Key Concepts

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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 (Engler, 1991).

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.

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.

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 (Corey, 1991a).

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 (Engler, 1991).

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 participate fully 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 (Corey, 1991a).

Existential therapy usually follows a three phase course: There is an examination of the clients' assumptions of the world and their values. They are asked to examine the values they hold true without question. This phase leads to a clearer understanding of the self. After clients know themselves more fully they are asked to define whom they want to become. They review their assumptions from the first phase and to determine what kind of life they consider worth. The third phase concentrates on helping clients recognize, define and elaborate on their personal talents and plans in order to increase their capacity to move in the directions they have determined as worthy (Corey, 1991b).

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