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What Is Existential Psychotherapy?

Training in existential therapy can enhance clinical treatment skills.

Existential Psychotherapy Center of Southern California

The purpose of the Existential Psychotherapy Center of Southern California is to provide a structured professional training program where distinguished and diverse existentially-oriented scholar/practitioners share their unique clinical experience, knowledge and wisdom. The center is open to advanced graduate students, interns, psychological assistants, as well as fully licensed and seasoned psychologists, psychiatrists and other psychotherapists desiring deeper exposure to the philosophical tenets and formal training in the clinical application of existential psychotherapy. The Existential Psychotherapy Center of Southern California is committed to the theoretical and practical reconciliation of psychoanalytic, Jungian, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral and even psychopharmacological therapies with an existential orientation to treatment. This year, in Los Angeles, the EPCSC is offering professional training seminars in the theory and practice of existential therapy.

What Is Existential Psychotherapy?

Existential psychotherapy is based upon the principles of psychodynamic therapy, humanistic and existential psychology, the latter being a movement with roots in the existential philosophy and writings of Heidegger, Husserl, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and others. During the mid-twentieth century, pioneering European clinicians like Otto Rank, Karl Jaspers, Medard Boss, and Ludwig Binswanger were among the first to apply existential principles to the practice of psychotherapy, followed prominently by Viktor Frankl (Vienna), R.D. Laing (London), Rollo May (pictured here) and Irvin Yalom (United States).

Existential psychotherapy is often misperceived as some morbid, arcane, pessimistic, impractical, cerebral, esoteric orientation to treatment. In fact, it is an exceedingly practical, concrete, positive and flexible approach. At its best, existential psychotherapy squarely and soberly confronts the "ultimate concerns" (Tillich) and sometimes tragic "existential facts of life": death, finitude, fate, freedom, responsibility, loneliness, loss, suffering, meaninglessness, evil and the daimonic (May and Diamond). Existential psychotherapy is concerned with more deeply comprehending and alleviating as much as possible (without naively denying reality and la condition humaine) pervasive postmodern symptoms such as excessive anxiety, apathy, alienation, nihilism, avoidance, shame, addiction, despair, depression, guilt, anger, rage, resentment, embitterment, purposelessness, madness (psychosis) and violence as well as promoting the meaningful, life-enhancing experiences of relationship, love, caring, commitment, courage, creativity, power, will, presence, spirituality, individuation, self-actualization, authenticity, acceptance, transcendence and awe.

As consumers are increasingly confronted with the very real limitations of what managed mental health care, ever-briefer therapy and ubiquitous psychopharmacology can provide (see my prior post), existential psychotherapy is enjoying some resurgence. Existential psychologist Rollo May (1986) warned, whenever you perceive a person merely as a particular diagnostic disorder, neurological deficit, biochemical imbalance, cognitive schema, set of behavioral patterns, genetic predisposition, collection of complexes, or "as a composite of drives and deterministic forces, you have defined for study everything except the one to whom these experiences happen, everything except the existing person him [or her] self" (p. 25). Existential psychotherapy strives to empower and place the person--and his or her existential choices--back at the center of the therapeutic process. To cite Sartre on this subject: "We are our choices."

While the techniques of existential psychotherapy can include Freudian, Jungian, Gestalt, cognitive, behavioral or other methods, the fundamental technique shared by all existential therapists is phenomenology. Phenomenology refers to the conscious setting aside of preconceptions and dogma in an effort to discover the client or patient's actual subjective experience or "being" (Dasein). It is through this that the true experience, will and intentionality of the patient at any given moment may be discerned, understood, and appropriately responded to by the therapist. The focus of treatment is on the present, here-and-now, current circumstance, rather than exclusively on early formative influences. While the power of the past and of unconsciousness-- those aspects of ourselves of which we are unable or unwilling to become aware-- to influence the present detrimentally is recognized and addressed as it arises in treatment, the patient's subjective experience of self ("I am") and of the therapeutic encounter is of primary importance.

