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What is Existential Therapy?

The principles of existential therapy are drawn from the teachings of influential existentialist philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche.
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  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2014
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Existential therapy is a strategy employed by some psychologists and counselors to help people come to terms with their fears, stresses, mental illnesses, or disabilities. The key tenet of existential therapy is the philosophical notion that individuals are entirely responsible for their own lives; the choices they make determine what happens to them. Existential therapists usually facilitate intensive psychotherapy sessions and behavior modification techniques to help people become more truthful with themselves and come to the ultimate realization that their own free will can bring about positive change in their lives.

The principles of existential therapy are drawn from the teachings of the influential 19th and 20th century existentialist philosophers and writers, including Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Gabriel Marcel. These men as well as many other philosophers felt that the ideas of meaningful existence, fate, and predetermined destiny are not realistic; rather, humans must accept that they are essentially alone in the course of life and fully responsible for their own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and consequences. Existential therapists build upon these ideas to help people understand that they can choose to behave and feel in any manner they see fit, at any time, regardless of what is going on in the world around them.

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Licensed psychologists and counselors who practice existential therapy often meet with clients who experience all different types of personal struggles, mental illnesses, and even physical ailments. Trained psychologists can apply existential principles to overcoming addictions, marital problems, general stress, schizophrenia, or any number of other negative circumstances. They reject the idea that genetics or environmental conditions can hinder a person from recovery. Instead, any stresses or ailments are considered to have been put in place by the patient himself, and he is free to enact his own will to overcome problems and make improvements in his life.

Existential therapy relies heavily on psychotherapy techniques, in which the psychologist speaks very personally with his or her client to better understand her fears, concerns, problems, and outlooks. While many psychotherapists delve deeply into patients' pasts, an existential therapist tends to place much more emphasis on the patient's present state and her future goals. The therapist helps the patient accept that she brought her current condition upon herself and understand that she has the freedom and the power to make significant changes. In time, the patient learns to take responsibility for her decisions and discover her own truths about existence.

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anon154891
Post 5

I think you all have acceptable and valid points. Therefore, perhaps as therapists we would not endorse any one therapeutic approach, yet have the skills to implement eclectic approaches that work for the client.

As far as the power of choice and accountability for ones life course, there is no other solution! Of course people are in control of choice and consequences of that choice. This does not dismiss the fact they may have been doing the best they knew how.

It would be the therapist's job to educate the client with new perspectives and alternative solutions for their troubles. The existential approach is great for therapeutic relationship building and endorses the eclectic approach needed for client resolution and future self responsibility which in turn, increases self efficacy.

arod2b42
Post 4

@BioNerd

I think you may be missing the point. Empowering people with their own free will, while they look forward and see that they are in control and responsible for their own decisions, while looking back and realizing that that the past was largely due to outside factors, can be a very helpful strategy. The point of it is obvious: help people to focus on the future rather than the past. This is the ultimate key to liberation from bad habits of yesterday and learning to "wake up with new eyes" every day. It is redemption in action.

BioNerd
Post 3

@arod2b42

It seems to me that taking cues from a man such as Nietzsche, who went insane at the end of his life, and was very troubled by all his vast learning, would not be a helpful solution. In the region of pragmatic thought and teleology, an opinion which helps someone out is considered to be the best opinion. Truth value is almost completely hidden from our understanding, and therefore, in my opinion, we should avoid systems of thinking which harm people.

arod2b42
Post 2

@BioNerd

It seems to me that most people prefer to be masters of their own destiny. This helps patients with issues to develop their own habits and break free of the feelings of determinism which drove them to their bad habits in the first place. Key doctrines of Nietzsche can liberate people from their societal burdens.

BioNerd
Post 1

Existential therapy tries to help people realize that they can change themselves, since their own free will is what determines who they are. But if their own free will determines who they are, it is also their own fault that they became troubled in the first place. What about the key turning point for Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams tells him "it's not your fault." Taking the burden of guilt off of someone's shoulder seems to be more important than showing them that they are their own masters.

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