As The Society for Existential Analysis explains, a simple and straight-forward description of Existential Analysis is notoriously difficult to provide…
“What makes this task so difficult is that the Existential approach has an incredibly diverse philosophical history – with practitioners’ therapeutic perspectives often being as varied as individual practitioners are themselves. The fluid and constantly developing nature of the Existential approach lends itself well to working creatively with all aspects of human experience – whatever the therapeutic needs or problem being faced.”
The range of existential thought that has contributed to this therapeutic model extends from the ancient Greek philosophies of Heraclitus and Socrates through such varied European thinkers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Buber, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty to the differing perspectives of modern psychotherapeutic practitioners such as Rollo May, RD Laing and Irvin Yalom.
As a therapeutic model, the term ‘Existential’ refers to what it is to exist as a human being, It is often coupled with the word ‘Phenomenological’ which is a descriptive method for “bringing things to light that were previously hidden”.
The following description of Existential Psychotherapy is is excerpted from the website for The Society for Existential Analysis.
Existential Analysis in its simplest form is more than a set of rules, theories and procedures for providing therapy – it is a way of being that is embodied and is experiential in nature.
The Existential emphasis upon ‘relational existence’ challenges linear concepts and assumptions about personal development, the nature of the ‘self’ as well as thinking about the past, present and future – the Existential approach having parallels and links with contemporary thinking in quantum physics – especially in relation to issues of human uncertainty and the possibility of achieving such a thing as absolute truth. The Existential-Phenomenological approach emphasizes the ‘unfolding’ nature of our awareness of being and what it is to exist.
Those involved in the world of Existential Analysis often embody a range of philosophical stances – each developing perspectives about existence that have evolved from many years of philosophical study, professional practice and reflection on life...
The Existential-Phenomenological model is at the forefront of what has become known as ‘Human Science Research’, where it informs approaches that examine cultural and sexual diversity – in attempting as much as possible to be aware of assumptions and beliefs that may underpin a particular view. Existential-Phenomenological perspectives continue to have an influence on the attitudes and language used within cognitive science and consciousness studies.
As with its philosophical history, Existential-Phenomenology takes the human condition in all its manifestations as the focus of investigation. Existential-Phenomenology emphasises the unfolding nature of human experience and brings a curiosity to what it means to be human. Its aim is to reveal the way in which each individual comes to understand and construct his or her particular way of being – the way in which we create our own lives and selves by the way we live and come to understand the world. One of the key aims of Existential-Phenomenology is to facilitate a process of reflection and description that reveals with ever more detail and clarity the meaning that arises from our lived experience. We are not trying to merely explain ‘why’ things happen to be the way they are, but instead to describe ‘how’ we find ourselves to be – the process with which we involve ourselves.
Another key element of Existential-Phenomenology, as an approach to therapy, is that it emphasizes the fundamentally relational aspect of being human – we seek to understand the ways in which as individuals we relate both to ourselves, others and being in the world in general. In exploring our relationships we also explore the way that everything we do is dependent on the context of our lives and the environments we inhabit along with others.
Existential-Phenomenology calls attention to the hidden processes that occur between people – the intersubjective nature of our relationships. It may also explore the nature of the anxiety we experience as we face our lives – as might the limits to what can be known for certain in our lives. As such, Existential-Phenomenology endeavours to understand the way we come to construct an understanding of the world – our worldview.
Existential-Phenomenological Counselling and Psychotherapy is open to the exploration of our sense of ethics, morality and issues of human freedom and facticity – the limits of human freedom. The process of Existential-Phenomenology explores the horizon of our possibilities and seeks to uncover our individual potential – it challenges us to make the most out of our lives by facing the defining choices that lay before each one us.
Existential-Phenomenological Counselling and Psychotherapy is often seen as challenging the assumptions made by mainstream therapeutic models – in particular the rationale and usefulness of diagnosis. The Existential-Phenomenological approach considers the problems that we encounter as human beings as not necessarily being indicators of potential ‘mental illness’ or of ‘symptoms’ that need to be removed, but rather as a consequence of the difficulties we face with living. As such, Existential-Phenomenology embodies both a systemic as well as a constructionist approach – in that it seeks to engage people in dialogue with the aim of describing, revealing and relating specific phenomena that are experienced in particular context, to those experienced in the global lived context. In doing so the process works at revealing the meaning that is inherent in our lived experience.
There is a basic assumption to all therapy that states that there are good reasons for the way people adapt and behave as human beings in the face of difficult, challenging and traumatic experiences – even when initially the thoughts and behaviours can seem nonsensical, self defeating and even destructive. Another assumption being made in therapy is that there is something we can learn from the process of reflecting upon both our individual and shared experience of existence – of the way we encounter ourselves, others and the world that we inhabit. In stripping away what is taken for granted, that we can begin to reveal the assumptions that underlie our most dearly held values and cherished belief systems. Existential-Phenomenological Counselling and Psychotherapy provides the valuable opportunity of uncovering the contradictions, discrepancies and paradoxes that we experience in our everyday lives. With increased clarity and insight it is reasoned that we are better equipped to face and resolve the problematic issues we experience in our lives – and be able to consciously embrace the lives we want to live.
Below are some examples of the kind of themes that Existential Analysis may help us to reflect on and clarify in order to understand the context of the problems and challenges we face as human beings – you will also find a further description of what Existential Analysis is about:
- What does it mean to be alive?
- What are the possibilities that my life presents me with?
- What is my relationship to myself, to other people and the world in general?
- What are my responsibilities to myself and to other people?
- What do I value and cherish dearly?
- What is the nature of the anxiety that I experience in my life?
- What are the assumptions and attributions that underpin my thoughts and actions?
- What are the contradictions, discrepancies and paradoxes that occur in my everyday life?
- What is my worldview – the way that I have constructed the story of my life?
- What is my true potential?
- What would it be like to choose my own way of living?