Existential Therapy

What Is Existential Therapy?

Existential therapy focuses on free will, self-determination, and the search for meaning—often centering on you rather than on the symptom. The approach emphasizes your capacity to make rational choices and to develop to your maximum potential.

The existential approach stresses that:

  • All people have the capacity for self-awareness.
  • Each person has a unique identity that can be known only through relationships with others.
  • People must continually re-create themselves because life’s meaning constantly changes.
  • Anxiety is part of the human condition.

When It's Used

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 psychotherapists try to comprehend and alleviate a variety of symptoms, including excessive anxiety, apathy, alienation, nihilism, avoidance, shame, addiction, 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.

What to Expect

Here's what you can expect from a course of therapy. Existential psychotherapies use a range of approaches, but major themes focus on your responsibility and freedom. Therapists help you find meaning in the face of anxiety by choosing to think and act responsibly and by confronting negative internal thoughts rather than external forces like societal pressures or luck. Fostering creativity, love, authenticity, and free will are common avenues that help move you toward transformation. Similarly, when treating addiction disorders, the existential therapist coaches you to face the anxiety that tempts you to abuse substances and guides you to take responsibility. The goal: You learn to make more willful decisions about how to live, drawing on creativity and love, instead of letting outside events determine your behavior.

How It Works

This practice—due to its focus on existence and purpose—is sometimes perceived as pessimistic, but it’s meant to be a positive and flexible approach. At its best, according to 20th-century philosopher Paul Tillich, existential psychotherapy fairly and honestly confronts life’s "ultimate concerns," including loneliness, suffering, and meaninglessness. Specific concerns are rooted in each individual's experience, but contemporary existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says that the universal ones are death, isolation, freedom, and emptiness. 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, for example, perceives the therapist as a "fellow traveler" through life, and he uses empathy and support to elicit insight and choices. And because people exist in the presence of others, the relational context of group therapy 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?”

What to Look for in an Existential Therapist

In addition to their mental health training, existential therapists often have a background in philosophy. Licensure varies state by state, but many existential therapists complete graduate degrees in psychology or counseling, for example. They also complete additional supervised fieldwork in existential therapy.

Sources

  • National Center for Biotechnology Information

  • American Psychological Association

  • Existential Psychotherapy Center of Southern California

  • Existential Psychotherapy Center of Southern California