Most of the challenges people bring to counselling arise not because people are dysfunctional, but rather out of the confusion, difficulty, and pain that comes with being human. Life is hard. We face constant challenges, and we create further ones in response. We don’t understand ourselves very well. But as difficult as our problems can be, they can also be occasions for insight and growth. Such challenges tear through our comfortable illusions and invite us to look more deeply. And live more deeply.
Struggle and suffering does not automatically make us wiser or stronger, but the way we respond to it can lead to greater wisdom and strength. Albert Camus wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Existential therapy according to The British School aims to help us to find the clarity, insight and strength we need to face our troubles. It helps us develop richer, more meaningful lives. This is the school to which I am most oriented in my existential work, and I owe much to its leading exponent, Emmy van Deurzen.
Existential therapy is actually one of the oldest forms of psychotherapy, originating with colleagues of Freud who preferred to understand our problems as "challenges in living," rather than through the lens of the psycho-sexual theories of psychoanalysis. Hence it takes a philosophical approach. There are a variety of approaches and outlooks which go under the title, and some of the leading representatives include Irvin Yalom, Viktor Frankl, and Emmy van Deurzen. I want to focus on van Deurzen and the tradition she represents, known as "the British school of existential therapy." While other schools tend to maintain a reliance on psychiatry and similar disciplines, in the hands of van Deurzen existential therapy is a decidedly philosophical approach, not only in outlook and concepts, but importantly, in method too.
I should add that some therapists in the British school draw on the whole history of philosophy and not just the 20th century movement known as existentialism. They pay attention to philosophy from any era which addresses the human condition and its concrete concerns - which addresses what van Deurzen calls our "everyday mysteries." Reminiscent of Camus, the aim of this therapy is to help people face up to their realities, in through doing so with a therapeutic ally, to find their way to becoming wiser and stronger, and to create a life of greater meaning and value.
Emmy van Deurzen (pictured)
Existential therapy aims to be non-dogmatic and critically open-minded. Some forms of counselling and psychotherapy, such as CBT, teach people perspectives and practices to solve problems. That is fine - every approach has its virtues and limits. Existential therapy is less about teaching than drawing out. This is what Socrates aimed at, which is why he referred to himself as "a midwife" - aiding in the birth of the wisdom that is already in you. And this is why existential therapy, like the philosophy of the same name, emphasises a phenomenological approach.
Phenomenology is a descriptive method which attends to the details of a person’s experience and way of being. Ernesto Spinelli, another leading light of the British School, places it at the heart of his practice. Phenomenology analyses the subjective structure of a person’s world so that what is important, especially what has gone unnoticed, may show itself. People gain direction and ability through coming to see themselves and their world with greater clarity and depth. When you become aware rather than blind, you are able to make decisions, to steer yourself, and to shape yourself. My existential approach is deeply phenomenological for this reason. As well as for other reasons: for example I find that most people are (to a degree) out of touch with their gut sense, and our felt 'gut' sense is the best sense we have. I help people get in touch with that and stay in touch. From there they can guide themselves better, but also come into a more powerful relationship with who they are. But much of my work is this existential-phenomenological practice of looking and reflecting: of really coming to see, and so becoming free and empowered in the ways mentioned.
Image: Ernesto Spinelli
The existential therapist of the British school is educated broadly - both formally and informally - in philosophy, psychotherapy, literature, psychology, anthropology, sociology, the classics and so on. They are also fellow human being who struggle with life – with its big questions and with their own challenges – just like everybody else - but who see it as their vocation to use these experiences to learn and to grow, not only for their own sake but in order to help others. They view the role of philosopher-therapist as a vocation rather than just as a profession. Mick Cooper in his book Existential Therapies sets out some of the aims for Emmy van Deurzen’s therapy. They both sum up her approach, and show the ennobling face of this work:
"[Existential therapy] can help [people] get back on top of their lives, take control, and have a sense of mastering their world rather than being at its mercy. Second, it can help them realise that they are able to take much hardship, and that they are stronger than they think. Third, it can help them to welcome, rather than fear, life’s challenges: to take life’s ups-and-downs more in their stride. Fourth, it can help them to respond to life’s challenges as constructively as possible: summoning and harnessing all their resources to find the most satisfactory ways forward. Fifth, it can help clients to experience the whole spectrum of their ways of being, rather than being stuck in rigid patterns of behaviour. Sixth, it can help them re-discover a passion for life: an aliveness, enthusiasm and sense of adventure that comes from fully engaging with the world, and meeting the challenges of life. Finally, then, for van Deurzen, existential therapy can help clients move beyond a fear of life, to a discovery that life is full of promise and ultimately worth living."
Author: Matthew Bishop