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A term paper submitted for the partial fulfillment

As the requirement of Post Graduate Diploma


Psychological Counseling
Paper : IV

Tribhuvan University
Trichandra Multiple Campus
Department of Philosophy and Psychology
PGDCP, Program

Submitted To:

Submitted By:

Dr. Timothy Aryal

Lekh Nath Poudel

Program Coordinator(PGDCP)

Roll No: 11/069

Trichandra Multiple Campus



Existential theory is derived from the existential philosophy movement of the nineteenth
Century. There were several individuals instrumental in the development of existential therapy
Including James Bugental, Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, and Yalom. It is not a concise theory but is
a loose collection of theories centering on the meaning or purpose of life. However it is
applicable to counseling because of its focus on the meaning of life which promotes clients wellbeing. The main therapeutic techniques are: Logotherapy, the I-thou model, and the self-inworld concept. However since existential counseling is not a technique driven therapy,
techniques from other therapies can be used effectively with an existential therapeutic focus. It
appears applicable to a wide variety of counseling situations in which clients are seeking to
resolve issues concerning the ultimate meaning of life and does focus on the collaborative
nature of the counselor client relationship

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
Historical Background
2. Objectives of the Therapy
3. Therapeutic Approach of Existential Counseling
Physical dimensions
Social Dimension
Psychological dimension
Spiritually dimension
4. Discussion and Analysis
Goals of the Therapy
Six Ontological Principles
5. Limitations / Critiques
6. Conclusion
7. Reference

The soul in its essence will say to her: no one can build the bridge on
which you in particular will have to cross the river of life-no one but

yourself. Of course there are countless paths and bridges and demigods
ready to carry you over the river, but only at the price of your own self. In
the entire world, there is one specific way that no one but you can take
(Nietzsche from May, 1983).

The existential approach to therapy, healing and transformation is based on the discrete
philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism is a sensibility, a perspective on life, not a set of
doctrines. Robert Solomon (1972) traces the sources of existentialist thought in the nineteenth
and twentieth centurys primarily through Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, and
Sartre, and identifies three themes that pervade existentialism. First is a strong emphasis on the
individual, although that is variously defined and understood. For Neitzsche (1958), the goal in
life, to really exist as opposed to so-called living, is to fully manifest your talents and virtues,
thus becoming the person you really are. Second is the central role of passionate commitment,
as opposed to the usual philosophical emphasis on reason and rationality. Existentialism
basically urges us to live our lives to the fullest, according to our own individual understanding.
For the existentialist, to live is to live passionately. And third is the importance of human
freedom to make choices, and the responsibility to do so consciously. The message of
existentialism, unlike many more obscure and academic philosophical movements, is about as
simple as it can be. It is that every one of us, as an individual, is responsible responsible for
what we do, responsible for whom we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the
world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is. It is, in a very short phrase, the
philosophy of no excuses! (Solomon, 2000).
Heidegger (1962) dwelt on the concept of authenticity, and encourages us to be authentic, to
take hold of ourselves and in the engagement with self to make the most appropriate choices in
living in the world. Our existence carries possibilities, and offers us the opportunity to make
choices among those possibilities. When we fail to face up to our existential condition, we fall
back into doing tasks, into mundane in authenticity, what he calls fellness. The primary drive
to take hold of ourselves, to live authentically, is the awareness of our own mortality.
These existential themes have become the genesis of existential psychotherapy. Sre Kierkegaard
(1970) viewed existence as a conversation between life and death, observing that the most
frequent human reaction to the inevitability of death is dread, or angst. Ones reaction is often to

flee the dreaded reality by creating an inauthentic life with self-sabotaging neurotic anxiety,
defenses, resistance, repression, addictions, distractions and dissociation. The solution is engaged
passionate commitment, crucial for authentic selfhood according to Kierkegaard. Bugental
(1965) asserts that neurosis is the avoidance of existential confrontation, and consists of the
denial or distortion of authenticity, trying to create certainty where it does not exist, trying to
invoke probability where there is only possibility, trying to disavow responsibility while we
Carry it always with us. Attempting the impossible creates neurotic anxiety. We then employ the
myriad of neurotic defenses to armor ourselves against the threat.

The core question addressed in existential therapy is How do I exist? in the face of
uncertainty, conflict, or death. An individual achieves authenticity through courage and is thus
able to define and discover his own meaning in the present and the future. There are important
choices to be made (e.g., to have true freedom and to take responsibility for ones life, one must
face uncertainty and give up a false sense of security). A core characteristic of the existential
view is that an individual is a being in the world who has biological, social, and psychological
needs. Being in the world involves the physical world, the world of relationships with others, and
ones own relationship to self (May and Yalom, 1995,p. 265). The authentic individual values
Symbolization, imagination, and judgment and is able to use these tools to continually create
personal meaning.
Existential therapy focuses on specific concerns rooted in the individuals existence. The
contemporary existential psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, identifies these concerns as death,
isolation, freedom, and emptiness. Existential therapy focuses on the anxiety that occurs when a
client confronts the conflict inherent in life. The role of the therapist is to help the client focus on
personal responsibility for making decisions, and the therapist may integrate some humanistic
approaches and techniques. Yalom, for example, perceives the therapist as a fellow traveler
through life, and he uses empathy and support to elicit insight and choices. He strongly believes
that because people exist in the presence of others, the relational context of group therapy is an
effective approach (Yalom,1980).

