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16th July 2018 

Dummies Guide to Existential Psychotheapy

A Dummies guide Existential Therapy.

Existential Therapy is informed by an understanding of the human condition from a philosophical perspective, and those philosophers who used phenomenology, a research methodology, to understand our experiences as human beings. (Don’t worry if you can’t get you tongue around the word phenomenology - it usually takes students at least a year and even then they still don't get it right!)

What makes them different to other psychotherapists?
Apart from having an unpronounceable title, existential phenomenologically orientated psychotherapists (EPs for short) are a relatively new breed of therapists who challenge a lot of what has gone on since Father Freud. It was old Sigmund who really gave psychotherapy a place in the world. He was a medical type of doctor before he went down the psycho-path and treated his patients in a certain way, that is he liked to be thought of as an expert and he came up with some pretty far fetched and unprovable ideas about the mind. So have many of those that have followed him. EP’s have made some changes for your benefit, so they say, making you the expert in you own life. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like an expert it’s more important that you don’t treat them like one and surrender yourself to them. If you do and they are doing their job right, they shouldn’t let you get away with it and then that is what the therapy will be about, initially anyway. EPs don’t have the answers to the problems of living but they will have a few ideas about why psychological problems occur. Still, they will encourage you to discover a way forward for yourself.

Want a quick fix? Forget it!
So if you want a quick fix, however, you will be disappointed. Being in therapy with and EP is more like going on a journey, often quite a bumpy one, exploring your own life, with them at your side. Hopefully in the end you will see how you have both created yourself, your life and the way you lead it. This will put you back in the diving seat so you can feel more in control over it. Actually there are strict limits to how much control you can have so don’t imagine you will be driving up Everest in a Mini. They refer to these limits as the “givens” – they are all those things you can’t change like where you were born, who you parents were, how tall you are etc.

Must I change?
No, you can stay just the way you are although hopefully after a while you might be able to see the ways you are benefiting or gaining from doing or being how you are. You may decide that the way you are now enables you to avoid certain things and that you are avoiding them for a good reason and so it could be that you may want to continue being – in – the – world just the way you are. This is the concept of freedom and responsibility. (They love hyphens, by the way, so you had better get used to them if you want to read any of their books. It was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger who first got into it).

Freedom, you must be joking!
EP’s often forget that it is proven and they really can’t deny that what happened to you early in you life is important to how you are now. However, they prefer to focus on what you can do now and recognise the freedom you have rather than be a victim of the past and therefore helpless. They hate people who say, “Oh, it’s just the way I am!” In fact, they probably won’t take them on as clients! Be warned, their pulse goes up if they hear the word “can’t.” The old argument between free-will and determinism has occupied a many great minds for ages, since Plato, in fact, and no one has yet come up with a totally satisfactory solution so now they say it’s just a paradox which really means it’s beyond our comprehension as human beings. Maybe we need ET more than we realise after all. EP’s think that problems can occur when we get fixed or too set in our ways and that we suffer from not taking risks. We get lazy, play safe and don’t consider all our options. But in reality this may feel like trying to get out of a straight jacket!

A friend in deed
The way we are in therapy and with our therapist is usually reckoned to reflect the way we are in life so it will be under scrutiny. That means therapy is not just a chat about what’s going on in your life ‘out there’ it will also be about seeing and understanding what’s going on between the two of you right ‘there and then’ in the session. This can be scary and very challenging especially during the silences when there seems to be nothing to say but when in fact there will be plenty going.

Eye to Eye
If you had any ideas of lying back on a couch resting your aching feet and sore back, forget it. EP’s like to sit face to face. Again it was old Siggy who started the couch business. He often threw in a head massage as well, especially if you showed any signs of disagreeing with him. Yes, you will have to deal with eye-to-eye contact and you can’t hide behind a book or look at the ads as if you were on a London tube. So, where the hell are you supposed to look? Staring them out is too uncomfortable and they generally win, if you try that one. It’s amazing how interesting that stain on the wallpaper becomes! Still, if you can’t think of anything to say it’s always a good topic for a while. It you don’t like their constant stare then tell them – why shouldn’t you?

Value for money?
If they are sitting ‘at you side’ or, more often than not sitting opposite you and you are doing all the work, then what are you paying them for? That’s a good question!
They are there to ask questions. Certain types of questions that will help you clarify and understand. (Question you will eventually find quite irritating!) Questions that begin “What’s that like… How do you mean… Can you give me an example… or What’s happening now…Often you won’t have a clue! But don’t worry you’ll cope! It’s quite amazing what you will find yourself coming up with which may be a load of rubbish or it may not be. You will never know.

You’ve’ been framed!
The frame is their technical term for the rules and the contract you have with your therapist. They also talk about boundaries. It’s important to get certain things sorted out right at the start. Who will decide when to stop? Do you pay when you can’t make the session for some good reason or decide you don’t want to go? This is a contentious issue between different types of psychotherapists. EPs, you’ll be glad to hear, are probably the most flexible. For practical reasons a regular session is better for all. At the same time it will provide continuity and consistency and this itself does form part of the healing process. Continuity and consistency is lacking in many people’s lives and was often missing from our childhoods. But remember therapists are not parents.

Existential at odds with the Phenomenological
The EP can get himself in a bit of a hole cos the Existential in him thinks it’s possible to make sense of the world and that it make sense to do so. Yet the phenomenological part of them says no way can we really understand anything and truth is nothing but what we make it…we are puny mortals in a cruel world who have a need not to feel it so.

Dream timezzzzzzzzz
EP’s have moved away from seeing all our dreams sequences of repressed sexual and aggressive drives. So not everything will be a disguised penis or an attack of you father or a fear of an attack from him stopping you raping your mother. If that sounds sexist and you’re thinking, “what about women’s sexuality?” well Freud didn’t really get round to working that one out. Your dreams though are important to an EP. They see them as part of you and that they can reveal how you are in – the – world (there’s those hyphens again!) So that umbrella will not be a disguised penis or a desire to have one but instead it could be a need for protection, even when it’s not needed or is in fact possible.

Money Back Guarantee
All therapists, and that includes EP’s, want to reduce human suffering. Sounds too easy! However, there’s no money back guarantee, I’m afraid. There is a code of conduct that all too often protects them more than you which is probably why they
don’t tell you about it. So, if you don’t really think you are getting a good deal and you can’t resolve those feelings with your therapist then there is something you can do. More often than not it should be possible to sort it out and it might be a really good thing to happen and to work at during your therapy. Remember it is you who is paying and you who should decide when therapy finishes.

Existential Psychotherapy therapy is a philosophical approach informed by great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Satre, to name but a few, who thought deeply about the human condition.

The approach also uses phenomenology. This is the most appropriate research methodology for understanding human experience. It is a skillful inquiry into our personal view of the world which helps us broaden our understanding of the problems of living we are addressing. It avoids psychopathology and medicalised ways of thinking. I describe myself as research informed rather than research led.

psychopathology and medicalised ways of thinking are avoided

The focus will be on your individual experience and to understand this within the context of the challenges and paradoxes of life and living.

challenges and paradoxes of life and living

Human beings are understood to be creatures of continual change and transformation with unique personal strengths and weaknesses, constantly seeking opportunities and yet frustrated by limitations in the physical, social, personal and spiritual dimensions of existence.

Meaning and value are explored with the aim of being true to oneself and living responsibly whilst at the same time understanding the consequences of our ideas and beliefs on our own and others lives.

being true to yourself and living responsibly

Good therapy is by its nature challenging but also ultimately respectful of a person’s unique way of understanding and living their life. The goal of therapy is authentic living; that is, living deliberately rather than by default or habit.