Felix From an Existential Viewpoint

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The existentialist approach will be used to examine and explain Felix Ungar's behavior. The focus will first be on the theory of existentialism and how it relates to Felix. Then some goals of treatment will be outlined.

The existentialist movement was not created by any one individual, rather it came into being in different parts of Europe in the 1940's and 1950's. The roots of existentialism may be found in the works of several modern philosophers including Dostoyevski (1821 - 1881), Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), Heidegger (1889 - 1976), and Sartre (1905 - 1980).

Existentialism emphasizes the existence rather than the essence. It suggests that there is no truth or reality except as we participate in it. Life is not a spectator sport or event, all who live must participate in order to get anything out of life.

The existential approach was developed as a reaction to two then dominant models of psychology, psychoanalysis and behaviorism. The psychoanalytic position believes that freedom is restricted and is determined by irrational forces that are biological and psychosexual in nature and come from the unconscious as instincts and drives. The behavioristic position believes that freedom is restricted by sociocultural conditioning. The existentialist position is that people are basically free to make their own choices.

Although existential therapy accepts the premise that our choices are limited by external circumstances, the existentialist position rejects the notion that our acts are determined. There are a range of choices available to each of us and we are free to choose and therefore responsible for our own choices and actions. We must create and live with our own individual freedom.

Freedom means "openness, readiness to grow, flexibility, and changing in pursuit of greater human values" It entails our capacity to take hand in our own development. Freedom is basic to existentialist understanding of human nature because it underlies our ability to choose. People are free to choose among alternatives and therefore have a large role in shaping their destinies. With freedom, we must also accept the responsibility for directing our lives. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.

Felix has assumed a victim role. Anything he does and anything he tries to do, especially if it doesn't work out as he desires, he assigns the cause to someone else. Felix wants neither freedom nor responsibility for his own actions. He wants to "serve" his wife and family, thereby fulfilling his self defined life purpose. Without his wife and family he has no purpose.

The existentialist position encourages the increasing of one's self awareness. This leads to an emphasis on choice and responsibility and to the view that a worthwhile life is one that is authentic, honest, and genuine. It takes courage to discover our center of our being and to learn how to live from the inside. Through our self-awareness, we choose our actions, and therefore we can partially create our own destiny.

Felix has little or no self-awareness. He has existed for so long just as an extension of his wife and children, that he is not aware of himself as separate from them.

Part of the human condition is the experience of aloneness. We want to be significant in another's world, and we want to feel that another's presence is important in our world. Perhaps one of the functions of therapy is to help people distinguish between a neurotically dependent attachment to another and a mutually beneficial relationship in which both persons are enhanced. We can derive strength from the experience of looking to ourselves and sensing our separation. We alone must give a sense of meaning to our life.

The attachment Felix has for his wife and family would be classified as a neurotic attachment. He still wants to live with his wife, and be there and be a part of everything in her world. Unfortunately the feeling is not mutual, Felix's wife doesn't want to live with him any longer, she wants to be free of him to form a life for herself, separate from the smothering life she had with Felix.

A distinctly human characteristic is the struggle for a sense of significance and purpose in life. Existential therapy can provide the conceptual framework for helping clients challenge the meaning of their lives. People may wonder whether it is worth it to continue struggling or even living. Faced with the prospect of our mortality, we may ask: "Is there any point to what I do now, since I will eventually die? Will what I do be forgotten once I am gone?" The existentialist position encourages people to search for meaning by living fully and responsibly. Because meaning can only be found by living fully and accepting the consequences of our choices.

Existential anxiety, which is basically a consciousness of our own freedom, is an essential part of living; as we increase our awareness of the choices available to us, we also increase our awareness of the consequences of these choices. Existential guilt is an anxiety one is aware of when having evaded a commitment. In one's personal strivings to survive, anxiety must be confronted as an inevitable part of the living. Existential therapists differentiate between normal and neurotic anxiety and they see anxiety as a potential source of growth. Normal anxiety is an appropriate response to an event being faced. Neurotic anxiety is out of proportion to the situation.
Because we could not survive without some anxiety, it is not therapeutic to eliminate normal anxiety. People who have the courage to face themselves are nonetheless, frightened.

To the existentialist, it is important that we be aware of death. The existentialist does not view death negatively but holds that awareness of death as a basic human condition gives significance to living. The fear of death and the fear of life are related. The fear of death looms over those of us who are afraid to fully participate in life. Existentialists believe that those of us who fear death also fear life, it is as though we were saying "I fear death because I have never fully lived"

A prime identifying element of the existential movement is that it reacts against the tendency to identify therapy with a set of techniques. Instead it bases therapeutic practice on an understanding of what makes men and women human beings. Existentialists believe that a reductionistic approach misleads and that the "simpler can be understood and explained only in terms of the more complex"

Clients are not viewed as being sick, rather, they are seen as being sick of life or awkward at living. Existential therapists are primarily concerned with understanding the subjective world of the client in order to help that person come to new understandings and options. As one way of deepening the therapeutic relationship therapists may share their reactions to clients with genuine concern and empathy. The focus is on the clients current life situation. Existentialism emphasizes the present; it emphasizes what is happening in the client's world today and how to better live in it.

A basic goal of existential therapy is enabling individuals to accept their personal freedom. Clients are encouraged to take seriously their own subjective experience in their world. Clients are challenged to take responsibility for how they choose to live in their world. The therapist seeks to help clients experience their existence as real. Existential therapy helps clients face the anxiety of choosing for themselves and accepting the reality that they are more than mere victims of deterministic forces outside themselves. It is best considered an invitation to clients to recognize the ways in which they are not living fully authentic lives and make choices that will lead to their becoming what they are capable of being.

When deciding on the sequence and progress of therapy for Felix, the first thing that must be determined is the seriousness of Felix's suicide attempt. The questions that must be answered are; was his suicide attempt a serious attempt to commit suicide, or just an attempt to get attention? Did Felix really want to commit suicide, or was he just avoiding his responsibility to himself to live for and to take care of himself? Felix's suicidal motives should first be understood. When it can be reasonably assumed that Felix will not make any more attempts to commit suicide, then therapy should begin on the other facets of Felix's behavior and coping style.

Felix needs to start doing things that are more in line with reality and reason and less from an idealistic or perfectionist point of view. Felix needs to learn to tolerate the fact that all things will not necessarily always be in their proper place and that one's home is not always perfectly clean. Another goal of therapy should be to help Felix understand that his marriage is over, his wife really no longer wants to live with him. He needs to find a way to enjoy life for himself; he needs to understand that he needs to live for himself first, and others second. Others should not be the primary reason for his existence. His wants, needs and desires should be his reason for doing what he wants to do, not his perception of what someone else needs him to do for them. Felix needs to be made aware that there are choices available to him. That he does not have to live a restricted existence because he no longer has his wife and children to care for. Felix needs to accept the freedom that has been thrust upon him, and develop the responsibility for his choices and actions.



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