Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Friend: So, what kind of therapist are you?
Me: Well, I would technically fit into the category of being an Existential Therapist. Which means---
Friend: Oh I get it, so you work with people who are having an 'existential crisis!'
Me: Ah, not exactly. It's more like---
Friend: Oh, so it's just about finding meaning and purpose in everything.
Me: Well, it's a little more nuanced than that but, sure.
This is usually how the conversation goes when someone finds out that I am an "Existential Therapist." But I can't blame them. Wouldn't you think the same? I did, before I finished my graduate program. Beyond my master's level training in counselling therapy, I have been undertaking a post-graduate diploma since 2019 called Existential Analysis, which draws heavy influence from German philosophers Heidegger, Husserl, Brentano, etc.; and their respective theories on phenomenology and being. For the purposes of this blog however, I won't talk much about them. Instead, I'm going to try and cover the parts that are most relevant for clients.
The term "existential" tends to be used in such a specific way in our culture, that it usually throws people off when they discover that it is a much bigger and broader word than they initially expected! In fact, at the recent World Congress of Existential Therapy (hosted in Buenos Aires, Argentina), leaders of existential therapy around the world spent hours arguing over the definition of the word "existential." For our purposes, 'existential' is defined as being anything that is concerned with existence. From here, the theory of Existential Analysis is defined as: the analysis of the conditions for a fulfilled existence. More practically speaking, the aim of Existential Analysis is to help people find a way of living that enables them to give inner consent to their actions and to fulfill their existence.
In other words, as an Existential Analytical clinician, I want to really understand who you are, your experience of the world, what moves you; and to help you respond to the complexities of life in a way that truly reflects who you are. In order to do this, we will take time together in order to enable you to relate with yourself in a new way, and discover a truly personal and responsible inner-position towards your life. This inner-position then provides the confidence and existential "ground" for an individual to express who they are in their response to life.
Our culture is filled with stories about who we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to do, and how we should respond to particular moments. These stories give us a sense of certainty and safety; but when we listen and obey these stories without considering our personal feelings and positioning, we may slowly lose ourselves and stop our dialogue between our inner and outer world. This lack of dialogue might show up in a number of ways, namely: anxiety, depression, a personality disorder, or addiction. In entering into this dialogue, we can reclaim ourselves and our inner positioning to the questions that life asks of us.
Does this sound like the type of therapy you'd have interest in? Consider booking a free 20-minute consultation with me to learn more :)
I wanted to also share an article which I've written with a colleague of mine for the bi-lingual magazine: Existencia: Journal on Existential Analysis. The article goes into greater depth and detail of the relevance of Existential Analysis; primarily for other therapists.
A Brief Glimpse into Existential Analysis
Written by Sebastian Wingfield and Ajay Erasmus
In North America, the counselling psychology student typically encounters what becomes their theoretical orientation, by which they case conceptualize, through the process of reading over various theoretical systems of psychotherapy. Although existential analysis as a psychotherapeutic approach has existed for nearly a century, it has only been elaborated as a systematized theory since the 1980’s; with the majority of resources available only in German translation. Since then, there have been many efforts to make resources available in English. With this in mind, this article is purposed to build upon already existing resources and effectively provide a concise theoretical synthesis for clinical counsellors with emphasis placed on theoretical background, theory of personality, theory of psychopathology, and theory of change.
A scientific definition of Existential Analysis describes it as phenomenological and person oriented psychotherapy with the aim of: enabling a person to experience his or her life freely at the spiritual and emotional levels; to arrive at authentic decisions; and to come to a responsible way of dealing with him or herself and the world around them (Längle, 2019). Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), who established existential analysis, was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who is widely recognized for his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), which chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II and describes his psychotherapeutic method, Logotherapy. As a response towards what Frankl perceived as reductionist psychologism found within psychoanalysis (depth psychology), Frankl conceived existential analysis as an anthropological theory which added the noetic dimension (human-spiritual) as a third dimension to Freud and Adler’s two-dimensional anthropology, the body and psyche. Frankl “wanted psychotherapy to take into account the human spiritual dimension in theory and in practice” (Kirchbach, 2003) by including a dimension with qualities he believed to be exclusive to humans, such as: one’s capacity for freedom, responsibility, and one’s search for meaning; which Frankl considered to be the greatest of all human motivations. In 1983, Viktor Frank came into close collaboration with Alfried Längle (b. 1951), a psychotherapist and physician, to develop existential analysis and logotherapy. Since Längle’s involvement, Frankl’s three-dimensional anthropology has been conceptualised more systematically and transformed into a solid basis for (Kirchbach, 2003).
As a primary method of understanding the noetic nature of the person, existential analysis uses a phenomenological attitude which emphasizes the free experiencing of the client’s moment to moment, immediate experience; with the purpose of enabling dialogue with the phenomenon of life. Furthermore, life is considered to be dynamic, rather than a static, fixed state. For this reason, existential analysis also employs a dialogical attitude in order to acknowledge that a person must be in constant dialogue with the conditions and questions that life puts before them. Through openness to dialogue and one’s authentic experience of life, a person’s responsibility is to find their unique response to the conditions of life.
