Existential therapy is a philosophical approach to therapy—it is strongly influenced by the existential philosophy of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Buber.
A key characteristic of existential therapy is its emphasis on our freedom and our capacity to be the authors of our own lives. In this way, it contrasts starkly with the determinism of psychoanalysis (which sees freedom as restricted by unconscious, irrational drives and forces and by one’s past) and behaviorism (which sees freedom as restricted by sociocultural conditioning). That freedom and power enable us to find and nurture meaning in our lives.
Rather than seeing us as victims of our circumstances, existential therapy encourages us to embrace the range of alternatives for responding to our circumstances and to proactively choose among those alternatives such that we incorporate them into our identities without being defined by those circumstances.
One of the goals of existential therapy is to encourage us to search within and find our own answers to the conflicts in our lives and to resist becoming what others expect of us. The process of finding and acting on our own answers opens the way toward self-knowledge, self-understanding, and self-acceptance. In contrast, being what others expect of us tends to put us at risk of becoming strangers to ourselves.
Existential therapy views our moods and feelings as influenced (in part) by the degree of authenticity with which we are living our lives. Living authentically (meaning that we live according to our true beliefs and values) tends to reduce anxiety and depression, whereas living in an inauthentic way (meaning constructing our lives and our identities around the expectations of others) tends to increase anxiety and depression. Existential therapy teaches us to listen to what we already know about ourselves.
Existential therapy promotes the transition from a dependent stance to an autonomous one by helping us learn to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and how to live life without the crutch of false certainties. But with freedom and autonomy comes responsibility—they are flip sides of the same coin. We all want freedom, but we are often afraid of the responsibility that it requires, so we abdicate our choice and give up our power to others, to our surroundings, and to our circumstances. Another tricky characteristic of freedom is that it is (paradoxically) bound by inevitable limitations. In other words, there is no absolute freedom, because we are not free from conditions—the reality of our surroundings. And most of our conditions are beyond our control; however, many conditions are within our realm of influence. Existential therapy helps us develop the skills and the commitment to exercise our influence while being aware of, and accepting, the conditions that we cannot control.
As an existential therapist, my goal is to help you survey the “terrain” in front of you and decide on the best route to take so that you ultimately can discover your own way—a way based on your values and what’s important to you. As you make your way, you might find yourself engaging in a search for the value and meaning in life.