Existential therapists give central prominence to their relationship with the cli- ent. The relationship is important in itself because the quality of this person-to- person encounter in the therapeutic situation is the stimulus for positive change. Therapists with this orientation believe their basic attitudes toward the client and their own personal characteristics of honesty, integrity, and courage are what they have to offer. Therapy is a journey taken by therapist and client that delves deeply into the world as perceived and experienced by the client. But this type of quest demands that therapists also be in contact with their own phenomenologi- cal world. Vontress, Johnson, and Epp (1999) state that existential counseling is a voyage into self-discovery for both client and therapist.
Buber’s (1970) conception of the I/Thou relationship has signiﬁcant impli- cations here. His understanding of the self is based on two fundamental rela- tionships: the “I/it” and the “I/Thou.” The I/it is the relation to time and space, which is a necessary starting place for the self. The I/Thou is the relationship essential for connecting the self to the spirit and, in so doing, to achieve true dialogue. This form of relationship is the paradigm of the fully human self, the achievement of which is the goal of Buber’s existential philosophy. Relat- ing in an I/Thou fashion means that there is direct, mutual, and present inter- action. Rather than prizing therapeutic objectivity and professional distance, existential therapists strive to create caring and intimate relationships with clients.
The core of the therapeutic relationship is respect, which implies faith in clients’ potential to cope authentically with their troubles and in their ability to discover alternative ways of being. Existential therapists share their reactions to clients with genuine concern and empathy as one way of deepening the therapeutic relationship. Therapists invite clients to grow by modeling authen- tic behavior. If therapists keep themselves hidden during the therapeutic ses- sion or if they engage in inauthentic behavior, clients will also remain guarded and persist in their inauthentic ways. Bugental (1987) emphasizes the crucial role the presence of the therapist plays in this relationship. In his view many therapists and therapeutic systems overlook its fundamental importance. He contends that therapists are too often so concerned with the content of what is being said that they are not aware of the distance between themselves and their clients. “The therapeutic alliance is the powerful joining of forces which energizes and supports the long, difﬁcult, and frequently painful work of life- changing psychotherapy. The conception of the therapist here is not of a dis- interested observer-technician but of a fully alive human companion for the client” (p. 49).
Application: Therapeutic Techniques and Procedures
The existential approach is unlike most other therapies in that it is not technique- oriented. There is a de-emphasis on techniques and a priority given to under- standing a client’s world. The interventions existential practitioners employ are based on philosophical views about the essential nature of human existence. These practitioners prefer description, understanding, and exploration of the client’s subjective reality, as opposed to diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis (van Deurzen, 2002b). As Vontress (2008) puts it: “Existential therapists prefer to be thought of as philosophical companions, not as people who repair psyches” (p. 161). As mentioned earlier, existential therapists are free to draw from tech- niques that ﬂow from many other orientations. However, they do not employ an array of unintegrated techniques; they have a set of assumptions and atti- tudes that guide their interventions with clients. See Case Approach to Counseling and Psychotherapy (Corey, 2009, chap. 4) for an illustration of how Dr. J. Michael Russell works in an existential way with some key themes in the case of Ruth.
Van Deurzen (1997) identiﬁes as a primary ground rule of existential work the openness to the individual creativity of the therapist and the client. She maintains that existential therapists need to adapt their interventions to their own personality and style, as well as being sensitive to what each client re- quires. The main guideline is that the existential practitioner’s interventions are responsive to the uniqueness of each client (van Deurzen, 1997; Walsh & McElwain, 2002).
Van Deurzen (2002a, 2002b) believes that the starting point for existential work is for practitioners to clarify their views on life and living. She stresses the importance of therapists reaching sufﬁcient depth and openness in their own lives to venture into clients’ murky waters without getting lost. The nature of existential work is assisting people in the process of living with greater exper- tise and ease. Van Deurzen (1997) reminds us that existential therapy is a col- laborative adventure in which both client and therapist will be transformed if they allow themselves to be touched by life. When the deepest self of the thera- pist meets the deepest part of the client, the counseling process is at its best. Therapy is a creative, evolving process of discovery that can be conceptualized in three general phases.
Phases of Existential Counseling
During the initial phase of counseling, therapists assist clients in identifying and clarifying their assumptions about the world. Clients are invited to deﬁne and question the ways in which they perceive and make sense of their existence. They examine their values, beliefs, and assumptions to determine their validity. This is a difﬁcult task for many clients because they may initially present their problems as resulting almost entirely from external causes. They may focus on what other people “make them feel” or on how others are largely responsible for their actions or inaction. The counselor teaches them how to reﬂect on their own existence and to examine their role in creating their problems in living.
During the middle phase of existential counseling, clients are encouraged to more fully examine the source and authority of their present value sys- tem. This process of self-exploration typically leads to new insights and some
restructuring of values and attitudes. Individuals get a better idea of what kind of life they consider worthy to live and develop a clearer sense of their internal valuing process.
The ﬁnal phase of existential counseling focuses on helping people take what they are learning about themselves and put it into action. Transforma- tion is not limited to what takes place during the therapy hour. The therapeutic hour is a small contribution to a person’s renewed engagement with life, or a rehearsal for life (van Deurzen, 2002b). The aim of therapy is to enable clients to ﬁnd ways of implementing their examined and internalized values in a con- crete way between sessions and after therapy has terminated. Clients typically discover their strengths and ﬁnd ways to put them to the service of living a purposeful existence.