Existential themes are broadly based on the work of the philosopher Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Husserl and more recently by writers and artists such as Albert Camus and Jean Paul-Sartre.
Existentialism is concerned with the givens of existence; namely, freedom, responsibility, isolation, meaning and death.
Our freedom is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it means we can make our own choices. On the other hand, having free will can provoke anxiety. If we can do as we chose, the question then is, 'why isn't my life perfect, exactly as I want it to be?' Often, we don't experience ourselves as free but may feel constrained by work pressures, financial responsibilities or family commitments. The existential counsellor aims to explore the client's assumptions about themselves and their lives, to find out what is blocking change and to facilitate greater freedom of choice.
As we know, with great freedom comes great responsibility. Values, beliefs, morals and ethics are taken into account by the existential approach. Sometimes, working out what we are responsible for and what we're not can be a significant challenge. In taking responsibility, we may feel courage and integrity, whether an issue is truly our responsibility or not. In denying it, we may feel guilt and shame, even when a matter is none of our concern. Taking and abdicating responsibility is about boundaries. The existential counsellor is interested in tracking the client's boundaries, how firm or flexible they are, or whether they exist at all.
At times we'll all experience loneliness, the sense of having no one to turn to, or no one who understands. This is a consequence of being the emotionally sophisticated creatures we are. We live complex emotional lives, and it can be easy to feel no one else has walked our path. And indeed, this is true, and a simple fact of human existence. We are each unique, with a unique story. The existential counsellor strives to bracket off their assumptions as far as possible, to enter fully and freely into each clients' individual experience.
We all need meaning in our lives. Often a loss of meaning is what brings clients to counselling. Meaning is something we need to give us purpose in the present, and to offer us hope for the future. Meaning is also needed for the past; we have a need to make sense of our histories, to understand what has happened in our lives, and why. Without this meaning-making, we are left empty and bereft, seemingly tossed around randomly on the sea of life. The existential counsellor facilitates the client in finding their many meanings, for both the present – now - and the past - then.
They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Certainly, we are all guaranteed to die. This can provoke intense anxiety in us, or an avoidance of the topic altogether, consciously or otherwise. Yet to face our death anxiety when necessary, to work through it, and to come to terms with the fact of our eventual demise can be extremely liberating. The existential counsellor doesn't ignore this significant subject, rather works with the client to gently bring feelings about death to light. Whatever we believe about the afterlife, the concept of 'the ripple effect' can be a comfort here; we can be sure that our lives have touched the lives of others, and those others will go on to touch yet more lives, and so on - granting us a form of immortality.
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About Mary-Claire Wilson
Mary-Claire Wilson (MBACP, Dip Couns, Dip Advanced Psychology, BA, MA), is an experienced integrative psychotherapist. She's a registered member of the BACP and of the Body Psychotherapy Network and is an Anxiety UK approved therapist. She works in private practice in London.