Existential Therapy

Existential Therapy

Written by GoMentor

Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that looks to explore difficulties from a philosophical perspective, rather than taking a technique-based approach.  It focuses on the human condition as a whole, and applauds human capacities and encourages individuals to take responsibility for their successes. This philosophical method of therapy operates on the belief that the inner conflict within a person is due to that individual's confrontation with the givens of existence. It looks at the here and now, exploring the human condition as a whole and what it means for an individual.


How does Existential Therapy work? 

Although Existential therapy does take the past into consideration, and through retrospection the therapist and individual can understand the implications of past events, it does not place emphasis on past events. Instead it uses past events as an insight to promote freedom and assertiveness. Coming to the realisation that you are not defined by your history and that you are not destined to have a certain future is often a breakthrough that offers liberation.


An existential therapist avoids imposing their own judgements and instead helps the individual elucidate and elaborate on their own perspective. The therapist will help to facilitate an individual's own encounter with themselves and to work alongside them as they explore values, assumptions and ideals. The goal of the therapist is to understand the individual’s assumptions with a clarity that the individual themselves cannot.


Existential therapy believes that even though humans are essentially alone in the world, they have a desire to be connected with others. This can help explain why certain concerns appear and may help the individual understand why they feel the way they do sometimes. This inner conflict stems from an individual's confrontation with the givens of existence. These givens include:

  • the inevitability of death
  • freedom and its attendant responsibility
  • existential isolation
  • meaninglessness.

These four givens, also referred to as ultimate concerns, form the body of existential psychotherapy and compose the framework in which a therapist conceptualizes an individual's problem in order to develop a method of treatment.


There is no existential personality theory which divides humanity into types or reduces people to part components. Instead, there is a description of the different levels of experience and existence with which people are inevitably confronted. On each of these dimensions, people encounter the world and shape their attitude out of their particular take on their experience. Their orientation towards the world defines their reality. The four dimensions are obviously interwoven and provide a complex four-dimensional force field for their existence.

  1. Physical dimension - This is centred around physicality. It is the world we share with animals, the world of bodily needs. It is the world that stores desire, relief, sleep/awake cycles and nature. Birth, death and physical feelings/symptoms are also part of this dimension.
  2. Social dimension - Here lies everything to do with relationships. Culture, society and language are here as well as work, attitudes towards authority, race and family. Emotions, friendships and romantic relationships are also part of the social world.
  3. Personal/psychological dimension - This is concerned with issues of the self. This includes intimacy (with self and others), identity, personal characteristics and overall sense of self. Personal strengths and weaknesses are also important as well as the question of being authentic.
  4. Spiritual dimension - This is considered our 'ideal' world. Included within it are religion, values, beliefs and transformation. This is the dimension where we make sense of our lives and is considered the realm of transcendence.


How is Existential Therapy beneficial?

Existential therapy aims to help people face the anxieties of life head on and to embrace the freedom of choice humans have, taking full responsibility for these choices as they do so. Existential therapists look to help individuals live more authentically and to be less concerned with superficiality. They also encourage clients to take ownership of their lives, to find meaning and to live fully in the present.


Individuals who are interested in self examination and who view their concerns as issues of living rather than symptoms of a psychiatric illness are more likely to benefit from this approach to counselling.


Other disorders and problems that can benefit from existential therapy include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • General feelings of unhappiness or discontent with life
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship problems
  • Marital conflict
  • Grief and loss
  • Coping with serious or terminal illness (e.g. cancer, heart disease)
  • Eating disorders
  • Fear of dying
  • Recovery from trauma
  • Panic disorder
  • Stress
  • Challenges of a major life transition
  • Issues related to aging


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