Example of How Existential Therapy Works


Existential therapy offers a unique and profound approach to psychotherapy by delving into the deep existential questions of human existence.

Existential therapy is a profound approach to psychotherapy that delves into the deep existential questions of human existence and aims to help individuals find meaning, purpose, and authenticity in their lives. By addressing fundamental concerns such as freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning, existential therapy offers a unique perspective on mental health and personal growth.

Interestingly, existential therapy is based on the philosophical foundations laid by prominent existential thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre. It acknowledges that human beings grapple with universal dilemmas, including the fear of death, the search for meaning, the burden of freedom, and the anxiety of choice. Existential therapy provides a framework for individuals to confront these existential concerns and discover their own paths to a more fulfilling and authentic life.

In this article, we will explore the core principles, key concepts, techniques, and practical application of existential therapy through an illustrative example.

Understanding Existential Therapy

understanding existential therapy

Core Principles

Existential therapy operates on several core principles. Firstly, it recognizes that individuals have the freedom to make choices and take responsibility for their lives. Secondly, it emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and authenticity, encouraging individuals to explore their true selves and live in alignment with their values. Lastly, existential therapy acknowledges that human existence is inherently subjective, and each individual’s experience is unique and shaped by their own subjective reality.

The Role of the Therapist

In existential therapy, the therapist serves as a facilitator, guide, and collaborator. They create a safe and non-judgmental space for clients to explore their existential concerns and support them in their journey of self-discovery. The therapist actively listens, asks thought-provoking questions, and helps clients uncover their own insights and meanings.

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Key Concepts in Existential Therapy

Existential therapy incorporates several key concepts that underpin its approach:

Existential Anxiety

Existential anxiety refers to the deep-seated unease individuals experience when confronted with life’s fundamental questions. It arises from the awareness of their mortality, the uncertainty of the future, and the realization of their freedom and responsibility in shaping their lives. Existential therapy helps individuals acknowledge and confront this anxiety, transforming it into a catalyst for personal growth.

Authenticity and Self-awareness

Authenticity is a central theme in existential therapy. It involves embracing one’s true self, living in alignment with personal values, and being genuine in interactions with others. Self-awareness plays a crucial role in existential therapy. It involves deep introspection and an honest examination of one’s beliefs, emotions, and motivations. Through self-awareness, individuals can gain clarity about their authentic selves, identify incongruences between their inner and outer lives, and work towards aligning their actions with their true values.

Freedom and Responsibility

Existential therapy highlights the concept of freedom and the inherent responsibility that accompanies it. It recognizes that individuals have the freedom to choose their responses to life’s challenges and that these choices shape their existence. By accepting personal responsibility, individuals can empower themselves to make intentional choices that lead to personal growth and fulfillment.

Meaning and Purpose

Meaning and purpose are essential aspects of human existence. Existential therapy explores the quest for meaning, recognizing that individuals are driven to find significance in their lives. It encourages individuals to reflect on their values, passions, and aspirations, and to create a sense of purpose that aligns with their authentic selves.

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Techniques in Existential Therapy

Existential therapy employs various techniques to facilitate self-exploration and personal growth:

Phenomenological Exploration

Phenomenological exploration is a foundational technique in existential therapy. It involves examining subjective experiences, thoughts, and emotions without judgment or preconceived notions. By exploring lived experiences, individuals can gain insights into their unique perspectives and develop a deeper understanding of themselves.

Embracing Paradoxes and Contradictions

Existential therapy embraces the inherent paradoxes and contradictions of human existence. It recognizes that life is complex and that individuals often experience conflicting emotions and beliefs. By acknowledging and exploring these paradoxes, individuals can gain a more comprehensive understanding of themselves and their experiences, leading to personal growth and integration.

Logotherapy and Meaning-Centered Interventions

Logotherapy, developed by Viktor Frankl, is a key intervention used in existential therapy. It focuses on helping individuals find meaning and purpose in their lives, even in the face of adversity. Through logotherapy, individuals are encouraged to discover meaning through relationships, work, creativity, and embracing life’s challenges.

Encouraging Personal Responsibility and Choice

Existential therapy emphasizes personal responsibility and the power of choice. Therapists work with clients to help them recognize their agency and the impact of their choices on their lives. By embracing personal responsibility, individuals can actively shape their lives and make choices that align with their values and aspirations.

