Existential counselling – an issue of choice?
The various counselling modalities through which therapists engage with clients can each suggest a very different image. CBT may appear as a methodical construction of structure and form; psychodynamic work can be seen as an example of emotional or cerebral archaeology, whilst for Gestalt it is difficult to avoid that clichéd picture of the chair or perhaps the cushion. As far as existential counselling is concerned, the symbolism which comes to my mind is that of a continual thread of libertarianism weaving through the work in the therapy room.
Existentialism reflects an ongoing sense of personal responsibility combined with a freedom to 'be'. That existential freedom from the typical doctrinaire constraints which are present in other forms of counselling, such as the cognitive schools or the psychodynamic tradition, can be seen by some therapists as encouraging a greater degree of personal expression within the counselling room. Yet even this less-structured approach of existential work does contain some patterns which repeat whether in writings, commentary or other forms of expression. For example, a key element of existential thought is recognising the impact of our freedom to choose on our sense of self.
The acknowledgement that we as individuals retain that freedom of choice even in times of painful extremis is a constant refrain in existential thought. All-powerful ideas should however be subjected to critical examination, and this specific aspect of the existential approach is no exception.
One frequent criticism of this existential proposition centres on whether meaningful choice truly exists in the real world, or whether on some occasions it is no more than a fanciful construct. The argument is that there are important times in life when we lose the reality of choice; that can be when events will determine decisions. If we do not control important events we can be forced into making certain decisions whether we wish to or not. In those circumstances, we lose our freedom of choice.
The events used to support this argument will often involve the unexpected. As an example, we do not seek to be in the car accident which happens when another motorist skids and collides with us on an icy road in winter; we do not look to be betrayed by an unfaithful partner and we do not choose to miss a connecting flight because our aircraft has developed technical faults.
The contention is that we have no say on whether or not these unpleasant events happen to us. We have no direct responsibility for these occurrences, and yet we are forced to accept our role and the consequences whether as victim or bystander. Our freedom to choose has been taken from us, and in many of these instances our subsequent response is a forced one.
In a world when events often move swiftly and seemingly beyond our control, that argument will certainly resonate for some readers. Yet there is a counter view which challenges that assertion and which suggests that even in those difficult situations we do still retain a freedom to choose.
This contention is not intended to deny reality. It is clear that we do not control many aspects of our personal lives. Perhaps the most obvious personal example relates to health. We are mortal. Even if we take great care of ourselves with regard to diet and exercise it is still inevitable that one day our bodies will cease to function, be that as a result of age, disease or accident. I may rail against that eventuality but my protestations would be as ineffective as Canute’s symbolic encounter with the waves.
The same may be said to be true of those earlier incidents I have referred to. My physical self will hurt when another car slides into me at speed; my emotional self will be bruised when I am rejected by someone I care for and I will feel frustration when my travel plans are disrupted. These outcomes reflect the reality of life. There is a direct line between cause and effect. Nevertheless, I would suggest that my existential freedom to exercise choice still functions even within these difficult situations.
These happenings, unfortunate as they may be, do not remove my freedom to decide how to think about these events or how to consider influencing the next step in the unfolding story. I may feel bruised after the car accident, but whether I still continue to drive in dangerous wintry conditions is my choice. I may feel sadness at some form of rejection or betrayal, but I can decide where, how and if to seek solace; and as far as that airport delay is concerned, I am free to decide whether to seek redress from the airline or just shrug my shoulders at the missed flight,
Even in the most harrowing of circumstances we can still decide how to regard our situation. The best known and the most challenging exposition of this way of thinking is set out in Viktor Frankl’s moving work Man’s Search for Meaning.
There will of course be persuasive arguments, particularly from within the psychodynamic school, that our unconscious may be exercising some influence over those seemingly-random events. If we take to the roads, for example, when driving conditions are known to be dangerous, is a minor collision on the ice really that surprising? If we stop being intimate with our lover how do we expect she or he to respond: and if we leave such little time between our connecting flights are we not inviting some disruption to those plans?
A personal view is that our unconscious mind may indeed influence what appear to be random events. Nevertheless, within this discussion on existential therapy I wish to retain a focus on the future and not the past.
Whatever the modality to be embraced, from the abstractions of psychodynamic work to the directive approach of cognitive behaviour therapy, counselling will focus on certain key aspects of the client’s world. For many clients the journey into the therapy room is brought about by a wish to understand what has occurred, to establish what is really happening in the present and to look to the future.
Given those aspirations an existential approach within the therapy room will for some clients, be a particularly helpful way of deepening an understanding of the 'now' and will also be of much help in identifying those options for future. If this can assist us to identify and understand the choices ahead of us and begin to question those options, there can be a greater sense of ownership of that future.
I referred at the outset to what I termed a thread of libertarianism running through existential thought. That can be very present when working with this approach within the counselling room. Clients have the freedom to choose how to be in the future. Sometimes working with an existential approach with a counsellor can help that process unfold.
We should however always remember that the ultimate choice about the future, and the decision as to how to think about that future, remains firmly with the client.
And a final cautionary thought. We are free to think about our choices, but we also need to recognise and accept that significant others will also hold their own subjective views about our choices. On some occasions when those views are very different to our own, that is where the next set of challenges really begins!