Objective of the Therapy

Explore anxiety related to the ultimate concerns, conscious/unconscious.

Identify mechanisms of defense (symptoms) clients use to deal with existential anxiety

Move clients to confront the fear and the pain associated with the ultimate concerns.

Help clients develop adaptive ways of dealing with existential anxiety.

Therapeutic Approach of Existential Counseling

The role of the existential therapist is really to facilitate the clients own encounter with
themselves, to work alongside them in the job of exploring and understanding better the clients
values, assumptions and ideals. The therapist is concerned to engage seriously with what matters
most to the client, to avoid imposing their own judgments, and to help the client to elucidate and
elaborate on their own perspective, with an ultimate view to the clients being able to live life
well and in their own way.
Great emphasis is placed on the therapists responsibility to be aware of and to question
their own biases and prejudices. The therapist must be self aware and able to set aside as much as
possible their pre-conceptions and to encounter the clients world with an open mind. The
therapist brings a sort of deliberate naivete to the therapeutic relationship, with a goal of
understanding the clients meaning rather than their own and recognizing the clients assumptions
and underlying life themes with a clarity which the client may not yet be able to muster. The
therapist will be sensitive to and help the client explore their weaknesses, limitations and
responsibilities as well as their strengths, opportunities and freedoms. Above all, they will value

the meaning which the client creates in their own emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and personal
In the course of exploring the clients world, the therapist may appeal to a 4-part framework
encompassing the clients existence in the physical dimension of the natural world, the body,
health and illness; the social dimension of public relationships; the psychological or personal
dimension, where we experience our relationship with ourselves as well as intimacy with others;
and the spiritual dimension of ideals, philosophy and ultimate meaning. Crucially, however, this
framework of four dimensions is not imposed on the client by the therapist; it simply informs the
therapists understanding of the clients world so that, for instance, if a client never mentioned
intimate relationships, the therapist would become aware of a deficiency in their understanding
of the clients personal dimension.

The existential approach seeks clarity and meaning in all these dimensions and thus, in a sense, it
begins with a significantly broader view of human existence than those approaches which focus
on specific psychological mechanisms or which focus on the self as a meaningful entity,
separable from its relations and interactions with the surrounding world.

Physical dimension

On the physical dimension (Umwelt) we relate to our environment and to the givens of the
natural world around us. This includes our attitude to the body we have, to the concrete
surroundings we find ourselves in, to the climate and the weather, to objects and material
possessions, to the bodies of other people, our own bodily needs, to health and illness and to our
own mortality. The struggle on this dimension is, in general terms, between the search for
domination over the elements and natural law (as in technology, or in sports) and the need to
accept the limitations of natural boundaries (as in ecology or old age).While people generally
aim for security on this dimension (through health and wealth), much of life brings a gradual
disillusionment and realization that such security can only be temporary. Recognizing limitations
can bring great release of tension.

Social dimension
On the social dimension (Mitwelt) we relate to others as we interact with the public world around
us. This dimension includes our response to the culture we live in, as well as to the class and race
we belong to (and also those we do not belong to). Attitudes here range from love to hate and
from co-operation to competition. The dynamic contradictions can be understood in terms of
acceptance versus rejection or belonging versus isolation. Some people prefer to with- draw
from the world of others as much as possible. Others blindly chase public acceptance by going
along with the rules and fashions of the moment. Otherwise they try to rise above these by
becoming trendsetters themselves. By acquiring fame or other forms of power, we can attain
dominance over others temporarily. Sooner or later we are, however, all confronted with both
failure and aloneness.

Psychological dimension
On the psychological dimension (Eigenwelt) we relate to ourselves and in this way create a
personal world. This dimension includes views about our character, our past experience and our
future possibilities. Contradictions here are often experienced in terms of personal strengths and
weaknesses. People search for a sense of identity, a feeling of being substantial and having a self.

But inevitably many events will confront us with evidence to the contrary and plunge us into a
state of confusion or disintegration. Activity and passivity are an important polarity here. Selfaffirmation and resolution go with the former and surrender and yielding with the latter. Facing
the final dissolution of self that comes with personal loss and the facing of death might bring
anxiety and confusion to many who have not yet given up their sense of self-importance.

Spiritual dimension
On the spiritual dimension (berwelt) (van Deurzen-Smith, 1984) we relate to the unknown and
thus create a sense of an ideal world, an ideology and a philosophical outlook. It is here that we
find meaning by putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for ourselves. For some people this
is done by adhering to the dogma of a religion or some other prescriptive worldview, for others it
is about discovering or attributing meaning in a more secular or personal way. The contradictions
that have to be faced on this dimension are often related to the tension between purpose and
absurdity, hope and despair. People create their values in search of something that matters
enough to live or die for, something that may even have ultimate and universal validity. Usually
the aim is the conquest of a soul, or something that will substantially surpass mortality (as for
instance in having contributed something valuable to humankind). Facing the void and the
possibility of nothingness are the indispensable counterparts of this quest for the eternal.

