Most areas of psychology attempt to understand how individuals “learn to be” in the world, trying, through psychotherapy, to correct dysfunctional or harmful ways of living that individuals have developed. But in the absence of dysfunction, major questions of “being” or “what exactly it means to be human” often find their academic place in the field of philosophy.
However, the field of existential psychology combines the big questions of philosophy with the tenets of psychology. This field considers how these philosophical questions affect psyches and behaviors, how individuals live out their day- to- day lives within the context of these questions, questions not easily answered by scientists or philosophers.
Existential psychologists believe that it’s not only important to identify and reduce the symptomatology of mental illnesses, addictions, relationship issues, and other psychological issues, but to go beyond the symptoms, addressing how a person defines meaning, purpose, and a life well lived.
Existentialists believe symptoms can be reduced while unhappiness and discontent remain, often causing symptoms to reappear, exacerbate, and become harder to manage in the future.
What do Existential Psychologists Do?
Existential psychologists are not only concerned with “being” but with “becoming” as well. They desire to help clients find the path in life that is their own, a path that they desire to travel, a path that brings self-fulfillment. Societal conventions, adherence to cultural norms and ideologies, or rigid beliefs and attitudes handed down generationally often result in discontent and illness, a feeling of having no control over one’s life or decisions, a loss of a “sense of self.”
But that doesn’t mean that existential psychology denies the struggles and pain that individuals must confront. By definition, the term “existential” is often described as the “pains” of existence.
These pains take the form of not only conflicts and harsh realities, but also the realization that one is inherently isolated in his or her experience, that life has no inherent meaning structure, that one is responsible for authoring his or her life story, and that one dies - ceasing to exist at all. If confronted honestly, this realization helps one to live life more fully, but if not addressed, it can lead to a number of "living" or "being" issues and problems.
Career Options for those Interested in Existential Psychology
- Licensed Mental or Behavioral Health Professionals: Clinical or Counseling Psychologists, Clinical Social Workers, Professional Counselors, Marriage and Family Therapists
- Psychiatric Nurse Specialists
- Sports Psychologist
- Professional and Personal Coach
- Vocational Counselor
- Organizational Consultants
- Motivational Speaker and Author
- Professor and Researcher
- Spiritual Director
As a philosophy, existentialism began in the 19th century with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Both philosophers emphasized freedom of choice and personal responsibility, of men and women having the right to delve into their own ideas and concepts of what gives meaning and passion to their lives, and forming a “self” based on those personal beliefs. Responsibility meant owning and living with the decisions one made in living out those beliefs.
Studied and expanded on by a number of other philosophers, existentialism eventually became an early 20th century movement, greatly influencing one of the founders of existential psychology, Rollo May. While spending three years in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, May read extensively, especially the writings of Kierkegaard. Referencing May, Trent Claypool, a PsyD student at the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said that the goal of psychotherapy from the existential perspective is to set people free.
One of May’s popular quotes summarizes this thought on personal freedom and responsibility: “If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.” When discussing freedom, individuals often think of the democratic principles of political or religious freedom, but May was referring to a different type of freedom.
It’s about free will, being responsible, and living life well, said Claypool, who will graduate with his doctorate in August 2010, and plans a career in clinical psychology, working as an existential psychotherapist. Today, Claypool explained, existential psychology falls under the larger psychological framework of humanistic psychology, and within a category or overarching theme called depth psychology. Depth psychology includes a number of psychological approaches that share similarities in how they explore the conscious and unconscious aspects of beliefs and behaviors.
Claypool said he was drawn to existential psychology and psychotherapy when he discovered the field addressed the same type of questions he frequently asked himself. For example, he would ask himself questions such as “what’s the purpose of what I’m doing right now?” They were the type of questions that frequently didn’t have any definite answers.
“I was very aware of the givens of existence, the existential type of things: that our life here is limited and while that can be scary, it also opens up the possibility to live life differently,” Claypool said. When he discovered that there was a type of psychotherapy that asked clients the same type of questions he asked himself, that probed their thoughts on the meaning and purpose of their existence, he knew he had found the perfect fit.
As an existential psychotherapist, Claypool said he will derive his overall therapy goals from the existential perspective. But it’s also important to know the techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and behavioral and family systems, and to apply the appropriate techniques based on the individual needs of each client.
Today, any form of effective clinical psychotherapy is integrative, Claypool said, meaning that the therapy doesn’t adhere rigidly to only one approach. For existential psychologists, it appears that conformity in psychological approach is as harmful as conformity in everyday life. As Founder Rollo May stated: “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”
For that reason, many in the psychological community who strictly adhere to one psychological framework often criticize those who don’t follow one theoretical structure, but that doesn’t deter those committed to existentialism. More universities and colleges continue to add existential psychology courses, majors, and specializations.
To achieve certification or licensure as a clinical psychotherapist, employers require at least a master’s degree, and many prefer a PhD. States also have specific requirements regarding licensure and certification in areas such as clinical existential psychology.
If you are interested in pursuing a psychology career in existentialism, request information from psychology schools offering courses, degrees, and specializations in this area.