Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, and Irvin Yalom are generally considered to be the founders of Existential Therapy. The development of existential therapy was also influenced by the existential philosophers: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger. The proponents of existential therapy set forth four major themes: death; freedom and responsibility; isolation and connectedness; and meaninglessness. The belief is that these existential realities are the core of most psychological problems and may ultimately have no answers.
Existentialists believe the human capacity for self-awareness is what opens up possibilities for freedom; our realization that we are finite beings and that our time here is limited, that we have the freedom to choose to act or not, that meaning in our lives is not a given– we must seek it out, and that we are naturally susceptible to feelings of isolation, loneliness, guilt, and meaninglessness. Each person is free to choose among many possibilities and alternatives available to them in living their lives and these choices have a central role in shaping their personality and destiny. How we choose to live our lives and what we become as a result are the culmination of our individual choices and existential therapy is about helping people see and take responsibility for shaping and directing their lives.
Rather than diagnosing psychological abnormality, existential therapy encourages you to explore the underlying themes that we as humans all eventually face within our lifetime. Psychological disorders are viewed differently in the context of existential therapy–symptoms of existential aloneness or existential anxiety. This angst or anxiety arises from the awareness that we essentially choose our own way of being and sometimes deny or neglect the magnitude of such responsibility by living “inauthentically”.
Therefore, the central goal of Existential Therapy is to support and encourage people to reflect on their lives, help them become more aware and recognize a range of alternatives and thoughtfully choose from among them. One approach is to assist people in realizing ways in which they may have passively accepted circumstances. From this realization they may begin to more consciously and deliberately shape their own lives by exploring options and choices for creating a more meaningful life. The central tasks of the existential therapist are to help the client to be aware of how they may have allowed other people to decide for them, and to encourage the client to make steps toward being more autonomous and independent.
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