Existential therapy centres around the search for meaning – seeing clients as human beings rather than a set of symptoms. It is often described as a type of philosophy, due in part to its aim to help you find meaning in your life.
Existential therapy focuses on developing a greater awareness of a person’s choices in the present and ultimately, in the future.
Existential therapy believes that our anxiety and depression comes from very deep-rooted doubts we have about the role we have in our lives and what our purpose is.
A key point of Existential therapy is that it focuses on the responsibility you have for your own life. By looking at your internal thoughts, rather than external factors such as relationships, you will learn more about the consequences of your choices. Existential therapy can therefore be a very empowering therapy and add real meaning and value to your life.
What should I expect from Existential/Phenomenological Therapy?
Human relationship - In existential therapy, the human relationship between patient and therapist takes precedence over other therapeutic interventions.
Coming to terms with reality - understanding and facing up to one's own inner "demons"-- without denying, avoiding, distorting or sugar-coating it is key to existential therapy.
Honesty - the existential therapist will attempt to develop an honest and close relationship – you may find you have rarely had such an honest and authentic relationship before.
Medium to long term - Relationship-building can take time, so existential therapy is rarely short term – you may stay in therapy for several months or even years.
Trust - as you learn to trust the therapist, so you will begin to share with them your true feelings and thoughts. Meaningful contact between you and the therapist occurs leading to a thorough exploration of your true thoughts and feelings. The therapy room becomes a space in which old beliefs are challenged and fresh ideas emerge.
Clients report positive and lasting results from seeing therapists trained within the existential paradigm. These can include improved self esteem and self confidence, better relationships in the family and at work.
Stuart Hannah – MSW, MPsychPsych
What is Existential/Phenomenological Therapy used to treat?
People who are willing to explore the reasons for their conflicts and the decisions that led to their current circumstances can benefit greatly from Existential / Phenomenological therapy. It is used to explore a range of issues, including:
Individuals who respond to treatment tend to find meaning and purpose in their lives and often experience heightened self-awareness, self-understanding, self-respect, and self-motivation.
The realisation that they are primarily responsible for their own recovery often increases the likelihood that people who are in Existential therapy will see beyond the limits of a therapy session and view recovery as a therapeutic process.
This therapy has had a profound and long lasting effect on my life – I would recommend it to anybody.
Is Existential/Phenomenological Therapy right for me?
It can be really hard to know which therapy is the right one for your current circumstances. It’s normal for people to find one type of therapy works at a particular time in their lives, but then change to another type later on.
The following are all indicators that existential therapy might be a good choice for you:
You are interested in working closely with a therapist: The relationship you have with your therapist will enable you to explore the deeper meaning of your life and facilitate changes to your actions and behaviours. Having a relationship you can trust is key.
You want to explore what your purpose is: Through this work, people often come to feel both a sense of liberation and the ability to let go of the despair associated with insignificance and meaningless.
You want to gain perspective on your life in general: Because of the philosophical underpinnings of Existential therapy, you will be able to gain a degree of emotional distance from any emotional or mental health concerns and start to look at your life with more curiosity, even wonder. People often say they are able to view life in a positive way – as a journey with ups and downs, rather than fear and anxiety about the uncertainty life can bring.
You are open to exploring how you are responsible for your actions: People who participate in this Existential therapy are guided to accept their fears and given the skills necessary to overcome these fears through action.
Why might Existential/Phenomenological Therapy be the wrong therapy for me?
Before deciding to have Existential therapy it might be helpful to think about the following:
Are you in crisis? Often people who are going through a great deal of upheaval or are experiencing a significant amount of emotional distress may not have the wish to look at some of the bigger life issues that Existential therapy involves. Instead, people in this situation may need therapy or psychology that is more directive.
You want to work in a more practical way: Some people find that being set tasks or practical interventions is easier for them to engage in, in which case CBT might be a broader therapy.
Is philosophy something you are interested in? Although Existential therapy is still an effective therapy – it is underpinned by a philosophy that looks at the meaning of life so if this isn’t something you are interested in, it might be best to try and broader therapy like Psychodynamic Psychotherapy.
One young man who came to me for help described his life as ‘one big mess’. Over time we were able to shed new light on many of the factors that, in his mind, were causing this. We identified a gaping hole in his heart influenced by loss, self-criticism and a yearning for more. In time the hole shrunk as he made small inward and outward steps towards recovery. Finding new people to spend time with, changing job and slowly beginning to believe in himself once again gave him a renewed sense of purpose.
Stuart Hannah is a highly experienced Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist. Until 2014 he was Looked After & Adopted Children Lead for Leeds & York NHS Foundation Trust, which he left to become Therapy Lead North for Five Rivers Child Care....
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