The existential perspective in psychotherapy

Author: Ole Magnus Vik

Existential psychology and philosophy have given rise to a distinct form of psychotherapy. In this text, I will show how this way of thinking can be used to help people who are struggling with life.

Although existentialism presents a rather bleak perspective on life, it is actually a very optimistic and life-affirming philosophy. When I meet people who are struggling with life, I find time and time again that the existential perspective is a profound source of life mastery.

We are meant to suffer

A key premise when applying existentialism in treatment is the assumption that pain is not a sign that you have a problem. In other words, there is nothing wrong with you even if you feel empty inside, even if you experience life as sad and gray or if you feel lonely. Everyone feels like this sometimes. Instead, the problems are seen as resulting from the many ways in which people lie to themselves about themselves and the world, to keep such feelings at a distance. It makes the pain worse. And lies about life don’t change anything: Being human is about experiencing the pain of life. The existential perspective assumes that we are all in the same boat.

The existential perspective also assumes that there are some given conditions of life that are always present for all people, regardless of time and culture. This means that whether you lived as a hunter/gatherer in the Ice Age, as a farmer in the Middle Ages or in Norway at the start of the 21st century, there are certain unavoidable conditions that are always present, that are, so to speak, baked into our existence. We all live with some uncomfortable truths hanging over our heads. We are all going to die, we are all alone in some ways, people we love will disappoint us and maybe even let us down. And we will never fully know ourselves. The sum of these realizations leads us to the following inexorable truth: We are not meant to walk around and be happy. At least not all the time. Or maybe not even most of the time. But that’s okay. It’s still possible to live good lives – at least according to the existential perspective.

Life starts with chaos and anxiety. But there are also early experiences of security and predictability. According to the philosopher Heidegger, the rest of life is lived as a kind of repetition of this starting point: We are constantly “thrown” into an insecure world that we don’t fully understand, this state of “thrownness” fills us with anxiety, therefore we seek the security offered by parental care (or one of its many later substitutes – such as a romantic partner or a political ideology). Life can therefore be said to be lived in an inevitable tension between confusion and security and order and chaos.

Which mental health problems are well suited to existential psychotherapy?

Life crises are an example of a common mental health condition that is well suited to existential therapy. When you find that your life is suddenly turned upside down and the things you believed in no longer make sense, the existential perspective offers a framework of understanding that can make sense of the meaninglessness. Moreover, life crises are often about big, difficult choices. No other philosophical or psychological discipline has devoted so much time to discussing difficult choices and their consequences.

The existential perspective is also useful when dealing with problems of identity and self-esteem. Who am I really? What is really important to me? Am I valuable? Existentialism can help here. Both to know oneself better and to accept that we can never know ourselves as well as we would like. But first and foremost because it allows for the the possibility that we don’t need to go around making sure we feel the right way all the time. The existential perspective challenges the self-esteem hysteria that characterizes so much of current psychology.

Furthermore, the existential perspective offers new perspectives on how to understand and deal with difficulties that arise in relationships. Whether it’s relational difficulties at work or in the family, many people find that an existential framework of understanding can make it easier to deal with relational challenges.

Also when it comes to anxiety and depression – the most typical problems people seek therapy for – the existential perspective offers valuable approaches. Long before psychology was even an academic field in its own right, existential philosophers wrote treatises on anxiety, grief, sadness and despair. The advice they gave is as relevant today as when they were written.

The existential perspective takes the complexity of life seriously

Unlike many other schools of thought, existentialism does not provide simple answers to difficult questions. The existential perspective is therefore not suitable for everyone. Some people only want clear cut answers, quick fixes and superficial solutions. Some just want a recipe for how to live their life and be “happy.” If you’re one of them, the existential perspective is probably not for you. But if you’re interested in trying to understand a little more of what it means to be human, and at the same time learn how to deal with life when it casts shadows, read on.

The self as a constructed narrative

The only thing that exists in the world is human consciousness and formless physical matter. Everything else is created by us. This means that there are really no rocks, trees or people in the world. The only things that exist are narratives we create about what is in the world. It is not that existentialism says that the physical world does not exist, but simply that it is not available to us in its true form. The only things that are available to us are the images we construct, or the “stories” of rocks, trees and people, created by our own consciousness.

In existentialism the only thing we can be sure of is the existence of our own consciousness. This means that concepts such as “I” can also be doubted. Existentialism implies that the “I” is constructed as a narrative, i.e. that it does not really exist in the world, independent of consciousness. The thing my consciousness thinks of as “me” is therefore not something real in the world.

