Existential Therapy: What It Is And How It Works
By Julia Thomas
Updated September 06, 2019
Reviewer Lauren Fawley
What do you think of when you hear the word "existential?" For many people, the word conjures up thoughts of pessimism, negativity, intellectualism, impracticality, and even atheism. Yet, these words have little to do with the true nature of existential therapy. Existential therapy is a valid form of psychotherapy that can provide positive benefits for people with mental health problems. Its basis is on finding meaning and purpose. Before you can determine whether existential therapy is right for you, it helps to know what it is and how it works.
What Is Existential Therapy?
Long ago, Soren Kierkegaard suggested that mental conditions could only be adequately dealt with by developing internal wisdom. This philosophy laid the foundation of existential thought. Since then, psychologists have sought to put this philosophy to use to help people recover from mental health problems.
Is It Therapy or Philosophy?
While there are some similarities between existential philosophy and existential therapy, the latter is indeed a type of psychotherapy. It relies on wisdom from the philosophy, but expands it and refines it to a specific set of concepts and existential therapy techniques that can be used in practical ways to help people overcome their deepest issues.
Conditions Treated with Existential Therapy
Therapists can use existential techniques to help people with a variety of mental health conditions. These include problems like depression, anxiety, addictions, and PTSD that arises from life-threatening experiences such as combat or other forms of violence. In addition, if you have fear, isolation, grief, or feel that your life has no meaning, existential therapy can help you. With this type of therapy, you can find a healthy way forward by learning from your past and present experiences and deciding from that information what you can choose next.
Existential therapy recognizes that life comes with certain mental health challenges that are 'givens' for everyone alive. These challenges are simply a part of the human experience. We all must find a way to deal with the certainty of death and avoid isolation. If we accept freedom, we must also face the responsibility that goes along with it. Finally, we must find meaning in our lives to truly enjoy the time we're alive and make the most of it.
Also, existential therapy begins from a particular perspective. It views everyone as being capable of self-awareness. Each of us is in some way unique, and it is through our relationships that we understand what that uniqueness is. Although we may find meaning at some point, the world continues to move forward. People change, and the meaning of their lives changes, too. Lastly, because we must find a balance between ignorance and despair, we all deal with some amount of anxiety.
The anxiety we feel stems from what existential therapists call intrapsychic conflicts. These are the deep issues we struggle with within ourselves. Centuries ago, William Shakespeare put into words perhaps the central theme of our existence. "To be or not to be, that is the question." Whether we face this or not, it is indeed a crucial question that lies at the core of how we choose to think, behave, and exist in the world. Other intrapersonal conflicts might be posed as:
- Does my life have any meaning?
- Am I free to do as I choose?
- Am I responsible for my actions?
- Who am I and how can I remain true to myself?
- Is isolation better than the struggle of being in relationships?
We all have existential anxiety, as mentioned earlier. Intrapersonal conflicts may haunt us to the point that we lose touch with our ability to make changes. We may feel we have no power to prevent terrible things from happening, and to a certain extent, that is true. However, we can reduce the level of anxiety we feel by facing our fears and acting in ways that promote our well-being. As we do this, we create a better, happier, more fulfilling life for ourselves through our positive actions.
Although we all have the capacity for self-awareness, not everyone chooses this path. Many choose instead to be drawn into whatever is distracting, ignoring the intrapsychic battle that is raging within us. Through existential therapy, we can become more attuned to our inner lives. As we become more aware, we can choose to do things that increase our understanding of the foundational issues at hand. The more we understand, the easier it is to make wiser choices.
The goal of existential therapy is not to eliminate all anxiety. After all, the theory behind this therapy states that anxiety is a given for humans. If we were to get rid of all our anxieties, we might fail to do the things we need to do to survive. At the same time, too much anxiety can paralyze us so that we also do nothing. So, what is the answer? For existential therapists, the answer lies in striking a balance. When we feel some anxiety but not too much, we can move more comfortably and positively in the world.
Existential Therapy Techniques
The theory and ideas behind existential therapy are accepted. Yet, to someone who has never had existential therapy, they may sound a bit cerebral. Where is the practicality of this therapy? What do existential therapists do? Actually, there are several existential therapy techniques. Your therapist may use any or all of them as they help you deal with your intrapsychic conflicts.
Focus on Upcoming Decisions
The focus of existential therapy is future-oriented. As you go through therapy, you gain wisdom that will prepare you for decisions you have to make in the present moment, and especially later, after you have achieved balance and found your life's path.
Using the Past as a Tool
If you are in existential therapy, your therapist will likely guide you in reflecting on your past. Yet, in this form of therapy, the past is not the focus. Instead, exploring your past serves two purposes. First, it helps you understand yourself better as a unique person. Second, you can examine the consequences of the choices you've made in the past so that you can make better choices now and in the future.
Developing Self Awareness to Embrace Life More Fully
A part of the work in existential therapy is to increase your self-awareness. Right now, you may go through life paying more attention to others than you do to your own sensations, thoughts, and beliefs. Through this therapeutic modality, you learn to notice what is happening within your body and mind and pay more heed to your own sense of what is beneficial for you. This may sound like a selfish practice, but existential therapists believe it is the healthiest perspective you can take. When you take care of your own needs, you do not have to rely on others totally for contentment. Also, when you feel more satisfied with your life, you become a more genuine and caring person.
The very core of existential therapy is everyone's ability to choose their own actions. It stands to reason, then, that existential therapists guide you to a better understanding and acceptance of your own personal freedom. Freedom can be a scary thing, so your therapist will help you work on balancing your level of anxiety as you become more aware of your freedom to choose. At the same time, realizing your freedom helps you access your own personal power and feel more alive in the process.
Teaching Individual Responsibility
It is often said, "With freedom comes responsibility." An existential therapist can help you determine what you're responsible for as a consequence of your freedom. They can teach you how to accept responsibility for your own actions without becoming overwhelmed by a sense of burden.
Helping You Find Meaning in Action
Existential therapy is essentially a talk therapy, but the goal is to choose more positive ways to behave. Your therapist may prompt you to follow insight with action. Through this values-based action, you can find the meaning you need to become outwardly the best possible version of yourself.
Encouraging Your Positive Attitudes
To many, existential means a negative, pessimistic, gloomy attitude. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Once you identify and acknowledge the intrapsychic conflicts that are holding your back, you feel greater joy and a greater sense of meaning in each day that passes. So, after you've come to terms with these deeper issues, your therapist encourages you to find freedom from them and adopt more positive attitudes. In a sense, we find ways to balance the darkness of existence with the lighter side of life. Through grief comes gratitude.
Existential Therapy as a Part of an Eclectic Mix
Therapists typically combine existential therapy with other types of talk therapy as a means of helping the client find meaning, purpose, joy, and their own unique path in life. Existential therapy recognizes that life is not just a series of unrelated and often disastrous incidents, but it is a path you walk each day of your life. Therapists who use existential therapy as one of many methods can help you find and follow a positive path for your life.
Is Existential Therapy Right for You?
Chances are, if you're interested in existential therapy, you're either thinking about a career as a therapist or considering whether it will help you overcome the problems and/or mental disorders you struggle with now. Existential therapy in itself is not a quick fix in most cases. However, if you're serious about finding meaning and purpose in your life, it may be beneficial for you.
How can you get started? You can search your local community, asking each therapist if they use existential therapy as one of their methods. Or, you can choose an online therapist who uses existential therapy techniques. At Better Help, you can choose from many counselors using a variety of therapy methods. Choosing the online option is convenient, private, and completely within your control. Even better, you can get started right away.