In 1980 Irvin Yalom, wrote his most famous text Existential Psychotherapy. In it, he proposed a type of therapy which would allow for what he called the “existential givens” of life to be brought to the forefront, and dealt with head on, rather than dodged, circumnavigated or just plain ignored, which had been the case to date. So, what are existential givens anyway? Well, funny you should ask..
Existential ‘givens’ are essentially those things in life that we cannot change. Things such as the details of our birth, the time and place we were born, or simply be-ing for that matter. Oh, and the process of dying and consequentially death, that’s a big one too. Birth and death. These are two main events which are common to all humans. While those are pretty much two of the biggest themes, there are others, equally immutable if not as final as death or as cruelly insistent as being seems to be.
In his text, Yalom (1980) narrowed these unchangeable facts of life down to four big “givens” of existence, which he called ultimate concerns, and for the purposes of this limited exploration we shall focus on these four and how they relate to therapy and counselling. These are, in no particular order, (although one may argue that death always has the final say): freedom, death, isolation and meaningless.
Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology (Sartre, 1943), is perhaps Sartre’s greatest and most profound extrapolation on the notion and meaning of personal freedom.
In it he asserted that human beings are essentially like a blank canvas, and utterly unlike something like a chair, for example. We have the choice to be-come whatever it is we want to, within limitations of course. We get to paint whatever we want on the blank canvas which symbolizes our life. Thing is, says Sartre, this freedom thing, (free will if you like), doesn’t seem like the great gift it is for many of us, in fact, it terrifies us mostly. “What, so we get to make our own decisions!?” Yes, we get to choose what we do, say and how we want to go about our life. Sounds great, to a degree, however all this choice can be quite overwhelming when one then considers with choice comes responsibility. Yes, the gift of freedom to choose our destiny means that we are also more or less responsible for our own outcomes in life. For some of us, this realization is often fraught with dread and anxiety, and can sometimes plunge us into deep, dark moods and depressions. For to choose how to live your own life is a heavy, heavy burden to bear at times.
So heavy, that it is understandable that much of the time the temptation to live a life defined by what others have decided is the life you should be living, is too great to resist. Sometimes, it is seeminly just easier to go with the flow, or to hold on to beliefs we have become so accustomed to wearing, (hand me downs usually) even though they no longer fit so well. Anything it seems, seems easier than having to shake yourself out of your stupor and utilise the freedom which is and always was our birthright.
However, once the tightness of ill-fitting beliefs become too uncomfortable to bear, or those sedimented systems which we have become so used to carrying around with us become too heavy, we start to feel uneasy. And the longer we deny the call of freedom, the more uneasy and nauseous we become. Sartre (1943) talks of the nausea that is created by the realization that we are, after-all, nothing. Nothing but the choices we have made and continue to make. Freedom of choice is sickening, overwhelming, and often unbearable. No wonder we cling, for so, so long, to the walls that stop us from falling down into the dark, unknowable void in which nothing is known and certainly, nothing is certain.
As Van Deurzen (2005) explains, “terrific loss in involved in the process of letting go of the things that determine our identity” (p.6). Accepting freedom essentially means accepting that if nothing is holding you back, nor is it holding you up. And that, is a pretty frightening concept. One of the goals of existential therapy is to help a client be-come more comfortable with this concept of freedom, or nothingness, and to reduce the anxiety associated with it and perhaps even replace it with something more like enthusiasm, courage or even excitement. Something like the excitement felt, for example, by a painter faced with a blank canvas, on which he knows he will paint his master work. To become one’s true self seems to be the goal of freedom then, or one’s best self, one’s authentic self. But what the hell does that mean? How does one know when one is being authentic??
Not all writers and philosophers assume that authenticity is or should be the reward of freedom or its goal. In-fact, one writer has said that, “Heidegger’s ‘authenticity’ is a simulacrum, a vacant totalitarian formula echoing the nostalgia for the power of a god that once was – before being slain at the altar of modernism and post-modernism” (Bazzano, 2010, p.53). (Heidegger is considered the OG of existentialism.)
