People are concerned about preserving their uniqueness and centeredness, yet at the same time they have an interest in going outside of themselves to relate to other beings and to nature. Each of us would like to discover a self—that is, create our personal identity. This is not an automatic process, and creating an identity takes courage. As relational beings, we also strive for connected- ness with others. Many existential writers discuss loneliness, uprootedness, and alienation, which can be seen as the failure to develop ties with others and with nature.
The trouble with so many of us is that we have sought directions, answers, values, and beliefs from the important people in our world. Rather than trust- ing ourselves to search within and ﬁnd our own answers to the conﬂicts in our life, we sell out by becoming what others expect of us. Our being becomes rooted in their expectations, and we become strangers to ourselves.
THE COURAGE TO BE Paul Tillich (1886–1965), a leading Protestant theo- logian of the 20th century, believes awareness of our ﬁnite nature gives us an appreciation of ultimate concerns. It takes courage to discover the true “ground of our being” and to use its power to transcend those aspects of nonbeing that would destroy us (Tillich, 1952). Courage entails the will to move forward in spite of anxiety-producing situations, such as facing our death (May, 1975). We struggle to discover, to create, and to maintain the core deep within our being. One of the greatest fears of clients is that they will discover that there is no core, no self, no substance, and that they are merely reﬂections of everyone’s expec- tations of them. A client may say: “My fear is that I’ll discover I’m nobody, that there really is nothing to me. I’ll ﬁnd out that I’m an empty shell, hollow inside, and nothing will exist if I shed my masks.” If clients demonstrate the cour- age to confront these fears, they might well leave therapy with an increased tolerance for the uncertainty of life. Mendelowitz and Schneider (2008) claim: “More sure of oneself, one embraces the challenges and responsibilities of life without knowing precisely what lies beyond” (p. 322).
Existential therapists may begin by asking their clients to allow themselves to intensify the feeling that they are nothing more than the sum of others’ ex- pectations and that they are merely the introjects of parents and parent substi- tutes. How do they feel now? Are they condemned to stay this way forever? Is there a way out? Can they create a self if they ﬁnd that they are without one? Where can they begin? Once clients have demonstrated the courage to recog- nize this fear, to put it into words and share it, it does not seem so overwhelm- ing. I ﬁnd that it is best to begin work by inviting clients to accept the ways in which they have lived outside themselves and to explore ways in which they are out of contact with themselves.
THE EXPERIENCE OF ALONENESS The existentialists postulate that part of the human condition is the experience of aloneness. But they add that we can derive strength from the experience of looking to ourselves and sensing our separation. The sense of isolation comes when we recognize that we cannot depend on anyone else for our own conﬁrmation; that is, we alone must give
a sense of meaning to life, and we alone must decide how we will live. If we are unable to tolerate ourselves when we are alone, how can we expect anyone else to be enriched by our company? Before we can have any solid relationship with another, we must have a relationship with ourselves. We are challenged to learn to listen to ourselves. We have to be able to stand alone before we can truly stand beside another.
There is a paradox in the proposition that humans are existentially both alone and related, but this very paradox describes the human condition. To think that we can cure the condition, or that it should be cured, is erroneous. Ultimately we are alone.
THE EXPERIENCE OF RELATEDNESS We humans depend on relationships with others. We want to be signiﬁcant in another’s world, and we want to feel that another’s presence is important in our world. When we are able to stand alone and dip within ourselves for our own strength, our relationships with others are based on our fulﬁllment, not our deprivation. If we feel personally deprived, however, we can expect little but a clinging and symbiotic relation- ship with someone else.
Perhaps one of the functions of therapy is to help clients distinguish be- tween a neurotically dependent attachment to another and a life-afﬁrming re- lationship in which both persons are enhanced. The therapist can challenge cli- ents to examine what they get from their relationships, how they avoid intimate contact, how they prevent themselves from having equal relationships, and how they might create therapeutic, healthy, and mature human relationships.
STRUGGLING WITH OUR IDENTITY The awareness of our ultimate alone- ness can be frightening, and some clients may attempt to avoid accepting their aloneness and isolation. Because of our fear of dealing with our aloneness, Farha (1994) points out that some of us get caught up in ritualistic behavior pat- terns that cement us to an image or identity we acquired in early childhood. He writes that some of us become trapped in a doing mode to avoid the experience of being.
