James Bugental’s Existential-Humanistic Therapy

 

 

Note from the author. This blog post was originally an essay written as an assignment whilst I was completing my Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course. Now that I have completed the course, I am going through some of my favourite essays and am going to re-write them and reproduce them here. This essay on James Bugental will kick things off. James Bugental was an American existential-humanist therapist who very much championed the importance of the individual and felt that our journey towards authenticity was the most profound and healthiest things we could hope to achieve in life. He wrote several books including one called The Search for Authenticity. He is not so talked about these days but he was a big influence on my development as a therapist. Hope you enjoy.

 

James Bugental on Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

 

In the 1960s in California a new type of therapy was born: Existential Humanistic therapy, heralded by James Bugental, a psychology professor who thought that being human meant becoming an authentic individual. Unlike his contemporary, Irvin Yalom, Bugental’s writings and practice did not focus as much on the existential facts of life, the limitations or what Yalom refers to as the “givens” or ultimate concerns of existence, (Yalom, 1980) but more on the problem of self-alienation. Bugental saw growth as an individual responsibility, and that we make our own choices and are responsible for much of our own sense of happiness. This is a directly opposite view to much current day thinking, which emphasises social factors, such as patriarchal oppression, identity factors such as race or gender, and which generally encourages a wounded mind-set. Existential humanism places the individual at the centre of well-being, rather than external, social or environmental factors. For James Bugental, however, the core issue which hindered the individual’s natural inclination to develop fully was self-alienation.

To be self-alienated is living without an awareness of one’s own inner nature and true essence. It is like being essentially split off from your true self. In other words, you are a stranger to your self. But, more than that, Bugental believed that living with the split-self was like living with a tyrannical boss. One who constantly watches, micro-manages and critiques your every move, (Bugental, 1978). This creates anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases schizophrenia and splits us off from our authentic selves. Bugental believed that until we turn towards our selves and begin the process of getting to know who we really are, we will continue to live less meaningful, fruitful and fulfilling lives.

Bugental understood the self as process and in progress towards becoming a fully functioning human being, with all the resources required to do so on board. This is not dissimilar to what Rogers referred to as a person’s “tendency to self actualize” (Tudor &Worrall, 2006). Bugental’s conceptualization of the self could be summarised as, “subjective awareness continually in process” (Bugental 1976, as quoted in Krug, 2009). He has also said that the human essence is essentially no thing, or nothing.  Existential therapist Bazzano (2010) also talks about the concept of being a true person of “no-status”, which is a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism. In this context, “No status indicates the uncertainty and transient nature of life and its groundlessness”.  In other words, we are pure awareness, everything else is illusory. Not that we will ever truly achieve this transcendental state while we are embodied in human form, but it is necessary to understand this if we are to achieve anything close to happiness in this life.

Bugental saw the therapist’s work as helping a person become aware of this phenomenon (of self construction) and ultimately aware of the way in which we continuously construct our world, moment by moment. And of how we unconsciously block our progress by “avoidant or distortive” actions (Krug, 2009).  With this awareness though comes freedom to choose and with freedom, responsibility.

Of course, one cannot speak of choice, freedom and responsibility without mentioning the seminal work of Jean Paul Sartre, and what some have called the “bible of existentialism,” Being and Nothingness, (Daigle, 2005). In this heavy work, originally published in 1943, Sartre investigates the concepts of being and consciousness, freedom and responsibility, authenticity, “bad faith” and finally the relationship with others. These are all themes which Bugental as well as other existential humanistic therapists aim to explore. However, it is Bugental’s focus on present moment awareness and experience which stands out as his intervention of choice. He aims to chip at the layers of self construction in order to extrapolate that underlying essence.

Bugental’s focus on process and what is happening in the room and in the “now” during therapy evokes Sartre’s position on I am vs. I become statements. To state that “I am” is in Sartre’s worldview an act of “bad faith,” for we are only ever playing at being authentic. Bugental understands this notion and sees the psychotherapist’s role as helping the client to attend to his or her own acts of bad faith, as they occur, and in doing so attempt to acheive internal wholeness and Sartre’s state of authenticity.  Of course, Sartre is never clear on what a state of authenticity would actually look like. No doubt this imposing question was in Bugental’s mind when he wrote his first book, The Search for Authenticity (1965).

