One of my areas of expertise is existential psychotherapy, which is a clunky name for something quite elegant. People often ask what existential therapy is and how it can help them. It’s a complex subject, but I’m going to give a shot at a simple answer. Existential therapy is essentially about YOU and what it’s like being you right here in the middle of your life.
It’s about understanding all the different ways human beings get tripped up and struggle. There are certain experiences or concerns that people face that generate anxiety, agitation, or dread. These “givens” of existence are universal, meaning every single one of us on this planet, no matter how powerful or weak, rich or poor, will freak out on some level as we grapple with them.
The givens of existence include: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom. This means that each one of us will struggle to make sense of death and change, find meaning and purpose in life, manage feelings of isolation and disconnection from others, and understand the awesome responsibility that comes with being a person with free will.
Of course, not everyone suffers in the same way. Some people have rich family lives and rarely feel alone or disconnected, but perhaps are sensitive to change and become anxious when life throws them a curveball. Others may be living a life full of purpose, but feel alone and apart from others. It all depends. Sooner or later, we all run into these unavoidable aspects of human life and become anxious or overwhelmed by them. Existential therapy can then help to make sense of this disruption.
As an existential therapist, I look for where each of my clients is caught up in fear or hopelessness and begin to work right there at the source of the issue. I’ve found that clients enjoy talking about these deep issues. It helps them make sense of their humanity and their world. Our culture tends to push these topics aside and, in doing so, it robs people of the opportunity to learn and grow from examining what scares them the most.
Existentialism and existential therapy often get a bad wrap for being too negative, but actually the opposite is true. Existential therapy seeks to help people become much more accepting of change and death, live lives full of loving relationships, seek out and create sources of meaning and purpose, and use one’s freedom to craft a life of deep fulfillment. It’s as if each of the existential fears were a demon guarding a great treasure within. Existential therapy asks us to find the courage to discover the outrageous, vibrant, joyful life at the very heart of the shadow places inside us.