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How To Slay Your Dragons

An Existential Offering Of Overcoming Suffering Through Fairytales

Written by Natalie Fraser

Coursework for The Existential Academy

While existential philosophies offer a multitude of different insights into the experience of human existence, one commonly held belief is the inevitability of human suffering as an integral part of being (Van Deurzen, 2009). While philosophers have attempted to explain and promote the necessity of suffering, such knowledge alone may be little use in alleviating the often traumatic and painful experiences which come along with it. Existential psychotherapy explores the phenomenon of suffering in relation to meaning, and offers psychotherapeutic interventions which intend to enable clients to cope with and overcome their most deeply painful moments and experiences.

Existential Offerings of Meaning

The concept of meaning has been explored and explained differently by prominent philosophical thinkers. While Camus noted the inherent human tendency to seeking meaning in life, he considered the universe to be irrational and life to be ultimately meaningless. He referred to this paradoxical disharmony as the Absurdity of existence. Camus suggested that when confronted with the Absurd, to commit suicide would only result in one's existence to become more absurd. While he noted that many people turn to spiritual transcending beliefs of a meaning greater than themselves, he regarded this as 'philosophical suicide'. Only by accepting the Absurd and revolting against it by creating a personal meaning free of all moral or religious constraints did Camus believe one could authentically achieve their greatest freedom (Jacobs, 1994).

In contrast, while he too considered life to be meaningless, Sartre considered it to be the responsibility of all humans to create their own meaning. His philosophy is rooted in the belief that human essence precedes existence (Sartre, 1957); that beings come into existence without any one concrete purpose to fulfil and therefore without a greater power to dictate reality and identity each individual is free to develop their own meaning. Sartre highlighted the magnitude of human potential, promoting the numerous 'selves' one is able to develop. He famously states that: "Man Is Condemned To Be Free" (Sartre, 1948); referring to the idea that humans arrive on the earth without choosing to and are then responsible for everything they do. Furthermore, he posits that an inability to acknowledge and explore the complexity of one's essence is to live inauthentically or as he termed in 'Bad Faith' (Sartre, 1948).

Unlike Camus and Sartre, Frankl (1984; 1985) believed that all human life is inherently meaningful. He too proposed that life has multiple and changing meanings, and noted that sometimes internal and external situations could bring suffering into life which may temporarily impair an individual's ability to see their meaning. His philosophy was centred on the principle that no matter how grave a situation, there is always a lesson to be learnt and a meaning to be found within. Despite the vast theoretical differences in their philosophies and beliefs about the meaning of human existence, one shared commonality within existential thinking is the responsibility which humans have for continually and creatively seeking their changing and unique meanings in life.

Meaning and Suffering

“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” Viktor Frankl (1985)

Existential thinkers consider life to be a continuous process of change. Whether a time of suffering is self-inflicted or not, each individual is responsible for making the necessary changes to overcome their challenging situation and possess the freedom to choose their response to it. Unlike in other therapeutic disciplines, no emotions are considered as 'negative' in existential practice which is why breakdowns may instead be referred to as breakthroughs (Dryden, 2007). Rather than existing as merely a cognitive response to stimuli, emotions are considered to have their own intelligence and alert each individual to their values and desires often before they're aware of them. By connecting intuitively with their emotions, individuals connect with themselves on a deeper level (Van Deurzen, 2014). Yet times of suffering may lead to despair evolving from a conflict of emotions and thereby a disconnect with the self.

At times of suffering when an individual experiences no hope, no obligation, no purpose, no escape from their pain or their boredom, they may experience a general sense of meaninglessness which Frankl referred to as the Existential Vacuum (Frankl, 1986; Wong, 2010). Through his personal and professional observations, Frankl noted that individuals misguidedly attempt to fill their vacuum with material attributes, addictive behaviours, and self-centred strivings for perceived happiness - yet such attempts lead only to further despair and suffering. While some may never be inclined to philosophically contemplate the meaning of the life, all humans are motivated by their will to find their own meaning (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2010).

Frankl proposed that only by connecting with their spiritual dimension are humans able to transcend the painful present suffering and past burdens. By doing so humans are able to fill their inner emptiness and prevent the occurrence of further relapses into meaningless experiences of existence (Frankl, 1986). Along with the freedom to choose ones attitude in any given situation, and the responsibility to do so, Frankl deemed self-transcendence to be one of the three main factors which characterise human existence.

However, as it is the motivation to human existence, it must be remembered that seeking meaning is a lifelong goal. Due to the nature of existing in a world of internal and external limitations and the inevitability of being faced with unexpected and negative events, the 'existential vacuum' will never be completely filled (Wong and Weiner, 1981). This paradox may explain both the inevitability and the necessity of existence including suffering.

Therapeutic Implications

Working With Meaning In Therapy

In a continually uncertain and fear inducing world, where terrorism and violence continue to be at the forefront of media dialogues (Jackson, 2018) and the increasing prevalence of mental health issues is consistently reported in the news (eg. Bulman, 2017; Jowit, 2018), the adaptive nature of the existential approach continues its attempt to further understand and explore human experience and therapeutically provide clients with the strength, courage and skills to cope in such experientially uncomfortable times.

With specific dedication to its belief in the human capacity for creative change, such therapeutic interventions may be provided by the optimistic approach of Meaning Therapy adapted from the work of Frankl and his Logotherapy (Frankl, 1986; Wong, 2002). Remaining loyal to the fluidity and dynamic nature of existential practice, so too is Meaning Therapy considered a conceptual framework which respects the complexity of human experience, centred in the inner world meanings of each individual client (Wong, 2010). A meaning-oriented therapist can empower and challenge clients to fill their inner emptiness with sustainable and self-transcending meanings.

