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Existential Therapy

Explore difficulties from a philosophical perspective

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Therapy

Existential Therapy

Existential analysis is an approach to helping clients break free of what can be termed "fixations." A fixation is finding oneself stuck doing something over and over despite seeing it as wrong, recognizing it's not good for you, and even knowing it's harmful. Common fixations are smoking, gambling, eating high-sugar high-fat foods, using drugs, drinking too much or wasting one's spare time watching TV. Other fixations involve engaging repetitively in painful relationship patterns. Examples are sacrificing your welfare to care for a mentally ill person who drains your energy without giving back, supporting a moocher who leaches off you, living with a serial cheater and violent abuser or living with a gaslighter who controls and manipulates you for his exclusive benefit. 

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The existential approach recognizes that we are born into a world with limitations on our freedom. We are all subject to gravity and thus unable to fly. We will all age, sicken, and die one day. However, there is a realm in which human freedom exists and we can navigate through the givens to use our freedom to create a life that is fulfilling. Existential analysis helps us do this in two ways. First, it tells us that we will feel best when we act in ways that honor our core values and feel worst when we violate our core values. Second, it tells us that we will feel best only when we are able to honestly give an inner "yes" to what we choose to do. This inner yes is known as giving consent. When we do things like smoke or yell angrily at family members against our consent we suffer. We can tell we have consent when we experience a felt sense of rightness about our choices or actions. Why do some people have a limited capacity to give consent and how can this capacity be expanded?

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Contemporary existentialist therapists agree there are four major issues that all human beings must deal with during their lives:

  • Death

  • Isolation

  • Freedom

  • Responsibility for oneself

  • Meaninglessness

The most common limitation on freedom of consent is learned experience, especially traumatic experience. Trauma puts us into a self-protective mode of living in which our behaviors are motivated unconsciously by the need to defend ourselves from anticipated or perceived threats and to act in ways that help us cope with fear and emotional pain. A child who was verbally abused by her parents will fear negative evaluation, social humiliation, and shame should she venture out into public. She is likely to avoid social contact and suffer from social anxiety or even agoraphobia. She might need to drink alcohol or take a Valium to attend parties. All of these actions are automatic or reflexive rather than freely chosen with an inner yes. Our hypothetical person is not free because she is stuck in trauma-created childhood patterns and is hiding herself, drinking or taking Valium against her inner sense of rightness. The goal of existential analysis is to help this client gain agency. Gaining agency involves rising above the parts within you that stop you in your tracks when you want to do something that you regard as healthy, wholesome, productive or contributory to your human development and which shunt you back into a state of stagnation repeating the same self-harming behaviors. Existential analysis is well suited for clients who want to engage in inner exploration of their deepest values and the reasons they have not been able so far to make choices and take actions to actualize those values in their lives. Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time once said, "never let the fear of striking out keep you from swinging." Babe had his problems, as we all do, but he understood human freedom, authenticity, and daring to reach his full potential.

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