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Existential Psychotherapy

What is Existential therapy?

Existential psychotherapy or existential therapy takes on a philosophical approach and, is a process of searching for the value and meaning of life, (Corey, 2005, p. 131). It focuses on the self, what it means to be a person, reflection, and free will. It rejects common theories from psychoanalysis as well as radical behaviorism.

According to this theory, we are responsible for our own actions and choices. It is up to us to make improvements upon ourselves. With existential psychotherapy, we are not victims of circumstance, because to a large extent we are what we choose to be, (Corey, 2005, p. 131).

During therapy it is important for the client to reflect, recognize, and decide what to do. Once a client recognizes, the ways in which they have passively accepted circumstances and surrendered control, they can start on a path of consciously shaping their own lives,(Corey, 2005, p. 131).

It is the goal of the therapist to encourage the client to find and develop a greater purpose or meaning in life. Instead of focusing on the negatives or the circumstances that are holding one back, he or she can move and choose how to run his or her life. Instead of focusing on certain therapeutic techniques, clients are also encouraged to just focus on the deep meaning of life.


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The Six Propositions of Existential Psychotherapy

There are six propositions for existential psychotherapy. They are...

First Proposition of existential therapy

The Capacity for Self-Awareness, Second Proposition: Freedom and Responsibility, Third Proposition: Striving for Identity and Relationship to Others, Fourth Proposition: The Search for Meaning, Fifth Proposition: Anxiety as a Condition of Living, and Sixth Proposition: Awareness of Death and Non being(Corey, 2005, pp. 137-144).

The first step is becoming aware and accepting certain things within one’s life. Awareness is expanded through the following: time is limited, we must choose our actions so that destiny is within our hands, meaning of life is important to find, we have the potential to take action or not to act; inaction is a decision, existential anxiety is important, we are alone but can relate to others, and, we are subject to loneliness, meaninglessness, emptiness, guilt, and isolation (Corey, 2005, p. 137).

The second proposition of existential therapy

Freedom and responsibility, focuses on the fact that in this school of psychotherapy, one must take on the responsibility of his or her actions and then has the freedom to choose how to react or act in response to those responsibilities.

The third proposition of existential therapy

is when one strives for identity and relationships with others. The four phases of this are the courage to be, the experience of aloneness, the experience of relatedness, and struggling with our identity (Corey, 2005).

The fourth proposition of existential therapy

is the search for meaning. It is one of the most valued aspects of existential psychotherapy and theory. There are three hardships during this proposition which are discarding old values, lack of meaning, and finding new meaning. When discarding old values, a client may struggle to find new ones that are more realistic or ideal to replace the old values. It is important for the therapist to help properly guide the client or encourage him or her to strive for new more suitable values.

As mentioned several times, the meaning of life is very important for this form of psychotherapy. Finding new meaning to replace the old meaning is difficult but can be accomplished with the help of the therapist.

The fifth proposition of existential therapy

Proposition five has to do with anxiety. Anxiety is coming and is inevitable unfortunately. It is a part of growing up and dealing with life according to existential theory.

The therapist needs to differentiate between normal and neurotic anxiety within the client. The client needs to learn how to recognize this as well. Normal anxiety is a human’s appropriate response to something that happens. It is a good motivator. However, neurotic anxiety, in contrast, is out of proportion to the situation’s and is typically out of awareness, and tends to immobilize the person, (Corey, 2005, p. 143).

The client must learn how to accept some anxiety within his or her life and understand that it is a normal party of life while trying to minimize neurotic anxiety as much as possible.

The sixth proposition of existential therapy

Finally, proposition six is the awareness of death and non being. Existentialism views death as a natural occurring thing that happens and does not fear it. Instead death gives life more meaning and much more appreciation. Take advantage of each opportunity given and live life to the fullest in this form on psychotherapy.


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Major Contributors to Existential Psychotherapy

Viktor Frankl

Frankl lived a very difficult life. He was a prisoner in both Auschwitz and Dachau Nazi concentration camps. He lost his parents, brother, wife, and children there.

Frankl, vividly remembered his horrible experiences in these camps, yet he was able to use them in a constructive way and did not allow them to dampen his love and enthusiasm for life (Corey, 2005, p. 129).

Viktor’s existential approach began before enduring the Holocaust, but his experiences there further confirmed those beliefs. In 1963, Man’s Search for Meaning was published (Corey. 2005). According to him, love is the highest goal to which humans can aspire and that our salvation is through love, (Corey, 2005, p.129).

Even when enduring terrible things, humans can find their own way and appreciate a greater meaning in life.

In the 1930s, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl began to lay the foundations for logotherapy/existential (LTEA) analysis based upon Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology (Batthyany, 2016).

This is based upon the concept that was highlighted in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that the primary motivating force in life is the search for meaning.

