What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Rachel Burkot

Existential psychotherapy is a way of looking at the human condition that elevates the potential of humanity. It is an optimistic theory that takes humanity very seriously. Nonetheless, it remains a realistic approach by recognizing the limitations of humans. Existential psychotherapy is a philosophy similar to humanistic, experiential and psychodynamic theories. Humanistic existential psychotherapy is based on theories from Abraham Maslow’s studies of human needs and also combines with Carl Roger’s person-centered therapy.

Existential therapy places importance on understanding a client's internal experience of the world.
Existential therapy places importance on understanding a client's internal experience of the world.

These theories have combined and evolved over time to contribute to modern beliefs regarding humanistic psychotherapy. Existential and humanistic theories naturally combine, as both value personal experience and the subjectivity of the human being. Existential psychotherapy takes on more of a here-and-now approach, placing an emphasis on reality, time and boundaries. Self-awareness, thought, and understanding are valued enormously with this theory. One of the major goals of psychotherapy is to free the individual to embrace their potential and the good that is present in everyone, which leads to a happier, more satisfied life. Existential psychotherapy accomplishes this by creating a thorough understanding of the self through life experience and a depth of knowledge that the person may not even be aware of.

One of the goals of psychotherapy is to see the good that is present in people, which can lead to a happier, more satisfied life.
One of the goals of psychotherapy is to see the good that is present in people, which can lead to a happier, more satisfied life.

The father of modern existential psychotherapy is believed to be Rollo May, an author who was influenced by philosophers and theologians such as Paul Tillich, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Another philosopher, Irvin Yalom, was heavily influenced by May’s books to organize the theory of existentialism psychotherapy into four themes: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Yalom asserted that these concepts are always the root of psychological troubles. They are crucial to the human experience, and although existential psychotherapists may try to explore these themes for curing psychological illnesses, they are inevitably self-destructive with no cures.

Each existential psychotherapist has different personal beliefs about whether the major questions regarding the existence of humanity can be answered.
Each existential psychotherapist has different personal beliefs about whether the major questions regarding the existence of humanity can be answered.

Existential integrative psychotherapy is a postmodern approach to psychology. There are many shared values to this type of psychology, which requires thinking of it in broad terms and as more than one theory. Each existential psychotherapist has different personal beliefs about whether the major questions regarding the existence of humanity can be answered. Most therapists agree that definite answers cannot be pinpointed. Although existential psychotherapy is founded on an optimistic view of life and humanity, an important tenet of the theory is that the terrors and challenges of the human experience should never be denied.

Existential psychotherapy is limited in its acceptance; not all therapists embrace it or agree with it. This is partly due to the fact that literature on the subject is varied and often contradictory, along with psychotherapists’ ideas and theories failing to mesh on key points. Quantifiable studies in this realm are also hard to come by, making it a largely untouched yet fascinating field.

Existential psychotherapy aims to create a thorough understanding of the self and a depth of knowledge the person may not be aware of.
Existential psychotherapy aims to create a thorough understanding of the self and a depth of knowledge the person may not be aware of.

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