Existential Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
For many people, not being able to find meaning in life or to come to terms with the fundamental human condition can make the world seem like a hostile and indifferent place. The inner conflict which results is more than just unsettling for some, however, but can lead to a whole range of emotional and psychological illnesses and disorders.
What is Existential Therapy and how can it help?
Existential Therapy, as the name suggests, is concerned with human existence, and seeks to help individuals cope with the anxiety that simply ‘being’ creates. With its roots in existential philosophy, it concentrates on promoting better health by increasing conscious awareness and focusing on the spiritual and psychological emptiness which many experts see as being endemic to modern life. Rather than aiming to change individuals or to ‘cure’ them, it helps them to come to terms with who they are and to find their own meaning and truth in an existence which is both fragile and temporary.
Within every one of us there is both immense potential and certain universal limitations which come of simply being human. Existential Therapy focuses on developing the self-awareness that we need to be able to meet our potential, whilst at the same time dealing with the internal conflicts which arise from the four ultimate concerns surrounding the inevitability of death, freedom and the responsibility which goes hand in hand with it, existential isolation (or our essential aloneness) and meaninglessness.
Very often, people are so busy just getting on with their lives that they have little time or inclination to think about the fundamental meaning of life. When they suddenly find themselves faced with the tragic loss of a loved one, great uncertainty or an impossible decision, however, their whole understanding of what life is all about is called into question. Faced with the impermanence of life, uncertainty and the responsibility which comes with freedom, they find themselves having to reinvent themselves to compensate for their unshakeable feelings of emptiness, something which generates a deep sense of anxiety.
The self-knowledge which is promoted by Existential Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is well-suited to helping individuals make good choices and to becoming the authors of their own lives. It helps them to find their own subjective meaning in the face of the harsh and inescapable realities of life and so to transform anxiety into purposeful and authentic living which capitalises on their potential. By focusing on clients’ own experiences, it helps them to distinguish between the limitations which are placed on them by the human condition and the outside world, and those which they place on themselves, thereby allowing them to see their freedom to shape their own lives and the possibilities for their futures.
Why should freedom create inner conflict?
Of the four ultimate concerns which create our inner conflict, freedom and its attendant responsibility is probably the hardest to understand. When you consider though that we humans are not only completely responsible for the decisions and the choices that we make in life, but that we have to face important and difficult decisions with only limited knowledge and within limited timescales, it is not hard to see how the pressure and the responsibility can literally paralyse us with fear and anxiety. With all the endless possibilities, seemingly limitless boundaries and enormous potential for self-blame, facing uncertain outcomes and the possibility of making a wrong decision can be terrifying. For this reason, self-awareness in the sense of deciding which standards to accept and which to reject is essential if we are not to become stuck in life or to live with continual self-recrimination.
Who can be helped by Existential Therapy?
Existential Therapy can be applied to a number of different emotional and psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, phobias, psychosomatic problems, medical concerns and relationship problems. Because the problems arising from the basic human condition often show themselves as a result of ‘unacceptable’ events and circumstances in life, it can also be used to treat both abuse and trauma victims very successfully. Existential Therapy is safe and is practised in a variety of settings with individuals, couples and groups as appropriate.
What happens in Existential Therapy sessions?
Existential Therapy is an intensely specific ‘talk therapy’ which is relatively technique free but instead focuses on guiding clients to identify their own responsibility for life values and choices. The ability for the individual to enter into an authentic relationship with the therapist is crucial and the client must demonstrate his or her unique concrete existence by joining the therapist in the same room and telling the therapist about his or her life. Indeed, so important is this that an initial assessment is made of the client’s capacity to enter into such a relationship before treatment goes ahead. Once this assessment is made, the therapist then works with the individual to help him or her towards a greater understanding of his or her own unique life, as well as to assist the patient in adopting different perspectives and seeing life in a more diverse and deeper context which gives it more vitality and purpose.
How long does Existential Therapy treatment last?
Existential Therapy normally takes place over the course of 10 to 12 sessions, with two follow-up sessions occurring at six week intervals thereafter. Although designed as a brief intervention, longer treatments can also be very effective.