Existential-Phenomenological Theory has been an important model in the field of counseling and therapy for quite some time, and it continues to increase in popularity with new counselors entering the field. The practice of Existential-Phenomenology is a blending of centuries-old wisdom applied to modern day problems. It is foundational to influential therapies used today – like Person-Centered and Gestalt therapies. The goal of an Existential-Phenomenological counselor is to help clients make-meaning of their lives, and so it is reasonable to assume that counselors using this theory must also do the same work. Existential-Phenomenological counselors MUST make their own meanings of this theory and how it applies to their own lives and to their practices so it is essential for counselors who are interested in using this model to learn the philosophical groundwork. Without a philosophical grounding, counselors are simply using techniques – and this is not a technique-heavy model in the least! The importance of this model is the philosophies that substantiate its practice.
Some significant contributors in the development of existentialism and phenomenology include but are not limited to: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl, and, of course, Søren Kierkegaard. These philosophers explained principles from the earlier writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas to name a few. When learning about the philosophical underpinnings of Existential-Phenomenology, it is important to note that counselors must first study existentialism apart from phenomenology and gain an understanding of the backgrounds of contributing philosophers in each of these disciplines. Sounds like quite a feat, and it can seem daunting. However, in upcoming posts, I will break down phenomenology and existentialism in terms of what they mean and how to understand their principles. Stay tuned!
Death is an inevitable part of being human. It is something we cannot escape yet this is precisely what we try to do on a consistent basis. According to many existential thinkers, the inevitability of death makes life meaningless. In order to find meaning in the “average everydayness” of life, people feel compelled to suppress the knowledge of their mortality. Anxiety is the reason for this – and also the symptom of truyl facing death. Anxiety is the state at which we realize the possibility of not being around anymore – of non-being. Anxiety IS the awareness of death. This is an unpleasant, uncomfortable, and difficult feeling in which to exist…so we actively flee it.
We protect our denial of death with religious views, philosophical opinions or meaningless conversations. Any talk about death is objectified rather than personal, and in this way, we can delude ourselves into believing we are facing death while continuing to run away from it. And why not? Why should anyone be uncomfortable? For what purpose? Ah, well, here is why the realization and acknowledgement of the inevitability of death should be embraced:
Death-anxiety serves as motivation to live more fully.
Remember the book/movie, Fight Club? Edward Norton played the main character in the film, and his character was only able to feel truly alive when he attended support groups for individuals who were dying of chronic illnesses. He said about attending the meetings, “Losing all hope was freedom. Every morning I died, and every morning I was born again, resurrected.” When he listened to the stories of the group members who talked about their personal impending deaths and how they expressed their anxieties, he realized his death on a personal level. Through the realization of his own death, he felt the meaning of his life. Of course, for him, it was only temporary because he returned to his everyday life filled with pointless chatter and ongoing small-talk relationships. His feelings of living fully disappeared because he went back to ignoring that he would, one day, cease to exist. He only felt the true value and meaning of his life when he entered the meeting rooms again because this was the only time he really faced his death in a personal way.
The denial of death enables individuals to ignore what is important to them and to take life for granted, denying the responsibility of living more meaningful and truly authentic lives. The inevitability of death also reveals how, ultimately, every person is alone in the world because dying is an individual process. In facing this essential aloneness, a person can accept his or her self-responsibility because it is up to the individual to choose how he or she will live this life.
Meaning-making is a powerful theme in existentialism and yet its definition varies from one philosopher to another. What all existentialists agree upon, however, is that all human beings search for meaning and personal identity in their lives. Jean-Paul Sartre (1965/1993) described existentialism as a movement “to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him” (p. 36). He meant that all human beings try to find meaning in a world that is meaningless. They do this by creating various religions to support their beliefs about a potential life that exists beyond material existence. Sartre, obviously, was an atheist. He believed that human beings create artificial concepts through self-serving illusions and that these created constructs are not truly meaningful because absolute “meaning” does not exist at all. For Sartre, life and death were both considered meaningless – it is meaning-less that we live and it is meaning-less that we die, and because of this daunting fact, people must make their own meaning by what they choose to do in life. This happens through the intentions and interactions they have in the world.