Discussion and Analysis

Existential therapy encourages clients to view their experiences of the world while
acknowledging the developing relationship between themselves and the therapist (May, 1995,
1996b; May et al., 1958). The existential therapist must remain aware of his or her experience of
the therapeutic relationship, the experience of the clients world, and the experience of the
clients encounter with the therapeutic relationship. The underlying premise of existential therapy
is to understand and appreciate how the clients experience their world and the therapeutic
encounter as being real. Clients are encouraged to become aware of their experiences, their
potentialities, and how they interact with the therapist (Bugental, 1978; May, 1995; Schneider &
May, 1995; Yalom, 1980).
Encouraging clients to discover their potentialities can take many steps or forms during therapy.
One way is for the therapist to be open to adapting techniques to the setting and person and,
more important, in utilizing timing (May, 1996b; Schneider & May, 1995). Techniques are useful
only when properly introduced and necessary. For example, if a client begins discussing the need
for his or her mother to have provided more touch during childhood, it would not be appropriate
for the therapist to begin touching the client. However, if the client experiences panic attacks
during therapy, using relaxation techniques would be very appropriate. Therapy is not based on
technique alone, but an experiential exploration of the clients world uses techniques as
supportive tools when needed. May worked to avoid technique and technical terms because they
can become barriers and eventually deter the client from facing what is really going on.
Examining the barriers that are preventing clients from experiencing freedom can expose their
limitations so they might be transformed into strengths (May, 1996b, 1999; Yalom, 1980). In
most schools of therapy, the focus can be heavily on resistance and repression, which in
existential therapy can distract from clients experiences in the moment of the therapy. This
distraction can prevent the removal of the barriers that are hindering clients from using will to
freely choose how to engage their experiences. The focus, rather, should be on helping clients
experience and grow aware of their presence in the moment and invoke the actual, or the real,
rather than offering interpretations (May, 1995, 1996b, 1999; Yalom, 1980).

Goals of Existential Therapy

The goals of existential therapy are to enable people to:

take stock of their situation, their values and beliefs;

successfully negotiate and come to terms with past, present and future crises;

become more truthful with themselves;

widen their perspective on themselves and the world around them;

find clarity on what their purpose in life is and how they can learn from the past to create
some-thing valuable and meaningful to live for;

understand themselves and others better and find ways of effectively communicating and
being with others;

Make sense of the paradoxes conflicts and dilemmas of their, existence.

Six Ontological Principles

1. Humans are centered in self and derive meaning from that center.
2. Humans are responsible for mobilizing the courage to protect, affirm, and enhance the self.
3. People need other people with whom they can empathize and learn.
4. People are vigilant about potential dangers to self.
5. Humans can be aware of them thinking and feeling at one moment and may be aware of
themselves as the person who thinks and feels in the next moment.
6. Anxiety originates out of awareness that ones being can end.

Limitations and critiques

Lacks systematic statements of principles & practices.

Lack of precision causes confusion and makes it difficult to conduct research.
Have global terms & abstract concepts that can be difficult to grasp.
Highly focused on the philosophical assumption of self--determination
Lacks a systematic statement of the principles and practices

Existentialism in Three Main Themes:
We are Free
This is not referring to political freedom; rather that there are no psychological or
metaphysical forces that determine the person you become or the actions you take. You
are free to be the person that you choose. Rather than a blessing, this is a tremendous
responsibility you must learn to accept.
Our Existence is Absurd
This means that we can give no logical sense of purpose to life There is none to be
Truth is Subjective
This means that what is true for one person might not be true for another.
According to the existential theory, we as humans are capable of self-awareness, which is our
distinct capacity to reflect and to decide. We are free being, free to choose, this freedom brings
anxiety, which the existentialist sees as a basic human characteristics. In the existentialist
approach it is not the technique that the therapist uses that make the therapeutic difference it is
rather the quality client - therapist relationship that heals. Even though the existential therapy
lacks pure scientific methodology and does not offer how to but Instead offers viewpoints. It
however offers a way to view oneself. In spite of the limitations and short comings of the
existential therapy, there is no doubt that the therapy offers the world of psychology a path to

therapy that is different from the other approaches that seeks only scientific outcomes.
Existential therapy offers an alternative form of therapy, a phenomenological approach to the
person, not a look at the instinct of the person, not a separation of the id, the ego and the super
ego but a view of the entire being in the now. The existential therapy is a unique and the only
effective therapy that instigates, encourages and assists people to open up their inside and look
within to see who they really are and the power and freedom within them to change their

1) American Counseling Association. (2005). ACA Code of Ethics and Standards of
Practice. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

2) Nietzsche F: from May R The Discovery of Being.New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
1983, p.80


Bugental, J. (1978). Psychotherapy and process: The fundaments of an existentialhumanistic approach. Boston: McGraw-Hill.