Existential therapy is a type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, in which a person is encouraged to use their agency to create a life of meaning or to find meaning in their current life. It is based on the existential theory, which states that because life has no meaning, people are free to create their own. Existential therapy encourages being authentic and creative, seeking love, and taking responsibility for one’s life and relationships.
Read on to learn more about Existential Theory and how this therapy can help people.
What is Existential Theory?
Existential therapy is based on existential theory. He states that the human condition is one of loneliness, life has no meaning and death is inevitable. Despite this, the existential theory also asserts that a human being has free will to create meaningful life.
The 4 existential “data”
Existential theory is the idea that there are four “givens” of human existence that cause inner anguish. Psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom labeled these four data in 1980.
The four “data” are:
- Freedom: Human beings have the freedom and the responsibility to create meaningful lives.
- Insulation: Human beings are ultimately alone.
- Lack of meaning: Life can seem meaningless.
- Death: No one can escape death.
Why am I here?
According to existentialism, the human condition can be lonely, meaningless, and temporary, but we have the free will to face it and find meaning regardless. Existentialism seeks to answer the questions “What is the meaning of my life and my death?” and “Why am I here?” In this setting, it is natural to feel scared or isolated, but the use of agency can help reconcile these feelings.
What is Existential Therapy?
Some therapists of this method do not consider existential therapy as a particular method of therapy. Instead, they treat it as a way to approach therapy. In existential therapy, a person addresses the inner conflict caused by human loneliness, the sense that life is meaningless, and the inevitability of death.
Existential Therapy emphasizes that humans have the freedom and responsibility to find meaning in life despite their circumstances.
What is Humanistic Therapy?
Existential therapy is a type of humanistic therapy, which rejects the idea that a therapist is an authority figure who diagnoses or “cures” a person. The humanistic therapist operates from a place of belief in human potential and agency to create meaningful life. Humanistic therapy sessions focus on the present, what the patient wants to become, and the life they want to create. The therapist is a collaborator in this experience.
How it works
Existential therapy is not about labeling or treating a person. Instead, the therapist is a “traveling companion” who collaborates with the person as they create a meaningful life.
The existential therapy process may include:
- Discuss in depth present experiences until the existential ideas underlying them are revealed
- Encourage presence in the moment and practice mindfulness, or live fully in the moment
- Explore relationships with the rest of the world and their impact on the person, including cultural norms and society
- Focus on exploring life purpose instead of setting goals and outcomes
- Work on changing the behavior that is causing inner conflict or embracing yourself as it is
- Emphasize creativity and responsibility to build a meaningful life
- Respond to anxieties, fears and hopes regarding the purpose of life
How can this help
Existential therapy can help to:
- The shocking sequence of events
- Feelings of hopelessness or anxiety due to uncontrollable circumstances
- Fear and anxiety, including death anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of hopelessness and hopelessness
Existential Therapy and God
Existential therapy supports the idea of human agency, including the freedom to explore spirituality. However, existentialism itself believes that human beings have free will to act without “God”.
Since Existential Theory can be applied to several types of therapy, those who believe in a higher power might also benefit from some of its ideas. However, the emphasis on free will might conflict with some religious beliefs in which “God” is a greater authority than the self.
Existential therapy techniques include:
- Open dialogue between patient and therapist without judgment: The relationship between patient and therapist should be flexible, tolerant and supportive.
- Mindfulness: It involves focusing on the present moment while building a meaningful future.
- Encourage patients to stay present by asking questions about their experiences: It encourages living life fully and authentically.
- Treat all experiences as equally important in their potential for meaning: Existential therapy avoids the idea of ranking experiences in order of importance.
- Dealing with negative feelings and inner conflicts: In existential therapy, these are seen as good reactions that need to be explored rather than quickly healed.
- Encourage the exploration of new ideas and experiences: Trying new things can help a patient build their future on their own terms.
- Discuss interactions with the wider world: This helps patients find their place in society or culture.
Existential therapy can benefit:
- People of all ages in groups and individually
- People from diverse backgrounds who want to address the impact of society on their lives
- People who manage depression or anxiety with or without medication
- Trauma victims and others who have experienced difficult life circumstances
- People living with wider world anxiety
Existential therapy and the present
Existential therapy emphasizes working in the present while building a future. In this sense, it is more useful for people who want to change their current behaviors while developing their potential. Existential therapy might not be helpful for someone seeking psychoanalysis based on the past.
Who should avoid it
Existential therapy may not be effective for people with immediate psychiatric needs requiring medical intervention. Patients who wish to analyze the past might also not benefit from existential therapy because it is more concerned with the present.
Existential therapy: one of the many options
If existential therapy or its techniques don’t seem helpful to your concerns, it’s important to remember that there are many types of therapy available for whatever you need to do. It’s okay to ask a few specialists before deciding on the right solution, and it’s also okay for your treatment needs to change over time.
Existential therapy is based on existential theory, which states that life is meaningless and people must use their agency to create meaning for themselves. It can help people who may be dealing with feelings of hopelessness and involves mindfulness, open dialogue with a therapist, and exploring negative emotions.
A word from Verywell
It is human to wonder about your place in the world and to feel anxious about possibilities, both positive and negative. Finding meaning in your life is a valuable quest, despite the fear it can bring. If you feel hopeless, scared, alone, or trapped in your situation, a therapist familiar with existential theory might be able to support you on the path to meaning.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some examples of existential therapy questions?
An existential therapist might ask you what you think gives meaning to life. They might also ask how daily events make you feel to encourage you to be present and authentic. An existential therapist might further ask you what you can do with the circumstances you live in to add more creativity or meaning to your life.
Who was the founder of existential therapy?
Several psychotherapists have contributed to existential therapy. In 1946 Victor Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” after surviving concentration camps during the Holocaust. Frankl introduced the world to logotherapy, the idea that human beings can find meaning in their lives, regardless of their circumstances. American psychologist Rollo May studied in Europe and brought ideas about existential psychology to the United States in the late 1950s. In 1980, Irvin Yalom named the four “givens” of freedom, isolation, nonsense and death on which the existential theory is based.
What is the difference between existential therapy and existential philosophy?
Existentialism as a philosophy defines the human state as a state of isolation and inner conflict that death is inevitable. Existentialism also emphasizes human free will to create meaningful life. Existential therapy applies these ideas to encourage people to define how life might have meaning for them, whether through change or acceptance. Existential therapy aims to reconcile the difficulty of life so that the inner conflict can be managed and accepted.