Victor Frankl did not agree with Sartre’s interpretation about meaning-making at all. He believed that true meaning existed in life and that human beings could find meaning through suffering and through life experiences. By having a will to live through adversity, human beings find meaning. He truly believed that meaning was ever-present in the world and that the primary mission in life was to find meaning. In finding meaning, a person needed to step outside of him or herself – what that meant for Frankl was that meaning-making was not introspective at all but transcending.
Like Frankl, Søren Kierkegaard also believed in suffering as a means to make meaning. He proposed that individuals had to suffer despair throughout their lives, but he emphasized the necessity to move beyond the idea of human existence, which he believed was deficient. Kierkegaard believed in faith, but he stressed that doubt was the rational part of a human being. For Kierkegaard, individuals needed to doubt to have faith because, without doubt, faith had no value. Faith in God would be meaningless without first having doubt about the existence of God. For him, we needed to doubt to have faith and faith to make meaning.
While Frankl, Sartre, and Kierkegaard emerged from immensely different personal belief systems, all three of these philosophers represented existentialism through their world views and their personal beliefs. This just demonstrates how appropriate and crucial it is for counselors to first construct a personal understanding of meaning and human development before using existential concepts in the counseling relationship.
*Sartre, J. P. (1993). Essays in existentialism. New York: Carol Publishing Group.
The reality of life “is that it is without excuse” (as Jean-Paul Sartre would state). What does this mean? Well, people are constantly faced with the reality that they have to choose the kind of people they want to become, and this choosing never ends as long as they are alive. As human beings, we are “doomed to be free” – we have no choice but to choose. Even in not choosing, we choose to let the world around us direct us – that is a choice, after all. You might ask what this has to do with the existential theme of personal responsibility.
Because we are constantly faced with the reality that we have to choose the kind of people we want to become, we are inherently responsible for the way our lives develop. For instance, in choosing to have things done to us, we can easily become victims. Sartre would strongly argue that we choose to become victimized. However, this choice might not be on a conscious level. The choice may be subconscious. For example, maybe something is more comfortable or familiar so an individual steers in that direction. The consequences of that steering bring him or her to a place that is unhealthy. Who is responsible for this unhealthy situation that the individual is now in? The driver is.
By helping people realize that they are the drivers in their lives, whether they like it or not, is incredibly powerful. When individuals realize that they are “doomed to be free,” the excuses they may present about their lives fundamentally change. Existential angst is an essential part of decision-making, yes, and all people grapple with giving up other possibilities as they make choices. However, choice-making is an unavoidable part of life, leaving only us in the drivers’ seats – and personally responsible.
Simply stated, authenticity means being true to oneself, and while this is easily defined, explaining what it really means and getting there is a bit more difficult. How does one become authentic? What does being true to oneself really look like? How will one know when authenticity has been achieved? These are all common questions about the concept of authenticity.
Authenticity is about one’s relationship with self as well as one’s relationship with the world. To reach authenticity (to be true to oneself), an individual must balance the need to be true to self with the need to compromise and conform to others’ expectations. That is, along with fulfilling needs of self, a person also has to get along with others and manage the limitations that society imposes upon him or her. Remember that compromises must always be made when making a decision since all people are inextricably linked to the consequences of the choices they make.
Counselors can play a unique role in helping clients to examine their freedom to choose, the limitation of those choices, and the consequences they bring. Therapeutically, we want to know if individuals have struck enough of a balance between themselves and the limiting world to a point where they are at ease in their current circumstances. Are they at peace with what they are gaining and what they had to give up? Are they accepting the fact that they are limiting other possibilities when they make certain choices? Can they strike the right balance between what they want/need and what they have to give to others? If so, these people can be concretely identified as being positively adjusted in their situations and living more authentically.
