At first glance, a career in existential psychology doesn’t appear all that different from a career in any other psychology field. Common career titles such as counselor, clinical psychologist, and sports psychologist still apply to those working in existential psychology as in other psychology fields.
It’s not the career title that separates careers in existential psychology from others, but the approach or orientation that practitioners employ to help clients. Those who specialize in the field of existential psychology focus on treating clients differently than psychologists trained in other areas, focusing more on clients’ underlying philosophies about life and death, meaning, purpose, and a life well lived.
Basics of Existentialist Thought
For example, psychotherapists with an existential orientation don’t view clients with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders as having an “illness” or “disease.” Instead, these conditions are viewed as a result of individuals acknowledging the “givens of existence.” The givens are that everyone, ultimately, experiences life singularly, differently from all others, causing isolation and feelings of meaninglessness. Everyone dies. And everyone has the freedom and responsibility to live authentic lives.
Irvin D. Yalom, a psychotherapist, author, and one of the pioneers of existentialist thought, was the first to identify these “givens” or what he defined as the “terrors” of existence, and stated them accordingly:
If denied, these terrors will ultimately lead to problems and issues, issues that can turn into what others label “mood disorders.”
A ‘Given’ vs. an ‘Illness’
Entering therapy, the depressed or anxious client feels miserable, uneasy, sometimes unable to sleep, or get out of bed, overeating or under-eating, sad, unable to enjoy social functions, family, or time spent with friends and spouses. Rather than treat only these depressive “symptoms,” trying to extinguish them through various types of techniques and interventions, an existential psychology professional works with the client, investigating the embodiment of the client’s entire belief and value system, a system on which the client has constructed his or her life.
As a type of tour guide through the client’s psyche, the existential psychologist uncovers structures or items adhered to based on social and cultural norms rather than on what the client truly accepts or believes. Environments that constrict growth through conformity point to inauthentic lifestyles and relationships, both contribute to a client’s “dis-ease.” The existential psychology professional works to help clients change both thoughts and behaviors, re-constructing a life based on the client’s passions and authentic beliefs and values.
In his book Staring at the Sun, Yalom states that the awareness of morality alone “may serve as an awakening experience, a profoundly useful catalyst for life changes.” So, whether working as a social worker, life coach, vocational counselor, or sports psychologist, an existential professional will keep these “givens” or “terrors” in mind as they work with clients.
A Way of Being
One of the key elements in effective existential psychotherapy is the relationship between the client and therapist. It’s through this relationship that the client experiences empathy, unconditional acceptance, and genuineness.
This type of psychotherapeutic relationship was first termed person-centered by psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers defined the therapist’s role as “a way of being” that is conducive for healing. For this reason, many existential psychology professionals continuously work on their own lives, realizing that no one holds the answer to life’s mysteries, and that asking the same type of existential questions as their clients, and re-evaluating the ongoing search for their own correct path, is as important to the healing process as any solution-based technique.
A Different Type of Career
The movement away from structured, protocol-driven psychological techniques and interventions intrigues many of those interested in a career in existential psychology. These individuals want to build relationships with their clients, help them search for meaning, and continue to improve themselves by searching and journeying with their clients. They want to help others, but not focus exclusively on the more traditional or cognitive behaviorist therapies.
If you are interested in changing and empowering lives through a type of thought-provoking, philosophically based psychology, a type of psychology that confronts life’s toughest questions head on, consider a career in existential psychology.
Contact schools offering classes, majors, and specializations in existential or transpersonal psychology programs, and request information on how to prepare for a career in this rewarding field.
Books to Read If You’re Interested in Becoming an Existential Psychotherapist
Louis Hoffman, a licensed clinical, existential psychologist, and a founding faculty member of the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, Colo., recommends three authors:
- Irvin D. Yalom
- Rollo May
- Victor Frankl
On his website, Hoffman recommends the following:
Yalom: Love’s Executioner (1980), Existential Psychotherapy (1989)
May: Love and Will (1969), The Cry for Myth (1991)
Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning (1984), Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (2000)