Thus, are we to be thrust once again into a world of absolutes, with authenticity being the ultimate goal of freedom? Perhaps so, if as Sartre thought, inauthenticity, or bad faith is viewed as a condition of existence. We are continually striving for, from or teetering on the edge of authenticity and inauthenticity as we move between birth and death. Because if nothing is certain, then neither is authenticity, and we can never really be certain we are being authentic but, we can at least try.
This brings us to the next existential given to examine, and that is death.
Death is that unpleasant certainty that is forever in the back of our minds, even if we choose not to consciously think of it. Awareness of death can cause existential guilt and anxiety, a certain amount of which is healthy.
Existential guilt is brought on by a feeling of “not having done enough” or of not having lived to your full potential. It is caused by an awareness, sometimes sudden or sometimes gradual, that one has been living their life at half-mast, so to speak. Or to use a more modern analogy, that they have been coasting along in second gear and that time, which once seemed infinite, is precisely not that. Existential guilt is that psychological rude awakening that keeps you awake at night or disturbs you from your otherwise peaceful slumber so that you sit, bolt upright, anxious and sick with the realization of your own finiteness, smallness and helplessness . Nausea once again ensues.
In order to live authentically with the knowledge of death and the anxiety this produces takes “tremendous courage” (Hoffman, 2009). Controversially, to live in denial of these ultimate truths is to limit your capacity for living, loving and experiencing life fully, because quite simply stated, “Living is dying” (Van Deurzen, 2005). The experience of existential guilt in therapy offers the client a positive opportunity to re-direct their life and reach a place of ‘reconciliation’ with the absolute unknown, which is death (Jacobson, 2007).
Humans are, if nothing else, walking paradoxes. The one existential dilemma that is the driving force behind countless romantic novels and movies, and which has caused the online dating industry to become one of the fastest growing businesses of the post-modern, technological era, is the existential anxiety which is prompted by the knowledge of our inherent isolation. Our aloneness. We are born into this world, as a single unit and we will exit the same way.
However, we do not exist in complete isolation, but in relation to others. In truth we could not exist without others. One of the dilemmas of living involves resolving the paradox of… How can I be my authentic self, whilst relating to others in a meaningful, compassionate and fulfilling way? (Jacobsen, 2007). The question of intimacy and love brings up issues which can cause anxiety in an individual struggling with the paradox of their inherent isolation and the need for intimacy.
The practice of mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Buddhism and incorporated into current therapeutic practice offers something like an answer to the concern of isolation. The anxiety produced by the desire for intimacy, for close relation to another human be-ing for….o.k. let us call it, love, is often founded in the all too real fear of its eventual loss. For implicit in loving another human being is the ultimate loss of that relationship, whether through natural entropy, conflict or death.
Claessens (2009) wrote of the four noble truths of Buddhism and related them to existential dilemmas, such as fear of isolation/intimacy; “We crave permanence, never-ending, never changing love, eternal youth, certainty and total safety and we recoil from confronting our decay and vulnerability and the passing of joy” (p.113). Therefore, in isolation we shiver, so we crave the closeness and the warmth of another being, and yet we fear losing the comfort before we even experience it fully.
Once again existential therapy can help, in terms of resolving this conflict, by encouraging clients to learn to appreciate and experience the joy of everyday pleasures, including love, without having to hide behind false illusions of foreverness and perfectness, which ultimately results in unnecessary emotional pain (Claessens, 2009). Thus, as living involves dying to a degree, loving involves losing. One of the goals of counselling then could be to help the client with acceptance of the paradoxes inherent in fully living and truly loving.
The fear of intimacy is also linked to the notion of identity. One fears losing themselves to another, especially if their sense of identity has been freshly, or painfully carved out. But what if finding yourself involves losing yourself to a degree? (McGinley, 2011). Is it possible that in isolation, we are not truly able to be ourselves anyway, and that it is only in relation to others that we are able to distinguish our own, unique silhouette?