In essence, we can say that a person has reached authenticity in a certain situation when he or she has the awareness about the compromises necessitated due to life’s limitations and can accept those limitations and move forward making decisions. We cannot, however say that a person has reached absolute authenticity, that he or she is authentic in every situation of his or her life. This is because authenticity is a process rather than an end result and is situation-specific rather than absolute.
I often work with clients who struggle with existential angst on a pathological level. They stay stuck because they are not willing to give up certain possibilities when they make a choice. Here is a simple example.
A male client I once had wondered why he could not stay loyal to any woman he dated. When he entered into therapy, he was approaching his 50s and was still moving from woman to woman in his dating life. His longest relationship was about 5 months. He wanted to settle into a rewarding relationship with a woman, and he had dated many wonderful women throughout his life that he knew would have suited him well as potential life partners. As he discussed his dating life, he told me that he would lose interest in a woman he was dating because he felt he was missing out on other possibilities with women that might suit him better. “I know that the woman I am dating now is a wonderful person, but what if there is someone better out there?” he would state time and time again. Eventually, he would either break things off with the woman he was presently dating or he date other women behind her back (a behavior with which he morally struggled). He would start to date other women, and the pattern would start again. Eventually, he would meet a woman he really liked, commit to her for a time, and then feel restless (that existential angst).
Because he was not willing to come to terms with giving up other potential partners when he decided he really wanted to stay committed to a woman he met, he kept himself in a stuck pattern he did not want to be involved with – serial dating, some might call it. While many individuals enjoy dating, this particular client’s desire was to settle into a committed relationship, and his existential angst kept him stuck in a situation that troubled him a great deal.
As we worked together, we discussed the need to give up potential choices when a certain choice is made. He had to come to terms with this limitation in his life because, after all, he was a human being and this existential truth was not something he could change. He understood that he had two choices at this point: come to terms with giving up other choices (other women) when a choice is made (a relationship) OR stay stuck in angst (serial dating). This realization was extremely helpful for him to attain, and he was able to move forward in his life as we continued to work together.
It was a process, but for in order to be authentic, my client had to understand that he was free to make choices but that he was also inherently limited by the choices he made (and this limitation is the natural state of existential angst). From the limitations he realized as he decided upon a course of action, he had to make compromises (after all, he could not truly settle into a monogamous relationship with a woman and also date other women, could he?). In essence, the goal of therapy was for him to understand the limitations of human existence and learn to function well within that structure.
Søren Kierkegaard first introduced the concept of existential angst when he described a man standing on the edge of a high cliff. He felt a fear of falling along with an irrational urge to intentionally hurl himself over. After realizing that he had this option, he felt existential angst. Angst or the “dizziness of freedom,” as Kierkegaard called it, is the burden of making moral choices and is a natural consequence of free will. Since Kierkegaard, many existentialists have taken on this concept in their philosophical writings.
How does existential angst apply to our day to day lives?
In essence, existential angst comes from knowing that we will eventually die. We are mortal, and we will all inevitably expire. This is not a bad thing as angst can motivate us to continue to change and to develop as human beings. However, it goes both ways and it can create pathological behaviors and thoughts.
Beyond the global concept of death and dying, existential angst enables us to realize the helplessness of being human and that life intrinsically limits all of our possibilities. Think of it like this – when individuals make a choice, they must give up other choices. While we all have the freedom to choose, freedom of choice is limited to action. That is, we cannot choose our actions’ consequences.
The realization of the necessity to give up one choice because another choice is made is THE key factor in the process of existential angst. To be truly well balanced, individuals must strike enough of a balance between themselves and the limiting world to a point where they are at ease in their current circumstances. If they can do this, they are positively adjusted in their situations and live more authentically. If they cannot accomplish this, they become stuck, often bouncing from the possibility of one choice to the other without moving forward in their lives.