, and begin to make the choices that are meaningful to you.

With the help of your therapist, you begin your quest to resolve the anxiety by realizing that you have a choice in everything. Typically, there are things in your situation that you can choose to change or not. However, even if you have no choice but to continue as you have been, you can still choose a different way to think about, feel about, and live with that situation.

Who Am I?

Personal identity is an important question in existential theory. When you know who you are as a human, you can understand better what's right and wrong for you. Through introspection and talking with others, you can consider what those specific things are that make you uniquely you.

In existential therapy, your counselor can help guide you on this journey to self-understanding and self-acceptance. The first answers you might have to this question of identity may be physical attributes like the color of your hair, your height, and your age. Other answers that may come are your occupation, your marital status, and what town or city you live in. These answers may or may not have to mean for you. If you continue to examine this question, you can go deeper to learn who you are more essentially, including your abiding preferences, attitudes, thought processes, and ways of relating to others.

Personal Freedom

One of the most important jobs of an existential therapist is to help you understand that you are a free person and have the freedom to make your own choices. While this may seem like an obvious statement at first, we often fail to recognize our freedom in our own situations. We tell ourselves, 'I can't' even when we do have a choice to make.

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The beauty of knowing you have a choice is that when you decide, you feel more in control. Even if you still don't like the situation, you have chosen to stay in it, and you've understood why you are staying. You no longer feel powerless. Instead, knowing that it's your choice to be in the situation, you accept what comes more easily.

By the same token, when you choose to make a choice, it is you who have made it. If you don't like the way it turns out, there's no one else to be angry or upset with. You know why you made the choice you did, and you know that, given what you knew then, it was the right decision for you at the time. Now, all you need to do to relieve the anxiety that comes up from choosing something that turned out badly is to examine where you are now and make a new choice. So, existential theory is, in essence, a forward-thinking philosophy.

Choices Aren't Easy

Existential theory recognizes the difficulty of making important life choices. Therapists who apply this theory accept that conflicting ideas are going to exist in almost every situation. They help you find your way to accept life's basic paradoxes and conflicts as well. Also, they help you identify those tensions and decide how you can resolve them - either by taking a specific action or by changing the way you live with the situations - to make the most meaning in your life.

Narrow And Wider Perspectives

When you talk to an existential therapist, you'll likely look at your anxiety-provoking situations from many different perspectives. At some points, you'll focus on what the situation is like for you as an individual. At other times, you might consider what it means in the larger scheme of things. By zooming out and in on your life, you can develop a more unified worldview that you can live with on an individual level.

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Your Choices Matter

Another aspect of existential psychotherapy is the idea that you are an innately valuable person. Your ability to choose for yourself is crucial to living a meaningful life. Existential therapy can be practiced in many different ways, but one assumption that rarely varies is that the process is all about helping you learn what's meaningful to you and make choices based on that meaning. In other words, what is true for you is what matters most.


Another feature of existential therapy is its assumption that being authentic helps us live in meaningful ways. After all, how can you do what's most important to you without revealing something about yourself? The existential therapist encourages you to be real with others as you grapple with your quest for meaning.

Relating To Others Is An Essential Part Of Human Life

Existential philosophy may be a lonely pursuit at times, but at the heart of the theory is the idea that who we are and how we decide to live is partly based on how we relate to others. In existential therapy, you examine your relationships with others to find out what you might want to change those relationships. You may also work toward learning to communicate more effectively so others can also understand what matters most to you.

How Can I Contribute?

One way you can find meaning in your life is to find a way to contribute to the world around you. The truth is that you will contribute something, whether it's helpful or not. You can't live in the world without having some effect on it. The key for existentialists is to find ways to give to those around you the way you prefer to give, by doing the things that come from who you are as a person.

How Do I Find An Existential Therapist Near Me?

Finding an existential therapist locally may be easy if you live in a large city, although you may have to drive through intense traffic to get there. If you live in a less-populated area, there may not be such a therapist near you. Look at the therapist's website to see if they mention what type of therapy they practice.

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Another option is to talk to an existential counselor online through BetterHelp.com. You can choose from hundreds of therapists, many of whom are existential therapists or eclectic therapists who include existential concepts in their counseling. When you want to figure out who you are, what matters most to you, and how you want to live in the world, an existential therapist may just be the helper you're looking for!

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