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What is the philosophy behind existential therapy? How is it structured and what assumptions does it make about human nature? Let’s discover the answers to these questions.

Existential Therapy: Definition

Let’s imagine a ballet dancer who has spent her entire life mastering the specific techniques ballet is built around. Now let’s imagine a young girl dancing outside in the yard. The ballet is choreographed to a specific musical score and tells a specific story. The little girl dancing in the yard is free to choose any dance move and apply it to the music that she has in her head as she dances.

Like this example of the dancers, existential therapy is more a way of thinking than a neatly defined model with specific techniques. It is a philosophical approach to therapy, which assumes we are free to choose and are responsible for our choices.

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Key Figures

The two main figures responsible for the development of existential therapy are Viktor Frankl and Rollo May. Frankl and May were strongly influenced by existential philosophy. Both Frankl and May believed that there is a meaning to all things in life.

Existential therapists call the condition of meaninglessness that leads to emptiness the existential vacuum. This condition often causes a person to withdraw and be unable to create purpose in their life. Existential therapy should help a person discover the meaning of their lives and find purpose in this meaning.

Peak experiences are the experiences in our lives that help us gain awareness that we can be more than we are right now. These experiences cause us to seek after this deeper meaning in our lives. These experiences help us see that we are not victims of circumstance. Instead, we are what we choose to be.

Six Propositions

There are six basic assumptions, or propositions, of the existential approach.

Proposition 1: Capacity for Self-Awareness

As humans, we are capable of increasing our awareness of alternatives, motivations, and influencing factors in our lives.

As this self-awareness is developed, our potential for personal fulfillment is increased. For example, I develop awareness that I am motivated by money. Therefore, I now realize that I would excel in a job where I have the potential to make more money based on my performance.

Proposition 2: Freedom and Responsibility

As humans, we are free to choose alternatives in our lives. This means that we play the most significant role in shaping our destiny.

This also means that we are responsible for our own actions. For example, I am in a dead-end relationship because I am not choosing something different.

Proposition 3: Establishing an Identity and Meaningful Relationships

As humans, we are each capable of finding a unique personal identity. We are more than what others expect of us. However, we also strive to be connected to other people and depend on relationships. It is important to distinguish between these two parts of our lives. For example, I have lost track of my own identity after assuming the role of a wife and mother for the past ten years.

I want these fulfilling relationships but need to find and nurture my own identity as well. Who am I if these roles are taken away from me?

Proposition 4: Finding Meaning

As humans, we constantly desire to understand the significance and purpose of our lives. Therefore, it’s essential that we find meaning in the struggles that we face. Finding this meaning allows us to establish values and goals that give us a purpose for who we are and why we are here. For example, what is the point of struggling with my problems? I don’t even want to go on living because I no longer see a point in it.

Proposition 5: Anxiety Is Unavoidable

Feelings of anxiety are an inevitable part of human existence. Anxiety cannot be eliminated, so we must instead develop the courage to overcome it. We should learn to look at anxiety as a stimulus for personal growth.

For example, I am anxious about looking for a new job even though I would like a better position. What should I do?

Proposition 6: Awareness of Mortality

We are all mortal. This means that death is inevitable. In the existential view, this actually adds significance to our lives because we have a finite period of time in which to accomplish our goals. Thus, we should strive to spend time on the things that we value as important.

A fear of death can prevent us from enjoying the life that we have. For example, I like the freedom that driving a car would give me, but I do not drive because I’m afraid I’ll be killed in a car accident.

Lesson Summary

Existential therapy is more of a way of thinking than a neatly defined model with specific techniques. It is a philosophical approach to therapy, which assumes we are free to choose and responsible for our choices.

Six propositions of existential therapy are:

  1. Capacity for self-awareness
  2. Freedom and responsibility
  3. Establishing an identity and meaningful relationships
  4. Finding meaning
  5. Anxiety is unavoidable
  6. Awareness of mortality

Existential therapy should help a person discover the meaning of their lives and find purpose in that meaning. Without meaning, we would experience an existential vacuum, or the condition of meaninglessness that leads to emptiness in our lives.Through peak experiences, the experiences in our lives that help us gain an awareness that we can become more than we are right now, we are able to find deeper meaning in our lives.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain existential therapy and its goal
  • Name the two key figures who developed existential therapy
  • Define existential vacuum and peak experiences and understand how they relate to existential therapy
  • Describe the six propositions of existential therapy

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