Existentialism and psychotherapy

Although I studied a variety of therapies in my preparation for a career as a psychotherapist, I never identified exclusively with one approach – gestalt, client-centered, behavioral, psychodynamic – as a descriptor of my style of therapy. I was an eclectic practitioner, but have always considered my therapeutic orientation to be existential.

I respect that there are therapists whose work has a religious foundation, but mine was a secular practice. I validated faith in God and prayer as best I could, with clients who found meaning in their religious beliefs; but if clients asked me to pray with them, I declined. Although I was raised as a Christian, and most of my values are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic, I’m an agnostic of the kind that’s very comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when asked about specific religious beliefs. I think that it’s just as arrogant for an atheist to assert sure knowledge that there is no God as it is for a religious person to assert that I’m in error for not believing what they believe. Define God, then we can talk.

I don’t believe that I have the authority to definitively answer questions about religion and am tolerant of  those who claim to “know” that their beliefs are true, as long as they do no harm as a result of religious beliefs. Of course, there’s considerable room for debate about what constitutes harm. (I personally consider any form of indoctrination to be harmful.)  I consider myself an existentialist because existentialism directly addresses morality and personal responsibility, without the excess baggage of sin and redemption and pleasing God. I’ll briefly summarize some of the basic principles of existentialism, as I understand them.

First, existentialism asserts that there’s no universal Meaning “out there” that all right-thinking people can apprehend – as opposed to religions, which assert that there is, i.e. “God’s plan.” To existentialists, concepts like Sin and Redemption and Divine Intercession are constructs based on religious doctrine. They don’t exist in any objective sense. Meaning only exists in the eye of the beholder. Life is absurd, as illustrated by Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”  Sisyphus continues to push the boulder up the hill, despite knowing that it will just roll back down. He persists, despite the absurdity of his efforts, because the act has meaning for him.

Because there are no absolute rules, or Divine rewards or punishments in an afterlife, we are each free to do whatever we want. But the other side of the coin of freedom is responsibility. We’re absolutely responsible for whatever we choose to do, and can choose to behave morally even if we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. We can choose to live in good faith with others, because of our moral responsibility for all of our actions. Although we can find joy and meaning in authentic relationships, we’re all essentially alone in our lives. (A song sung by Country singer Bill Monroe expresses this as well as anything I’ve read on the subject; “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,/ You’ve got to walk it by yourself,/ ‘Cause nobody else can walk it for you./ You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”) We each have to deal with Angst (anxiety) and dread that comes from the knowledge that we will someday cease to exist. Existentialists don’t rely on the comfort of religious promises of eternal life for the faithful, to come to terms with our mortality.

To say that there’s no objective Meaning to existence “out there” isn’t to say that meaning is unimportant. As an existentialist I’m free (like Sisyphus) to find, or create, my own meaning. One of the best-known existential therapists, Viktor Frankl, named his school of psychotherapy logotherapy – from the Greek “logos”: meaning, or reason. (I’ve written about Frankl in previous posts. I’ve recommended his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, to more clients over the years than any other book.) Although I didn’t practice logotherapy, per se, I’ve worked with many therapy clients to help them find or create meaning in their lives. It can be a life-or-death matter with people who are suicidal.

I initially saw existentialism as grim and forbidding: if there’s no extrinsic Meaning to existence, then all we can do is to sweat along with Sisyphus, acting as if there was meaning to our lives. But now I see the richness of choice, where I once saw austerity. Existentialism gave me a philosophical context for the I-Thou encounters of psychotherapy. We all have a need for our lives to mean something; but we needn’t rely on “God’s plan,” as taught by this or that religion, or on promises of eternal life, to find meaning in our lives.

If you want to learn more about existentialism and the colorful characters (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Camus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) who formulated its principles, I recommend Sarah Bakewell’s highly-readable At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I’d never have guessed that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty was good at dancing the Jitterbug.

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