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Existential Therapy from a Christian Perspective

The following represents Arthur's opinions only and not necessarily those of Christie.

Psychoanalytic Therapy
Adlerian Therapy
Existential Therapy
Person-Centered Therapy
Gestalt Therapy
Reality Therapy
Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Feminist Therapy
Family Systems Therapy

Existential Therapy

            The basis for the Existential approach to therapy is the desire for authenticity where an individual finds and pursues a meaning for life.  Individuals seek to fully experience their existence developing meaning and purpose in the events that touch their lives.  Viktor Frankl is a primary contributor for this model, resulting from his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during the 1940ís.  Although Frankl had already begun to develop his approach prior to his traumatic events, it was through sharing his personal experience and applying this to the theory that this therapy developed. 

            A second major contributor to Existential theory is Rollo May who, like Frankl, developed his approach through extreme experience.  He had developed tuberculosis and spent two years in a sanitarium.  His writings reflect a personal testimony of how he resolved and worked through resulting anxiety.  The existential approach emphasizes an individualís ability to have freedom of choice when determining the purpose of their circumstances.  This is contrary to and rejects the deterministic view of human nature that comprises the fundamental basis of psychoanalytic therapy.

            While there are a number of contributors that continue to develop this modality of therapy, some specific forms of existential therapy have developed.  Frankl, for example, developed logo-therapy with a philosophical model that looks to understand what it means to be fully alive and find meaning through suffering. 

            During an assessment, therapists look for themes of isolation, meaninglessness, responsibility, and mortality.  Therapists also want to ensure individuals are able to face life honestly, as they look at experiences and integrate meaning and purpose into their worldview.  As a means to help individuals, dreams, objective tests, and projective tests are useful to assist individuals to interpret and find meaning to the challenges and anxiety they face.   In this process, the concept and meaning of death as it results to a clientís subjective experience becomes an important component in the quest to obtain purpose in life.

            The existential approach looks at six basic dimensions of the human condition when developing awareness and finding meaning in pain and suffering.  The first of these is the individualís capacity for self-awareness through the understanding that the ability to choose a potential action or not to make a decision is active and not passive.  As individuals understand that the direction of their life is in their own hands, how they engage life and view the events around them becomes more personal, rather than simply a victimized state of helplessness, the result of merely reacting to a life that is beyond control.

In developing this level of awareness, therapy with an existential view helps individuals acknowledge the freedom and responsibility they have for choices and decisions.  Identity and relationships with others develop, eventually leading to authenticity that creates the foundation for health.  As individuals work through these aspects of living, the fourth aspect of this therapy, the search for meaning, becomes relevant as pain and suffering integrates itself into the overall purpose for an individualís life.

            Through this process, new meaning may be ascribed and old traditions that were imposed may be discarded to determine the authentic self.  Anxiety that is experienced is determined to arise from oneís need to survive and to maintain oneís self.  It is through this attempt to create a stable self that anxiety is experienced.  The final component of existential therapy is an awareness of death and nonbeing.  Death is not viewed as negative; rather, it is seen as a way to give significance to living and to take full advantage of life.

            Existential therapy seeks to help clients live with freedom and to remove the limitations that are self-imposed.  By challenging clients about rigid beliefs and thought patterns, therapists work to provide an environment where individuals are safe to consider their belief systems and adopt new views.  Therapists focus on current life situations the client is dealing with rather than resolving past issues.  Through this focus on the here and now, individuals address their beliefs and look at enjoying life more fully and with greater satisfaction for the future.

            A major concern of this therapeutic modality is the lack of systematic process for practicing and applying to various situations.  Due to the lack of precision, confusion on how to lead an individual into the process of challenging beliefs and awareness of the freedom of choice she has is unclear.  Additionally, philosophical insight is not appropriate for all clients, which further limits the opportunity to effectively utilize this method.

Personal Evaluation

ďLife is suffering.Ē  This is the primary tenet of the religion of Buddhism and from this philosophy Siddhartha Guatama two thousand years ago developed a way of life which has led to a worldwide religion.   This form of eastern thought permeates the existential model of therapy.  The emphasis on subjective, self-determinism and the inherent supposition that by default, life is void of meaning is a dangerous point of view for a Christian therapist.   To postulate that fulfillment and purpose can ultimately be achieved solely from within is a futile endeavor.  To put simply, either humans have real value or they donít.   Either someone has a purpose for existing in this universe, or he does not.  Self-inflicted purpose in a universe governed only by hapless chance is nothing more than a delusion.  Being composed of protons, electrons, and neutrons, a human being is made up of exactly the same mass and energy as a brick, or a floating cloud of hydrogen drifting in the upper stratosphere on a lifeless moon circling around an unknown planet in a distant galaxy.  If a human is to have more value than a brick or a gas cloud, and I am talking about real value, not made-up value, then that value must come from without, not within. 

Existential thought places a great deal of importance on such concepts as death, meaning, and purpose.   For this reason, I compliment this form of therapy for touching on critical issues that are at the core of human existence that other systems completely overlook.  How many clients wander into a counseling office with day-to-day issues, yet in their core, they have no purpose, the thing they want the most.  They may spend months in counseling and eventually leave, the counselor having never touched that realm that they longed for the deepest.  While I admire existential therapy for its bravery in emphasizing the primary importance of finding meaning in life, and coming to terms with the concept of death, I also feel pity because it falls short of taking the next logical step; that the subjective self is not sufficient to obtain actual purpose for existence.  The individual is doomed to a self-deluded feeling of purpose, and possibly even more a sense of emptiness than when he first began therapy.