Working as a counsellor from person-centred and existential perspectives Kaarel Tamre
The following is an attempt to compare two different approaches to counselling, person-centred and existential, and to highlight some important similarities and differences between them. My intention has not been to give an exhaustive overview of both theories with all their differences and similarities, rather I have tried to describe and analyse those aspects of both theories which to me personally seemed to be of greatest importance, and also which seemed to bear greatest relevance to my own experience of counselling, both as a client and as a student-counsellor. The emphasis in this essay will be more (although not exclusively) on the similarities than the differences between these two approaches, the main reason to this being my attempt on the first year of my PgDip course to integrate both approaches into my own way of practicing. As long as I have known about either existential or person-centred approaches I have always felt that they both miss something important, and this ‘something important’ seemed in both cases to be exactly something that the other of these two theories has. But to fit them both together – as comfortably as possible – it seemed to me necessary first to try to look ‘past’ or ‘through’ the very different language they often use and to map the areas where those two approaches actually overlap. I was sure that after mapping out the similarities it would become much easier to see the main differences between those two approaches, and to decide which of these to accept and which to reject. But as most of the material in this essay still comes from the first part of this process – mapping the similarities – this essay will inevitably concentrate more on the similarities, and therefore also more on the first part of Ernesto Spinelli’s notion about existential and person-centred approaches that “… at the level of practice what both approaches share surpasses substantially their divergences. At the level of theory, however, glaring divergences emerge” (2005: 174).
What links the existential and person-centred approaches closely together, and also distinguishes them from most other approaches to counselling, is their phenomenological orientation (Spinelli, 2005). This orientation is based on the idea that every one of us lives in a different subjective experiential ‘reality’, and therefore to help the client the counsellor must be able to “enter the client’s experiential world and listen to the phenomena of that world without the presuppositions that distort understanding” (Yalom, 1980: 17). Stemming from the phenomenological orientation is also the idea that it is the client, and not the therapist who dictates the direction and pace of therapy, that only the client can be the real “expert” in his subjective world , although this idea occupies certainly a more central place in person-centred than in existential theory. Both approaches believe in clients’ ability to make better sense of their lives and find their own ‘right’ directions, only the existential theory considers it necessary to use somewhat more active and confronting (and I think also more intellectual) approach – “The existential counsellor will not prescribe a direction but will press the client in making up her mind about that direction” (Deurzen, 2002: 43). Person-centred theory seems to leave it completely up to the clients if they want to make up their minds about their directions or not, believing that it will happen sooner or latter anyway provided that the counsellor is able to provide a certain kind of relationship. The idea of the client knowing where he wants to go and which direction to take makes a lot of sense to me – I think mainly because most often than not in my life I myself haven’t had any people around me to ask direction from, any people whose answers and directions I would have really...
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