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Existential Counselling – A useful approach or pretentious jargon?

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There are often amusing suggestions put forward as to which professional group is quickest to internally squabble about technical issues.  I am not sure who usually wins first prize for this? The economists, philosophers or historians would certainly feature but I wonder whether therapists could also be added to that roll call of acrimonious inward debaters!

As counsellors we certainly have many topics of hot debate.  Usually these are conducted within our world with much good natured discussion but just occasionally some issues can raise the temperature. In the recent past one frequent area of disagreement for counsellors has been on the relative merits of the different theoretical approaches to therapy work.

Counselling strategies can range from a pragmatic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which focuses very much on immediate issues through to the deeper Psychodynamic approach which will want to help clients achieve a level of personal understanding as well as change.

I refer elsewhere on this site to those different techniques. My personal view is that these various approaches can be integrated into a useful working portfolio by the right therapist.  The key issue is to find the right strategy which will work well for each individual client.

Within this note I would like to focus on one of the less widely used and yet perhaps most misunderstood counselling approaches and that is existential therapy.

The very word existential can evoke a powerful reaction. The word can fashion some dramatic images. This can be an intense discussion between intellectuals surrounded by a whirl of smoke in a left bank café in Paris or perhaps a work by Sartre or Heidegger languishing unread on the top of a dusty mound of books.   Actually despite rumours to the contrary the writings of some existentialists such as Sartre and particularly Camus are very readable.

As far as literature goes within the counselling world there is a wide range of existential work. My recommended reading would certainly include Irvin Yalom and Emily van Deurzen.  Most counselling colleagues will know these authors but one does not need to be a practicing therapist to enjoy their writings.  Both are firmly situated on the existential wing on the counselling world and are powerful advocates for the existential school of thought.

I do not intend in this note to try to reprise the tenets of existential work but I would like to refer to two specific points. Existentialists have an undeserved reputation for seeing the world in a bleak and unforgiving light. That is at odds with the reality. In fact Yalom and van Deuzen have a warmth, humour and engagement within their writing which brings the reader into a good place.

Perhaps that initial misunderstanding occurs because existentialist thought invites us to see our world as it really is. There is no hiding place in the existential world from the reality that this is our world, with our choices, our understanding and our ownership. 

This encourages reflection on issues around responsibility and choice.  We are responsible for our own actions. Of course we are swayed by others and influenced by friend and foe alike. But our thoughts belong to us and the decision we take on how to go forward with what life gives is for us alone. 

Sometimes we may not be able to change our circumstances, our surroundings or the environment we are in but we can decide how to respond. Perhaps the most powerful exposition of this comes from Viktor Frankel’s moving writings about his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp.    Frankel joins other existentialists in emphasising that we are responsible for our thoughts and our actions. For me that is not a bleak outlook but a liberating concept.

Of course we cannot determine our future. We cannot decide (unless we opt for the path to Dignitas etc) when we will die, or who we will fall in love with but we can decide how to act when we are faced with certain challenging situations. Of course some choices are easier than others to make and occasionally we may be faced with the proverbial frying pan or the fire.  Such is life. Choice still sits with us. If we can allow ourselves to accept that specific premise then there can again be a sense of freedom even within the most confining of places.

With choice comes responsibility. These two issues of choice and responsibility are often seen quite differently within the counselling room.  In my experience clients can sometimes be quick, almost too eager to take responsibility. 

In the therapy room we will often hear words such as “It was my fault. I should not have   quickly followed by  - hit/kissed/cursed/embraced  him, her or it.” which can then herald an outpouring of guilt and shame.

I should quickly add that I do not want to appear to be dissuading clients from taking responsibility for their actions. That would be a negation of this existential approach. It is just that rather than embarking on excessive self-flagellation perhaps this acceptance of responsibility does also need to be tinged with a sense of realism. 

We are as we are.  This recognition is not about finding excuses but more a facilitation of a deeper understanding.  This existential acknowledgment is never about avoidance but more of achieving comprehension. And once we can better understand we may more easily increase our measure of self-control if that is what we wish to do. 

Of course we may then still go on to once again repeat the behaviour but at least we will be doing in the clear understanding that we are responsible for our actions.

The issues surrounding choice are rather different.  The responsibility for what we have done (and the resulting guilt) can often overshadow the acknowledgment of that we can still do. I cannot change what has already occurred but I can alter what lies ahead. I have choices across my life.  These may be difficult choices with consequences which may be uncomfortable, frightening or unforeseen – but the choices are mine.

The reality of that ownership over what we do is something we may occasionally internally and emotionally misplace.  This is particularly so when we are in a bad place, perhaps with a sense of powerlessness or fragility.  We lack the resolve to reach out and rediscover our sense of self. 

Yet even when in a fragile place we do continue to own our choices.  They are our creation. The choice may be offered by others but the decision to reach out and take is ours whether that acceptance is enthusiastic, grudging or reluctant.  The bullies, dominators and manipulators will try to coerce, confuse and mislead but our choices ultimately belong to us.

I am me.  I am responsible for myself and for the choices that I make and for adults (although on a orely personal basis, I am never sure exactly where and when the so called adult state starts) that realisation of self is about as existential as it gets.

Let’s summarize.  Existential thought covers a broad panoply of being.  It is uplifting, challenging and invigorating. It encourages ownership of what is yours and growth of what is you. An existential way of thinking can be enhanced by book, thought and word whether spoken, read or discussed.  If there is curiosity to be sated I can suggest some possible reading to anyone who would like to work on this approach whether as a therapist, client or a passing reader.

And so back to the start .  Existential Counselling – a useful approach or pretentious jargon!  Well you will have gained a sense of my response to that.  Wallow in a sultry warm bath of icy, hot, freezing, seductive existential thought and just see where it takes you.

And if your thinking becomes stuck and you need a catalyst then perhaps it is time to seek out a counsellor and undertake an existential hour or so.  Whether you will resolve all the issues you present during that hour, from building the level of confidence you seek, or cracking that persisting obsession, is of course another matter. 

Nevertheless you will enhanced your self awareness.  The reflections will certainly be interesting and the decision to attend will have been absolutely yours. Like so much what you do in life, this decision will have been your choice!!


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st October 2014

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