For Bugental, existential humanistic therapy aims to make the split parts of the alienated self into a whole. In his own words, it is to help the client discover their sense of “I-ness,” (Bugental, 1976). Some writers have questioned existential humanism therapy’s focus on authenticity (self-actualization or wholeness) altogether,  perhaps because of its quasi religious overtones, claiming that it has “relied for too long on Heidegger’s idea of authenticity, a notion which reinstates idealist philosophy and monistic notions of ‘Truth'”, (Bazzano, 2010, p.51). Perhaps it is simply necessary to have something to strive for in therapy and the notion of authenticity/wholeness/gestalt fits this purpose perfectly. Perhaps, the warm, free thinking west coast of the USA in the 1960s was a time when notions of authenticity, individuality or a yearning to be “truly alive” (Bugental, 2005) actually seemed possible.

In Yalom’s classic text Existential Psychotherapy, he gives a brief history of existential psychotherapy and lists James Bugental as a member of the “flashy American cousins” branch of the “extended existential family” (Yalom, 1980). Yalom insightfully points to the difference in schools as being rooted in the “zeitgeist” from which they arose. Humanistic existentialists arose in a relatively new continent, during a time of cultural and economic expansion, America in the 1960s. As opposed to previous European existentialists from the ‘old country’ or continent, which has experienced more history, more conflict and more exposure to the limiting realities of existence; war, famine and the like.

With this in mind it is hardly surprising that when Bugental was made president of the newly established (1961) American Association of Humanistic Psychology he wrote the existential humanistic manifesto, of sorts, and came up with five basic postulates of existential humanistic psychotherapy practice in the 1963 article, Humanistic psychology: A new breakthrough, which I shall summarise very briefly (replacing the word “man” for the word human in line with gender neutral language):

  1. Humans are more than the sum of their parts
  2. Humans exist in context with other humans
  3. Humans are self aware
  4. Humans have choice
  5. Humans are intentional and look for meaning, purpose and value in life

The five postulates above clearly articulate the existential humanistic world view in context of 1960s American idealism – a much more positive stance that allows for hope, optimism and the freedom to ‘be what you want to be’ vibe that is so evocative of the sixties. Perhaps the biggest contribution of the humanistic existential approach to psychotherapy is the sense of hope, purpose and the mystery of humanity that it allows for.

To an existential humanist like James Bugental, human beings are not a just a set of cause and effect actions and reactions that can be reduced to a formulaic, mechanistic set of interventions which can be administered with clinical precision based on a set of diagnosable presentations, which much modern evidence based psychology purports to be. Perhaps this is why, as quoted in Bradford (2009) Bugental declares, “Psychotherapy is not a learning to adjust; it is a facing of infinite unadjustability,” (p.325).  For Bugental, this involves continually attending to our present moment inner experience, thus enhancing our “inner guidance system” which points us in the direction of authenticity.  In session you see Bugental continue to steer his client in this direction, from thinking to experiencing, intellectualizing to feeling, from narrative to presence. Cooper (2003) acknowledges Bugental’s contribution to psychotherapy as bringing attention to “here and now” awareness within the counselling session as a primary therapeutic tool, “the purpose of which is to illuminate here and now processes within the therapeutic encounter,” (Krug, 2009).

Bugental aims to bring his clients’ self-awareness or inner awareness out by bringing clients awareness back to the now, as he does with Marie in his Existential Psychotherapy in Action demonstration video.  It is in-fact, the very first thing he says to her after she offers up some narrative; “How is it with you right now?” and once again after she explains the anxiety that she is feeling in relation to her father’s illness, “And it’s there now?” In fact, in almost every interaction with Marie, Bugental attempts again and again to bring her back to the present, using the word “now” or phrase “right now” over 20 times. This reflects Bugental’s philosophy of present moment awareness being the doorway to effecting personal change. That Bugental is only partially successful in getting his client to be present to her moment by moment experience is obvious to anyone watching this encounter. Marie appears carefully and meticulously dressed and sits quite stiffly throughout the session. Her carefully constructed veneer of control is barely scratched by Bugental’s gentle insistence in asking her, time and again, but how is that for you, now.

