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Existential Therapy: What Is It?

Existential psychology is a philosophical and psychological approach that explores the fundamental questions and concerns of human existence. It emerged in the mid-20th century as a reaction to more traditional forms of psychology that focused on behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Existential psychology delves into the subjective, experiential, and existential aspects of human life, seeking to understand the nature of existence, freedom, choice, responsibility, and meaning.

tree with light

Key concepts and themes in existential psychology include:

1. Existential Anxiety: The awareness of one's mortality and the uncertainties of life can lead to existential anxiety. This anxiety arises when individuals confront the ultimate questions of existence, such as the meaning of life and the inevitability of death.

2. Freedom and Responsibility: Existentialism emphasizes human freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. Existential psychologists explore how individuals grapple with the burden of making choices and accepting the consequences of those choices.

3. Meaning and Meaninglessness: Existential psychology examines how individuals find or create meaning in their lives. It recognizes that life is inherently devoid of inherent meaning, and it is up to each person to define what is meaningful to them.

4. Authenticity: Authenticity refers to living in accordance with one's true values, beliefs, and desires. Existential psychologists encourage individuals to explore and embrace their authentic selves.

5. Isolation and Connection: The tension between human isolation (the sense that we are ultimately alone in our existence) and our desire for connection and community is a central theme. Existential psychology explores how individuals navigate this tension.

6. Existential Givens: These are fundamental aspects of human existence that individuals cannot escape, including death, freedom, choice, and the need for meaning. Existential psychology focuses on how people confront and make sense of these givens.

Existential psychology is practiced through various therapeutic approaches, including:

1. Existential Therapy: Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on helping individuals explore and confront existential issues in their lives. Therapists work with clients to examine their values, choices, and the meaning they assign to their experiences. They encourage clients to live authentically and take responsibility for their choices.

shadowy person on the beach

2. Phenomenological Inquiry: Existential psychologists often use phenomenological methods to explore the lived experiences of individuals. Phenomenology involves in-depth, open-ended interviews and the examination of subjective experiences.

3. Group Therapy: Group therapy can be a valuable context for exploring existential themes, as it allows participants to share their experiences and perspectives on existential concerns in a supportive environment.

4. Existential Coaching: Existential coaching applies existential principles to help individuals identify and pursue their values and goals in life. It can be used in personal and professional development contexts.

5. Philosophical Exploration: Existential psychology may involve philosophical discussions and exercises aimed at helping individuals clarify their values, beliefs, and existential concerns.

Existential psychology is not a one-size-fits-all approach; instead, it offers a framework for exploring and understanding the unique challenges and questions that arise from human existence. It is often integrated with other therapeutic modalities to provide a holistic understanding of an individual's psychological and philosophical needs. Therapists and practitioners in existential psychology create a safe and supportive space for clients to engage in deep self-reflection and exploration of their existential concerns.


Irvin D. Yalom is a renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist known for his contributions to existential psychotherapy. His approach to existential psychotherapy is highly influential and has shaped the field in significant ways. Yalom's approach is characterized by several key principles and techniques:

1. Four Ultimate Concerns: Yalom identified four ultimate concerns that are central to human existence:

- Death: The awareness of our mortality and the anxiety it can produce.

- Freedom: The existential dilemma of having the freedom to make choices and the responsibility that comes with it.

- Isolation: The sense of existential aloneness, even in the presence of others.

- Meaninglessness: The recognition that life lacks inherent meaning, and individuals must create their own sense of purpose.

2. Therapeutic Relationship: Yalom places a strong emphasis on the therapeutic relationship as a crucial factor in the healing process. He believes that the quality of the relationship between therapist and client is vital for effective therapy. Yalom strives to create a safe and supportive environment in which clients can explore their existential concerns.

3. Existential Exploration: Yalom encourages clients to explore their existential concerns and confront the fundamental issues of existence. He uses techniques such as open-ended questioning, reflection, and dialogue to help clients examine their values, beliefs, and experiences.

Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom

4. Confronting Death Anxiety: Yalom believes that addressing death anxiety is essential in existential therapy. He helps clients confront their fear of death and the impact it has on their lives. By exploring mortality, clients can gain a deeper appreciation for life and its possibilities.

5. Encouraging Responsibility: Yalom emphasizes personal responsibility and encourages clients to take ownership of their choices and actions. He believes that embracing one's freedom and responsibility is essential for personal growth and self-fulfillment.

6. Exploring Meaning and Values: Yalom helps clients explore their values and the meaning they assign to their lives. He encourages them to engage in self-reflection and consider what truly matters to them.

7. Here-and-Now Focus: Yalom often brings clients' attention to the present moment, encouraging them to focus on their current experiences and emotions. This mindfulness approach helps clients connect with their feelings and gain insights into their lives.

8. Group Therapy: Yalom is known for his work in group therapy, particularly in the context of existential psychotherapy. He believes that group therapy provides a unique opportunity for individuals to confront their existential concerns and learn from others facing similar issues.

9. Narrative and Storytelling: Yalom often uses storytelling and narrative techniques to help clients understand and reframe their life experiences. He believes that storytelling can be a powerful tool for personal growth and transformation.

Irvin Yalom's approach to existential psychotherapy emphasizes the importance of confronting existential concerns, fostering a strong therapeutic relationship, and encouraging personal responsibility and self-exploration. His work has had a profound impact on the practice of psychotherapy and continues to influence therapists and clients worldwide.


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