This concept posits that mankind are not subject to conditions, but have the freedom of choice and will to decide their place in psychological and physical conditions. Man is free to shape his/her own life based upon the opportunities presented, essentially. This is powerful in the therapeutic setting, as it gives clients the space for autonomy in terms of actions. This is the first concept of LTEA.

The second concept, after the freedom of will, is the will to meaning (Batthyany, 2016). Not only is mankind free, but we are free to accomplish goals, and achieve purpose in life.

When a person fails to realize his/her will to meaning, emptiness, and meaninglessness emerge. In LTEA, a therapist will help clients to remove any barriers toward achieving goals and purpose in life. The third concept of LTEA is meaning in life.

This is defined as finding meaning in each and every moment in life. These concepts are fluid, and ever-changing.

Rollo May

Rollo May was a contributor as well publishing books that gained popularity. He believed that, psychotherapy should be aimed at helping people discover the meaning of their lives and should be concerned with the problems of being rather than with problem solving (Corey, 2005, p. 130).

Existential psychotherapy can be quite useful for developing appropriate boundaries, chronic emotional hunger, suffering, coping with death or significant life changes, and persistent disorders such as depression, neurotic anxiety, etc.

Some limitations could be the limited audience that it generally applies to, lack of research-based treatment, and negativity (Day, 2008).

In 1958, Rollo May helped introduce existential therapy to the world. As a 20th century psychotherapist, May was integral in the development and spread of existential psychology (Rollo May, 2015).

Rollo May was born in Ada, Ohio in 1909. His passion and focus on psychology can be attributed to dysfunction between his family and parents during his childhood. May began his collegiate studies in English, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.

The then returned to college after spending time teaching English in Greece, where he was exposed to the teachings and seminars of Alfred Adler. His second bachelor’s degree was in divinity, after which he served as a minister for a short period of time before going back to school at Columbia College where he earned a PhD in clinical psychology.

After graduation, May began a counseling fellowship at William Alanson White Institute in New York City. Three years later, May opened his own practice.

Nearly a decade after opening his own practice, May began teaching at the New School for Social Research. After 20 years of teaching, May relocated to California. Rollo May is most known for his many existential books which include Man’s Search for Himself, Love and Will, The Meaning of Anxiety, and The Courage to Create.

May’s roll in introducing existential therapy began when he partnered with Henri Ellenberger and Ernest Angel in editing the book Existence (Rollo May, 2015).

While May was influential in developing existential psychotherapy, he was also influenced  the philosophical theories of humanism. May’s foal was to understand the underlying components and reality surrounding the subject of human suffering and crises. In gaining a better understanding into such paradigms, May brought together the philosophies of both existentialism and humanism.

As was popular in thought during this time, May believed that development occurred in stages, and that a particular challenge or crisis occurred during each stage.

The first stage identified in the course of development, according to May is innocence (Rollo May, 2015). An infant is innocent, and is driven purely by the will to survive.

The second state is rebellion. This is highlighted by a young child who craves independence, but is unable to properly care for oneself. The third state is the decision stage.

This is a transitional stage during which the child has become a teenager or young adult. Decisions must be made about the course of one’s life during this stage, and is in search of further independence from parental figures.

The ordinary stage follows the decision stage, and this is an adulthood phase during which young adults are faced with demands from society, and there is an urge toward seeking security, and conformity to traditional norms.

The final stage is the creative stage. This is a point during which a human achieves self-actualization, and reaches a certain point in creativity and productivity. During this stage a person has moved past egotism or self-absorbed thinking.

While the stages are related to stages of development, it is possible for a person to be at any of the stages at any period of time (Rollo May, 2015). A person is able to regress into childlike stages, or even skip stages, or return to a certain stage many times.

In addition to identifying stages of development, May placed much attention on anxiety. He believed it was anxiety that served as catalyst in human life, as it allowed for courage in one’s decision making. It also aids in the avoidance of danger and empowers mankind in finding ways to survive.

Irvin Yalom

Irvin D. Yalom is a contemporary educator and psychiatrist. Yalom was born in Washington DC in 1931, after his parents defected from Russia (Irvin D. Yalom, 2013).

Yalom studied at George Washington University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. He then earned a MD from Boston University School of Medicine in 1956.

Yalom served his internship and Mount Sinai Hospital, which was followed by a residency as Johns Hopkins Hospital. He also served in the army.

In 1962, Yalom started teaching at the School of Medicine at Stanford University. He was promoted to professor of psychiatry in 1973. He retired in 1994 with professor emeritus status.

Yalom is well-known for his works of literature. He began writing in 1970 with his first publication: Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (Levy, 2001).

After his first publication, Yalom published several works of fiction, nonfiction and even educational textbooks. Many of the writings of Yalom are centered around existential theory, and existential psychotherapy.

In fact, Yalom was considered a pioneer of existential psychotherapy, as he helped explain existentialism and portrayed its importance in the therapeutic process.