Logotherapy: An Overview

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 31, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Origin of logotherapy

Viktor Frankl, is the psychiatrist who developed logotherapy. Frankl believed that humans are motivated by the need to find meaning in their lives and that those experiencing challenges may live in an existential vacuum. 

Viktor Frankl viewed the "will" to find meaning as strong enough to overcome life's most serious challenges. To him, human freedoms were about self-discovery and your purpose in life. Learning more about logotherapy may help you decide if this therapy would benefit you.

Curious about how your experiences reveal your life's meaning?

Who was Victor Frankl? 

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who studied medicine and psychiatry at a Vienna medical school. He primarily focused on helping patients find meaning in their lives through responsible action and spirituality, which went on to be the core concepts of logotherapy, his primary contribution of psychotherapy to the realm of psychology. Viktor Frankl believed that many challenges in life come from an existential vacuum, where people do not have meaning, purpose, or direction in their lives. He hypothesized that this lack of meaning would lead to apathy, boredom, emptiness, or depression.

His belief that meaning was the primary motivational force for human beings was a radical notion for psychologists of that age. As a result, he was shunned by some of the top psychologists of that time, including Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud. Though Viktor Frankl's philosophy would eventually take off, it would not be without controversy. 

Frankl had nearly finished his work when he was arrested by Nazi forces and imprisoned in a concentration camp. However, during this time, he observed the behavior of both the soldiers and fellow prisoners around him. He felt that many prisoners despite the suffering they endured, could find meaning in their traumatic moments.  

Logotherapy now overlaps with many forms of modern trauma-informed therapy and how guilt and shame can impact individuals experiencing trauma. Frankl did not know that he was leading the way to research on treatment for trauma disorders, which helped many people find hope and healing after challenging experiences. 

Following American forces' liberation of the last Nazi concentration camps, Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning. This book centered around his discoveries during his time in the concentration camp. He asserted that anyone with a reason for continuing could motivate themselves to get through any challenge. Frankl's theories and concepts continue to live on through the bestselling status of this book and the work of the Viktor Frankl Institute in Vienna.

Core tenets and existential analysis

Logotherapy was primarily formed from elements of existential theory and existential therapy. Existentialism is a philosophy that is focused in large part on themes like freedom and responsibility, along with questions related to our purpose and meaning. Logotherapy, too, is based on the idea that a person can alleviate challenges by finding their purpose in life. It is also thought to be related to positive psychology. Positive psychology also focuses on helping people find meaning in life. The basic tenets are:

  • Human life has meaning even in the most challenging circumstances and when experiencing unavoidable pain. 
  • Our primary motivation for living is the search for meaning.
  • Humans have the freedom to search for meaning in what we do or experience and the stance we take when enduring hardship.
  • It is possible to change oneself and take a complementary approach to healing based on life circumstances and your responsibility in your future.
  • One can choose one's attitude when dealing with life's struggles. 

The core focus of this therapy is on the future and one's ability to endure hardship by having a sense of meaning or purpose. Existential analysis is a technique often used to do so. Thought-based treatments like existential analysis aim to help people set out and find experiences that give them the freedom to find meaning and emotional freedom. Though existential analysis can be applied to any form of therapy, it is most commonly associated with this type of therapy.

Unlike some forms of therapy, logotherapy has a spiritual dimension. It is often a popular choice in ecumenical pastoral psychology. Many spiritual and religious individuals believe that a higher power has a purpose for them, and this therapy can help those people find this purpose. In other forms of this therapy, people believe in a spiritual essence or the impact of the universe on themselves, their relationships, and their ability to withstand adversity. 

The three psychological concepts

According to the Viktor Frankl Institute, Viktor Frankl's existential analysis are based on three psychological concepts: freedom of will, will to meaning, and meaning in life.

Freedom of will 

Freedom of will is the concept that all humans are free to decide or take a stance during internal and external conditions. This concept gives a person autonomy, whether experiencing a somatic or psychological illness or an external hardship. However, for these decisions to be meaningful, Victor believed they must be in accordance with society's values or the person's conscience.

Will to meaning 

Will to meaning asserts that humans are free to achieve their goals and purposes. Many conditions, such as depression, were believed by Victor to arise when people do not realize that they have this freedom.

Meaning in life 

Meaning in life states that meaning is an objective reality rather than an illusion. Humans have the freedom and responsibility to bring out their best selves and find their own meaning of life in every moment of every situation.

