Because the existential approach does not dictate a particular way of viewing or relating to reality, and because of its broad perspective, this approach is highly relevant in working in a multicultural context (van Deurzen, 2002a). Vontress and colleagues (1999) write about the existential foundation of cross-cultural counseling: “Existential counseling is probably the most useful approach to helping clients of all cultures ﬁnd meaning and harmony in their lives, because it focuses on the sober issues each of us must inevitably face: love, anxiety, suf- fering, and death” (p. 32). These are the human experiences that transcend the boundaries that separate cultures.
Vontress (1996) points out that all people are multicultural in the sense that they are all products of many cultures. He encourages counselors-in-training to focus on the universal commonalities of clients ﬁrst and secondarily on areas of differences. In working with cultural diversity, it is essential to recognize simultaneously the commonalities and differences of human beings: “Cross- cultural counseling, in short, does not intend to teach speciﬁc interventions for each culture, but to infuse the counselor with a cultural sensitivity and tolerant philosophical outlook that will beﬁt all cultures” (p. 164).
A strength of the existential approach is that it enables clients to examine the degree to which their behavior is being inﬂuenced by social and cultural conditioning. Clients can be challenged to look at the price they are paying for the decisions they have made. Although it is true that some clients may not feel a sense of freedom, their freedom can be increased if they recognize the social limits they are facing. Their freedom can be hindered by institutions and lim- ited by their family. In fact, it may be difﬁcult to separate individual freedom from the context of their family structure.
There is wide-ranging international interest in the existential approach and plans to create an international society. There are now several Scandinavian societies, a thriving East European society (covering Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus), and Mexican and South American societies. In addition, an Internet course, SEPTIMUS, is taught in Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. These international developments reveal that existential therapy has wide ap- peal to diverse populations in many parts of the world.
Shortcomings From a Diversity Perspective
For those who hold a systemic perspective, the existentialists can be criticized on the grounds that they are excessively individualistic and that they ignore the social factors that cause human problems. Some individuals who seek
counseling may operate on the assumption that they have very little choice because environmental circumstances severely restrict their ability to inﬂu- ence the direction of their lives. Even if they change internally, they see little hope that the external realities of racism, discrimination, and oppression will change. They are likely to experience a deep sense of frustration and feelings of powerlessness when it comes to making changes outside of themselves. As you will see in Chapter 12, feminist therapists maintain that therapeutic prac- tice will be effective only to the extent that therapists intervene with some form of social action to change those factors that are creating clients’ problems. In working with people of color who come from the barrio or ghetto, for example, it is important to engage their survival issues. If a counselor too quickly puts across the message to these clients that they have a choice in making their lives better, they may feel patronized and misunderstood. These real-life con- cerns can provide a good focus for counseling, assuming the therapist is will- ing to deal with them.
A potential problem within existential theory is that it is highly focused on the philosophical assumption of self-determination, which may not take into account the complex factors that many people who have been oppressed must deal with. In many cultures it is not possible to talk about the self and self- determination apart from the context of the social network and environmental conditions.
Many clients expect a structured and problem-oriented approach to coun- seling that is not found in the existential approach, which places the responsi- bility on the client for providing the direction of therapy. Although clients may feel better if they have an opportunity to talk and to be understood, they are likely to expect the counselor to do something to bring about a change in their life situation. A major challenge facing the counselor using an existential ap- proach is to provide enough concrete direction for these clients without taking the responsibility away from them.
Summary and Evaluation
As humans, according to the existentialist view, we are capable of self-awareness, which is the distinctive capacity that allows us to reﬂect and to decide. With this awareness we become free beings who are responsible for choosing the way we live, and we inﬂuence our own destiny. This awareness of freedom and respon- sibility gives rise to existential anxiety, which is another basic human character- istic. Whether we like it or not, we are free, even though we may seek to avoid reﬂecting on this freedom. The knowledge that we must choose, even though the outcome is not certain, leads to anxiety. This anxiety is heightened when we re- ﬂect on the reality that we are mortal. Facing the inevitable prospect of eventual death gives the present moment signiﬁcance, for we become aware that we do not have forever to accomplish our projects. Our task is to create a life that has mean- ing and purpose. As humans we are unique in that we strive toward fashioning purposes and values that give meaning to living. Whatever meaning our life has is developed through freedom and a commitment to make choices in the face of uncertainty.
