Quick summary: “It is not about finding the correct answer to questions pertaining to life, death, suffering, bliss, meaning, and meaninglessness… it is about creating a meaning which is most helpful, comforting, and peace provoking to you as an individual.” In this blog I will talk about some of the affects that existentialism (or the innate drive to make meaning) has on peoples lives, and how existential themes contribute to therapy.
Existentialism is a school of thought which is concerned with meaning and meaninglessness; the philosophy attributes more significance to the meaning we individually place on occurrences and existences than on an objective truth concerning an occurrence or an existence.
Some existentialist believe that we make decision based on the meaning that we assign to different actions and our decisions are not always based on the facts pertaining to an action (facts dictating an action is rationalism).
Existentialism is another one of those philosophically complex terms that ironically “means” something different to different people.
Have you ever asked yourself any of the following questions? -
- What is the purpose of my life?
- Why did this happen to me?
- What is the meaning of life?
- Why do I do the things that I do?
- How could such a terrible thing happen?
- Why do people die?
If the answer is yes (you have asked yourself one of these questions), then you have asked yourself an existential question.
What impact does your answer to any of the above questions have on you? Existentialism appears in the field of therapy under the belief that the answers that you give to yourself (the meaning that you assign) will have a significant impact on how you perceive your existence – or how you perceive the quality of your life.
–Note – I would propose that any ‘why’ question is an existential question – to any answer that you give to a ‘why’ question, the question ‘why’ can be asked again – until there in no answer = meaninglessness.
- Example – why is the sky blue? – The refraction and reflection of light. – Why? The process enables the longer wavelength to be perceived. – Why? Longer wavelengths are blue and shorter wavelengths are red. – Why are longer wavelengths blue? Color pertains to light wavelengths and colors are on a spectrum. – Why aren’t short wavelengths blue instead or why does the color spectrum exist? – Meaninglessness…
As humans many of us our conscious of the fact that there is no one correct answer to the above questions… Our inability to know the answer to those questions is believed to be a major source of anxiety, despair, and dread etc.
The existential solution to the anxiety caused by the meaninglessness of life and death is an individual’s freedom to create your own meaning and your own purpose to life.
One of my top ten books of all time is Victor E. Frankl’s – “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor was a Jewish psychiatrist (among other things) that was sent to various concentration camps during the Nazi occupation. He attributes a large degree of his ability to survive the concentration camps to his ability to maintain a sense of meaning throughout the chaotic and meaningless suffering that he and others were forced to endure. I highly recommend reading this book – it offers perspective on the resilient potential of the human spirit that can arise from within one’s self without altering the suffering which inevitably surrounds us.
You might have heard that there are ‘existential therapists’… what does this mean and what do they do? In my opinion, existential therapy simply implies that the therapist believes that he/she can help a client by assisting that client in creating meaning pertaining to an event which is causing the client distress (and in some cases that distress might be producing very observable mental health concerns).
- There are no set techniques in existential therapy and the therapy process can differ dramatically from one therapist to the next.
- The goal can be to assign meaning or to change the meaning that a person attributes to a certain occurrence (person, place, thing, action etc) – the client changes the meaning and not the therapist. This is done under the belief that a person relieves distress by embracing their freedom to assign their own meaning to the meaningless.
- Meaninglessness is thought to be fundamentally universal – Individuals have the freedom to subjectively assign meaning to an existence that has no universal meaning.
- This can be both theologically based and not – for some philosophers it was god who gave humans the freewill to find meaning, and for others, they believe that there is no god and our drive for meaning comes from nowhere.
- Sometimes the drive to create meaning out of a traumatic situation leads us to continually engage in self-destructive or socially destructive behaviors. Some in the therapy field believe that this is part of the reason why people who are perpetrated on sometimes end up perpetrating on others or why people who grew up in abusive households end up in a relationship with an abusive partner – In both examples the individual is unconsciously re-engaging in the meaningless suffering to try and ‘find’ meaning.
In short – my existential quotes to provoke discussion and thought -
“It is not about finding the correct answer to questions pertaining to life, death, suffering, bliss, meaning, and meaninglessness… it is about creating a meaning which is most helpful, comforting, and peace provoking to you as an individual.” -Will
“It is responsibility that offers a meaning to liberty is an attempt to address the chaos inherent in freedom.” – Will
“You can look endlessly for purpose and meaning only to ultimately find that you held the freedom to create your own meaning and purpose the entire time.” -Will
“Suffering is both inevitable and infinite… peace then is not found in the annihilation of suffering and chaos (as this is not possible), but in the meaning that a person assigns to that suffering and chaos.” – Will