Existential psychotherapy takes on a philosophical approach and, is a process of searching for the value and meaning of life, (Corey, 2005, p. 131). It focuses on the self, what it means to be a person, reflection, and free will. It rejects common theories from psychoanalysis as well as radical behaviorism.
According to this theory, we are responsible for our own actions and choices. It is up to us to make improvements upon ourselves. With existential psychotherapy, we are not victims of circumstance, because to a large extent we are what we choose to be, (Corey, 2005, p. 131).
During therapy it is important for the client to reflect, recognize, and decide what to do. Once a client recognizes, the ways in which they have passively accepted circumstances and surrendered control, they can start on a path of consciously shaping their own lives,(Corey, 2005, p. 131).
It is the goal of the therapist to encourage the client to find and develop a greater purpose or meaning in life. Instead of focusing on the negatives or the circumstances that are holding one back, he or she can move and choose how to run his or her life. Instead of focusing on certain therapeutic techniques, clients are also encouraged to just focus on the deep meaning of life.
Propositions of Existential Psychotherapy
There are six propositions for existential psychotherapy. They are First Proposition: The Capacity for Self-Awareness, Second Proposition: Freedom and Responsibility, Third Proposition: Striving for Identity and Relationship to Others, Fourth Proposition: The Search for Meaning, Fifth Proposition: Anxiety as a Condition of Living, and Sixth Proposition: Awareness of Death and Non being(Corey, 2005, pp. 137-144).
The first step is becoming aware and accepting certain things within one’s life. Awareness is expanded through the following: time is limited, we must choose our actions so that destiny is within our hands, meaning of life is important to find, we have the potential to take action or not to act; inaction is a decision, existential anxiety is important, we are alone but can relate to others, and, we are subject to loneliness, meaninglessness, emptiness, guilt, and isolation (Corey, 2005, p. 137).
The second proposition, freedom and responsibility, focuses on the fact that in this school of psychotherapy, one must take on the responsibility of his or her actions and then has the freedom to choose how to react or act in response to those responsibilities.
The third proposition is when one strives for identity and relationships with others. The four phases of this are the courage to be, the experience of aloneness, the experience of relatedness, and struggling with our identity (Corey, 2005).
The fourth proposition is the search for meaning. It is one of the most valued aspects of existential psychotherapy and theory. There are three hardships during this proposition which are discarding old values, lack of meaning, and finding new meaning. When discarding old values, a client may struggle to find new ones that are more realistic or ideal to replace the old values. It is important for the therapist to help properly guide the client or encourage him or her to strive for new more suitable values.
As mentioned several times, the meaning of life is very important for this form of psychotherapy. Finding new meaning to replace the old meaning is difficult but can be accomplished with the help of the therapist. Proposition five has to do with anxiety. Anxiety is coming and is inevitable unfortunately. It is a part of growing up and dealing with life according to existential theory.
The therapist needs to differentiate between normal and neurotic anxiety within the client. The client needs to learn how to recognize this as well. Normal anxiety is a human’s appropriate response to something that happens. It is a good motivator. However, neurotic anxiety, in contrast, is out of proportion to the situation’s and is typically out of awareness, and tends to immobilize the person, (Corey, 2005, p. 143).
The client must learn how to accept some anxiety within his or her life and understand that it is a normal party of life while trying to minimize neurotic anxiety as much as possible. Finally, proposition six is the awareness of death and non being. Existentialism views death as a natural occurring thing that happens and does not fear it. Instead death gives life more meaning and much more appreciation. Take advantage of each opportunity given and live life to the fullest in this form on psychotherapy.
Major Contributors to Existential Psychotherapy
Major Contributors are Rollo May and Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl lived a very difficult life. He was a prisoner in both Auschwitz and Dachau Nazi concentration camps. He lost his parents, brother, wife, and children there. Frankl, vividly remembered his horrible experiences in these camps, yet he was able to use them in a constructive way and did not allow them to dampen his love and enthusiasm for life (Corey, 2005, p. 129). Viktor’s existential approach began before enduring the Holocaust, but his experiences there further confirmed those beliefs. In 1963, Man’s Search for Meaning was published (Corey. 2005). According to him, love is the highest goal to which humans can aspire and that our salvation is through love, (Corey, 2005, p.129). Even when enduring terrible things, humans can find their own way and appreciate a greater meaning in life.
Rollo May was a contributor as well publishing books that gained popularity. He believed that, psychotherapy should be aimed at helping people discover the meaning of their lives and should be concerned with the problems of being rather than with problem solving(Corey, 2005, p. 130). Existential psychotherapy can be quite useful for developing appropriate boundaries, chronic emotional hunger, suffering, coping with death or significant life changes, and persistent disorders such as depression, neurotic anxiety, etc. Some limitations could be the limited audience that it generally applies to, lack of research-based treatment, and negativity (Day, 2008).
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