However, logotherapy and existential analysis do not promise that life will always be happy. Instead, they may help clients find meaning, purpose, and direction regardless of what is occurring. 

Three techniques used by therapists

This form of therapy uses three techniques to achieve these purposes: paradoxical intention, dereflection, and Socratic dialogue.

Paradoxical intention 

Paradoxical intention is the act of wishing for what you fear the most. This process makes you confront the fear and feel control over it. For example, if you fear embarrassing yourself in front of others, you could purposely embarrass yourself so that you have the experience and reduce the fear of it happening again. This process is similar to the modern form of therapy, exposure and response prevention (ERP), often used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias. 

Dereflection 

Dereflection is the act of focusing on others rather than ourselves. This technique focuses on helping, asking questions, and feeling empathy instead of only focusing on what you need or feel. 

Socratic dialogue 

Socratic dialogue (inspired by the writing of Socrates) is a tool used to help you notice and interpret your thoughts and words. This technique is often utilized in therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy. During therapy, the therapist can listen to a client's words and way of phrasing to help the client find meaning in them and the answers they seek to their existential questions. However, you can also use Socratic dialogue on yourself by being mindful of your own words and thoughts.

Benefits of logotherapy

Benefits may include happiness, mental health, and improved psychological well-being. People who find meaning in life may feel more optimistic and have more significant life satisfaction. One study found that all participants no longer felt a sense of meaninglessness in their lives after partaking in the therapy. 

Applications

There are numerous applications of logotherapy, including trauma therapy, grief counseling, and the treatment of a range of other mental health-related concerns. The techniques of this type of therapy have helped numerous people, from early adolescents to older adults, work through their challenges and emotional pain. It has primarily benefited those experiencing major life transitions, mental illness, terminal illness, and grief. Despite the hardships, people who utilize this form of therapy may find purpose and life satisfaction through its practices. 

Managing symptoms of mental illness

Finding meaning in life correlates with better mental health and well-being. Viktor Frankl believed that emotional pain occurred due to a lack of meaning. He argued that those who find meaning often reduce distressing symptoms. 

As the therapeutic techniques of this therapy discuss well-being and optimism, this therapeutic modality may encourage those with mental health conditions to care for themselves and practice gratitude, compassion, and empathy. 

However, logotherapy is not a cure for mental health issues. It is a form of therapy to help individuals cope with the symptoms and may or may not be effective for everyone who tries it. It might offer benefits to those experiencing the following mental health conditions: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorders
  • Suicidal ideation*

*If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support.

Living with a terminal illness

Logotherapy is often applied to people experiencing a terminal illness, such as cancer patients. Frankl's theory states that all life has meaning, even if someone is confronted with a terminal condition or unavoidable hardship. It helps cancer patients and others experiencing terminal illness find their own meaning in their lives and experience purpose and direction as they cope with the illness. 

However, receiving this therapy differs from getting professional medical advice to treat your condition. It can provide meaning but does not promise to cure or treat any medical condition. If you are experiencing medical concerns, consult your primary care physician. 

Coping with grief

Many people lose their meaning and direction while grieving the loss of a loved one. This reaction can be understandable; losing someone dear to you can be painful and shake up your routine. This impact may leave you grieving, confused, and directionless.

However, Viktor Frankl believed that death is a stage of everyone's lives and that clients can find meaning through these experiences. Though death can be scary and cause sadness, it can also bring new meaning and purpose. Logotherapy helps people find meaning in the death of their loved ones and the grief they are experiencing. It can also help them find meaning in their new life without their loved ones. For this reason, grief counseling is a common application of Frankl's therapy.

Coping with other hardships

Viktor Frankl's ideas and book (Man's Search For Meaning) were primarily influenced by the experiences endured in concentration camps. Frankl observed that those living in the concentration camps fostered a sense of meaning, purpose, or hope and that it helped them cope with their conditions. If you're experiencing a hardship, this therapy may benefit you. 

Is it authoritarian?

When people analyze the concepts around logotherapy, they may want to understand where the ideas come from. Some psychologists believe that it presents a basic solution that undermines the complexity of human life and experiences.

However, Frankl argued that in clinical practice, this type of therapy helped people search for meaning but was often combined with other treatments, such as medication, to help address genetic or complex concerns, such as mental illness. This form of therapy was not meant to dismiss human hardship or undermine all the challenges people go through. Instead, it was meant to give direction and inspiration to people who felt lost and purposeless. However, if you do not connect with the ideas of logotherapy, there are over 400 other types of treatments available. 

