Existential psychology is a philosophical approach applied in psychotherapy that emphasizes the existence of individuals as free agents responsible for their own development through acts of will.
Existentialists believe that the essence of humans is their existence, meaning that the individual alone is responsible for creating a meaningful life. Existential psychology is an approach to psychology and psychotherapy that is based on several key premises:
Therapists who practice existential psychology immerse themselves in the clients’ world. Rather than applying a model of therapy with defined techniques, existential psychotherapy applies a philosophical approach that assumes individuals are free to choose and are responsible for their choices. Existential therapists urge their clients to ask themselves such questions as the following: “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose in life?” and “Who am I?” These therapists participate in the therapy, too. This process seeks meaning within the whole of the client's existence. The goal is to clearly understand the subjective world of the client and help the client see new aspects of the client's life and discover new options. This is accomplished by increasing the client's awareness of present feelings and actions, confronting feelings of anxiety or restricted existence, and ultimately enhancing clients’ relationship with themselves and their world.
According to Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger (1881–1966), existential therapists are concerned with the whole of their clients and what they experience. Binswanger formulated his beliefs around three aspects of human existence: the Umwelt, or “world around,” meaning the biological drive natural to humans; Mitselt, or “with world,” meaning social and interpersonal human relationships; and the Eigenwelt, or “own world,” the subjective, phenomenological world of the self.
In the 1900s, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813–55), who is commonly referred to as the “Father of Existentialism,” stated: “I exist; therefore, I think,” defining his view in contrast to philosopher Rene Descartes's famous words: “I think, therefore I am.” This simple statement influenced a group of European philosophers and psychologists and changed their approach to treatment. Kierkegaard stated that people experience their own freedom first-hand and can do whatever they please, “jump or not jump.” Every action individuals take is a choice, decided upon by the individual and no one else. Kiekegaard's philosophy was not readily accepted in the United States. Rollo May (1909–94), the twentieth-century American philosopher and psychologist who promoted the existential movement, attributed introduction of the existentialist idea in the United States to psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910). James advocated the principle of free will, a crucial component in existential thought.
Existentialism became a popular idea in psychology in the 1960s. May described the existential approach to psychotherapy by stating that it understood the patient fully as that patient truly exists. Such therapy would require a commitment on the part of the patients to fully understand the lives they are living or the lives in which they were existing.
Awareness of existentialism continued to grow in the private sector, particularly among the baby boomer generation. For example, May's book Love and Will remained popular, proving that its readers sought self-awareness. Self-help books began to line bookstore shelves, an indication of people's willingness to explore their own lives.
In modern existential psychology, palpable existentialism, also known as experiential-existential therapy, directs therapists to shift their attention from what they think to a less concrete or more vague state of “not-knowing.” This is sustained through an open attitude toward what is actually experienced, allowing the generation of insights from actual living. In this way humans are an experiential-existential laboratory for investigating what life in the body (embodied human living) actually is. This tenet applies to work with therapy clients as well as to the therapists themselves. Clients can take anything that happens to them, including what their therapist says, and assess it using their own bodily experience, asking simply: “Is this true for me or not?”
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Rollo May Center for Humanistic Studies, Saybrook Graduate School & Research Center, 450 Pacific, 3rd Fl., San Francisco, CA, 94133, (800) 825-4480
Viktor Frankl Institute, Langwiesgasse 6, A-1140, Vienna, Austria, http://www.viktorfrankl.org .