The crucial signiﬁcance of the existential movement is that it reacts against the tendency to identify therapy with a set of techniques. Instead, it bases therapeu- tic practice on an understanding of what it means to be human. The existential movement stands for respect for the person, for exploring new aspects of human behavior, and for divergent methods of understanding people. It uses numerous approaches to therapy based on its assumptions about human nature.
The existential tradition seeks a balance between recognizing the limits and tragic dimensions of human existence on one hand and the possibilities and opportunities of human life on the other hand. It grew out of a desire to help people engage the dilemmas of contemporary life, such as isolation, alien- ation, and meaninglessness. The current focus of the existential approach is on the individual’s experience of being in the world alone and facing the anxiety of this isolation.
The existential view of human nature is captured, in part, by the notion that the signiﬁcance of our existence is never ﬁxed once and for all; rather, we continually re-create ourselves through our projects. Humans are in a constant state of transition, emerging, evolving, and becoming. Being a person implies that we are discovering and making sense of our existence. We continually question ourselves, others, and the world. Although the speciﬁc questions we raise vary in accordance with our developmental stage in life, the fundamental themes do not vary. We pose the same questions philosophers have pondered throughout Western history: “Who am I?” “What can I know?” “What ought I to do?” “What can I hope for?” “Where am I going?”
The basic dimensions of the human condition, according to the existential approach, include (1) the capacity for self-awareness; (2) freedom and responsi- bility; (3) creating one’s identity and establishing meaningful relationships with others; (4) the search for meaning, purpose, values, and goals; (5) anxiety as a condition of living; and (6) awareness of death and nonbeing. I develop these propositions in the following sections by summarizing themes that emerge in the writings of existential philosophers and psychotherapists, and I also dis- cuss the implications for counseling practice of each of these propositions.
Proposition 1: The Capacity for Self-Awareness
As human beings, we can reﬂect and make choices because we are capable of self-awareness. The greater our awareness, the greater our possibilities for
freedom (see Proposition 2). We increase our capacity to live fully as we expand our awareness in the following areas:
We are ﬁnite and do not have unlimited time to do what we want in life.
We have the potential to take action or not to act; inaction is a decision.
We choose our actions, and therefore we can partially create our own destiny.
Meaning is the product of discovering how we are “thrown” or situated in the world and then, through commitment, living creatively.
As we increase our awareness of the choices available to us, we also in- crease our sense of responsibility for the consequences of these choices.
We are subject to loneliness, meaninglessness, emptiness, guilt, and isolation.
We are basically alone, yet we have an opportunity to relate to other beings.
We can choose either to expand or to restrict our consciousness. Because self- awareness is at the root of most other human capacities, the decision to expand it is fundamental to human growth. Here are some dawning awarenesses that individuals may experience in the counseling process:
They see how they are trading the security of dependence for the anxiet- ies that accompany choosing for themselves.
They begin to see that their identity is anchored in someone else’s deﬁni- tion of them; that is, they are seeking approval and conﬁrmation of their being in others instead of looking to themselves for afﬁrmation.
They learn that in many ways they are keeping themselves prisoner by some of their past decisions, and they realize that they can make new decisions.
They learn that although they cannot change certain events in their lives they can change the way they view and react to these events.
They learn that they are not condemned to a future similar to the past, for they can learn from their past and thereby reshape their future.
They realize that they are so preoccupied with suffering, death, and dying that they are not appreciating living.
They are able to accept their limitations yet still feel worthwhile, for they understand that they do not need to be perfect to feel worthy.
They come to realize that they are failing to live in the present moment because of preoccupation with the past, planning for the future, or trying to do too many things at once.
Increasing self-awareness, which includes awareness of alternatives, motiva- tions, factors inﬂuencing the person, and personal goals, is an aim of all coun- seling. It is the therapist’s task to indicate to the client that a price must be paid for increased awareness. As we become more aware, it is more difﬁcult to “go home again.” Ignorance of our condition may have brought contentment along with a feeling of partial deadness, but as we open the doors in our world, we can expect more turmoil as well as the potential for more fulﬁllment.
Proposition 2: Freedom and Responsibility
A characteristic existential theme is that people are free to choose among al- ternatives and therefore have a large role in shaping their destinies. A central existential concept is that although we long for freedom, we often try to escape
from our freedom (Russell, 2007). Even though we have no choice about being thrust into the world, the manner in which we live and what we become are the result of our choices. Because of the reality of this freedom, we are chal- lenged to accept responsibility for directing our lives. However, it is possible to avoid this reality by making excuses. In speaking about “bad faith,” the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1971) refers to the inauthenticity of not accepting personal responsibility. Here are two statements that reveal bad faith: “Since that’s the way I’m made, I couldn’t help what I did” or “Naturally I’m this way, because I grew up in a dysfunctional family.” An inauthentic mode of existence consists of lacking awareness of personal responsibility for our lives and passively assuming that our existence is largely controlled by external forces. Sartre claims we are constantly confronted with the choice of what kind of person we are becoming, and to exist is never to be ﬁnished with this kind of choosing.
