Existential Therapy

By: Corrina Horne

Updated November 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Nicole Gaines, LPC

Existential Theory And How It Has Shaped Modern Therapy

Philosophical theories can sometimes seem so abstract that we wonder how they could influence our lives in any real way. We may think philosophy is interesting, but 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.

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Philosophical theories aren't just for academics and intellectuals. It's a way of thinking about the world that can lead us to make better decisions and experience our lives more profoundly. Psychologists who practice existential psychotherapy use it and teach their clients how to apply it to everyday decisions. 

Existential Theory Defined

Existential theory is a branch of philosophy that concerns 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?

Humanism Vs. Existentialism

Both Humanistic and Existential psychotherapy assumes 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 are different.

Existential Anxiety

When people start doubting that their lives have meaning, 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 with 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.

Therapeutic Applications

Existential psychotherapy takes a unique viewpoint that's based on the 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 wisdom and begin to understand your power.

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Personal Power

This 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.

Personal Identity

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 much meaning for you. If you continue to examine this question, you can go deeper to learn who you are more deeply, 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 situations. We tell ourselves, 'I can't choose', 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, this theory is, in essence, a forward-thinking philosophy.

Choices Aren't Easy

The 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.

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 core idea 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.

Differing Perspectives

When you talk to an existential therapist, you'll likely look at situations that cause anxiety 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.

Relating To Others

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.

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.

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 To Find An Existential Therapist Near You

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. Counseling may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when looking at ways to live a meaningful life, but it can be a great resource. An article from The Humanistic Psychologistnotes that existential therapists helped patients understand their life experiences and goals more deeply. Additionally, a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion found that women, in particular, experienced high levels of self-growth after existential therapy interventions. 90% of the participants reported experiencing better attitudes toward life than individuals who did not attend the sessions.

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. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists, from people experiencing different existential issues.

BetterHelp Therapist Reviews

"Kristen helps me to see my life and myself from a different perspective. I tell her about my experiences and she can hone into another side of the story that I couldn't get working things out on my own. And I had tried, for a very long time. As someone particularly skeptical of counseling in general, it has been refreshing to speak and work with someone who genuinely recognizes that I am seeking help but is reluctant to take it. Her patience and consistent inquiry have been the greatest asset for me and I appreciate my time with her."

"I came to Gary through BetterHelp in a time of crisis in my life, experiencing issues and problems I had never faced before. He listened to my story and understood what I was going through. With the advice he provided, he shed light on my situation and I felt a new lease of life, like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I saw everything in a new light, from a new and better perspective and now I'm on a new path away from my troubles. I haven't looked back and that's all down to the help Gary provided me. I couldn't recommend him more if you're going through a tough moment in your life, thank you."

Final Thoughts

Existential Therapy is a therapy modality based on the works of the Existentialists, answering life's big questions, such as "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?" Answering these questions and finding your meaning in life, and your motivations are an important part of Existential Therapy and can help with large-scale difficulties, such as addiction, depression, and anxiety. Exploring some of the most thought-provoking questions with the help of a qualified health professional, you can find what gives you meaning, who you are, and why you are here.

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