what in the world is existential psychotherapy?
by Simone Lee
Confronted with such a vast number of different therapeutic approaches, it can be quite bewildering for someone who is seeking talking-therapy for the first time to know where to start looking for a therapist. While Shakespeare might have a point when he says, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", one cannot disagree that Romeo's surname, Montague, was an impediment in his quest for love with Juliette.
And I think "existential psychotherapy" suffers this self-same thorny Montague problem. While some might be thrown back to their school or university studies in philosophy or French and be quite curious and interested in any discipline with the word "existential" in it, many others will envision a therapist clothed in black, obsessing about death and freedom. And those who are not as familiar with the term "existential" might find the words a bit of a mouthful and think it might be all too intellectual and not what they're wanting at all.
My own view is that the term “existential therapy” (or even “existential phenomenological psychotherapy”!) would get more people sniffing its aroma to start with if its name conveyed in a more ordinary way what the therapy is really about. This would entice more people to decide for themselves whether or not it did indeed smell sweet. If I could have it my way, I would rename the therapeutic style and call it something different altogether, like "Thoughtful dialogue about the human condition and what really makes you tick"
And that suggestion probably tells you why I am a therapist and not a marketing brand consultant.
The way I understand existential therapy is that it is interested in what it means to be human, but not in a general textbook, theoretical way, but from the horse's mouth ie as defined by you the person who comes to therapy. As a therapist, I think the work is about finding out what makes YOU tick and what matters to YOU. This will, inevitably reveal something in general about what it is to be human, because YOU (and ME and the next person and all other people everywhere for that matter) ARE human.
As humans we are all limited in a myriad of ways. Some are helpful, some less helpful and some indifferent to us. But, most would agree, I think, that life is not a bed of roses from start to finish.
We are all born into a body - male/female, tall/short, healthy/unwell etc and we all need to eat, breath and be physically safe to survive. We all start off life as “mewling” “puking” babies, as Shakespeare would have it, and are all getting older by the minute whether we like it or not.
We are all born somewhere into some kind of situation geographically, culturally, language, climate etc.
We all find ourselves in a world with heaps of other people, some we know, most we don't, some we've heard of, most we haven't. And even the ones that we can’t even summons up as individuals with faces do affect us.. we kind of know they are there, because they work in the factories that make the things we eat and use and they watch the same TV as we do and they are the units that make up population surveys etc.
For all we share as human beings, like knowing what it is to be hot and cold, happy and sad, feeling hungry and thirsty or replete, feeling loved or rejected - no-one can live your life and be you – no-one can know what it is like to be that unique you-ness that is you..
And the therapy understands this and tries to help you work out what it really means to be you and to open up your possibilities for living in this big, complex and often confusing world we all find ourselves in, in a way that feels true to you.
So the therapy doesn’t try to cure the human condition, the work is rather to open up your recognition of the limitations of what it is to be a human for you in your life with all that is going on for you (which, let’s face it, is often very difficult when you decide to seek counselling) and to help you understand how you respond to the things you can and cannot change in your life and how you relate to the people around you. Once you have that enhanced perspective, then something creative often happens in the dialogue between you and your therapist about how you can choose to live your life more richly and in a way that is more rewarding.
“Existential phenomenological psychotherapy” has sixteen syllables. “Be true to your life” has only five; yet both have the same heady and evocative aroma to me.
© Simone Lee 2007