Existential Therapy

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Chapter 5
EXISTENTIAL THEORY AND THERAPY
[A]ctually, I have been told in Australia, a boomerang only comes back to the hunter when it has missed its target, the prey. Well, man also only returns to himself, to being concerned with his self, after he has missed his mission, has failed to find meaning in life.

—Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (1967, p. 9) Some forms of counseling and psychotherapy, such as Freud’s psychoanalysis, evolved primarily from medical practice with disturbed patients. Others, such as behavior therapy, arose from experimental psychological research. Still others, such as personcentered therapy (Chapter 6) and individual psychology (Chapter 3), have roots in clinical practice, humanistic-existential philosophy, and, to some degree, psychotherapy research. In contrast, purely existential approaches to counseling and psychotherapy are more directly and deeply linked to philosophy than any other perspective. Existentialists typically eschew scientific research because of its inauthentic artificiality. Additionally, although they practice therapy with individuals, couples, families, and groups, their approach is systematically guided by a philosophical position, rather than knowledge obtained from therapeutic practice. As Irvin Yalom, a renowned existential therapist, has stated, “I have always felt that the term ‘existential therapy’ reflects not a discrete, comprehensive body of techniques, but, instead, a posture, a sensibility in the therapist” (Serlin, 1999, p. 143).

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• About a few key existential philosophers
• Basic principles of existential philosophy
• Theoretical principles of existential and Gestalt therapy • The four ultimate existential concerns
• Specific techniques employed by existential and Gestalt therapists • The scientific efficacy of existential therapy approaches • Ethical dilemmas facing existential therapists
• Multicultural issues facing existential therapists
• How Fritz Perls addressed his unfinished business with Sigmund Freud IN THIS CHAPTER YOUWILL LEARN
KEY FIGURES AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The roots of existential philosophical thought are diverse. There is probably no single existential philosopher from whom all existential thinking flows. Most texts point to nineteenth-century philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Fredrick Nietzsche as major players in the formulation of existentialism, and, in fact, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche do capture and embody the diversity of thinking inherent in existentialism. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) lived nearly his entire life in Copenhagen. Kierkegaard was devoutly religious and powerfully shaken when he discovered, at age 22, that his father had not only cursed God, but also seduced his mother prior to marriage. Subsequently, Kierkegaard’s writings focused primarily on religious faith and the meaning of Christianity. Eventually he concluded that religious faith was irrational and was attainable only via a subjective experiential “leap of faith.” For Kierkegaard, virtuous traits such as responsibility, honesty, and commitment are subjective choices—often in response to a subjective religious conversion. Kierkegaard did not describe himself as an existentialist, but his work is seen as precursor to the existential philosophical movement, which formally began some 70 years following his death. In stark contrast to Kierkegaard, who had started with firm religious faith, the German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) had strongly negative feelings toward Christianity. It was he who, in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, coined the phrase “God is dead.” He also claimed that religion used fear and resentment to pressure individuals into moral behavior. Instead of following a religion, he believed, individuals should learn to channel their passions into creative, joyful activities. Yalom offers a fascinating view of Nietzsche’s psychological suffering in a...
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