What problems are most amenable to an existential approach? A strength of the perspective is its focus on available choices and pathways toward person- al growth. For people who are coping with developmental crises, experienc- ing grief and loss, confronting death, or facing a major life decision, existen- tial therapy is especially appropriate. Some examples of these critical turning points that mark passages from one stage of life into another are the struggle for identity in adolescence, coping with possible disappointments in middle age, adjusting to children leaving home, coping with failures in marriage and work, and dealing with increased physical limitations as one ages. These de- velopmental challenges involve both dangers and opportunities. Uncertainty, anxiety, and struggling with decisions are all part of this process.
Van Deurzen (2002b) suggests that this form of therapy is most appropriate for clients who are committed to dealing with their problems about living, for people who feel alienated from the current expectations of society, or for those who are searching for meaning in their lives. It tends to work well with people who are at a crossroads and who question the state of affairs in the world and are willing to challenge the status quo. It can be useful for people who are on the edge of existence, such as those who are dying or contemplating suicide, who are working through a developmental or situational crisis, who feel that they no longer belong in their surroundings, or who are starting a new phase of life.
Bugental and Bracke (1992) assert that the value and vitality of a psycho- therapy approach depend on its ability to assist clients in dealing with the sources of pain and dissatisfaction in their lives. They contend that the exis- tential orientation is particularly suited to individuals who are experiencing a lack of a sense of identity. The approach offers promise for individuals who are struggling to ﬁnd meaning or who complain of feelings of emptiness.
Application to Brief Therapy
How can the existential approach be applied to brief therapy? This approach can focus clients on signiﬁcant areas such as assuming personal responsibility, making a commitment to deciding and acting, and expanding their awareness of their current situation. It is possible for a time-limited approach to serve
as a catalyst for clients to become actively and fully involved in each of their therapy sessions. Strasser and Strasser (1997), who are connected to the British school of existential analysis, maintain that there are clear beneﬁts to time- limited therapy, which mirrors the time-limited reality of human existence. Sharp and Bugental (2001) maintain that short-term applications of the existen- tial approach require more structuring and clearly deﬁned and less ambitious goals. At the termination of short-term therapy, it is important for individuals to evaluate what they have accomplished and what issues may need to be ad- dressed later. It is essential that both the therapist and client determine if short- term work is appropriate, and if beneﬁcial outcomes are likely.
An existential group can be described as people making a commitment to a lifelong journey of self-exploration with these goals: (1) enabling members to become honest with themselves, (2) widening their perspectives on themselves and the world around them, and (3) clarifying what gives meaning to their present and future life (van Deurzen, 2002b). An open attitude toward life is essential, as is the willingness to explore unknown territory. Recurring univer- sal themes evolve in many groups and challenge members to seriously explore existential concerns such as choice, freedom and anxiety, awareness of death, meaning in life, and living fully.
Yalom (1980) contends that the group provides the optimal conditions for therapeutic work on responsibility. The members are responsible for the way they behave in the group, and this provides a mirror for how they are likely to act in the world. Through feedback, members learn to view themselves through others’ eyes, and they learn the ways in which their behavior affects others. Building on what members learn about their interpersonal functioning in the group, they can take increased responsibility for making changes in everyday life. The group experience provides the opportunity to participants to relate to others in meaningful ways, to learn to be themselves in the company of other people, and to establish rewarding, nourishing relationships.
In existential group counseling, members come to terms with the para- doxes of existence: that life can be undone by death, that success is precarious, that we are determined to be free, that we are responsible for a world we did not choose, that we must make choices in the face of doubt and uncertainty. Members experience anxiety when they recognize the realities of the human condition, including pain and suffering, the need to struggle for survival, and their basic fallibility. Clients learn that there are no ultimate answers for ulti- mate concerns. Although they confront these ultimate concerns, they cannot conquer them (Mendelowitz & Schneider, 2008). Through the support that is within a group, participants are able to tap the strength needed to create an internally derived value system that is consistent with their way of being.
A group provides a powerful context to look at oneself, and to consider what choices might be more authentically one’s own. Members can openly share their fears related to living in unfulﬁlling ways and come to recognize how they have compromised their integrity. Members can gradually discover ways in which they have lost their direction and can begin to be more true to
themselves. Members learn that it is not in others that they ﬁnd the answers to questions about signiﬁcance and purpose in life. Existential group leaders help members live in authentic ways and refrain from prescribing simple solutions. For a more detailed discussion of existential approach to group counseling, see Corey (2008, chap. 9).
Existential Therapy From a Multicultural Perspective