My way of working
The existential approach
The existential approach to counselling & psychotherapy is a philosophical method for thinking about life’s difficulties and dilemmas. It grew from the ideas of several European philosophers, notably Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty who were concerned with considering what it means to be alive and to live well.
Existential therapy follows a specific philosophical method of enquiry involving description, understanding and exploration of the client’s reality. Problems are confronted and perceived possibilities and boundaries are explored. By maintaining an open mind and a spirit of discovery fresh perspectives emerge.
We often feel that life has determined our situation and character so much that we have no choices left. This approach encourages us to be realistic about our situation which in turn helps us to identify our opportunities. In therapy we can rediscover some of the hopes and projects that had been forgotten or given up on.
Existential therapy is not about eliminating anxiety but about engaging with it creatively. If we did achieve freedom from all anxiety, we would be robbed of the most constructive stimulant for life and for survival. The aim is to live a more authentic and fulfilling life in the face of anxiety.
This approach takes the view that it is the way in which I relate to the world, to others, to myself and my ideas about life that creates what I am – my ‘self’. Through my intentionality I connect to the world and come more fully into being. My life creates a story and the way I go about this is of utmost importance.
Existential therapy is about retracing the story and reflecting on the person’s goals, intentions and attitude to life to help them see where they can change the story for themselves, and where they cannot and must accept and own what is.
“I now feel I own my life so far, it makes sense now, I have brought myself here and though this is tough to accept it is also very liberating as it means I can create my future … “
Well-being is the ultimate aim of this approach. It may include good health and happiness but is more than these. It is about accepting that life involves uncertainty, sickness, loss, disappointments and unpleasant emotions like shame and jealousy. Sadness is the appropriate response to losing something that gave us joy, they are two sides of the same coin. Our emotions are a compass for life, we need them to give us direction and to feel fully alive.
Existential psychotherapy considers more than the individual perspective and immediate moment. It encourages clients to look beyond themselves, to consider their responsibilities to the world and others and to think about the consequences of their choices, past and future. What constitutes happiness and well-being can change over time. What makes us happy now may not be conducive to well-being later on.
“My wife and children say I’m much nicer now!”
A basic assumption of the existential approach is that it is possible to make sense of life and that doing so makes good sense. Despair and a sense of futility can be construed as a necessary first step in the quest for meaning. The idea is to assist the client in finding purpose and motivation, direction and vitality. All investigations eventually lead to a greater understanding of what makes the world meaningful to them and how they want to live in future.