Existential Therapy Applied to the Case of Stan
The counselor with an existential orienta- tion approaches Stan with the view that he has the capacity to increase his self-
awareness and decide for himself the future direction of his life. She wants him to realize more than any- thing else that he does not have to be the victim of his past conditioning but can be the architect in rede- signing his future. He can free himself of his determin- istic shackles and accept the responsibility that comes with directing his own life. This approach emphasizes the importance of the therapist’s understanding of Stan’s world, primarily by establishing an authentic relationship as a means to a fuller degree of self- understanding.
Stan is demonstrating what Sartre would call “bad faith” by not accepting personal responsibility. The therapist confronts Stan with the ways in which he is attempting to escape from his freedom through alco- hol and drugs. Eventually, she confronts his passivity. She reaffirms that he is now entirely responsible for his life, for his actions, and for his failure to take action. She does this in a supportive yet firm manner.
The counselor does not see Stan’s anxiety as something negative but as a vital part of living with uncertainty and freedom. Because there are no guar- antees and because the individual is ultimately alone, Stan can expect to experience some degree of healthy anxiety, aloneness, guilt, and even despair. These con- ditions are not neurotic in themselves, but the way in which Stan orients himself and copes with these con- ditions is critical.
Stan sometimes talks about his suicidal feelings. Certainly, the therapist investigates further to deter- mine if he poses an immediate threat to himself. In addition to this assessment to determine lethality, the existential therapist may view his thoughts of “being better off dead” as symbolic. Could it be that Stan feels he is dying as a person? Is Stan using his human po- tential? Is he choosing a way of merely existing instead of affirming life? Is Stan mainly trying to elicit sympa- thy from his family? His therapist challenges Stan to explore the meaning and purpose in his life. Is there
any reason for him to want to continue living? What are some of the projects that enrich his life? What can he do to find a sense of purpose that will make him feel more significant and alive?
Stan needs to accept the reality that he may at times feel alone. Choosing for oneself and living from one’s own center accentuates the experience of alone- ness. He is not, however, condemned to a life of isola- tion, alienation from others, and loneliness. The thera- pist helps Stan discover his own centeredness and live by the values he chooses and creates for himself. By do- ing so, Stan can become a more substantial person and come to appreciate himself more. When he does, the chances are lessened that he will have a need to secure approval from others, particularly his parents and pa- rental substitutes. Instead of forming a dependent re- lationship, Stan could choose to relate to others out of his strength. Only then would there be the possibility of overcoming his feelings of separateness and isolation.
Follow-Up: You Continue as Stan’s Existential Therapist
Use these questions to help you think about how you would counsel Stan using an existential approach:
If Stan resisted your attempts to help him see that he is responsible for the direction of his life, how might you intervene?
Stan experiences a great deal of anxiety. From
an existential perspective, how do you view his anxiety? How might you work with his anxiety in helpful ways?
If Stan talks with you about suicide as a response
to despair and a life without meaning, how would you respond?
See the online and DVD program, Theory in Practice: The Case of Stan (Session 4 on ex- istential therapy), for a demonstration of my ap- proach to counseling Stan from this perspective.
This session focuses on the themes of death and the meaning of life.
Existential therapy places central prominence on the person-to-person re- lationship. It assumes that client growth occurs through this genuine encoun- ter. It is not the techniques a therapist uses that make a therapeutic difference; rather, it is the quality of the client–therapist relationship that heals. It is es- sential that therapists reach sufﬁcient depth and openness in their own lives to allow them to venture into their clients’ subjective world without losing their own sense of identity. Because this approach is basically concerned with the goals of therapy, basic conditions of being human, and therapy as a shared jour- ney, practitioners are not bound by speciﬁc techniques. Although existential therapists may apply techniques from other orientations, their interventions are guided by a philosophical framework about what it means to be human.