Yalom (1980) spoke of three types of isolation; interpersonal (person to person), intrapersonal (within oneself) and existential isolation. The latter refers to “the reality that we are unable to ever fully overcome our isolation” (Hoffman, 2009). In therapy, clients may feel the force of this paradox when dealing with issues involving their personal relationships. Because while the fact of isolation may be terrifying to some, the prospect of fully relating to another being as your ‘authentic self’ involves an entirely other set of hazards. For in relating to someone as your authentic self, the possibility of being rejected involves deep, emotional risk. No wonder, many people hold a part of themselves back, even in their supposedly most personal relationships. And wonder furthermore, why they feel the ache of isolation even when they are in company.
Existential therapy talks about different ways of being in relation to others. One can choose to share a carefully selected version of oneself, and to relate to the other as less than a whole being as well, the I-It way of relating. Or one can choose to both be their authentic selves in relation, and see the other in their entirety as well, the I-Thou relationship (Buber, 1970 as cited in Hoffman, 2009).
A therapist may help their client to examine their relationships and question the types of relationships they have chosen so far, and if they are unhappy with them, to explore other ways of being with others. This is a very important aspect of life as relationships are among our most important sources of meaning in life. Without meaningful, authentic relationships, human beings are like plants without water and sun, we cease to thrive in any meaningful way.
Which brings us to the dilemma of meaningless. If one clings to old ideals, beliefs, ways of being as if for dear life, then there must be a very good reason. Because the problem to be tackled, with the help of the therapist, lies in not just helping a client to discard old, no longer useful belief systems but in facing the inevitable question which then arises which is, What now?! It is not simply enough to discard the old self, without, at least having some idea about what this new self is going to be. Of course, this is not always possible and thus, a person can experience a period of time in which they must exist without the (some might say illusory) solidity of a definable set of values, beliefs, goals, and/or meaning. What the existentialist Victor Frankl termed an existential vacuum (Corey, 2009).
So, it is not surprising that in counselling, a person may resist making those choices which will eventually lead to the change they may say they seek. A counsellor may help their client, not by telling them what they ought to do, but by helping the client to face their own personal void or existential vacuum with strength, courage and purpose. Interestingly, meaning is like the holy grail of existence. In that, as cited in Corey (2009), meaning is quite often found by chance and not by direct pursuit. To pursue meaning as an end in itself is often a fruitless, frustrating and pointless endeavour. Both Frankl and Yalom (1980) are in concert with the realization that “finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement” (p.151).
Perhaps, as Claessens (2009) describes in the article, Mindfulness and Existential Therapy, the answer to the resolution of the dilemmas of existence and living within the existential givens as outlined above lies in what Buddhist teaching calls the middle path. That means, not allowing either spectrum of the paradoxes we face to have undue influence on us, instead, consciously acknowledging their existence and proceeding, with mindfulness and compassion, anyway.
This middle path, whilst sounding quite mundane with its connotations of middle-of-the-roadness, is actually quite revolutionary when used in therapeutic application, for “the middle path lies between the suppression and the venting of emotions” (p.116). It offers acceptance and relief from the anxiety of the question of living with dying, of existing in isolation and in relation to others, of living with the self that you choose and the self that you shed, of accepting the freedom of living on the edge of the void and finally, finding meaning in living, loving and being.
In counselling, the existential therapist has three main goals they hope to achieve in order to assist their client. Helping the client find their own truth, helping the client find their own perspective and meaning in relation to their life, and to support the client to absorb these reflections and discoveries and in doing so, construct a more authentic way of being in the world.
Acceptance of the givens of existence, like the four described above, can go a long way towards achieving these ends for the client. With a focus on the therapeutic relationship, being present with the client, taking a non-expert, non-judgmental and compassionate approach, an existential counsellor attempts to help facilitate change in a client that can be truly revolutionary and long lasting. Whilst not focusing on symptoms and behaviours can seem counterintuitive to today’s therapist, existential therapy aims to address the underlying truths or facts of existence, which can be extremely liberating and healing.
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