However, as he noted in the pre-session commentary, this was not your typical therapy session which would involve just two people. Present in the room were cameramen and a quite a few observers. It would be difficult to allow oneself to truly ‘let go’ in such circumstances. Bugental acknowledges this and also mentions that in a real therapy session he might not be as insistent or as pushy, and he specifically mentions being conscious of trying to balance the purpose of the video as demonstration with respecting the needs of his client.

In my own practice I have found the existential humanistic practice of using the here and now in session as a way to help clients access their own inner experience and get in touch with what is happening for them, right now very helpful. In conjunction with mindfulness and ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), existential humanistic philosophy gives me a foundation from which to return time and again in sessions with my clients, many of whom have never had another person engage with them in such a way before. I use a lot of mindfulness-based interventions in my own counselling practice. However, over and above the use of apps, handouts or psycho-education tools, a central feature of my approach is to incorporate mindfulness practice as a way to help manage anxiety and mood. This approach models in-session presence by bringing my clients attention to what they are feeling or experiencing in the here and now, as they are talking about something that happened to them then. I have found that this is the most useful way I can demonstrate a mindfulness stance to my clients.

It is my experience that existential therapy and mindfulness work very well together. Existential therapy’s focus on self as process is similar to the mindfulness concept of acceptance of the “transitory, fragile and contradictory nature of existence,” (Claessens, 2009, p.114). Acceptance forms the basis of the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism from which the practice of mindfulness has been borrowed.  The connections and similarities between existential humanistic therapy and mindfulness are beyond the scope and purpose of this article. However for the purposes of reflection, I have noted them time and again, as have other practitioners, (Claeseens, 2009). I have used both quite successfully in my own practice, and they seem to me to be a natural fit.

Bugental’s version of existential humanistic therapy and his optimistic human centred philosophy of believing in each and every person’s “potential for richness and fullness of living” (Bugental, 2005) reminds me of how important it is to be present during sessions with clients, and to remember to see them as completely and utterly individual human beings. Not as a set of symptoms, behaviours or diagnoses. It also functions as a reminder to myself, as I go about the business of constructing my own moment by moment experience and facing my own journey towards authenticity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES

 

 

Bazzano, M. (2010). A True Person of No Status. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The     Society For Existential Analysis21(1), 51-62.

Bradford, G., & Sterling, M. (2009). The Journey Is the Goal. Journal of Humanistic        Psychology, 49(3), 316-328.

Bugental, J., & Darley, John G. (1963). Humanistic psychology: A new breakthrough.      American Psychologist, 18(9), 563-567.

Bugental, J. F. T. (1976). The search for existential identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bugental, J. F. T. (1978). Psychotherapy and process. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bugental, J. F. T. (1981). The search for authenticity: An existential-analytic approach to

            psychotherapy. (Exp. ed.) New York: Irvington.

Bugental, J. F. T., Yalom, V., Douglas, M., Sapienza, B,. (Bugental Video Project & Jaylen         Productions). (2005). Existential-humanistic Psychotherapy in Action a      Demonstration.

Cooper, M. (2003). Existential therapies. London: Sage.

Claessens, M. (2009). Mindfulness and Existential Therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal Of      

            The  Society For Existential Analysis20(1), 109-119.

 

Daigle, C. (2005) Sartre’s Being & Nothingness: The Bible of Existentialism? Philosophy            Now. Retrieved from,             https://philosophynow.org/issues/53/Sartres_Being_and_Nothingness_The_Bible_of_      Existentialism

Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., Wampold, B. E. & Hubble, M. A. (2010). The heart and soul

            of change: Delivering what works in therapy (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American

Psychological Association.

Krug, Orah T. (2009). James Bugental and Irvin Yalom: Two masters of existential therapy         cultuivate presence in the therapeutic encounter.(Report). The Journal of Humanistic         Psychology, 49(3), 329-354.