Techniques to find the meaning

While logotherapy is about finding meaning in life, there are several ways one can go about this process. Not every method is helpful to every individual, and this type of therapy makes room for the treatment of unique individuals.

Participating in activities

Working and participating in activities is one way to find meaning. When people immerse themselves in their careers, businesses, families, worship, and other activities, they may feel a sense of value. For example, caring for someone else may make an individual feel they have a purpose and a reason to wake up.

When people have jobs, careers, or activities they care about, it gives them something to look forward to and plan their lives around and contributes to their growth. Doing an activity consistently can be an enlightening experience. It allows people to learn more about themselves and connect with like-minded individuals.

Finding meaningful experiences through logotherapy

The idea that specific experiences in life can contribute to finding meaning is a dominant theme in many cultures. Each person is unique because we all have different experiences and come from different origins. Our experiences shape who we are as individuals in many cases. This influence can help us find meaning in our daily lives. 

There have been countless cases in which people have reported feeling inspired due to an event they experienced or witnessed. This inspiration can be a testament to experiences' impact on the human psyche. Our experiences allow us to find meaning in life because they teach us about ourselves, others, and the world in which we live.

Finding meaning in adversity

According to logotherapy, the attitudes that people develop in the face of adversity are another way to find meaning in life.

When faced with adversity, people can make a decision to continue, give up, or make a change. A person who chooses to grow from adversity may regard the experience as a lesson, even if it is painful or trying. Those with this outlook may see adversity as a growth opportunity. 

However, it can be normal if you struggle to grow from or see the positive sides of adversity. Many people feel this way, and logotherapy or another type of counseling may be able to help you take another outlook. However, you do not have to partake in if it doesn't align with your values. 

Common assumptions from patients

As a form of treatment, logotherapy is rooted in a series of assumptions about life and the nature of human beings. These assumptions are as follows. 

Wholeness of psyche 

Logotherapy is rooted in the assumption that each person has a psyche, which makes up the totality of their mind.

Everything has meaning 

Another assumption is that meaning exists in all circumstances. No matter how positive or negative an experience is, logo therapists believe there is something to be learned. Logotherapy maintains that finding meaning in all experiences can help people grow and discover a sense of purpose in their lives.

Will to meaning 

One of logotherapy's main assumptions is that humans are motivated by the "will to meaning" and that every person can discover their unique purpose in life. This idea connects to the three ways the treatment focuses on helping people learn about themselves and the world around them.

Everyone is unique 

The idea that each human being is unique is another core assumption of logotherapy. Each human being has their own experiences, thoughts, and ideas that contribute to who they are. The process of finding meaning in life, then, will typically be different for each participant.

Curious about how your experiences reveal your life's meaning?

Counseling options 

Logotherapy focuses on the drive and ability to create meaning in your life. This treatment has been used to treat people with mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Logotherapy is often blended with other forms of treatment to maximize its effectiveness. If you would like to learn more about logotherapy, you can check out the Viktor Frankl Institute or Frankl's book Man's Search For Meaning.

If you want to learn more about therapy or are interested in working with a therapist, there are various options. Many clients may avoid therapy due to its high cost. However, through online counseling, you may be able to find a cost-effective logo therapist without leaving home. Online therapy allows you to participate in worksheets, receive resources, and talk to a professional through phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

One study found that online logotherapy was as effective as in-person therapy in reducing symptoms of depression in participants. If you're interested in getting matched with a therapist that practices this type of counseling or another modality, consider signing up for a platform like BetterHelp, which can connect clients with a provider within 48 hours. 

Takeaway

Frankl believed a sense of meaninglessness was associated with aggression, depression, and dependency. In support of his theory, research studies have found logotherapy useful with dependency on substances, depression, anxiety, psychoses, and the despair associated with incurable illnesses. Logotherapy is also used in areas including rehabilitation, work with developmental disabilities, and family and relationship counseling. Finally, specific logotherapy protocols have been developed for mood, anxiety, and personality disorders. 

Working with a licensed therapist to learn more about psychology and find meaning in your life can support you with various concerns, and you do not need a mental health condition to reach out. Consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and information about logotherapy and the types of treatment available to you. 

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