What is Existential Therapy?

Firstly, this description is both incomplete and changeable. It has to be.

Existential Therapy is derived from the philosophy of many people who are known to the world as existential – philosophers, authors, poets, artists, etc. Many of those identified as such would also reject such a label, perhaps because to an existentialist, human life is contingent and complex and should not be reduced to any over simplified or static form of description. A dog will always be a dog but humans are unique in that they determine who they become, shaped by many factors, not least their own choices for how they react to the situation(s) they find themselves in.

We are meaning seeking and meaning making. We care about others and the impact they have on us, which causes us to position ourselves nearer or further away – both physically and emotionally. We locate ourselves in a situation, affected by relationships (partners, parents, siblings, friends,colleagues), emotions, thoughts, culture, time/age, ethnicity, religion, physical structure (how we look and any physical challenges/abilities we might have), political influences, beliefs, values, teachers/schooling (books, internet, other media sources of information and opinion), experiences (what we witness or discover), etc. These factors are at times chosen and at times thrust upon us through circumstances of which we have no control or choice. How we respond to this unique combination of factors is up to us and it seems to matter what we choose and how others respond to our choices. How we live is important to us.

We have a growing awareness of our mortality. Surely everyone knows they will die? Possibly – but not everyone knows when or how nor what to do with their lives in the meantime. Perhaps, we have believed that death at some level is something which happens to others,but doesn’t apply to me or that a we’ll be ultimately rescued by an external force or saviour. At some point, for many of us, how we live the remainder of our lives is called to question. Sometimes this won’t happen until we reach a certain age, or when circumstances bring the possibility of our own death closer to our door. This can be in subtle ways, like signs of ageing or more obvious ways like death of peers or relatives or indeed illness. Either way, an awareness of our mortality challenges us to consider and take responsibility for our lives and confronts us with the toughest question of all “what should I do?”.

This uncertainty of any response to this question generates anxiety. We become caught between the infinite options open to us (at least in western culture) and the desire/need to have chosen well before we die. The tension and anxiety can get played out in all kinds of scenarios posing as ordinary everyday events e.g. changing jobs, ending a relationship or having a baby.

Existential therapy helps individuals realise that rather than fix the pain with chemicals, or other behaviours, we need to listen to it. Anxiety, on the whole, isn’t a problem to be fixed but an alarm to be heard. It’s a wake-up call of the highest order, inviting us to take responsibility for our lives, to transcend the seemingly impossible choices at our disposal and to learn to live our lives consciously and meaningfully rather than dulling our senses as though the choices weren’t really available after all. “I would do that job I am passionate about if it wasn’t for the mortgage, my partner, my car, the distance, etc, etc”. These challenges are not easy but so often the ability to distract ourselves or pretend we have no choice diminishes in the possibility of our own death.

Existential therapy is concerned with how we navigate the route towards a meaningful life, without a road map to show us the way. Despite the above, it isn’t morbid and on the contrary can be exciting and vibrant. Ironically, when we accept our mortality we also embrace life more fully too.

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