I am not a thing

This view of the “I” also means that we are not a thing in the first place. The philosopher Sartre put it this way: existence precedes essence, by which he meant that we exist first and foremost as consciousness with countless possible potentials and that we therefore cannot be reduced to an essence or a thing (or just one “real” self). In other words: You are nothing, in the sense that you are no thing. We are not psychologists, teachers, plumbers, wives or brothers, these are just roles we play; narratives we and others have created about ourselves. We are a consciousness, knowing that we can create, define and act out an infinite number of “selves.” When we act out one narrative instead of another and say that this is who we really are, we are lying to ourselves.

 This also means that when we say things like “I’m just like that” or “I wasn’t myself”, it’s more likely something we say to avoid taking responsibility, and because it scares us not to think of ourselves as having a stable core.  This can often leave us feeling fragmented and “piecemeal” instead of whole. Sometimes we can even feel like we don’t exist! But all of this is normal and not strange at all. Many would say that it’s weirder that we sometimes feel whole. According to the existential perspective, being “oneself” is therefore an impossibility because there is no real self.

It is possible to live well even if life is difficult.

Because the world is what it is and we are what we are, we will always – without exception – experience a great deal of confusion, meaninglessness, fragmentation, loneliness, anxiety, guilt and frustration in our lives. We can’t escape it. Though many try.

Do these basic existential conditions mean that we can never experience good things in life or feel good about ourselves? No, of course not! The security of the mother’s breast is as natural as the anxiety of the moment of birth. The existential perspective does not deny how wonderful, rewarding and deeply meaningful the world can be. Quite the contrary. Rather, it points to how we always live in the tension between good sensations and bad sensations. One is no more natural than the other. Both undeniably emerge. When the existential perspective emphasizes what can be painful and difficult, it is because this is so often forgotten or denied. Something that seems to create more problems for us than it solves. We often hear from people around us, and the culture at large, that we just need to “think positive” and “smile and be happy for each passing day” or “don’t worry, be happy.” From an existential perspective, one would think that these types of platitudes are not only erroneous and useless, but also quite hurtful and provocative for all those who are struggling with something very difficult in their lives. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you that you have so much anxiety?”, the existential perspective would rather say: “It is right and proper that you have anxiety! Living is very hard, and you’ve realized that. Fortunately, you take your life seriously enough to feel it!” Many times, I think that it’s not the people who are having a hard time who should go to existential psychotherapy, but all those who have fooled themselves into thinking that life feels – or should feel – easy.

The existential perspective is a perspective of possibility.

In existentialism, we would say that it is less tiring to acknowledge the pain of life than to deny it. Moreover, we would say that it is better to understand the pain of life as something normal than as something abnormal. Recognizing this gives us the opportunity to live more honestly.

Ask yourself what would be most helpful if you were to wake up tomorrow with a deep and profound sense of emptiness inside. What would it be like to see the emptiness as a sign that there is something seriously wrong in your life and that this void needs to be filled as soon as possible? My experience in meeting people who are struggling, is that such an attitude makes things worse. The emptiness we sometimes feel inside of us cannot be escaped, unfortunately. We can try to fill the emptiness with something, but it will probably come back. Many people live their lives desperately trying to fill their emptiness at all times. This is both exhausting and very inconvenient. Facing that same emptiness with an understanding that this is actually something completely normal, is better. Not only because it’s less tiring, but also because it allows us to focus our energy on things that we actually can do something about.

When faced with the realities of life, it’s easy to be tempted to escape. One of the most common ways we try to escape is by telling ourselves pleasant lies about the world. It’s so much more comfortable to believe that things will work out in the end, that if you do your best things will work out or that if you’re just “nice and good” people will always like you. In the existential perspective, one would say that an uncomfortable truth is always better than a comfortable lie. Because the problem with comfortable lies is that they often clash with experience. Even if you do your best, you won’t always succeed. No matter how kind and good you are, someone will probably end up disliking you. When we embrace the existential perspective, we also live more sincerely. We will tell ourselves and others fewer lies. This is uncomfortable, but actually more practical. Castles in the air don’t last long. A house built on stone is more stable than a house built on sand.

The existential perspective is a psychological vaccine.      

First and foremost, the existential perspective is a way to help us live more robustly and sustainably. It can therefore be compared to a psychological vaccine.

Vaccination is about injecting disease into the body so that the immune system builds up resistance to the disease. If we are infected later, the immune system is already prepared. In life, crises are inevitable. We get rejected, people get sick and die, your football team loses, your dream job can suddenly seem unbearably boring and sometimes it rains when you’re on holiday. By trying to acknowledge the basic existential conditions, we build up psychological resilience. In this way, we are better equipped to face the storms of life. Not if they come, but when. It’s perfectly fine to choose to think more optimistically about life. No one is going to stop you from doing that. But if you take some of the sorrows in advance, it won’t be so hard when the next life crisis comes along.

Flu vaccines give you flu symptoms. Similarly, existential vaccines also cause psychological discomfort. Hopefully you have felt some discomfort while reading this text. If so, that’s a good thing. It just means that the vaccine has started to work.

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