Existential and Expressive Arts Therapy

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Existential and Expressive Arts Therapy

Saré Gebhardt

GEXTH 5102.01

Karen Estrella

November 30, 2008

Sometime in the late eighties, Shaun McNiff, Sr. Kathleen Burke and I sat in a small pub in Cleveland, Ohio. It was after midnight when conversation turned to my writing project, this book. Sr. Kathleen asked, “What’s the title going to be?” “Well,” I replied, “the working title is Existential Art Therapy.” Shaun sighed. “Bruce, don’t be redundant. All art is existential.” …I have thought often of Shaun’s admonition. He is right, all art is existential. Perhaps that is why the concepts…have held up as the world of health care has revolutionized, i.e., all art has to do with the basic human experience of life as it is.

(Moon, 2005, p. xiii)

I have always had an interest in existential theory and its use in psychotherapy. Every person shares the experience with those around them of just living. Existential theory focuses on “how does a person survive the difficulties and losses of life, and is it possible to emerge from such experience as fuller, better, stronger human beings?” (Magnione & Keady, 2007). It seems that expressive arts therapy would help in this process, but how? Can the arts be used in the existential framework of psychotherapy? Existential Theory and Psychotherapy

To better understand how the expressive arts can be used in this framework, we must fully understand the framework itself. “Existentialism is the belief that, to find meaning and purpose in one’s life, one must undertake a challenging emotional and spiritual journey” (Kanaly & Slater, 2003). Furthermore, “existentialism has assumed profound dimensions in our modern emotional and spiritual belief systems and can be found in nearly all aspects of our culture, particularly art, literature and psychology” (Magnione & Keady, 2007). Magnione, et al, continues to explore the concepts in the movie What Dreams May Come and its correlation to the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch and the existential themes that weave the two together.

Existential theory started to develop in the Europe during the forties and fifties. As industrialization became the norm, people were starting to feel more isolated and alienated (Story, 2007). “As a result of these feelings of detachment, people began to actively pursue what it meant to live their own meaningful life” (Story, 2007). As Corey explains, “becoming human is a project, and our task is not so much to discover who we are, as to create ourselves” (2005, p. 132).

Existential theory focuses on aspects of human condition that most people tend to deny, overlook, or defend against, including individuality, isolation, separateness, death, time, choice, freedom, responsibility, and mortality (Yalom, 1980). Through existential therapy, “individuals must learn to become self-aware, responsible for their actions, and, above all, to realize that isolation and suffering, while a fact of life, must be confronted without fear or anxiety” (Kanaly & Slater, 2003).

Existential Therapy differs from many of the medical based models of psychotherapy. An existential therapist does not attempt to “cure” their client. The therapist is a sounding board for the client to reflect upon their lives, their choices and their actions. “(Existential therapy) bases therapeutic practice on an understanding of what it means to be human” (Story, 2007). Existential therapy seeks to take clients out of their rigid grooves and to challenge the narrow and compulsive trends blocking their freedom. Although this process gives individuals a sense of release and increased autonomy, their new freedom increases their anxiety…Existential therapy aims at helping clients face this anxiety and engage in action that is based on the authentic purpose of creating a worthy existence. (Corey, 2005, p. 145)

With this understanding of the existential theoretically framework, we can start to piece in the expressive arts and how...
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