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Existential Therapy

Learn how and why therapists are using Existential Therapy


Were it not for therapeutic interventions and techniques, would the field of psychotherapy exist?

At least one psychological orientation resoundingly says yes - the field of existential psychology places its main emphasis outside of what others traditionally consider "therapeutic interventions."

It's not that existential therapists refute the necessity and effectiveness of therapeutic interventions for some people, in certain situations or for specific problems or issues. However, for many individuals grappling with what philosophers call "life's big issues," issues such as the purpose and meaning of life and death, personal freedom, responsibility, and connectedness and isolation, psychological "techniques" fail to heal most individuals.

Louis Hoffman, a licensed clinical psychologist who uses existential psychology as his main orientation when working with clients, describes the existential approach as going "much deeper" than other forms of therapy.

Hoffman, one of the founding faculty members of the psychology department at the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, Colo., explained that existential psychology is part of a group of psychological orientations labeled depth psychologies, approaches that include Jungian, psychoanalytic, and humanistic. All of these orientations draw on each other, sharing similar values and approaches.


The existential therapy approach

Many existential therapists use existentialist theories and approaches exclusively, or combine them with any of the other depth psychology theories. Some therapists call themselves existential-integrative psychologists, meaning that they integrate existentialist theory with theories from one of the other major psychological frameworks – psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or family systems.

Regardless of approach, however, existentialists share and value the same existential focus: helping clients live full and enriching lives given their personal beliefs and values. In many cases, the existential therapist helps clients uncover their own beliefs and values, separating these convictions from what has been imposed on them by society, culture, and other “outside forces.”

Hoffman said that depth or existential psychotherapies are interested in changing how people live their lives, view their lives, and find meaning in their lives. If someone denies living according to his or her life's purpose, then he or she doesn't live authentically or freely - and that's not living responsibly as well.

If a particular situation requires CBT or another solution-focused therapy, however, many existential therapists are prepared to also apply that intervention.

For example, if a client seeks out a psychotherapist to help cope with chronic pain, an existential therapist will employ the same deep relaxation techniques that a cognitive behaviorist would use. However, the existential therapist who detects an underlying psychological association or connection to the pain will explore other parts of the client's well being. Stress might exacerbate the pain, and that stress might stem from a range of issues in the client's current or past life - or perhaps an internal struggle with some of life's big questions, such as "what is the meaning and purpose of my life?"

"It's an approach that doesn't just look at symptom reduction although existential therapy does have an interest in helping clients reduce symptoms," Hoffman said. "But it focuses on helping clients live well and learn from their emotions."

Therapist-client relationship

Hoffman credits the relationship between the existential therapist and client as contributing to clients' progress and recovery. For that reason, he said, it's a relational psychology, a type of therapy that navigates healing and growth through the therapist-client relationship.

To describe this relationship, Hoffman's website quotes from the founder of client-centered psychology Carl Rogers. In Roger's book  A Way of Being, Rogers said that becoming "a therapist is about learning a way of being that is healing. When empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness flow from the therapist's way of being, they are healing. When applied as a technique they often are not and, at times, become counterproductive."

Hoffman's website continues: "Think of a time in your past when someone applied the technique of empathy with you. How did you feel? If you are like most people you felt deeply hurt, angry, or unseen. Empathy, as a technique, does little good and often incurs harm. Conversely, empathy, when part of a process or the outflow of an empathetic person, is profoundly powerful and healing."

In other words, therapists can be taught listening skills and statements that try and simulate empathetic responses, but clients quickly recognize these tactics. It's only when the therapist honestly empathizes that the client is able to heal, and move toward a healthier, more meaningful existence.

If you are interested in existential psychology or becoming an existential therapist, take classes at the undergraduate level that explain the theory and practice behind this psychological orientation. Some colleges and universities have specific coursework, certificates, and advanced degrees in this field.

To become a psychotherapist, usually a master's degree or PhD is required. Each state also has specific certification and licensing requirements. To explore a career as an existential psychotherapist, request information from schools offering psychology degree programs leading toward this specialty.

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