Existentialism in Psychotherapy

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Quick Summary: Existentialism is used in Psychotherapy to allow clients to explore their freedom in creating their own meaning. When a client finds his/her freedom to create meaning they greatly reduce their anxiety. The new meaning that a client creates can greatly reduce their suffering and can aid in a person’s recovery from a difficult life experience.

There is a more severe, fatalistic and melancholy view of existentialism that I have not personally found too helpful… this post is the meaning that I have created from my existential contemplations and investigations. I apply dialectics to existentialism… life is infinitely meaningless and meaningful at the same time.

Existentialism is a way by which a person balances the chaos of existence with structure… meaning is the structure of our lived experience… a person can structure their perceived reality so as to feel less of the burden inherent in chaos by creating new meaning or by creating meaning out of what was a meaninglessness event.

Existential anxiety – therapists help client to alleviate the anxiety which comes from: feelings surrounding the inevitability of death, feelings surrounding being alone in the world, and feelings surrounding the meaninglessness of life.

How it is used – Existentialism is used in psychotherapy to help people to attribute new meaning to a lived experience or to create a meaning to their life in general. The meaning is created by the client… the therapist simply acts as a guide who encourages a client to realize that they have the freedom and the strength to create their own meaning… the new meaning is accepted and therefore validated by the therapist.

  • “What meaning can you take from this experience that will serve to guide you in a positive way?” is a common existential question.

 

Life Purpose – Creating a unique and subjective meaning to a person’s life can give them a sense of purpose that will motivate them towards actions which will bring happiness, satisfaction, resiliency, and personal growth.

  • Existentialism can serve as a tool to give direction to a person who feels lost.
  • “I feel great serenity within the happiness and success of my children… my purpose is to nurture those who depend on me,” is a common existential purpose.

 

Creating meaning out of meaninglessness – Helping a person to attribute meaning to a life instance that feels meaningless can greatly reduce anxiety and persistent suffering and can free the person to move towards recovery. Meaninglessness is anxiety provoking in itself and when a person learns of their freedom to assign their own meaning that person frees themselves from the burdens inherent in meaninglessness.

  • People who have survived natural disasters are often able o reduce a degree of suffering by attributing a meaning to the seemingly meaninglessness event.
  • “I learned to appreciate the every minute of life and to stop over-focusing on unimportant desires related to the future,” is a common example.

 

Creating meaning from a difficult experience – Existentialism is used in helping a person to attribute a life enhancing meaning to an event which caused great trauma or suffering. Life does have suffering and often from that suffering we grow positive possibilities… existentialism allows a person to see what good could come or has come out of a difficult life experience.

  • “It was my difficult upbringing which taught me to be compassionate for all people,” is a common example.

 

Changing an attributed meaning when the meaning is the source of a person’s suffering – often times a person will create a meaning to a lived experience which causes them great pain such as “my parents divorce proves my inability to be in a functioning relationship.” this meaning is created and is not absolute truth.

  • By changing the meaning that a person places on an instance that person can free them from the hopelessness of determinism.
  • “My parents divorce encouraged me to work hard on my own relationship skills… their divorce will help me to not make the same mistakes.”

 

When the unconscious process of finding meaning fosters actions which are not in the best interest of a person – Often people repeat harmful behaviors expecting to find meaning from a confusing and hurtful event. People will unconsciously repeat the faulty actions of their parents in an attempt to make sense out of their parents ‘senseless’ actions. Sadly the oppressed often become the oppressors or seek out oppressive environments due in part to this unconscious drive to make meaning from something that they cannot understand… from something that they cannot integrate into their view of reality.

  • People with abusive parents can end up marrying an abusive spouse or abusing their own offspring… people with an alcoholic parent end up being an alcoholic or being a caretaker for an alcoholic.
  • Existential insight can bring clarity to what was an unconscious drive… when the drive moves into a persons conscious awareness they are freed from automaticity – they can create there own meaning instead of being directed by the unconscious drive.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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