Sören Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, said: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Existentialism is interested in the truth of the individual and in what he really is and what he wants. Existential psychology and thus also existential psychotherapy go hand in hand with existential philosophy, which was born in Europe before the Second World War. A little later it reached the United States, where well-known psychologists such as Allport, Rogers, Fromm and Maslow explicitly pointed it out. On the other hand , existential psychology exerted a great influence on humanistic psychology so much so that some procedures and basic aspects have been extracted from it.
The humanistic-existential models
Existential analysis is part of the so-called humanistic-existential models. The emergence of these models in the United States in the 1960s is the result of several, not exclusively academic, factors. First of all, their development must be seen in the light of the social and cultural effects on the North American scene, in order to be able to then be viewed in their European forms.
Even if existentialism is the third force in a triangle, the other cornerstones of which are behaviorism and psychoanalysis, it lacks a paradigmatic calling. Nowadays humanistic-existential models are understood as a series of therapeutic procedures that are mostly used separately from the known schools of thought.
The most important precursors of these models are existentialism and phenomenology. Franz Betano’s thoughts established phenomenology. Betano focused on the experience, the active nature of the psyche and the conscious nature of any psychological act. With his ideas, Betano influenced what is now the most famous representative of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl.
For Husserl, the direct experience of an act of revelation was like its true nature. In order to achieve it, it may be necessary to adopt the epoch or the phenomenological attitude. This means that we have to observe the phenomenon in its purest form, without prejudices and beliefs that were established a priori , i.e. before the experience.
“Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. “
The focus of existential psychotherapy is on the existential project. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, existence is preceded by essence. This means that the human being does not come along with a being to be developed, but that he first has to find it. Sartre viewed man as a radically free and indeterminate being, albeit limited by his facticity, without which one could not understand him. In summary, it can be said that people determine themselves about the existential project.
“ In order to live, one always has to do something, even if it is only to be breathed.”
José Ortega y Gasset
This quote from Ortega y Gasset may describe the focus of existential analysis. So the goal of existential psychotherapy is to analyze the structure of what we do in life. Ludwig Biswanger called this structure “Dasein”, Sartre the existential project. Today existential psychotherapy is defined as “a method of interpersonal relationship and psychological analysis”. Its purpose is still to provoke enough self-knowledge and autonomy to freely accept and develop our existence.
Existential psychotherapy clarifies and understands the values, meanings and beliefs that the individual uses as strategies to understand the world. So it shows the assumptions about our way of life since we began to doubt our own existence.
Psychotherapy in humanistic-existential models
From a psychotherapeutic point of view, the most relevant feature of humanistic-existential models is the importance they attach to direct experience as a primary phenomenon. This means that both theoretical explanations and manifest behavior are subordinate to the importance the person attaches to it.
The emphasis these models place on the volitional, creative, and evaluative aspects of human behavior is characteristic of them. However, it is difficult to talk about basic concepts beyond these general characteristics.
It is better if we refer to the specific theories in which they make sense. These theories are Existential Analysis, the Person-Centered Approach, the Gestalt Approach, Transactional Analysis, Psychodrama, and Bioenergetics.
Existential Gaps as Psychopathological Disorders
As we mentioned earlier, the main concept of existential psychotherapy is the existential project. The purpose of this psychotherapy is to analyze and modify this project. Psychotherapy therefore does not aim to change external, physical or social reality, but rather the person and their perception of things. Because it is radically assumed that this is the only thing that depends on itself and is therefore controllable.
“Life has no meaning a priori. It’s up to you to make sense of it. “
Your goal is to win the individual for his self-control and self-determination. That means that at some point he will have to face himself. Often times he finds himself lost or estranged while trying to solve the problems that radical change poses.
The purpose of analyzing the structures of his world is therefore to discover the ways and points of alienation, because only in this way can his freedom be fully restored, only then can an alternative reconstruction of his experience take place. After existential psychotherapy, nothing is real until the individual experiences it.
Existential psychotherapy regards the various psychopathological disorders as inauthentic ways of life. They are stagnation and existential gaps, loss of freedom or resignation. So they are coping mechanisms or negations of “being in the world”.
In conclusion, it is not easy to give a clear explanation of what existential psychotherapy is, but we can say that it seeks to advance personal analysis that encourages the possibility of making and pursuing individual plans . In addition, there is a claim to diversify and strengthen the everyday life of the individual with a philosophical approach.