Sartre, J.P. (1943).  Being and Nothingness: A phenomenological Essay on

            Ontology. Trans. Barnes, H.E. New York: Washington Square Press.

Tudor, K., & Worrall, M. (2006). Person-centred therapy: A clinical philosophy. London/New York: Routledge.

Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

 

The difference between self-blame and self-responsibility

I was moved to write this post because a client stated one session that he used to blame others for his problems but now he blames himself. I had to challenge his use of the word ‘blame’. No one is to blame for your problems and neither are you, however, you can take responsibility for your part in things and that is empowering. Blame is disempowering. Read on to learn why…

There is a difference between self blame and taking responsibility for your actions

This is because true healing requires forgiveness of self and others.
Without forgiveness, there will always be pain. Blaming yourself for everything wrong with your life is as much of a cop out as blaming everyone else. Forgiveness is the selfish act that sets you free from blame. Blaming yourself is debilitating and only leads to stagnation, depression and despair. Blaming others allows you to stay stuck in the victim role. Self-responsibility coupled with forgiveness allows you to separate what’s yours from what’s not. Because when you work that out, you can work out how you can change your own actions in the present to take control of your future.

True healing requires forgiveness of self and others.

The idea of self-responsibility as a tool for change is not new. Irvin Yalom speaks of it in his text, Existential Psychotherapy. In it, he discusses what he calls the four existential givens which every human being must come to terms with at some time or other. These were Death, Isolation, Freedom and Meaninglessness. Freedom is to responsibility what Yin is to Yang. You can’t have one without the other. Freedom means we are, to an extent, free to live our lives how we see fit. That we make certain choices each and every day which lead us down different roads. That while our past shapes us, it doesn’t make us who we are. It means we create our future by every thought, every word and every action moment by moment. So, with freedom comes responsibility. If we are free to choose how we go about our lives then, we are also responsible for a great part of how we experience our lives, and for what happens to us.

This is sometimes hard to hear. Some people, especially those who have suffered at the hands of others reject this notion of responsibility and may, understandably, feel angry at the suggestion that they are somehow responsible for a wrong that was done to them. That is not what is meant by self-responsibility. You are not responsible for what happened to you as a child at the hands of a damaged or dysfunctional adult. You may not be responsible for the abuse that someone else targeted you for, but you are responsible for how you respond and what you do afterwards as an adult. You are free to respond in any number of ways to a situation that may not be to your liking but exists none the less. For example, you lose your job due to company restructuring. This is something that may be out of your control. However, how you handle the fall out is entirely within your control. You can choose to be angry, bitter, frustrated, despondent and anxious or you can choose to be pragmatic, hopeful, proactive, creative or stoic. Each of those choices will equate with an entirely different experience. The decision you have to make, then, is what kind of experience do I wish to have? A bitter, hopeless and frustrating one. Or, a meaningful, hopeful and interesting one?

Self responsibility is empowering.

Once you realise that you can choose your thoughts, words and actions you are free to choose thoughts, words and actions that will bring you more joy, peace and love. As opposed to choosing actions that will bring you more of what you don’t want…anger, depression, anxiety, shame… So take your power back and choose wisely. Choose what you want to focus your attention on, the negative or the positive. There is always more than one way to look at things. We have the power to take our lives back, one thought, word and action at a time.

We need only to accept our power.

To my friends about to turn the big four Oh No!

A little less than 10 years ago now I wrote by first ever blog post. I was 39 at the time, newly single (again) and about to turn 40. I had just left a particularly nasty relationship and found myself playing the dating game again. That was the start of a long journey for me, a journey of discovery, fun, excitement, pain, heartache, joy, some hard truths and much more. I am very thankful for what I learned along the way however, it led me to where I am today and that is something I am extremely grateful for.