Theory of Personality
Every human being is motivated physically, psychically, and noetically by four existential motivations; motivation being the activating orientation towards a value. These conditions are understood as the four Fundamental Motivations (FMs). These motivations posit questions towards one’s ability to be in the world (FM1: I am here. Can I be?); to find existence as valuable (FM2: I am alive. Do I like this fact?); to be oneself (FM3: I am myself. Am I allowed to be myself?); and to find meaning and purpose (FM4: I am here. For what purpose?). In order to find one’s unique response to the conditions of life one needs to discover their inner position. This occurs by contacting the deepest parts of ourselves and reconciling our deepest feelings with our intentions. When one is able to truly and authentically discover their inner position towards the conditions of life, they are able to give inner consent, or an inner affirmation (a “yes” towards life), and are able to engage with the world, themselves, and others in a manner that is fulfilling (Längle, 2019).
Our response to each of the FMs with inner consent requires meeting specific requisites. FM1 (“I am here, am I able to be?”) requires safety, space, and support. FM2 (“I am alive, do I like this?”) requires relationship, time, and closeness. FM3 (“I am myself, am I allowed to be myself?”) requires justice, appreciation, and attention. FM4 (“I am here, for what purpose?”) requires a field of activity, a structural context, and a value to be realized in the future. When a person feels that they have these requisites adequately met, they feel able to give their unique yes to these conditions and can live a fulfilling life.
Theory of Psychopathology
When one is unable to give their inner consent in response to each FM, one may feel a sense of incongruence and will respond by coping or attempt to deal effectively with what is difficult. The basic pattern of these coping reactions across the four FMs are: 1) Fundamental Motion (Avoidance Behavior): Minimizing Loss; 2) Paradoxical Motion: Activation; Strongest Defense Mechanism: Specific Aggression; and Gaining Time: Feigning Death Reflex (Längle, 2019). The specific coping reactions across each FM are:
FM1: 1) avoidance or flight; 2) overactivity or compulsive behavior; 3) aggression or hate; and 4) fear and anxiety (Längle, 2005).
FM2: 1) regression; 2) over-protection or over-achievement; 3) fury or rage; and 4) resignation, apathy, and depression (Längle, 2005).
FM3: 1) distancing oneself; 2) stubborn insistence resulting in a hyper functional life; 3) annoyance, anger, and reproach; and 4) dissociation of cognition and emotion, which may result in a personality disorder (Längle, 2005).
FM4: 1) disorganized, day-to-day attitude towards life; 2) idealization and fanaticism; 3) indignation, aggressive games, and cynicism; and 4) nihilism, internal paralysis, and addiction (Längle, 2005).
When these coping reactions are unable to help resolve psychodynamic tensions, psychopathology occurs. Mental Disorders are understood as a fixation in behavior, where one’s dialogue becomes fixated, or inhibited. There are four types of fixated dialogue in accordance with the four FMs that create disturbances in one’s: awareness (FM1), through disruptions in ones perception of reality; experiencing (FM2), through disruptions in relationships, value depletion, inner emptiness, flat affect, and reduced self-relation; positioning (FM3), through disruptions in the understanding of important life relationships, development of opinions, attitudes, and positions and in decision making; and behavior (FM4), through disruptions in living his/her own will, attitudes, and convictions (Längle, 2019).
Theory of Change
A problem is an obstacle that becomes in the way of the flow of life and is accompanied by an unpleasant feeling. If the problem feels too great to handle on one’s own, they may seek help. To help, means to engage or invest oneself in order to make something possible that the other is not capable to do at the time (Längle, 2019). Components of real help can be found across the four FMs: to be there, present, investing oneself, and allows the other to be more present (FM1); brings warmth and goodness, value, and assumes a quality of relationship (FM2); respects the autonomy, dignity and respect of the other by limiting the help given (FM3); and is felt as meaningful and good from both sides because it helps serve a goal that frees one from hardship or distress (FM4) (Längle, 2019). A professional helper can bear helplessness and suffering, meets own interpersonal needs elsewhere, does not try to resolve guilt through helping, is able to detach from the client, can control helping impulses and reactions, and asks for help when needed too (Längle, 2019). The conditions of life are stubborn—more so than any client may be. In order to receive help, a client must have a certain degree of humility to face the conditions of life and be open to the help offered. Further, the professional must help the client with their ability to have free experiencing, which allows for an ability to explore their experiences freely and to have a dialogical ability.
While problems may be experienced somatically, psychically, and noetically, the therapist’s point of access is in the noetic dimension through what is called the Personal Existential Analysis (PEA). PEA works to help the client explore their authentic response to life by developing one’s ability to encounter their inner position; from which they can give an inner consent to life. The process of PEA has 4 stages: 1) information, 2) impression, 3) position, and 4) expression. First, the information stage assesses a narrative description of what has actually happened to the person. Second, the impression stage initiates the process of understanding the impact of an experience on the individual using an empathic attitude and phenomenological analysis. Third, the position stage gathers what the client makes of the experience and understands it. Finally, the expression stage asks the question, “What do you want to do?” Here the client expresses their inner position through action towards their situation (Kwee & Längle, 2013).
Kirchbach, G. v. (2003). General Introduction to Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. European Psychotherapy, 4(1), 33-46.
Kwee, J., & Längle, A. (2013). PHENOMENOLOGY IN PSYCHOTHERAPEUTIC PRAXIS: AN INTRODUCTION TO PERSONAL EXISTENTIAL ANALYSIS. EPIS Journal of Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, & Critical Theory.
Längle, A. (2005). The Search for Meaning in Life and the Existential Fundamental Motivations. Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 16(1), 2-14.
Längle, A. (2019). Coping Reactions: Coping Reactions Across the 4 FMs. (J. Kwee, D. Klaassen, & M. Launeanu, Performers) Langley, BC.
Längle, A. (2019). Fulfillment and meaning in life: An introduction to existential analysis. (M. Launeanu, D. Klaassen, & J. Kwee, Performers) Langley.
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