Compilation Definition of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy is dedicated to the exploration of reality as it can be experienced in a passionate and personal manner. It asks questions like, Why am I here? What is my purpose? and Who am I? The importance of existential concerns for people is rated very high among those who are older and are;

1. experiencing traumatic events

2. those with a disability or chronic disease

3. terminal illness

4. victims of abuse or violence

5. those with addictions

Existential therapy focuses on each person as a unique individual as well as the choices that shape their life. The therapist empowers the patient to take responsibility for their decisions and create the present and future they desire. It is more of a way of thinking than a neatly defined model of treatment with specific techniques. It is a philosophical approach to therapy that assumes we are free to choose and are responsible for our choices. Psychologist Bernard Frankel, in his article entitled ‘Existential Issues in Group Psychotherapy’ points out how existential thought is both a philosophy and a values system. He argues that in an age of increasing alienation of “man from himself” the features of existentialism can be applied to help create or clarify an individual’s value system. In existential therapy each person must confront in his or her therapeutic quest the question of ‘What is the ultimate meaning of human existence? Frankl argues that failure to resolve these ultimate questions or conflicts results in the creation of an ‘existential vacuum’ that leads to existential anxiety (angst) which is ultimately the root of many psychological problems that people face.

What else is existential therapy recommended for? Psychological problems—like substance abuse—result from an inhibited ability to make authentic, meaningful, and self-directed choices about how to live, according to the existential approach. Interventions often aim to increase self-awareness and self-understanding. Existential service providers try to comprehend and alleviate a variety of symptoms, including excessive anxiety, apathy, alienation, nihilism, avoidance shame,despair, depression, guilt, anger,rage,resentment,embitterment,purposelessness, psychosis, and violence. They also focus on life-enhancing experiences like relationships, love, caring, commitment, courage, creativity, power, will, presence, spirituality, individuation, self-actualization, authenticity, acceptance, transcendence, and awe.

The therapist will assist the client in:

1. Recognizing that life is at times unfair and unjust 

2. Recognizing that ultimately there is no escape from some of life’s pain or from death 

3. Recognizing that no matter how close I get to other people, I still face life alone 

4. Facing the basic issues of my life and death, and thus living my life more honestly and being less caught up in trivialities 

5. Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others 

People often have a limited awareness of themselves and the nature of their problems. Existential therapy typically deals with people in what is called a restricted existence. They often see few options available to them and feel helpless or trapped. The goal of existential therapy is to understand the subjective world of the client and to help them come to new understandings and new options. In order to do this, the client must become fully aware of their feelings and actions in the present, confront their anxiety, and develop a genuine relationship with themselves and with the world around them.

Existential therapy focuses on the anxiety that occurs when you confront these inherent conflicts, and the therapist’s role is to foster personal responsibility for making decisions. Yalom, another founding pioneer perceives the therapist as a “fellow traveler” through life, and uses empathy and support to elicit insight and choices. And because people exist in the presence of others, the relational context of AA is an effective approach, he says. The core question addressed in this kind of therapy is “how do I exist in the face of uncertainty, conflict, or death?”

The aim is to search for truth with an open mind and an attitude of curiosity rather than to fit the person seeking therapy into pre-established frameworks of interpretation. Existential concerns cannot be put in a treatment manual since so much of it requires immediacy, genuineness and spontaneity. While existential factors as an important part of group and individual therapy, it is more useful in the context of other factors, rather than as a free-standing therapy “akin to schools like cognitive-behavioral.”

The ultimate conflict for the fundamentalist is the freedom in the existential belief that ultimate freedom means absence of external structure. That means that a person does not enter into a well-structured universe that has an absolute design but must instead create (be responsible for) his or her own world, life design, choices, and actions. In an existential sense freedom comes with responsibility. It would be safe to say existentialism conflicts with fundamentalism.

The difference between a fundamentalist and other people is not whether they do or don’t believe in a deity. There are plenty of people who believe in a deity who are not fundamentalists. A main difference between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists is whether they try to fit everything into a pre-established framework of interpretations. In A.A. there is a similar type of fundamentalist and literalist thinking:  

AA groups have traditionally had a rich vocabulary of slogans or maxims that perform this function. In the past, slogans like “First Things First” “Live and Let Live” “Easy Does It” were seen and heard. When I first started attending AA meetings, these slogans were posted on the walls at the AA fellowship halls I went to. Somehow these slogans, which could be universally related to (by religious believers and non-religious non-believers), seem to have fallen somewhat to the wayside, and are only infrequently seen or heard now-a-days. These non-religious slogans seem to have been replaced by religious slogans such as “Let go and let God.”

Today, within many AA groups, there are those with a fundamentalist mindset about recovery. They tackle the problem of recovery by aligning with a system of recovery beliefs and doctrines that provides them with certainty and “authoritative” answers to their questions and concerns about recovery. Unable to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, they resist the notion of choosing among alternatives, and searching for their own truth in recovery with an open mind. 

a) A very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Big Book; the absence from it of any kind of error

b) A strong hostility to modern recovery theory and to the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the 12 Step program and the Big Book

c) An assurance that those who do not share their recovery viewpoint are not “real alcoholics” at   all.

Fundamentalists in recovery advocate that the solution for all recovery situations is to become more fervent in their 12 Step practices.

Fortunately, an advantage of the existential approach is that it’s thought has been supplied by both theistic and atheistic philosophers. Thus in embracing an existentialist perspective, whether I believe in a deity or not, I’m able to reject or accept the 12 Step program by following a take-what-you-like-and-leave-the-rest philosophy. Alternatively, if I so choose, I may retain any of the 12 Step practices that make sense to me.

There are many strengths to this approach. First, it can be applied to a wide variety of settings, such as individual, group, family or couples therapy, and even community outreach settings. Another strength is the personal quality of the therapeutic relationship. The client is the central focus and is given respect, freedom of choice, and responsibility for their actions.

However, existential therapy is criticized for its lack of a defined, systematic approach. Its subjective philosophy must be applied by a therapist, counselor or coach who is mature, experienced, and well trained. The lack of a systematic approach has also made it difficult to study and measure the effectiveness of existential therapy.

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