But that was my situation at the time. Every ones’ circumstance is different but whatever is going on for you, whether you are married, divorced, single, with or without children – whatever the case may be, turning 40 is probably the most anxiety provoking thing you will ever do. (Apart from being born, getting married, starting a new job and a myriad of other things that life throws at us.) Yes, turning 40 is one of those milestones that stumps us all. It’s the time to really say good bye to your youth and a time to accept that you are definitely on the downward slope now… (cue evil laughter).

Or, is it?

I certainly thought so at the time, and the idea filled me with a sense of impending doom and dread. Of course, I now know that I was having what Bugental may have termed an existential crisis. There is something about the shock of turning 40 that makes you feel as if death is just around the corner, that life from now on will be just that little bit worse and that it will continue in that vein until death. But, I can honestly say, that is just anxiety talking. The fact is that 40 is just another number, another year, another arbitrary marker that only has meaning because we make it so. For me, turning forty was the start of one of the most fruitful, productive, exciting periods of my life. I can honestly say, I had nothing to worry about. Now. But, that’s the benefit of hindsight.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2009:

I’m not forty, yet. But it is looming around the corner like the bus my best friend stepped in front of when she was 18 and which kept her in hospital for 6 good months. I mean, she knew the bus was close, on it’s way, due even… like, it was a busway she was crossing at the time, but still, she didn’t see it coming. But that didn’t stop the bus from whacking her one and leaving her broken up and unconscious on the side of the road. I have the feeling that turning 40 is going to feel a bit like that…

I can tell you now, it was nothing like that.

So if 40 is in fact just another number and reality is scary the truth may be somewhere in between, but, whatever that truth is make it yours and make it count.

To all my friends and about to or who have just turned forty and are, as I was at the time, freaking out, take comfort. Life is a process and every stage has its challenges and benefits, its good points and bad. I hope that your forties give you everything you ever hoped for and more, and try not to freak out.

 

 

 

Reality vs. Illusion – do you know the difference?

Ever wanted something (or someone) so bad you could almost taste it? Ever thought to yourself, if I feel this strongly about it then it must mean something? Have you ever felt so sure that something was ‘meant to be’ that you disregarded any and all evidence that did not agree with your version of reality? Ever disregarded signs that if you were in your right mind would have been like billboards in your face but instead, and perhaps because you are so close to your version of the ‘truth’ you can’t see it for what it really is. All you can see are pixelated dots…

Yes well we’ve all been there. I admit that sometimes, it is hard to see what really is because well, the truth, the real truth is far too painful to bear. The real truth involves looking at yourself first. Questioning your motivations, examining your actions and seeing the connection between  your actions and their consequences. It involves having an honest look around with fresh and unbiased eyes. Distinguishing what you think is verses what is really there. And that starts within. Because reality is really what you make of it. And if you can’t face the reality within, you most certainly are not going to be able to face the reality without.

You can choose your own reality to an extent. However, sometimes, reality does not allow itself to be chosen. Sometimes reality makes itself known to you in the most ardent, blunt and sometimes even violent way. And that may be hard to face but sometimes it is just the way it is. Acceptance of reality is the first step towards true freedom and well being.  Accepting what is doesn’t mean you have to live with something you don’t like. Accepting what is doesn’t make what is true for you any different. It just makes it your truth. Being able to distinguish, however, what is true for you vs. what the reality of the situation is can save you (and those around you and those affected by your warped sense of reality) a lot of heartache and pain.

In the end it is your choice. You can choose to live in the moment, which involves accepting the reality of what is or you can continue to allow illusion to cloud your judgement and rob you of what is rightfully yours, your peace of mind and a chance at real happiness…

So what’s it going to be, reality or illusion?

I am fully aware of my own truth

 

Reflections on impermanence

Irvin Yalom (1980) one of the first ‘existential therapists’ chose four big givens of existence which he called his 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.

Existentialist philosophy’s poster boy Jean Paul Sartre and his little known work, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, is perhaps existentialism’s greatest and most profound extrapolation on the notion and meaning of personal freedom. A concept which he considered interchangeable with words like void, or nothingness.
He saw us, human beings, as being born as if we are a blank canvas, but unlike something like a chair, for example, we have the choice to be-come whatever it is we want to, within limitations of course. The thing, says Sartre, is that 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!?” The thought, understandably can be quite overwhelming when one then considers that with choice comes responsibility.

