An Existential Approach to Counseling: What Is It About?

[Key Words: philosophical approach, taking stock of life, anxiety, exploration of values, death/finitude, isolation & relationships, meaning & purpose, the four dimensions]


The following essay delineates ten points that people can consider when embracing an existential approach to counseling. People hear the word existentialism, and often wonder what it is all about. It sounds so academic, perhaps high-brow, or bespeaks of esoteric discussions in philosophical circles, cafes, or coffee shops. The following discussion simply outlines in broad strokes some of the exploratory paths an existential approach to counseling can take.

I. A Philosophical Approach

Existential psychotherapy, rather than being an approach based on a medical model that addresses clients in terms of diagnoses and cure, is a philosophical approach that asks and challenges clients to explore what they want their lives to be about, how they would like to live, and how they would like to make changes in the way they are living now. As a philosophical approach, clients are not asked to be academic philosophers, but are encouraged to ask questions about what they like and do not like about their lives so as to make the kinds of changes they want to make.

II. Contemplative

A. Taking Stock of Life

If clients are asked to explore ways they would want to make changes, then they should be comfortable with the fact that existential psychotherapy is a contemplative endeavor. Psychotherapy can become that time and space that individuals set aside to step back from daily routines and reflect on what their lives are about. From an existential perspective, clients can take stock of their lives and decide what they like and what changes they want to make. An existential approach engages clients as though they are responsible for how they shape their lives.

B. Exploration of Values

One important avenue that individuals can explore as their taking stock of their lives involves the values that they claim to hold and by which they declare to live. Psychotherapy can help individuals clarify whether or not the values they claim to hold are in fact their values. Many times people may come to realize that the values they espouse are really not ones by which they would choose to live. They may discover that some values they have always claimed to believe are ones, instead, they have inculcated from their family, social milieu, or culture in which they live. Psychotherapy becomes a process by which people can decide what they truly value.

III. Existential Anxiety

If people seek to take stock of their lives, explore their values, and simply take the time to contemplate life, then such decisions can bring on anxiety. Existential anxiety revolves around the fact that people are responsible for making choices for their lives. If a person does not like the course by which his or her life has taken, is he or she willing to make necessary changes to alter that course? Such a decision involves taking risks, making choices, and being responsible for those choices. If people conclude that the values by which they are trying to live are, in fact, not ones they have truly chosen, then they are faced with a decision. They must choose either to go on living in an inauthentic way, or to live authentically by stepping into the values they would choose for themselves. Again, such a decision involves the anxiety that comes with being responsible for one’s choices and one’s course of life. Some people enter psychotherapy not fully understanding the day-to-day anxiety they experience and from where it emanates. Existentialists tend to believe that one of the toughest decisions that people make is to become their authentic selves.

IV. Death/Finitude

The ultimate limiting situation that people face is their finitude, the fact that one day they will die, along with the fact that they do not know when that time will come. Rather than being a morbid preoccupation, the topic of one’s death or finitude highlights the limited time one has on this side of life. Hence, it behooves people to live fully, to know what they want from life, what they in fact value,, and live toward the end they set for themselves. Time is of the essence. And sometimes people enter psychotherapy, perhaps believing that they are wasting their time away and want to seek a more fulfilling life. Perhaps they believe that they have lived their lives according to the dictates of others rather than exercising the freedom they have to shape their own lives. Or perhaps they believe they have lived their lives overcautiously, not taking risks and going after the kind of life they would prefer to live.

V. Existential Isolation & Relationships

All people face the important choice of how they would like to related to others. Relating, particularly on an intimate level, involves risk and vulnerability. People tend to search for ways to navigate pulling back from relationships to stay safe on the one hand, while, on the other hand, risking the vulnerability to know and be known. Such tension appears to be part of living. Existential isolation, however, involves more than mere interpersonal isolation. There is a sense that we are all alone on some level, in that no one can decide our lives for us, what values we should hold, or what choices we should make for our lives. So even the choice to relate or how to relate is one that people have to make for themselves. To abdicate this responsibility and hand decisions for our lives over to others is, in fact, a choice that has consequences like any other choice. Abdication of personal responsibility for living usually results in consequences that are dire for the abdicator. Many people enter psychotherapy dealing with interpersonal loneliness, only to also find that they have a difficult time learning to be alone with themselves. An existential approach can help individuals explore how they might navigate the tensions between the desire to relate and the need to recognize our existential isolation.

