Existential therapy is best considered as an invitation to clients to recognize the ways in which they are not living fully authentic lives and to make choices that will lead to their becoming what they are capable of being. An aim of therapy is to assist clients in moving toward authenticity and learning to recognize when they are deceiving themselves (van Deurzen, 2002a). The existential orienta- tion holds that there is no escape from freedom as we will always be held re- sponsible. We can relinquish our freedom, however, which is the ultimate in- authenticity. Existential therapy aims at helping clients face anxiety and engage in action that is based on the authentic purpose of creating a worthy existence. May (1981) contends that people come to therapy with the self-serving illu- sion that they are inwardly enslaved and that someone else (the therapist) can free them. The task of existential therapy is to teach clients to listen to what they already know about themselves, even though they may not be attending to what they know. Therapy is a process of bringing out the latent aliveness in
the client (Bugental, 1986).
Bugental (1990) identiﬁes three main tasks of therapy:
Assist clients in recognizing that they are not fully present in the therapy process itself and in seeing how this pattern may limit them outside of
Support clients in confronting the anxieties that they have so long sought to avoid.
Help clients redeﬁne themselves and their world in ways that foster greater genuineness of contact with life.
Increased awareness is the central goal of existential therapy, which allows cli- ents to discover that alternative possibilities exist where none were recognized before. Clients come to realize that they are able to make changes in their way of being in the world.
Existential therapists are primarily concerned with understanding the subjec- tive world of clients to help them come to new understandings and options. Ex- istential therapists are especially concerned about clients avoiding responsibil- ity; they invite clients to accept personal responsibility. When clients complain about the predicaments they are in and blame others, the therapist is likely to ask them how they contributed to their situation.
Therapists with an existential orientation usually deal with people who have what could be called a restricted existence. These clients have a lim- ited awareness of themselves and are often vague about the nature of their
problems. They may see few, if any, options for dealing with life situations, and they tend to feel trapped, helpless, and stuck. For Bugental (1997), a ther- apist’s function is to assist clients in seeing the ways in which they constrict their awareness and the cost of such constrictions. Mendelowitz and Schneider (2008) also view the aim of therapy as getting a stuck person moving again, which is accomplished by assisting the client in recovering ownership of his or her life. The therapist may hold up a mirror, so to speak, so that clients can gradually engage in self-confrontation. In this way clients can see how they became the way they are and how they might enlarge the way they live. Once clients are aware of factors in their past and of stiﬂing modes of their present existence, they can begin to accept responsibility for changing their future.
Existential practitioners may make use of techniques that grow from di- verse theoretical orientations, yet no set of techniques is considered essential. Russell (2007) captures this notion well when he writes: “There is no one right way to do therapy, and certainly no rigid doctrine for existentially rooted tech- niques. What is crucial is that you create your own authentic way of being at- tuned to your clients” (p. 123).
Clients in existential therapy are clearly encouraged to take seriously their own subjective experience of their world. They are challenged to take responsibility for how they now choose to be in their world. Effective therapy does not stop with this awareness itself, for the therapist encourages clients to take action on the basis of the insights they develop through the therapeutic process. They are expected to go out into the world and decide how they will live differently. Further, they must be active in the therapeutic process, for during the sessions they must decide what fears, guilt feelings, and anxieties they will explore.
Merely deciding to enter psychotherapy is itself a frightening prospect for most people. The experience of opening the doors to oneself can be frightening, exciting, joyful, depressing, or a combination of all of these. As clients wedge open the closed doors, they also begin to loosen the deterministic shackles that have kept them psychologically bound. Gradually, they become aware of what they have been and who they are now, and they are better able to decide what kind of future they want. Through the process of their therapy, individuals can explore alternatives for making their visions real.
When clients plead helplessness and attempt to convince themselves that they are powerless, May (1981) reminds them that their journey toward free- dom began by putting one foot in front of the other to get to his ofﬁce. As nar- row as their range of freedom may be, individuals can begin building and aug- menting that range by taking small steps. The therapeutic journey that opens up new horizons is poetically described by van Deurzen (1997):
Embarking on our existential journey requires us to be prepared to be touched and shaken by what we ﬁnd on the way and to not be afraid to discover our own limitations and weaknesses, uncertainties and doubts. It is only with such an attitude of openness and wonder that we can encounter the impenetrable ev- eryday mysteries, which take us beyond our own preoccupations and sorrows and which by confronting us with death, make us rediscover life. (p. 5)
Another aspect of the experience of being a client in existential therapy is confronting ultimate concerns rather than coping with immediate problems. Some major themes of therapy sessions are anxiety, freedom and responsibil- ity, search for identity, living authentically, isolation, alienation, death and its implications for living, and the continual search for meaning. Existential thera- pists assist people in facing life with courage, hope, and a willingness to ﬁnd meaning in life.