Understandable also that much of the time, the temptation to live a life defined by what other people have already decided is the sort of life you should be living, just because it is, really just easier to go with the flow, or to hold on to those beliefs we have become so accustomed to even though they no longer fit so well is well, tempting.
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, Sartre talks of the nausea that is created by the realization that we are, after-all, nothing. Nothing that is 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 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 explains, “terrific loss in involved in the process of letting go of the things that determine our identity.”  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.

The concept of inauthenticity is a very big part of existential thought. It means you are living a life which is not of your own choosing, or making. Living a life which is more in tune with your own decisions, based on your own choosing, is considered authentic.
However, not all writers assume that authenticity is or should be the reward of freedom or goal. In-fact, one writer has said that, “… ‘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). Sartre thought, in-authenticity, or bad faith is viewed as a condition of existence and we are continually striving for or from or teetering on the edge of authenticity and in-authenticity as we move between birth and death. Because if nothing is certain, then neither is authenticity.

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. Death and 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. Nausea once again ensues. In order to live authentically with the knowledge of death and the anxiety this produces takes “tremendous courage”  says Hoffman, (2009). To live in denial of these ultimate truths is to limit your capacity for living, loving and experience life fully, because (perhaps overly) simply stated, “Living is dying” (Van Deurzen). 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’s ultimate essence (Jacobson, 2007).
We humans are, if nothing else, walking paradoxes. The one existential dilemma that is perhaps the driving force behind countless romantic novels, 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 realization 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. We could not exist without others. One of the dilemmas of living involves resolving the paradox of the question of resolving self and other.  The question we all ask ourselves at one point or another is, How can I be my authentic self, whilst relating to others in a meaningful, fulfilling way? The ultimate reality of intimacy and love can bring up issues which can cause anxiety in an individual struggling with the paradox of their apparent isolation and the natural desire for intimacy. Learning to love others and yourself is one of life’s most demanding, yet rewarding balancing acts.

The practice of mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Buddhism and incorporated in current existential 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, let us call it by its universal name, love, is often founded on fear of its impending loss. For implicit in loving another human being is the loss of that relationship, whether through natural entropy, conflict or death.

There is an increasing convergence of Buddhism and existential thought and its’ application to therapy. Claessens (2009) talks of the ‘noble truths’ of Buddhism and relates them to existential dilemmas, such as the fear of isolation and 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”. Seems, in isolation we shiver, so we crave the closeness and the warmth of another being yet fear of losing the comfort before we even experience it fully causes anxiety and pain. So if living involves dying to a degree, loving involves losing.
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?  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?

An existential 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 meaningfully exist.

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, once the issue of meaningless surfaces lies not just in discarding no longer useful systems but in facing the inevitable question which arises which is, What now?
It is not simply enough to discard the old self, without, at least having some idea as to what this new self is going to be. However, 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, meaning. What the existentialist Frankl called an existential vacuum (Corey, 2009).
So, it is not surprising that in counselling a person may resist facing making those choices which will eventually lead to the change they may intuitively 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 as such is like the holy grail of existence. In that, as cited in Corey, 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. Two of existential therapy’s most influential minds,Frankl and Yalom agree that, “finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement.”
Perhaps, as Claessens describes in her 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 in Buddhist teaching is called the middle path. That is, not allowing either spectrum of the paradoxes we face to have undue influence but by consciously acknowledging their existence and proceeding, with mindfulness and compassion, anyway.
This middle path, whilst sounding quite mundane with its connotations to middle-of-the-roadness, is actually pretty helpful for “the middle path lies between the suppression and the venting of emotions”.

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.

 

REFERENCES

Bazzano, M. (2010). A True Person of No Status. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 21(1), 51-62.
Claessens, M. (2009). Mindfulness and Existential Therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 20(1), 109-119.
Claessens, M. (2010). Mindfulness Based-Third Wave CBT Therapies and Existential-Phenomenology. Friends or Foes?. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 21(2), 295-308.
Corey, G. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.
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