The existential therapy movement was not founded by any particular person or group; many streams of thought contributed to it. Drawing from a major orientation in philosophy, existential therapy arose spontaneously in different parts of Europe and among different schools of psychology and psychiatry in the 1940s and 1950s. It grew out of an effort to help people resolve the dilem- mas of contemporary life, such as isolation, alienation, and meaninglessness. Early writers focused on the individual’s experience of being alone in the world and facing the anxiety of this situation. The European existential perspec- tive focused on human limitations and the tragic dimensions of life (Sharp & Bugental, 2001).
The thinking of existential psychologists and psychiatrists was inﬂuenced by a number of philosophers and writers during the 19th century. To under- stand the philosophical underpinnings of modern existential psychotherapy, one must have some awareness of such ﬁgures as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Buber. These ma- jor ﬁgures of existentialism and existential phenomenology and their cultural, philosophical, and religious writings provided the basis for the formation of existential therapy. Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss are also included in this section because both were early existential psychoanalysts who contrib- uted key ideas to existential psychotherapy.
SØREN KIERKEGAARD (1813–1855) A Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard was particularly concerned with angst—a Danish and German word whose mean- ing lies between the English words dread and anxiety—and he addressed the role of anxiety and uncertainty in life. There is existential anxiety associated
with making basic decisions about how we want to live. Without the experience of angst, we may go through life as sleepwalkers. But many of us, especially in adolescence, are awakened into real life by a terrible uneasiness. Life is one contingency after another, with no guarantees beyond the certainty of death. This is by no means a comfortable state, but it is necessary to our becoming hu- man. What is needed is the willingness to risk a leap of faith in making choices. Becoming human is a project, and our task is not so much to discover who we are as to create ourselves.
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE (1844–1900) The German philosopher Nietzsche is the iconoclastic counterpart to Kierkegaard, expressing a revolutionary ap- proach to the self, to ethics, and to society. Like Kierkegaard, he emphasized the importance of subjectivity. Nietzsche set out to prove that the ancient deﬁ- nition of humans as rational was entirely misleading. We are far more creatures of will than we are impersonal intellects. But where Kierkegaard emphasized the “subjective truth” of an intense concern with God, Nietzsche located values within the individual’s “will to power.” We give up an honest acknowledgment of this source of value when society invites us to rationalize powerlessness by advocating other worldly concerns. If, like sheep, we acquiesce in “herd moral- ity,” we will be nothing but mediocrities. But if we release ourselves by giv- ing free rein to our will to power, we will tap our potentiality for creativity and originality. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, with their pioneering studies of subjectivity and the emerging self, together are generally considered to be the originators of the existential perspective (Sharp & Bugental, 2001).
MARTIN HEIDEGGER (1889–1976) The subjective experience of being hu- man that was so dramatically expressed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche devel- oped into a 20th-century method of studying experience that is called phe- nomenology. Heidegger’s phenomenological existentialism reminds us that we exist “in the world” and should not try to think of ourselves as beings apart from the world into which we are thrown. The way we ﬁll our everyday life with superﬁcial conversation and routine shows that we often assume we are going to live forever and can afford to waste day after day. Our moods and feel- ings (including anxiety about death) are a way of understanding whether we are living authentically or whether we are inauthentically constructing our life around the expectations of others. When we translate this wisdom from vague feeling to explicit awareness, we may develop more positive resolve about how we want to be. Phenomenology, as presented by Heidegger, provides a view of human history that does not focus on past events but motivates individuals to look forward to “authentic experiences” that are yet to come.
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905–1980) A philosopher and novelist, Sartre was convinced, in part by his dangerous years in the French Resistance in World War II, that humans are even more free than earlier existentialists had believed. The existence of a space—nothingness—between the whole of our past and the now frees us to choose what we will. Our values are what we choose. The fail- ure to acknowledge our freedom and choices results in emotional problems.
This freedom is hard to face up to, so we tend to invent an excuse by saying, “I can’t change now because of my past conditioning.” Sartre called excuses “bad faith.” No matter what we have been, we can make choices now and be- come something quite different. We are condemned to be free. To choose is to become committed: This is the responsibility that is the other side of freedom. Sartre’s view was that at every moment, by our actions, we are choosing who we are being. Our existence is never ﬁxed or ﬁnished. Every one of our actions represents a fresh choice. When we attempt to pin down who we are, we engage in self-deception (Russell, 2007).
MARTIN BUBER (1878–1965) Leaving Germany to live in the new state of Israel, Buber took a less individualistic stand than most of the other existen- tialists. He said that we humans live in a kind of betweenness; that is, there is never just an I, but always an other. The I, the person who is the agent, changes depending on whether the other is an it or a Thou. But sometimes we make the serious mistake of reducing another person to the status of a mere object, in which case the relationship becomes I/it. Buber stresses the importance of pres- ence, which has three functions: (1) it enables true I/Thou relationships; (2) it allows for meaning to exist in a situation; and (3) it enables an individual to be responsible in the here and now (Gould, 1993). In a famous dialogue with Carl Rogers, Buber argued that the therapist and client could never be on the same footing because the latter comes to the former for help. When the relationship is fully mutual, we have become “dialogic,” a fully human condition. Buber made signiﬁcant contributions to 20th century Judeo-Christian theology.
LUDWIG BINSWANGER (1881–1966) An existential analyst, Binswanger proposed a holistic model of self that addresses the relationship between the person and his or her environment. He used a phenomenological approach to explore signiﬁcant features of the self, including choice, freedom, and caring. Binswanger accepted Heidegger’s notion that we are “thrown into the world.” However, this “thrown-ness” does not release us from the responsibility of our choices and for planning for the future (Gould, 1993). Existential analysis (dasein analyse) emphasizes the subjective and spiritual dimensions of human existence. Binswanger (1975) contended that crises in therapy were typically major choice points for the client. Although he originally looked to psychoanalytic theory to shed light on psychosis, he moved toward an existential view of his patients. This perspective enabled him to understand the worldview and immediate ex- perience of his patients, as well as the meaning of their behavior, as opposed to superimposing his view as a therapist on their experience and behavior.
MEDARD BOSS (1903–1991) Both Binswanger and Boss were early existential psychoanalysts and signiﬁcant ﬁgures in the development of existential psycho- therapy. They made reference to dasein or being-in-the-world, which pertains to our ability to reﬂect on life events and attribute meaning to these events. They believed that the therapist must enter the client’s subjective world without pre- suppositions that would get in the way of this experiential understanding. Both Binswanger and Boss were signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced by Heidegger’s seminal
work, Being and Time (1962), which provided a broad basis for understanding the individual (May, 1958). Boss (1963) was deeply inﬂuenced by Freudian psy- choanalysis, but even more so by Heidegger. Boss’s major professional interest was applying Heidegger’s philosophical notions to therapeutic practice, and he was especially concerned with integrating Freud’s methods with Heidegger’s concepts, as described in his book Daseinanalysis and Psychoanalysis.