Existential therapy: 5 things to know before you book that first session

Existential therapy: 5 things to know before you book that first session

Existential psychotherapy is not always for the faint of heart.

One of the most well-known existential therapists, James Bugental, once described the process of existential psychotherapy this way:

“It’s very much like feeling the ground is shaking under you, questioning the ground you’re standing on. And it’s a very frightening experience.” 

However, if you’re someone who’s looking for a therapy experience that goes beyond quick fixes and short-term solutions, working with an existential therapist may be worth considering.

Here are five things to know before your first existential therapy appointment. 

Existential therapy tends to focus on four general themes or “truths”

Nearly all existential therapists work from the assumption that inherent to our existence are four fundamental truths:

Mortality – that our lives are finite.

Alienation – that we are each alone in the world.                                     

Meaninglessness – that our existence lacks inherent meaning.

Freedom – that we are responsible for the lives we lead (including responding to all of the above).

While a different type of therapist may be inclined to focus on resolving your most immediate concerns – e.g., that breakup you just went through, the recent loss of a loved one, or all those disagreements with your boss – an existential therapist will likely look for ways to peel back the proverbial onion a bit further.

Might the pain of your recent breakup speak to the deeper pain of your existential loneliness? Does your loss go beyond feelings of grief, perhaps evoking a fear of your own mortality? And could your issues with your boss ultimately stem from something deeper, like a yet-to-be acknowledged feeling of pointlessness to the life you’ve constructed for yourself?

This focus on peeling back the layers and examining the existential concerns of life is why existential therapy is often referred to as “depth therapy.”

Existential therapy can be anxiety-provoking

As is probably obvious from the themes described above, existential therapy is not exactly geared toward surface-level topics. Though your therapist is unlikely to tell what topics you’re “supposed” to talk about, he or she will likely look for opportunities to tease out the universal themes of death, loneliness, freedom, and meaninglessness as you talk. And yes, these fundamental human concerns can be anxiety-provoking to discuss.    

But there’s a point to confronting this anxiety in your sessions. From an existential perspective, anxiety is an unavoidable part of being human. While we develop skillful ways of ignoring or evading this existential anxiety—and the tension and worry that accompany it—doing so puts us at greater risk of developing existential guilt and neurotic anxiety, each of which can trigger depression and other emotional difficulties.

If we genuinely want to manage our anxiety, existential therapy says, we must first confront our underlying angst about our existence and embrace the task of making our lives meaningful and worthwhile. Only then are we able to embrace our human freedom and pursue authentic, self-actualized lives.

Existential therapy emphasizes the here-and-now over the there-and-then

Many forms of therapy focus on events of the past: your childhood; past traumatic events; or more recent situations that may be causing you distress, such as that argument you had with your partner last week. However, a good existential therapist will bring focus to what’s happening in the session itself—the way you’re “existing” with him or her.

Your therapist may bring attention to your nonverbals (the way you laugh while describing a sad event in your life or bite your lip when you talk about your friend), your way of speaking in generalities, or how your monologues leave little room for genuine contact between you and your therapist.        

Why this focus on the here-and-now? Because from an existential perspective, we each bring more than our problems to our therapy sessions; we bring our whole way of being alive. In other words, the way we are in our therapy sessions is the way we are in life. And since our way of being alive tends to involve our strategies for avoiding our existential angst—our defense mechanisms, if you will—focusing on the here-and-now provides a way for us to identify and clear the “weeds” that prevent our growth.

Over time, your therapist will not only help you gain insight into your way of being alive; he or she will help you explore how this “way” is serving you and how adjusting it may help to bring deeper satisfaction and meaning to your life.          

Existential therapy can feel confrontational at times

Not all therapists who utilize existential therapy are confrontational. After all, there’s an important distinction to be made between a therapist’s style and his or her theoretical orientation.

However, certain aspects of existential therapy, especially its emphasis on the here-and-now, can make this approach feel somewhat confrontational at times.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from an existential therapy session (this excerpt comes from James Bugental’s The Art of the Psychotherapist):

Client: I’ve been stewing all week about the way my boss treats me like I’m some dumb kid. The bastard seems to get his kicks out of talking down to me. It eats on me that he can just get away with it. In fact,… well, anyway, I keep thinking about it.

Therapist: You stopped yourself from saying something just then. How come?

Client: It’s nothing (uneasily). Just didn’t seem like I needed to waste time on it.

Therapist: You’re sure anxious to get away from it.

Client: Oh, hell, Jill, you’re always after me about something.

Therapist: Yeah, so what else is new? What gives, Terry, you’re as antsy about something as I don’t know what.

Client: Okay, if you want to know, I’ll tell you, but don’t say anything about it. My mind’s made up. Okay?

Therapist: No, I don’t give any promises in the dark.

Client: Shit! I thought you were on my side.

Therapist: You’re sure jumping around to keep from saying whatever it is you’ve made up your mind about.

Existential therapy is not a stand-alone treatment approach

Unlike other treatment approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), existential therapy is not a stand-alone approach. Rather, this form of counseling is often described as an accent to other therapeutic approaches. For this reason, counselors seldom describe themselves as “existential therapists.” Instead, you’re more likely to hear your counselor say something like, “I bring an existential focus to my work with clients.”  

Similarly, existential psychotherapy tends to rely less on interventions. Your therapist is unlikely to ask you to engage in obvious therapeutic exercises. Nor will he or she be teaching you new “tools” or strategies to use outside of sessions, such as structured breathing techniques or ways to restructure your thoughts.

Many people appreciate the lack of exercises and activities in existential therapy, as this often makes sessions feel more conversational. If you’re looking for a counselor or therapist with whom you can have a conversation without the distraction of “neat little tricks” and therapy hacks, a therapist who follows an existential approach is likely to be a good fit for you.       

Are you interested in working with an existential therapist in Charlotte, NC? Contact us at Modern Era Counseling today.  

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