We all crave and need a sense of meaning in our lives. Some people have a strong sense of their purpose in life and others struggle with this on a daily basis. Many of us spend hours, days and sometimes even years searching for meaning in our lives, while others have never even thought about the fact that adding meaning to life can help improve overall happiness.
If you are someone who feels anxious, depressed or sad, or find yourself pondering your life’s purpose in hopes that it will lead you to a healthier, happier state of being, then it might help you to learn more about existentialism and the theory behind it. First, don’t let the word itself or the fact that there are philosophers and psychologists behind it intimidate you. Rather, I encourage you to have an open mind and give yourself the gift of learning about a psychological approach that can change your life and those around you! In the world of psychology, existentialism is a style of therapy that places emphasis on the human condition as a whole. While this type of therapy uses a positive approach, it also acknowledges the therapist’s limitations. It borrows from some of the best philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, and promotes the idea that everything has an essence.
I promise I’m not going to make this all about philosophy, and of course what is meant by existentialism has changed a bit in the context of today’s psychological beliefs, but the earliest philosophers believed that essence was “a certain sense of core properties that are necessary or essential for a thing to be what it is…” Plato and Aristotle believed that everything has an essence and that our essence exists in us before we are born. Many of us might not know what is meant by “our essence” or how to even go about finding it or be aware of it, but the important thing to know is that our essence gives us importance and purpose in life. It is this importance and purpose that helps motivate and inspire us on a daily basis.
One of the best and most meaningful books that I have read and often buy as gifts for people I love is Man’s Search of Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Written in 1946, it’s the story of his time in concentration camps during World War II and an explanation of his resulting psychotherapeutic method, which places strong emphasis on finding your purpose in life and the ways in which your mental state can affect your spiritual survival even in the midst of deep suffering. If something about the topic of existentialism or a search for deeper meaning in your life sounds intriguing, I think this is an excellent place to start learning more about this particular form of therapy. As you are probably aware, there are several types of therapy approaches. Some of the most well known are psychodynamic, aka Freud, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Existential Therapy is a bit different and is a best fit for high functioning individuals who experience mild anxiety or depression. So I want to delve a little more into what it involves to help you better understand if it’s something that could help you deal with your anxieties or feelings of depression. Let’s start with the basics.
Which techniques are used in Existential Therapy? What can you expect from a therapist who focuses on existential therapy?
Encouraging clients to become more responsible and self confident
Help clients clarify their options and facilitate their choices
Review the client’s life and discover meaning and accomplishments
Develop spirituality and discuss client’s belief system
Use of paradoxical interventions
What is the theory behind Existential Therapy? According to the key figures behind this theory (Rollo May, Gordon Allport, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow and Irvin Yalom), psychological dysfunction and mental illness don’t exist. According to them, “dysfunction” is an expression of how a person chooses to live. Issues that are of most importance are exercising choices and coming to terms with the resulting anxieties, which one must do in order to promote self growth. The focus of this theory is on the here-and-now. Now, I am in no way saying that existential therapy works for everyone, nor am I denying the very real existence of mental illness. This is simply background on one type of therapy that I do believe can be beneficial for many individuals. What does treatment include? The four major themes that are relevant to this therapeutic process include death, freedom (and responsibility), isolation and meaninglessness. With these in mind, the therapist guides the client through confrontations with his/her anxieties about these four themes. The three most important types of relationships that you must be aware of when it comes to this approach are your relationship with other people, with the environment and with yourself. Looking for a real-life example? When I think about existentialism and how effective it can be for some people, I am reminded of Darya, a 50-year-old woman I worked with who was sexually abused by her uncle and witnessed her mom dying in front of her from drug overdose when she was just 10. For years, she experienced depression and anxieties, as well as attracting the wrong type of guys who often took advantage of her. Darya worked as an executive assistant at a big law firm and was extremely bright and beautiful. While to an outsider it seemed that Darya had a high self-esteem and many friends, she often felt lost and anxious.
Her years of previous therapy, while helpful, primarily focused on her traumatic past and processing her experiences while gaining insight into what she went through so that she could lead a happier life. During the first few months of my therapy with Darya, we focused on establishing trusting relationships, as well exploring her issues and established goals. Darya was able to learn skills and tools that helped her function better, and when I asked Darya about things that she considered meaningful to her, giving her an opportunity to express her passions and goals, she realized three important things:
She was living day to day, allowing her anxieties and fears to control her and her life, and never paused to think about what she truly cared about.
She strived for spirituality and life with more meaning.
She had the power to choose to do things differently.
I remember asking Darya to tell me who inspired her and who she admired. The two she mentioned were Oprah and Brené Brown, and she spoke so passionately about the way they seemed to be living a meaningful life following their heart and passion. I asked Darya to think more about what she admired about these two. I also recommended the book Man’s Search of Meaning and asked her to try to see how it relates to what she was going through. I remember our last session very vividly because the following week, Darya walked into my office and announced that she had left her job and was going to lead a mindfulness retreat for women. She had been working on her yoga certificate for the past year and was dreaming about leaving her job and her boyfriend of 8 years who was very negative and brought no joy to her life, but she had been terrified of making that move. Using Existential Therapy and focusing on bigger issues that were also spiritual in nature helped give Darya the strength and courage to choose to follow her heart and pursue her dreams.
This was something that we worked on for several weeks, but specifically talking about those people she admired and her understanding of why she thought so highly of those people, as well as reading the extremely sad, yet inspiring book of Dr. Frankl, helped give her that last push toward acting on her wishes without allowing fears to get in her way. Darya was able to use her anxieties to her advantage and challenged herself to choose a more meaningful life. She is now leading over 20 workshops around the world and living with a man who shares her passion for helping others.
Many clients I’ve worked with have felt very successful in many aspects of their life yet shared a common theme of feeling confused and lost because they didn’t have that sense of a greater purpose. Often, they couldn’t articulate that what was missing from their life was something bigger and more meaningful, but after steering away from what they thought were the reasons for their sadness and anxieties and exploring deeper subjects, and at times even spirituality, they were able to obtain a new awareness that led them to a place of meaning and content.