Frankl (1985) proposed three innate human values through which humans are driven to find purpose: creative, experiential and attitudinal. By creating a work or achieving a goal; by experiencing someone or something fully; and by the attitude one takes to every given situation, Frankl proposed meaning could always be found. Yet when exploring meanings it may be important to appreciate their complexity. Meanings are not isolated concepts and therefore may better be explained and understood through narrative ideas (Wong, 2006).

The Role of Language In Therapy

An increasing body of literature highlights the role of language in the meaningful construction of existence, and acknowledges the multiple strands of narrative-informed therapies which explore the storied world of individuals (McLeod, 2000). Rather than existence being considered as a concrete external reality, narrative-influenced theories explore how human's realities and identities come into existence through the continual dialogue between all beings in an interwoven set of narratives. Experiences are not inherently meaningful, and only become so through linguistic interpretation (Botella and Herrero, 2000). In his highly influential works, Bakhtin (Todorov, 1984) considered language to be constitutive of human existence and emphasised the relational aspects of the phenomenon, acknowledging the role of both the speaker and the listener. This interwoven dynamic of dialogue between individuals lies at the heart of language-reliant therapeutic practices (Mair, 1990).

Despite the pervasive influence of medical models for working with psychological symptoms, psychotherapies do not assist change in clients because they are a 'cure', but rather because they are a form of specialised communication (Botella and Herrero, 2000). Existential practice moves away from the mainstream tendency to medically label conditions, and instead explores the unique experience of each individual's way of being in the world (Van Deurzen, 2009). When considering the subjective experience of each individual rather than explaining human predicaments in terms of 'disorders' or 'illnesses', psychological suffering can be understood as disharmony within the individual's narrative identity (Botella and Herrero, 2000).

When individuals are not mindful of their freedom and responsibility to be the author of their story, their sense of self and meaning may be temporarily lost. Therapeutic change has the potential to occur when clients are provided with a safe space to engage in transformative dialogue with their therapist (Botella and Herrero, 2000). When offered the opportunity to share stories that have never been shared before; to re-tell their story in a safe non-biased space, the creative nature of language-reliant psychotherapy enables clients to regain a sense of authorship of their story (Speedy, 2000).

Maintaining the non-invasive nature of phenomenological epoché (Tymieniecka, 2009), existential psychotherapists may provide the opportunity for clients to explore disconnect within their narratives, revealing the painful elements which may be causing suffering. Frankl (1985) spoke of the human ability to retroactively invest meaning into life even in the most traumatic situations, a skill which may be worked on within therapy. Through creative therapeutic dialogues clients may develop an alternative understanding of their situation; the ability to re-author their story in a more hopeful, meaningful way.

The Use of Fairytales In Therapy

One therapeutic intervention particularly influenced by meaning, narrative, and creativity is the use of fairytales in psychotherapy. Fairytales are defined as stories written for children about magical and imaginary beings and lands (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2019), and their educational purposes have been appreciated throughout generations as a means of portraying meaningful stories with a prominent moral message (Kuciapiński, 2014). While initially written with children in mind, both the use of existing fairytales and the construction of new ones have been found to be beneficial in psychotherapy with clients of all ages (Keirnan, 2014).

Whilst existentially speaking no emotions are considered to be positive or negative, some may be painful to express. Using fairytales enables the indirect expression of painful emotions through the use of symbols and characters, enabling the exploration of challenging issues without the raw experience of 'real life' narrative (Brun, 1993). In the often confusing midst of emotional turmoil, the 'concrete' nature of fairytales require emotions to be expressed in association to the story. Confused or abstract ideas may become illustrated more clearly through symbolic associations, stimulating the imagination and activating challenging emotions in a more simplistically expressible way (Holbek, 1987).

In his extensive work exploring the interpretation of symbols, Jung (eg. Jung, 2014) recorded historically and culturally universal similarities of symbols. While working with fairytales psychoanalytically it may be typical for the therapist to interpret the symbols, when working existentially it remains important to maintain phenomenological epoché (Tymieniecka, 2009) and bracket any personal associations with symbols, allowing space for the client to make their own interpretation of their meanings within the realms of the fairytale.

While the use of myths and legends may also be useful therapeutic tools, the optimistic nature of the storylines, the encouragement to challenge difficult situations, and the provision of positive role models lie at the essence of fairytale therapy (Kuciapiński, 2014). In fairytales the hero often makes many mistakes on their journey before achieving their goal. Clients working with fairytales accompany the protagonist on a journey from darkness to transformation and self-transcendence, by confronting challenging characters and situations and through the telling and re-telling of narratives (Keirnan, 2014). Providing an alternative storied world, this may symbolically represent the inevitable struggles of human reality and reassure clients that it is a natural and healthy part of existence to make mistakes and experience suffering (Brun, 1993).

Concluding Thougths

While only a small minority of the world's population go down in history as great philosophical thinkers, by the nature of being human each individual develops and lives by their own philosophy as they continually seek meaning for their experience of life. Individual philosophies may be selectively reminiscent of a multitude of influences; from significant figures, cultures, religions, values to arts, music, experiences and inspirations. Whether reflected on as a personal philosophy or left unacknowledged, each individual philosophy brings meaning to the life of each individual; each life a story unique to its own. Humans are responsible for the authorship of their existence; their own story, and when this responsibility is upheld the author possesses the inspiring capacity to overcome even the greatest struggles. By changing ones attitude through the words used to write their storied life, the past present and future can be understood as a truly meaningful experience.


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