Choice, personal and social responsibility, integrity of the personality, courage, and authentically facing rather than escaping existential anxiety, anger and guilt are central features of existential psychotherapy. The existential therapist is not confined to the passive, neutral, anonymous and interpretive role of the psychoanalyst. The courage and commitment to truly and genuinely encounter each unique patient is required by the existential therapist, who must not avoid his or her own anxiety by hiding behind a rigid professional persona or rote therapeutic technique. In existential therapy, the human relationship between patient and therapist takes precedence over technical tricks, and, as now corroborated by research, is the basic healing factor in any psychotherapy. Coming to terms with reality-- and one's own inner "demons"-- without denying, avoiding, distorting or sugar-coating it is key to existential therapy. As Rollo May, the acknowledged American "father" of existential psychotherapy pithily put it: "I do not believe in toning down the daimonic. This gives a sense of false comfort. The real comfort can come only in the relationship of the therapist and the client or patient" (Diamond, 1996, p. xxii). This compassionate, shared, professional yet profoundly personal human relationship provides both the structured, supportive container and potent existential catalyst for therapeutic transformation.

The above excerpt has been adapted from:

Diamond, S.A. (2009). "What is existential therapy?" In D.A. Leeming, K. Madden, & S. Marlan (Eds.) Encyclopedia of psychology and religion (pp. 304-305). New York, NY: Springer Verlag.
With reference to:
Diamond, S.A. (1996/2007). Anger, madness, and the daimonic: The psychological genesis of violence, evil, and creativity. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.
May, R. (1983/86). The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology. New York : W.W. Norton

The EXISTENTIAL PSYCHOTHERAPY CENTER OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA is proud to offer the following forthcoming clinical trainings in Los Angeles. These intimate seminars are open to mental health professionals with a minimum of a Master's degree as well as to licensed clinicians, and have been approved by the California Board of Behavioral Science and approved or pending approval for MCEP for Continuing Education credits.Please call or e-mail for registration fees and any other details:

Sunday, January 30th, 2011, 12:30-5:00 pm

The Power and Terror of Termination: Existential Limits of Psychotherapy (MCEP course code # EXI002-0004-000)

Presented by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. (See Dr. Diamond's prior post.)


Sunday, February 6th, 2011, 12:30-5:00 pm

Post-traumatic Embitterment: Existential Roots and Treatment of Anger, Rage and Resentment (MCEP course code # EXI002-0002-000)

Presented by Stephen Diamond, Ph.D. (See Dr. Diamond's prior post.)


Sunday, February 20th, 2011, 12:30-5:00 pm

Clinical Despair: Existential Issues in the Psychotherapy and Pharmacotherapy of Mood Disorders (MCEP approval pending)

Presented by S. Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., and Stephen Diamond, Ph.D.

*This special seminar will be co-taught by two PT bloggers!

(see one of Dr. Ghaemi's prior posts, and his co-authored article, as well as Dr. Diamond's prior posts here, and here.)


Alternating Tuesdays, March 1st- July 5th, 2011, 7:00-9:30 pm (10 Sessions)

Reading Rollo May: Lessons on the Essence of Existential Psychotherapy

Presented by: Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. (See Dr. Diamond's prior post.)


Sunday, March 20th, 2011, 12:30-5:00 pm

Fear, Trembling and Dread: The Nature, Meaning and Existential Treatment of Anxiety

Presented by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. (see Dr. Diamond's prior post.)


Sunday, April 10th, 2011, 12:30-5:00 pm

The Power of Presence: Mindfulness, Meditation and Existential Psychotherapy

Presented by Halle M. Aten, Ph.D., and Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. (see Dr. Diamond's prior posting, and here.)


For further information about the EPCSC or any of this programming, please contact Dr. Halle Aten at or at (310) 339-2546.

Existential Psychotherapy Center of Southern California

6535 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 106, Los Angeles, CA 90048

Phone: (323) 651-1118, Fax: (323) 651-2758

Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D.

Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, PSY 11404

Co-Founder and Program Director

Halle M. Aten, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist, PSY 22348

Co-Founder and Program Administrator