Good question! And one that has been given many answers, without one single ultimate definition having been reached.
But perhaps that is the magic of it – that existential therapy is not ‘one single psychological approach’ but rather a philosophical approach which influences how the therapists understand life for themselves and for their clients.
Existential therapy draws on ideas from existential philosophy – a branch of philosophy which considers the ‘big questions’ of life. People from all walks of life find themselves asking these questions, but often this can cause confusion and suffering if reassuring answers are not found.
Questions such as:
- Why are we here?
- What is the meaning of my life?
- Why do I struggle when other people seem like they’re fine?
- Why do people have to suffer, to die?
- How do I live happily when life is so uncertain?
Research from many different perspectives has shown that no matter what approaches and tools are being used, the main cause of change in therapy is the ‘therapeutic relationship’ – the relationship between the client and the therapist.
Perhaps one of the advantages of existential therapy is that each therapist spends their training deeply considering these questions from so many different perspectives. This influences how they support their clients, enabling them to also see their challenges and experiences from many different perspectives.
You are not damaged goods, you are human.
Therapists working with an existential approach view mental health differently to other more mainstream medicalised approaches. Modern therapies normally speak about mental health ‘problems’ ‘issues’ ‘disorders’... all these words have become commonly used in everyday conversation, but they can be damaging. They imply that a ‘perfect’ life is what people should want, and that a perfect life without suffering is possible to achieve. This leaves people feeling ashamed, frustrated, resentful when life does not feel perfect, or when they compare their lives with others.
According to existential philosophy, a ‘perfect’ life without suffering is not completely realistic. Instead, this approach to life has found that it is quite natural to have times that do not feel perfect, or happy, or joyful. This a part of being human. Rather than resisting any feeling or thought that is ‘bad’; rather than being ashamed or scared by pain and suffering, existential philosophies invite people to find their personal resources so that when life takes a difficult turn individuals feel more confident and empowered to handle them.
Humans exist in the world together. Some of these humans have dedicated their lives to becoming counsellors, psychotherapists, and psychologists with the intention of supporting others through difficult times. There is no shame in seeking help when things feel confusing, overwhelming, or hopeless. You are not alone.
If you think you could benefit from some psychological support, please get in touch via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or speak to your local healthcare provider.