Clients and counselling – An existential approach

When the client and counsellor meet for the first time, some therapists may offer thoughts on different counselling techniques. These can range from looking at long-held emotional responses through to a structured way of exploring unhelpful thought patterns. There are many other less formulaic approaches, such as just using the time in the counselling room to talk openly about current events and personal challenges.

These ideas are all relatively straightforward. If the therapist remains with everyday language rather than lapsing into jargon, the broad outline of each approach can be well understood by most people. There is, for example, much common sense in the suggestion that we are influenced in early life by carers, parents and authority figures whom we come in contact with whilst still forming our initial ideas about life.

It is also readily apparent that if we can achieve a clearer understanding of our current thoughts we will then be in a stronger place from which to develop new lines of thinking. This awareness can in turn then help us to challenge any disturbing thoughts and feelings.

There is another approach which also provides a potentially helpful focus on our current way of being. Yet, this approach of existential therapy is often regarded as being rather 'deep' and 'complex'.

What is existential therapy?

Existential therapy is certainly a challenging concept to describe in a few simple sentences. That potential complexity is reflected in what can be a lack of consensus around definition amongst even observers and practitioners alike.

There is also a slight air of pretentiousness that can sometimes accompany any conversation about existentialism. Perhaps that relates back to those wonderful Monty Python sketches which were so effective in deflating pomposity and debunking any grandiose sense of intellectual self-importance.

Well, whether pretentious or not, perhaps we can acknowledge that existential counselling work may have something to offer clients.

Amongst all the different approaches, existential therapy has particular potential to help the client consider issues around personal responsibility and decision making. This can open the door to the prospect of making very real changes with regard to how life is lived.

With existential work, the client is encouraged to consider the life choices she or he is making. Of course, there will be many external influences affecting those choices and these will include some unconscious processes. Nevertheless, within an existential framework, the client is encouraged to accept that it is she or he who has the responsibility to choose, the freedom to act and will ultimately be accountable to him or herself for the outcomes.

The realisation that ‘I am free to choose’ can be a powerful moment. It can be liberating, but that sense of freedom can also be disturbing, uncomfortable and unsettling. That acceptance of freedom to choose can invoke anxiety or stress.

It is perhaps for those reasons that work with a counsellor can be helpful for the client. The therapy room can provide a secure place in which to work through ideas around outcomes and consequences once some emotional barriers are removed or at least reduced.

The counsellor holds a mirror and encourages the client to glance into the glass. Every client may see something very different. The outline of each existential image will, however, have some commonality. 

Reflection in puddle

Each journey by the client to the mirror can reinforce a message that 'this is my existence'. For example:

  • "It is my life."
  • "I am ultimately responsible for the image that I see."
  • "Amidst all the tumult of my day to day existence, I have the right to choose how I wish to be."
  • "It is my responsibility to decide what to think and how to act."

That choice encompasses contemporary public issues, as well as private personal concerns. That may involve challenging the current zeitgeist be that a conservative or woke set of ideas and whether at a national, social or personal level.

My personal responsibility encompasses how I am in relationships, whether with friends, family, lovers or colleagues. It is my choice whether to accept or challenge those feelings that I hold and experience about either that person or this situation. I can choose to embrace or walk away. I can choose to accept pain or seek comfort. I can stand or kneel. I can forgive or remain estranged. I choose my path to walk.

Within the counselling room, the safety blanket of blaming others or unnecessary self-criticism can be gradually removed. The necessity of sheltering behind powerful emotional forces - be they historical or current, be they real or imagined - can be much reduced. I will choose how to be.

Existential work can, however, present challenging ideas for the client and counsellor to discuss. Even a broad outline may prove puzzling, particularly for some clients who are struggling regain a sense of an independent self. That is likely to be particularly so in those early meetings when the client may be in very real danger of being overwhelmed by difficult personal issues.

Nevertheless, choice in counselling (as in other areas of life) should wherever possible be an informed choice. The provision of outline information on counselling methods can enhance the client’s opportunity to choose. Some may be disinterested in method and focus just on the relationship in the room, but others may want to know more.

If the client does have a preferred way of working, it is essential for that to be voiced and understood. What is important is the client preference and not the favoured approach usually followed by the therapist - whether that is existential work or some other form of therapy.

Existential ideas are, however, quite pervasive. Even if a more traditional approach is adopted within the counselling room, it is very likely that somewhere and at some time in the work these existential issues will arise.

The client may develop through traditional counselling work a better understanding of why they have developed a certain way of thinking. There may be an increasing awareness of some cognitive or CBT techniques that can be practised in order to begin to alter thoughts and actions. Nevertheless, many clients will eventually reach a place where there will be a need to choose.

Difficult choices with consequent decisions can have disturbing implications for the client. On some occasions, there will be actions to take which carry far-reaching concerns. There may be a need to find a way to tolerate the intolerable. We can regard those as existential decisions in as much as the individual’s way of existing will be affected. That can place the client in a challenging and sometimes lonely place, particularly if those to be affected by decisions are close by in terms of relationships.

It is in these situations that the counsellor may continue to have a helpful role in remaining present for the client. Therapists do not make decisions for clients. Counsellors can, however, provide important support at a difficult time. That may be particularly so when that responsibility of choice is weighing particularly heavily upon what may feel like rather fragile shoulders.

An existential approach within the counselling room will continue to focus on the individual and the importance of strengthening that sense of self. The individual does not, however, have to always stand apart or be alone. When the client wishes it, the client and counsellor can stand together. That also is the client’s choice.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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