What Is Existential Psychotherapy?

[Key Words: existentialism, contemplation, action, values, value system, angst, decision point, commitment, courage]

What does an existential approach to counseling entail? Existentialism is one of those half-dollar words that produces images of the halls of academia, philosophers sitting in their study, or men and women having coffee in Parisian cafes. What I offer here is one – my – perspective on trying to answer the question of what existential counseling involves. My answer to the question, What is existential psychotherapy?, is one of many. There is no one way to work existentially in counseling.

The approach I take, as a therapist, is fairly simple, straightforward, and concrete. From my perspective, existentialism is about existence. Existence is about our lives, about living our lives, making decisions about our lives, exploring meaning for our lives, striving to establish our values, and making a commitment to live by the values that we claim to hold.

Explorations along these lines can, and will, involve the many angles and perspectives with which we approach living. It may sound simple to answer the question: What are my values? However, as we delve into our understanding of what we claim to value, we may find that the answers do not flow from us so easily. We value many things. We may never have reflected on what our core values may be – those that we would prioritize over all other values, those that are foundational to any other values we hold. We may not have contemplated all that much on exactly what, in fact, our values are. We may have an intuitive sense of them. We may have some understanding of how some of the ways we act on life do reflect what we value. But we may have never dealt with the question of what ultimate values we claim to hold, and how they reflect the way we live. Such reflections involve our taking stock of our value system.

Consequently, one side of an existential approach to counseling is the contemplative side. Counseling entails a place to set aside some time to explore, contemplate (reflect upon), and clarify what it is that we actually believe and value. Other reflections and explorations may arise from this process, dealing with such questions as: 1) Does the way I live my life reflect what I claim to value? 2) If not, what is it that prevents me from living in full alignment with what I say I value? 3) Have I truly followed out and pursued the kind of life I want to live? 4) Do I, in fact, truthfully value what I say I value, or have I unthinkingly inculcated values from others without owning them for myself? These and many other questions may arise in the contemplative work of an existential approach to counseling. Hence, the title of this website: Contemplations: Center for Existential Psychotherapy.

Having addressed the contemplative work of existential counseling, we should not assume that such an approach merely involves sitting around and reflecting or contemplating. We must also come to grips with the other side of an existential approach that involves the equally important experience of acting. Life appears to be a dialectic between contemplation and action. It’s not that we line all our ducks up in a row, and then perfectly know what to do. The work of contemplation and action is an ongoing process. One purpose of an existential approach is to help clients ACT on what they have reflected upon and clarified. Hence, there is a decision point many times in existential work. Some existentialists call this decision point, commitment. Explorations of our values will most likely lead to our making changes in our lives. If i say I value a certain way of living, then I will commit to that way of living. If I do not make such a commitment, then I need to ask whether or not I truly value what I say I value. Consequently, existential work is a continual movement between contemplation and action. But contemplation without action can be a waste of time. People can become mired in thinking without ever acting on their thoughts and beliefs. Rather than contemplation, people fall into the habit of rumination. Existential work involves the challenge to act on what we say we believe. People enter therapy to change something in their lives. Changes do not happen most of the time without commitment to change. The only time that such inaction may make sense is when people conclude that they really do not want to change. They may have thought they wanted to change. But when they understood more fully what change entails, they decided, instead, that change is really not for them. This decision point, as any other, is a legitimate place for commitment – saying no to specific changes.

An existential approach does not proffer change as something necessarily easy and comfortable. Change can be scary and anxiety-ridden. Such anxiety is what existentialists call angst. Breaking inveterate habits is difficult work. The role of the therapist is to be a guide for the individual who wants to explore his or her life and make changes that may involve tough navigations and journeys. There are no guarantees as to what lies ahead on the road of change. One change may lead to many others. We may regret some changes, only to find other changes that are more fruitful for us. Because there are no guarantees that change will work out the way we exactly want it to, existentialists speak of the courage to change. Change involves risk and failure, as well as success. Yet many find that the risk of living in alignment with their values is worth the effort. Living in such alignment is the task of living out who we are.

In summary, existential work involves explorations of beliefs and values and commitment to acting on those clarified beliefs and values. Existential work may indeed involve a choice point, a decision point, at which time a person makes an effort to commit to a chosen set of values, to make a change in one’s life, to begin living by what one claims to value, or to make changes in one’s value system. And finally, there are no guarantees that change will work out as people might have pictured it to fall in place. The unknown road of change contains many curves and obstacles. But one thing we can know is that not acting will most likely not produce change. Existential work is the challenge to explore one’s life, establish one’s values, and live those values out the best way one can, with the understanding that we cannot know what both the beginning and the end of the road looks like all at once.  Change, major change, requires courage.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC -S/August 1, 2013