Freedom implies that we are responsible for our lives, for our actions, and for our failures to take action. From Sartre’s perspective people are condemned to freedom. He calls for a commitment to choosing for ourselves. Existential guilt is being aware of having evaded a commitment, or having chosen not to choose. This guilt is a condition that grows out of a sense of incompleteness, or a real- ization that we are not what we might have become. Guilt may be a sign that we have failed to rise to the challenge of our anxiety and that we have tried to evade it by not doing what we know is possible for us to do (van Deurzen, 2002a). This condition is not viewed as neurotic, nor is it seen as a symptom that needs to be cured. Instead, the existential therapist explores it to see what clients can learn about the ways in which they are living their life. This guilt also results from allowing others to deﬁne us or to make our choices for us. Sartre said, “We are our choices.” Authenticity implies that we are living by being true to our own evaluation of what is a valuable existence for ourselves; it is the courage to be who we are. Mendelowitz and Schneider (2008) state that an authentic mode implies that we acknowledge responsibility for our lives, in spite of the anxiety that results from this choice. “Rather than losing oneself in the crowd, one recognizes one’s uniqueness and strives to become what one inherently is” (p. 296).
For existentialists, then, being free and being human are identical. Free- dom and responsibility go hand in hand. We are the authors of our lives in the sense that we create our destiny, our life situation, and our problems (Russell, 1978). Assuming responsibility is a basic condition for change. Clients who re- fuse to accept responsibility by persistently blaming others for their problems will not proﬁt from therapy.
Frankl (1978) also links freedom with responsibility. He suggested that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be balanced with a Statue of Re- sponsibility on the West Coast. His basic premise is that freedom is bound by certain limitations. We are not free from conditions, but we are free to take a stand against these restrictions. Ultimately, these conditions are subject to our decisions, which means we are responsible.
The therapist assists clients in discovering how they are avoiding freedom and encourages them to learn to risk using it. Not to do so is to cripple clients
and make them dependent on the therapist. Therapists need to teach clients that they can explicitly accept that they have choices, even though they may have devoted most of their life to evading them. Those who are in therapy often have mixed feelings when it comes to choice. As Russell (2007) puts it: “We re- sent it when we don’t have choices, but we get anxious when we do! Existential- ism is all about broadening the vision of our choices” (p. 111).
People often seek psychotherapy because they feel that they have lost con- trol of how they are living. They may look to the counselor to direct them, give them advice, or produce magical cures. They may also need to be heard and understood. Two central tasks of the therapist are inviting clients to recognize how they have allowed others to decide for them and encouraging them to take steps toward choosing for themselves. In challenging clients to explore other ways of being that are more fulﬁlling than their present restricted existence, some existential counselors ask, “Although you have lived in a certain pattern, now that you recognize the price of some of your ways, are you willing to con- sider creating new patterns?” Others may have a vested interest in keeping the client in an old pattern, so the initiative for changing it will have to come from the client.
Cultural factors need to be taken into account in assisting clients in the process of examining their choices. A person who is struggling with feeling limited by her family situation can be invited to look at her part in this pro- cess and values that are a part of her culture. For example, Meta, a Norwegian American, is working to attain a professional identity as a social worker, but her family thinks she is being selﬁsh and neglecting her primary duties. The fam- ily is likely to exert pressure on her to give up her personal interests in favor of what they feel is best for the welfare of the entire family. Meta may feel trapped in the situation and see no way out unless she rejects what her family wants. In cases such as this, it is useful to explore the client’s underlying values and to help her determine whether her values are working for her and for her fam- ily. Clients such as Meta have the challenge of weighing values and balancing behaviors between two cultures. Ultimately, Meta must decide in what ways she might change her situation, and she needs to assess values based on her culture. The existential therapist will invite Meta to begin to explore what she can do and to realize that she can be authentic in spite of pressures on her by her situation. According to Vontress (2008), we can be authentic in any society, whether we are a part of an individualistic or collectivistic society.
It is essential to respect the purpose that people have in mind when they initiate therapy. If we pay careful attention to what our clients tell us about what they want, we can operate within an existential framework. We can encourage individuals to weigh the alternatives and to explore the consequences of what they are doing with their lives. Even though oppressive forces may be severe- ly limiting the quality of their lives, we can help people see that they are not merely the victims of circumstances beyond their control. At the same time that these individuals are learning how to change their external environment, they can also be challenged to look within themselves to recognize their own contri- butions to their problems. Through the therapy experience, they may be able to discover new courses of action that will lead to a change in their situation.