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Case Study: A Practical Example

Example of How Existential Therapy Works

To illustrate the application of existential therapy, let’s consider a hypothetical case study:

Client Background

Sarah, a 35-year-old professional, seeks therapy due to a deep sense of dissatisfaction and a lack of meaning in her life. She feels stuck in her career and struggles with feelings of emptiness and anxiety.

Assessment and Exploration

In the initial sessions, the therapist engages in empathetic listening and establishes a trusting relationship with Sarah. Through open-ended questions and reflective discussions, the therapist helps Sarah explore her existential concerns, including her fears, values, and aspirations.

Intervention and Progress

Using existential therapy techniques, the therapist assists Sarah in examining her core beliefs, values, and the choices she has made in her life. Together, they explore her passion for creative endeavors and discuss potential avenues for incorporating more meaning into her career. Through introspection and challenging conversations, Sarah begins to gain clarity about her true desires and takes steps towards aligning her life with her authentic self.

Another example of the application of existential therapy is by combining it with other humanistic therapy. A research was conducted on the concept of meaninglessness and its impact on individuals in the present era. It suggests that meaninglessness is not only a symptom of depression but also a complex experience that can be observed at different levels: micro-dimensional, meso-dimensional, and macro-dimensional.

At the micro-dimensional level, meaninglessness is described as a felt sensed experience, implying an individual’s subjective perception of a lack of meaning in their life. This could be a deeply personal and emotional experience.

At the meso-dimensional level, meaninglessness is seen as a “meaning gap” in the narrative of one’s life. It refers to a sense of disconnection or discrepancy between a person’s desires, values, and actual experiences and events in their life story. This level involves examining the larger narrative of one’s life and exploring the discrepancies that may contribute to the experience of meaninglessness.

At the macro-dimensional level, meaninglessness is referred to as groundlessness, which relates to the broader existential questions and concerns about the nature of meaning and existence. Existential therapies specifically address these macro-dimensions by helping individuals confront existential realities such as meaninglessness and the search for meaning in life.

The research suggests that experiential-existential psychotherapy can be an effective approach to addressing meaninglessness. This type of therapy combines experiential techniques with existential insights to help clients explore and address their experience of meaninglessness at all three dimensions.

The research includes a case study that illustrates how all three meaning dimensions are important in the therapeutic process but not necessarily simultaneously. By engaging in therapy and exploring these dimensions, the client in the case study ultimately discovers what is most essential to him in life. This newfound understanding and connection with what matters most to him gives him the courage to fully engage with life, regardless of whether it is ultimately meaningful or not.

Criticisms and Limitations of Existential Therapy

While existential therapy offers valuable insights and approaches, it is not without its criticisms and limitations. Some common critiques include:

  • Limited empirical evidence: Existential therapy’s emphasis on subjective experiences and qualitative exploration makes it challenging to measure its effectiveness using traditional empirical methods.
  • Lack of specific techniques: Existential therapy relies heavily on the therapeutic relationship and the exploration of existential concerns, which may be perceived as less structured compared to other therapeutic approaches.
  • Not suitable for severe mental illnesses: Existential therapy is generally more suitable for individuals dealing with existential concerns and personal growth rather than severe mental illnesses requiring intensive clinical interventions.

Despite these criticisms, existential therapy can provide profound insights and transformational experiences for individuals seeking a deeper understanding of themselves and their lives.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Can existential therapy be effective for everyone?

Existential therapy can be beneficial for individuals who are seeking meaning, grappling with existential concerns, or desiring personal growth. However, it may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with severe mental illnesses requiring intensive clinical interventions.

  • Is existential therapy a long-term treatment?

The duration of existential therapy varies depending on the individual and their specific needs. It can be short-term or long-term, depending on the depth of exploration and the goals of the client.

  • How does existential therapy differ from other therapeutic approaches?

Existential therapy differs from other therapeutic approaches by focusing on existential concerns, such as freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning. It emphasizes self-awareness, authenticity, and personal responsibility in shaping one’s life.

  • Can existential therapy help with specific mental health conditions?

Existential therapy is not specifically targeted at treating mental health conditions. However, it can complement other therapeutic interventions and provide a framework for individuals to explore their experiences and find meaning amidst their struggles.

  • How can someone find an existential therapist?

To find an existential therapist, individuals can search online directories, seek recommendations from healthcare professionals, or contact local counseling centers or psychology associations for referrals.

Disclaimer: This article is a general overview of existential therapy and should not replace professional advice. If you or someone you know is in need of therapy, it is recommended to seek the guidance of a qualified mental health professional.


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