An Introduction to Existential Counselling
“Existential.” It sounds complicated and deep doesn’t it? Well, it certainly is deep, but it isn’t really complicated. I would describe it as “exploring and embracing what it is to be human.”
A counsellor does this by talking about your life in a realistic and philosophical way. It’s also about facing and mulling things over and then coming to peace with them. It’s about working out that quite a lot of the problems of life are ones that we all face, that they are universal – for instance; loss, isolation, freedom vs responsibility, meaning. It’s about engaging with those problems, grappling with them and coming out stronger, wiser and more alive as a result. It’s about as far removed from the present cult of “think as positive as you can and wish for it and it will be yours.” It looks for deep answers instead of shallow ones. It also works very much hand in hand with other humanistic types of counselling – particularly person-centred – after becoming familiar with the existentialists, Carl Rogers (the founder of person-centred counselling), declared himself to be an existentialist at heart. His famous quote, “the good life is a process not a destination,” is essentially an existentialist notion; as is his idea that each of us first tries to find out who we are, and then attempts to love and live by celebrating and being true to that.
Many of the ideas of existential counselling spring from the Ancient Greeks. We shouldn’t be surprised about that. Quite a lot of what we do in the West springs from Ancient Greece – democracy, law, science, theatre, the Olympic Games. Ancient Greek philosophers would spend time pondering life and generally become quite content with their lot as a result. Existential thinking is, partly about drawing the joyful and the positive from life at all times, whether it is easy of hard. It’s about embracing failure (as a learning point) as much as success, and knowing as Kipling said that both are “imposters” anyway; and about accepting that each of us has weakness and strengths and that we are limited, and that these very limitations are a source of celebration and richness.
The easiest way to say what existential counselling can do is to give some examples. Here are a few examples of the kind of thing that you might end up discussing in existential counselling and which are not far removed from what philosophers in general might discuss. “What is the point to my life, why do I bother?” Well, on one level, why indeed. The earth will die one day just as we will and all the works of man will be up in smoke. On the other hand, people do find meaning – one thinks of the existentialist writer Frankl who found it and prospered and was happy in even the most horrific circumstances that any human could face (Auschwitz). He did it by focussing on what he could do rather than what he could not. Each of us has this choice. It is rather akin to Zen Buddhism in that sense. You make the decision to engage with each moment and find meaning through the simple and free things like love, creating something, friendship, simply surviving and overcoming in a harsh time. Another way to live life fully and find meaning is to practise trying to live in the here and now as much as is possible. Obviously, in counselling one does look at the past and the future, but we can do that whilst insisting on the beauty of living in the present moment as much as is humanly possible, so that we may, as Blake said, "kiss the joy as it flies."
Alexander the Great had conquered the known world, but of all the souls on earth was most keen to meet the famously wise Diogenes who lived almost his entire life inside a barrel with no possessions. “I am the most powerful man on earth,” he said, “I can give you whatever you want, Diogenes.” Diogenes simply said, “then please move a few feet to the side. You have blocked out the sun and I do not want to be in the shade.” Alexander laughed and said if he could swap places with any man it would be Diogenes.
We live in times when the world seems to be mostly interested in fame, power, money, possessions. Existential counselling is one really good way of getting back to basics. The simple things are the most joyous. Epicurus said much about loss in general – “riches do not exhilarate us so much with their possession as they torment us with their loss.” He lived a life which stressed the importance of friendship above all else. Along with other philosophers he suggested that rather than tie ourselves in knots about trying to make everything safe and permanent, we should realise that the one unending truth about life and the world is that it changes. He urged us to embrace change and uncertainty and indeed suggested that without change life would not be anywhere near as interesting. Again, that is pretty much in tune with zen-Buddhism. But it is not to say that we should continually take stupid risks or never find any firmness as a safe haven. Both Diogenes and Epicurus had comforts of a sort. Existentialist thinking argues, like Buddhism, that it’s fine to have some comforts but that it’s not a good idea to live your life around them or become unduly attached to them.
Then there is freedom and responsibility – basically like yin and yang. You cannot have one without the other and having too much of one and not enough of the other is bound to lead to problems. Typically, many of us today have too much freedom and not enough responsibility, but if it’s the other way around it can be equally damaging. The existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard argued that anxiety was “the dizziness of freedom.” If you think about that, it makes sense. We get most anxious about those things that we could decide not to do, but which are challenging – a driving test, an exam, a first date, making an important speech. Kierkegaard’s answer was to say, “look, this is unavoidable. It’s part of the human condition and in any case, what would you rather do, take the important action or shy away from it?” Thinking like that offers us some comfort. We have to do it, everyone suffers it and although that doesn’t make it easy, what it does do is lower the temperature or the pressure a little bit. But, of course, that’s not the only thing an existential counsellor would offer a client with anxiety. There are many approaches.
Existentialist counselling would work with isolation or loneliness in terms of empathy. The counsellor would share just how alone he or she often felt and how that was a universal feeling. This is not to diminish the client’s feelings. It is actually to say, “yes, I find that really hard, too. Let’s share our thoughts and feelings about that.” He would then go on to suggest ways of both alleviating the feeling and also of embracing it in a positive way – for instance to find who we really are in solitude, or to use the energy to create art.
To sum up, existential counselling is about finding the richness and the energy in every aspect of life, whether it be the joyous, the average or the difficult. It’s also about becoming aware that the things that we really need to feel joy and meaning in this life are very often not the things we are told that we do. Unlike those who emphasise only thinking positively (and then fall foul of the fact that they are relatively defenceless when things don’t go well), existentialism encourages us to find the meaning and engagement with every part of life or as the poet Edith Sitwell said, “nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest.”
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