The way we think about a problem can itself be a part of the problem. Consider the nature of the concerns people bring to counselling. We are tempted to treat them as technical problems, as dysfunctions for experts to treat. This is to be passive with our own lives. Most of these problems arise, not because people are fundamentally dysfunctional, but rather out of the confusion 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 think 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.
While these days I have a broadened definition of how I work, during my first decade of counselling I focused intensely on existential therapy and philosophical counselling, in times buiding a name for myself in that work. Existential therapy is one of the older forms of psychotherapy and, if you will excuse my bias, one of the best! It originated with colleagues of Freud who preferred to understand human nature and its challenges as "challenges in living" rather than through the lens of the psycho-sexual theories of psychoanalysis. Hence it takes a philosophical approach. Today it flourishes in Europe, but less so in the English-speaking countries where cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) dominates. There are a variety of approaches and outlooks which go under the name of existential therapy, and some of its leading representatives include Irvin Yalom, Viktor Frankl, and Emmy van Deurzen. I want to focus on van Deurzen and the tradition she best 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 completely philosophical approach, not only in outlook but in method too.
Some therapists in the British school draw on the whole history of philosophy and not just the historical movement known as existentialism. The focus is on 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; to become wiser and stronger about themselves, their predicaments and life in general; 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 therapy, such as CBT, teach people perspectives and practices to apply to their problems. 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 what was already within the other. This is why existential therapy, like the philosophy of the same name, emphasises a phenomenological approach.
Ernesto Spinelli, another leading light of the British School, places phenomenology at the heart of the practice. It is a descriptive method which attends to the details of a person’s experience and way of being. It analyses the subjective structure of a person’s world so that what is important, but has gone unnoticed, may show itself. People gain direction and ability through coming to see themselves and their world with greater clarity and depth.
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