Existential Therapy

Existential Therapy

Michael Biuso, MA, LPC

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life can feel overwhelming enough with all the responsibilities that we have to juggle daily. Underlying the pressure of keeping up with these duties, we may feel a deeper, more pervasive sense of unease stemming from the condition of merely being alive.

As we become more aware of our own existence and the inescapable challenges that come along with it, feelings of anxiety and/or depression may arise. Existential psychology interprets these feelings as normal responses to being alive and confronting these concerns. However, this is not to say that these difficult feelings do not need to be addressed and therapeutically treated.

Four main themes from existential philosophy may be explored in the context of therapy: confronting mortality and the fragility of life, being responsible for one’s freedom of choice, enduring existential isolation, and creating meaning despite these challenges.

The process of coming to terms with our own mortality and the mortality of those we love could be ripe territory to explore in therapy. One relevant objective may be to shift the focus from the losses we will inevitably suffer in the future to learning how to live life more fully with this knowledge of impermanence. This could lead to expressing ourselves more authentically, developing deeper relationships, and taking risks to achieve our goals.

Life has limitations, including—and especially—death. We have an incredible degree of freedom with which to act within these limitations, however, and it is our responsibility to create the life we want to live through the choices we make. This means not expecting the life we want to drop into our lap without putting any work into it. It means each of us taking ownership of being the author of our own life. Existentialist thought also encourages us to take responsibility for our thoughts, speech, and actions and to not displace blame onto others or the world for causing our own dissatisfaction. We are empowered to change what we can—to shape our lives and the world the way we want them to be—while coming to accept the things that we cannot control.

Given the limitations imposed upon us and the inevitability of death, we may wonder how life can be meaningful. Existentialism proposes that there is no inherent meaning to life, so it falls to us to take responsibility to create our own meaning. This is the definition of existentialism; existence precedes essence (meaning). Meaning is entirely subjective, and according to existential philosophy no one can tell us what the meaning of our life is. It is up to us to determine that for ourselves. We may find meaning in relationships, work, hobbies, religion… anything, really. Often, meaning can be made retrospectively. For example, a situation we suffered through in the past may have given us the opportunity to grow in a way that we wouldn’t have had we not gone through it. At the time of the experience, it might not be viewed in this way of course. Only after the fact are we able to look back and see how we grew from it.

Existential isolation is not simply the feeling of loneliness but a deeper sense that others don’t understand us at a fundamental level. It’s the awareness of our subjective perspective of reality and the desire for others to understand our thoughts, feelings, values, and beliefs. This sense of existential isolation may be especially prominent when our values or beliefs don’t align with those around us. We risk conforming to others—because we fear ostracization—thus losing our authenticity and sense of self. To the existentialist, it is imperative that we remain true to ourselves while seeking connection with and understanding from others.

It is normal for these existential concerns to arise in higher education when we are discovering ourselves and charting our next stage of life.

If any of these topics resonate with you and you are interested in exploring these concerns in individual or group therapy, please call CAPS at (520) 621-3334. *Must be student at the U of A