Viktorfrankl / rolloma y imagno/Victor Frankl Institute



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Key Figures in Contemporary Existential Psychotherapy


Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, James Bugental, and Irvin Yalom all developed their existential approaches to psychotherapy from strong backgrounds in both exis- tential and humanistic psychology. Viktor Frankl was a central figure in devel- oping existential therapy in Europe and also in bringing it to the United States. As a youth, Frankl was deeply influenced by Freud, but he became a student of Adler. Later, he was influenced by the writings of existential philosophers, and he began developing his own existential philosophy and psychotherapy. He was fond of quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (as cited in Frankl, 1963, pp. 121, 164). Frankl contended that those words could be the motto for all psychotherapeutic practice. Another quotation from Nietzsche seems to capture the essence of his own experience and his writings: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger” (as cited in Frankl, 1963, p. 130).

Frankl developed logotherapy, which means “therapy through meaning.” Frankl’s philosophical model sheds light on what it means to be fully alive. “To be alive encompasses the ability to take hold of life day by day as well as to find meaning in suffering” (Gould, 1993, p. 124). The central themes run- ning through his works are life has meaning, under all circumstances; the cen- tral motivation for living is the will to meaning; the freedom to find meaning in all that we think; and the integration of body, mind, and spirit. According to Frankl, the modern person has the means to live but often has no meaning to live for. The therapeutic process is aimed at challenging individuals to find meaning and purpose through, among other things, suffering, work, and love (Frankl, 1965).

Along with Frankl, psychologist Rollo May was deeply influenced by the existential philosophers, by the concepts of Freudian psychology, and by many aspects of Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology. Both Frankl and May wel- comed flexibility and versatility in the practice of psychoanalysis (Gould, 1993). May was one of the key figures responsible for bringing existentialism from Europe to the United States and for translating key concepts into psychothera- peutic practice. His writings have had a significant impact on existentially ori- ented practitioners. Of primary importance in introducing existential therapy to the United States was the book Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology (May, Angel, & Ellenberger, 1958). According to May, it takes cour- age to “be,” and our choices determine the kind of person we become. There is a constant struggle within us. Although we want to grow toward maturity and independence, we realize that expansion is often a painful process. Hence, the struggle is between the security of dependence and the delights and pains of growth.

Along with May, two other significant existential therapists in the United States are James Bugental and Irvin Yalom. Bugental developed an approach to depth therapy based on the existential concern with an individual’s immedi- ate presence and the humanistic emphasis on the integrity of each individual (Sharp & Bugental, 2001). In The Art of the Psychotherapist (1987), Bugental de- scribes a life-changing approach to therapy. He views therapy as a journey tak- en by the therapist and the client that delves deeply into the client’s subjective world. He emphasizes that this quest demands the willingness of the therapist to be in contact with his or her own phenomenological world. According to Bugental, the central concern of therapy is to help clients examine how they have answered life’s existential questions and to challenge them to revise their answers to begin living authentically. In Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think (1999), Bugental illustrates the here-and-now experiencing in the therapeutic relationship.

Irvin Yalom (1980) acknowledges the contributions of both European and American psychologists and psychiatrists who have influenced the develop- ment of existential thinking and practice. Drawing on his clinical experience and on empirical research, philosophy, and literature, Yalom has developed an existential approach to therapy that focuses on four “givens of existence” or ultimate human concerns: death, freedom and responsibility, existential isolation, and meaninglessness. All of these existential themes deal with the client’s existence or being-in-the-world. His classic, comprehensive textbook, Existential Psychotherapy (1980), is considered a pioneering accomplishment. He acknowledges the influence on his own writings of several novelists and philosophers. More specifically, he draws on the following themes from those philosophers discussed earlier:


  • From Kierkegaard: creative anxiety, despair, fear and dread, guilt, and nothingness

  • From Nietzsche: death, suicide, and will

  • From Heidegger: authentic being, caring, death, guilt, individual respon- sibility, and isolation

  • From Sartre: meaninglessness, responsibility, and choice

  • From Buber: interpersonal relationships, I/Thou perspective in therapy, and self-transcendence

Yalom recognizes Frankl as an eminently pragmatic thinker who has had an impact on his writing and practice. Yalom believes the vast majority of experi- enced therapists, regardless of their theoretical orientation, employ many of the existential themes discussed in his book. These existential themes constitute the heart of existential psychodynamics, and they have enormous relevance to clinical work.

There have been significant developments in the existential approach in Britain. Laing and Cooper (1964) critically reconsidered the notion of men- tal illness and its treatment, and they established an experimental therapeu- tic community in London. Further development of the existential approach in Britain is due largely to the efforts of Emmy van Deurzen who is currently

developing academic and training programs at the New School of Psycho- therapy and Counselling. In the past decades the existential approach has spread rapidly in Britain and is now an alternative to traditional methods (van Deurzen, 2002b). For a description of the historical context and development of existential therapy in Britain, see van Deurzen (2002b) and Cooper (2003); for an excellent overview of the theory and practice of existential therapy, see van Deurzen (2002a).
Key Concepts

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