VI. Meaning and Purpose

To deal with questions of meaning and purpose in one’s life can bring about a multitude of reactions. For some individuals, the question is exhilarating, and one about which they are passionate; they desire with all their fiber to answer the questions of personal meaning and purpose. For others, the questions of meaning and purpose in their lives are frightening ones; many times they would rather avoid the question altogether. But the haunting question of what our lives are all about swirls in the back of our minds, and at times emerges with full force to produce emotions and to lead us to evaluate honestly our ways of living. Do I have some kind of understanding as to why I am here, and what I am to do with the life given me? At times, people enter psychotherapy to explore that very question. Although the question creates anxiety in our lives, from an existential perspective, it is an all-important question with which to struggle, and a question about which we should come to conclusions.

VII. Freedom and Responsibility

If it were up to most of us, at least part if not most of the time, I think we would pass the responsibility for our decisions, indeed our entire lives, off to someone else. At least that’s the way it seems at times. It’s easier that way. However, from an existential perspective, choices have consequences. The tendency of our culture today is to blame others for our predicaments. We blame society, our parents, politicians, and who knows what or whom else. Taking responsibility for one’s choices is an important theme in existentialism. Freedom and responsibility does not mean that things don’t happen to us over which we have little to no control. In fact, one key point of existentialism is the need to recognize that there is much more that is out of our control in our lives than is in our control. It’s rather hubris-filled to believe otherwise. However, as Viktor Frankl held, the one thing in our control is our attitude toward life and what it brings our way. Many times people enter therapy with an excessively blaming attitude; or they feel frozen and fearful of making choices and living out where those choices may take them. There is no guarantee that we will not make some bad or wrong choices for our lives; however, we can learn from our failures as well as our successes, but only if we embrace the responsibility for those choices within our power to make. How we respond to the storms of life is as important as how we respond to times of smooth sailing.

VIII. Self/Identity

Who am I? Many people find the task to describe who they are a difficult one. We tend in our culture to use our career as one marker for our identity – I’m a professor, I’m a banker, I’m an architect, etc. The loss of self is prevalent today in our culture; some question whether there is such a thing as a self. From an existential perspective, this indeed is a loss. I’m alway intrigued by the claim that our culture is too individualistic. I believe we live in an age of collectivism and conformity as much as any time in our culture’s history. Many people enter therapy because they simply do not know who they are. They have lost that line between what values they hold and what others have told them to value. Existential therapy can help people explore who they are, and how they want to live. From the perspective of existentialism, the confusion over whether or not a self exists lies in the search for a solid, unified self. Existentialists hold that the self is always in process. Our understanding of ourselves is always evolving and growing. The existential emphasis is not on static being, but on the self-evolutionary process of becoming.

IX. Time

People come into therapy living in various dimensions of time, either captured by their past or enslaved to some idealistic view of the future, both of which prevents them from living in the here-and-now. No doubt, time is an important factor in our development and the planning of our lives. But some people believe that they cannot live the kind of lives they want because of their past. Other people put off living their lives for some future Nirvana they believe will unfold toward some perfect, utopian life. Navigating time is an important skill for living, both in learning from our past experiences and skillfully planning for our future endeavors. However, both the past and the future can lay claim to our living in the present in a way that robs us of living altogether. Existential psychotherapy helps clients understand that they live in time, but that time is always unfolding, making life a continuous process. Living in the past, or becoming lost in the future is no way to live.

X. The Four Dimensions

I will discuss the four dimensions of existential exploration in another article. Let it suffice here for me to say that in my work, I draw on the conceptualization offered by Emmy van Deurzen and her work within the British School of Existential psychotherapy. From this perspective, existential work involves engaging the dimensions of the physical, social, personal, and spiritual. I seek to work holistically, integrating these various dimensions of living. Whether one is struggling with somatic concerns, relationships, personal questions of identity, or spiritual/religious concerns, nothing is off limits for existential work. Are you dealing with bodily  and chronic pain, eating concerns? Are you struggling with relationships? Are you trying to decide what you want your life to be all about and what you truly value? Are you dealing with concerns that you consider spiritual in nature? Are you struggling with your relationship with God, or beliefs about God? All these concerns fall within the purview of an existential approach.


These ten points merely scratch the surface on all that existential literature touches. Likewise, these ten points or themes are interconnected. Exploring self/identity will invariably lead people to take stock of their lives, interpersonal relationships, and personal values. Explorations of meaning and purpose connect all the themes that existentialists might explore in various ways. The choices we make, how we navigate time, develop intimacy, and the manner in which we face anxieties brought on by living will lead to various contemplations about our personal lives, others, and God – about all the things we say we believe and value. Existentialism is about existence. That is, existentialism is about living.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/October 13, 2013