Updated on 12/28/2021
Many forms of therapy ask you to look deeply inward, to explore your past, and understand your impulses. Implicit in this model is the idea that personal introspection can help forge a path toward change and healing. Although your own roadblocks are acknowledged, most traditional therapy doesn’t dwell on the struggles that are inherent in the human condition.
But what if you are looking for a kind of therapy that acknowledges the struggles of human existence, and that takes a more positive forward-thinking approach to problem solving?
Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy defined by the idea that, by its very nature, to be human is to struggle, and even to suffer. And while therapy can’t make that disappear, it can help you accept that life can be challenging at times, and help you make positive choices so you can live a full and happy life.
Existential therapy is great for those who are philosophically minded by nature and like to look beyond the minutiae of their own lives, toward the bigger, more holistic picture of existence. If you are looking to work on your mental health and sign up for counseling, working with an existential therapist may be the right place to start.
“Existential therapy is an approach where an individual can explore self awareness and build insight alongside the idea that negative thoughts and feelings are part of the human experience. When it is framed in this way the individual can process through whatever is happening in their life and understand it as part of the “bigger picture” and how it relates to others who also go through something similar. This way an individual feels less lonely and isolated when they are going through a difficult time in their lives.”Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LCSW
Existential Therapy Background
Existential therapy is based on the tenets of existential philosophy. Its roots go back to the 1800s and the teachings of two of the most prominent philosophers of that time, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Kierkegaard was most famous for the idea that to be human is to experience discontent, but that we are also born equipped with the personal wisdom to persevere despite that suffering. Nietzsche had a similar outlook, he popularized the idea of personal responsibility and free will with this existential philosophy, both of which are important concepts in existential therapy.
In the 1900s, philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre further explored and honed the concept of existentialism. By the 20th century, a group of therapists that focused on existentialism began to emerge. Otto Rank was one of the first existential psychologists, followed by existential therapists such as Paul Tillich and Rollo May. These therapists diligently studied the concepts of existential theory and helped bring this existential approach into mainstream therapeutic models.
What Are The Main Goals Of Existential Therapy?
There are two main goals of existential psychology:
- Acknowledging and accepting of the fact that to be human means to struggle with anxiety and adversity.
- Learning to make positive choices so that you can live a happy life despite these basic human limitations.
Existential therapy sessions don’t necessarily focus on your own personal symptoms and stressors; instead it focuses on your own free will. Existential psychotherapy is based on the idea that all humans have the capacity to make smart, rational choices so that they can develop into people who are able to reach their greatest potential.
The focus of existential theory is all about looking toward the future, becoming more self-aware, making healthy choices, and forming strong relationships with others.
“Existential therapy focuses on helping individuals create meaning in their lives. Therapists encourage clients to make decisions from a place of self-respect and positivity, rather than making decisions out of fear.”Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LICSW
What Are The Benefits Of Existential Therapy?
Someone who is looking for a more traditional approach to psychotherapy – where your past is scrutinized, or where you explore how your past experiences inform your present life – might not find existential therapy as helpful. However, if you have tried more traditional types of therapy and are looking for something new, or if you are philosophically minded and want to try an approach grounded in philosophical thinking, you might find talking to an existential psychotherapist and signing up for therapy sessions beneficial.
Keep in mind, as well, that existential therapy can be combined with other more traditional therapy models, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy. Many clinicians will alternate between one approach and another during the course of therapy. Having an existential psychotherapist who is willing to approach therapy from more than one vantage point can be a wonderful way for patients to look at their problems from different angles, and gain wisdom.
What Are The Key Concepts Of Existential Therapy?
The underlying principle of existential therapy is that being human means to experience a certain level of anxiety, and that accepting this fact is an important step toward living up to your potential. Existential therapists believe that this intrinsic anxiety stems from a few basic ‘givens’ about what it means to be human — four facts we all have to confront in life.
These fundamental principles include:
- We have freedom as humans, but that with freedom comes responsibility
- We all struggle with the idea of our mortality
- Feeling or experiencing isolation from others is part of the human experience
- We are all constantly looking for meaning in life, and that we often experience a sense of meaninglessness
The idea is that existential therapy allows us to come to terms with these givens and the anxiety that stems from them.
The Four Realms
The idea that there are essential four realms that define a person’s experience of life is another key concept in existential therapy. These realms include:
- The physical realm — where we experience the physicality of the world: sleeping, eating, waking, eliminating, sexual desire, etc.
- The social realm — where we experience our relationships with others, our society, and our culture.
- The personal realm — where we explore concepts of the self, including our identities, strengths, weaknesses, dreams, and goals.
- The making realm — where we confront things like our values and beliefs.
In existential therapy, the making realm is where our personal transformations are supposed to take place. This is where we use philosophical concepts to try to try to understand our lives and make good choices toward change and transcendence.
Who Would Benefit From Existential Therapy?
One of the areas where existential therapy has been used most widely is for people who are battling addiction or substance abuse. With its emphasis on positive choices and innate wisdom, it can help people who experience addiction make healthier, more self-aware choices.
Almost anyone can benefit from an existential approach. Other types of mental health issues that existential therapy has been known to address include:
- Relationships Issues
- Confronting death or the loss of a loved one
- Searching for a purpose in life
- Identity issues
- Life transitions
“When I work with teenagers experiencing difficult home environments, as part of existential therapy, I encourage them to identify positive choices they can make despite their circumstances. It helps them to feel empowered and future minded.”Talkspace therapist Catherine Richardson, MA, LPC
What Is The Existential Therapy Process Like?
Some therapists focus primarily on existential therapy and others use existential therapy concepts along with other guiding principles. If you are interested in existential therapy, you might need to search for therapists in your area and look for ones who have training in existential therapy. You can leverage therapist directories, like the Talkspace directory, to identify therapists with a background in existential therapy. Many online therapists also have a background in existential therapy.
Once you find an existential therapist who you feel comfortable with, your process will focus on the main tenets of existential therapy: accepting the limits of your human existence, but highlighting the idea that you have the freedom to make mindful choices in life. When negative emotions come up, they will be acknowledged, normalized, and confronted. At the same time, your therapist will support you in finding your own inner wisdom for how to confront these struggles.
Bottom Line: What Will I Gain From Existential Therapy?
For many, existential therapy is a positive and uplifting experience. You may think the concept of ‘being human means being anxious’ is a negative one, but in the end, there is something freeing about realizing that we are all dealing with similar feelings and realities. There is also something reassuring about the idea that you aren’t the cause of your own angst and anxiety — these feelings are just included in what it means to be a person.
Once you’ve fully embraced this concept, you will see that you actually have immense freedom in life. You are not bound by the past, nor are you bound by the trappings of culture or societal pressure. You get to make your life what you want it to be. This freedom can help you realize who you are, what you want in life, and can allow you to live your most authentic and happy life.