Part of the therapeutic journey consists of the therapist challenging clients to begin to examine the ways in which they have lost touch with their identity, especially by letting others design their life for them. The therapy process itself is often frightening for clients when they realize that they have surrendered their freedom to others and that in the therapy relationship they will have to assume their freedom again. By refusing to give easy solutions or answers, ex- istential therapists confront clients with the reality that they alone must ﬁnd their own answers.
Proposition 4: The Search for Meaning
A distinctly human characteristic is the struggle for a sense of signiﬁcance and purpose in life. In my experience the underlying conﬂicts that bring people into counseling and therapy are centered in these existential questions: “Why am I here? What do I want from life? What gives my life purpose? Where is the source of meaning for me in life?”
Existential therapy can provide the conceptual framework for helping cli- ents challenge the meaning in their lives. Questions that the therapist might ask are, “Do you like the direction of your life? Are you pleased with what you now are and what you are becoming? If you are confused about who you are and what you want for yourself, what are you doing to get some clarity?”
THE PROBLEM OF DISCARDING OLD VALUES One of the problems in ther- apy is that clients may discard traditional (and imposed) values without ﬁnding other, suitable ones to replace them. What does the therapist do when clients no longer cling to values that they never really challenged or internalized and now experience a vacuum? Clients may report that they feel like a boat without a rudder. They seek new guidelines and values that are appropriate for the newly discovered facets of themselves, and yet for a time they are without them. Per- haps the task of the therapeutic process is to help clients create a value system based on a way of living that is consistent with their way of being.
The therapist’s job might well be to trust the capacity of clients to eventually discover an internally derived value system that does provide a meaningful life. They will no doubt ﬂounder for a time and experience anxiety as a result of the absence of clear-cut values. The therapist’s trust is important in helping clients trust their own capacity to discover a new source of values.
MEANINGLESSNESS When the world they live in seems meaningless, clients may wonder whether it is worth it to continue struggling or even living. Faced with the prospect of our mortality, we might ask: “Is there any point to what I do now, since I will eventually die? Will what I do be forgotten when I am gone? Given the fact of mortality, why should I busy myself with anything?” A man in one of my groups captured precisely the idea of personal signiﬁcance when he said, “I feel like another page in a book that has been turned quickly, and nobody bothered to read the page.” For Frankl (1978) such a feeling of meaning- lessness is the major existential neurosis of modern life.
Meaninglessness in life can lead to emptiness and hollowness, or a condi- tion that Frankl calls the existential vacuum. This condition is often experi- enced when people do not busy themselves with routine or with work. Because there is no preordained design for living, people are faced with the task of cre- ating their own meaning. At times people who feel trapped by the emptiness of life withdraw from the struggle of creating a life with purpose. Experiencing meaninglessness and establishing values that are part of a meaningful life are issues that become the heart of counseling.
CREATING NEW MEANING Logotherapy is designed to help clients ﬁnd a meaning in life. The therapist’s function is not to tell clients what their particular meaning in life should be but to point out that they can discover meaning even in suffering (Frankl, 1978). This view holds that human suf- fering (the tragic and negative aspects of life) can be turned into human achievement by the stand an individual takes when faced with it. Frankl also contends that people who confront pain, guilt, despair, and death can chal- lenge their despair and thus triumph. Yet meaning is not something that
we can directly search for and obtain. Paradoxically, the more rationally we seek it, the more likely we are to miss it. Yalom (2003) and Frankl (1978) are in basic agreement that, like pleasure, meaning must be pursued obliquely. Finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement, which is a commit- ment to creating, loving, working, and building. Meaning is created out of an individual’s engagement with what is valued, and this commitment pro- vides the purpose that makes life worthwhile (van Deurzen, 2002a). I like the way Vontress (2008) captures the idea that meaning in life is an ongoing process we struggle with throughout our life: “What provides meaning one day may not provide meaning the next, and what has been meaningful to a person throughout life may be meaningless when a person is on his or her deathbed” (p. 158).