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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Existential Counselling – From Yalom to Basingstoke

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I recall back in February in the depths of a particularly unpleasant winter, joining many other counsellors and therapists in London at a video presentation organised by BACP (British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy). This event featured Irving Yalom, a contemporary American therapist.  It proved to be time well spent.

Yalom is a familiar name to many within counselling but he is perhaps not so well known outside of the therapeutic profession. Although some of Yalom’s ideas and practices may have been rather challenging for some to embrace particularly those commissioning therapy within the NHS, he has achieved iconic status within the world of psychotherapy. That prominence was reflected in the demand for tickets for this presentation. 

Yalom has been talking for many years of that which others may have been thinking but were perhaps reluctant to voice for fear of disapproval from the counselling establishment. His views undoubtedly resonate. That Yalom’s ideas are increasingly influential was reflected in the numbers attending this event.  Anyone who can fill the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre whilst not actually appearing in person is clearly doing something rather important.

It is intriguing to try to understand the elements of success particularly in an esoteric field such as therapy where things are not always quite as they seem. Perhaps some thoughts around traditional therapeutic ambiguity may provide one clue to Yalom’s popularity. Rather than adopting the rather pompous and unnecessarily complex language constructs which can be found in some therapy and counselling texts, Yalom’s output provides much clarity and fluency. That informed and yet informal style results in works which can be readily understood without the reader having to continually reach for the therapeutic dictionary. 

Yalom is regarded as an existential writer, counsellor and thinker. For some that ‘existential’ descriptor may invoke a slight feeling of apprehension. There certainly has been occasional affectation surrounding the world of existential ideas. That rather pretentious image of the left bank intellectual smoking a Gauloises cigarette whilst contemplating impenetrable thoughts in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker, is reminiscent of either a Monty Python sketch or the demanding nature of some earlier existential writers. 

I can well remember my first attempt to understand Sartre, Camus and Heidegger, an exercise which left me wondering whether I was actually holding the text the right way up.  As I was a student at the time, my confusion may of course also have been influenced by the impact of copious amounts of alcohol on my cerebral processes. Last winter and alas far too many years later, it was now wine that flowed at the Queen Elizabeth Centre rather than Guinness. Nevertheless despite my determined hedonistic imbibing, on this occasion all remained comprehensible. That owes as much to Yalom’s approach as to any intellectual maturity on my part.

For some therapists (and I include myself in this) existential thought invites a welcomed freedom to express, something which is lacking in other more structured approaches. Existential counselling does not have a rigid theoretical base as is the case with some other modalities such as Psychodynamic Counselling and neither does it endorse a very prescriptive way of working in the room as is the case with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques.  There can be flexibility in interpretation which encourages greater ownership of the work both within and outside the therapy room. 

Existential counselling serves to remind me of the importance of choice. There is an acknowledgement that we as individuals continue to hold the option to exercise our personal choice. That persists even when we may feel that we are being coerced into specific actions or pushed into pursuing a certain line of thought.

Counselling can encourage us to understand the reasons why we take up certain choices but it also reminds us that we hold the ultimate responsibility for our actions. Viktor Frankl’s work  ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is perhaps the most eloquent and moving testament on the ability of the individual to exercise choice in even the most harrowing of circumstances – and Frankl’s experiences in Auschwitz must be about as harrowing as it gets.

Existential work encourages us to focus on the now and on exactly who and what we are. For example although we may all play a part in group based interactions at home or in the workplace, within those groups we  still exist as distinct individuals with our personal narrative and unique story. 

It is the individual client who comes into the counselling room. It is the individual who remains free to exercise choice and it is the individual who is at liberty to decide the route to take in life as well as in the counselling room. Existential Counselling encourages the client to focus on recognising that freedom and on deciding how and when to use that freedom particularly if there is a wish to bring about personal change. 

Freedom within an existential context is not about understanding a complex intellectual abstraction. It is about being and doing. It involves experiencing and feeling and it embraces existence.  Within the therapy room, the counsellor supports the client and metaphorically holds up a reflective source to mirror back to the client the realities of their life.

The future is yours. That includes the fun and laughter and the pain and sadness.  Life brings joy and despair. Life can be fun and irritating just like the people you meet in your past, present and future. It is your choice as to how you wish to be. Perhaps, just perhaps, existential counselling work can help you to find and then act on that freedom to choose.

Despite the clarion calls from those around you who will profess to know what is best, it remains your choice as to how to live your life and use your time. You and I exist. It is your life to do with as you will.   If a client can walk out of the counselling room with a greater degree of ownership over their life and challenges they face, then for some that may be a sufficient return for the time spent in therapy – whether that counselling work is carried out in Basingstoke or on the Left Bank.


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st August 2013

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