If I had to list my greatest influences as a therapist, they would include Emmy van Deurzen, Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, Ernesto Spinelli and Carl Rogers, among others. Van Deurzen has probably helped me most when it comes to developing the details of my therapeutic approach, especially in terms of her discussions of polarities. Van Deurzen is a key founder of "the British School" of Existential Therapy, and has developed her own very pragmatic approach to a philosophical form of counselling, which is primarily focused on helping clients face the challenges of everyday life. Van Deurzen argues that life is often hard and unfair, and we are constantly caught up in irresolvable dilemmas, tensions, and paradoxes. She believes that individuals experience anxiety in the face of these challenges, and in an attempt to dispel this anxiety they resort to self-deception about themselves and the possibility of an easy life. The aim of Existential Therapy according to van Deurzen is to help clients face up to the reality of their situation and wake up from self-deception. Clients are encouraged to creatively grapple with life's problems and come to terms with its contradictions. In the reflection which follows I will summarise some key themes regarding Emmy van Deurzen's Existential Therapy
Van Deurzen was born in 1951 in the Netherlands and studied psychology and philosophy at the universities of Leiden, Louvain, and Sheffield. She is co-founder of the Society for Existential Analysis in London and the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in the UK. She has also served as the chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy. If Existential Therapy in England has stayed true to its philosophical roots (unlike in America), and is widely respected by the broader field, this is in large part thanks to the work of Emmy van Deurzen. She has done more than anybody else in sharing the British existential vision, through her many books including Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy in Practice and Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy.
One of the key principles of van Deurzen's approach to existential therapy is exploration of the client's world. She believes that in order to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives, therapists must first understand their client's subjective experience of the world. This requires a primarily descriptive approach to therapy, in which people are encouraged to describe, in increasing levels of detail, the actuality of their lived-world. This is phenomenology. Within this process, the existential therapist is a 'fellow investigator' or 'ally' who joins their clients on this journey of exploration.
True to the spirit of many existential therapists, Van Deurzen does not attempt to outline specific techniques or strategies by which this descriptive exploration can take place. For her, the therapeutic process is a conversation, and any form of engagement that can help people to clarify their understanding of their lived-world may be an appropriate part of this dialogue. A therapist might ask questions to elicit increasing details and so insight into an experience, or they might offer reflections and summaries. They may also offer interpretations, in the sense of making explicit the implicit links, connections, and themes in a client's world-view.
Van Deurzen is less interested in an exploration of clients' subjective experiences per se and more in an exploration of the different ways in which they relate to their world. More specifically, van Deurzen outlines four different - though deeply linked - dimensions of being which clients can be encouraged to explore: the physical dimension, the social dimension, the personal dimension, and the spiritual (or philosophical) dimension.
Van Deurzen argues that one of the central values of creating a map of our relational modes of being, is that it can help both therapists and clients to stand back from clients' immediate concerns and ensure 'that all different aspects of the client's reality are explored'. As van Deurzen states, a client's understanding of their world will inevitably be 'partial, deficient, full of holes, and lacking in perspective'. Such a map, then, allows some of these gaps in awareness to be filled in. For instance, a client who spends much of her time in therapy talking about relationships with others might be encouraged to reflect upon - and investigate - her feelings towards herself or her sense of her physical, embodied being.
Van Deurzen's map of existence also helps to highlight some of the polarities, tensions, and dilemmas that clients face, and which they can be encouraged to explore. For van Deurzen, 'we are involved in a four-dimensional force field at all times', pulled not only between the different dimensions but within the dimensions themselves. In the personal dimension, for instance, clients may be pulled between a desire to accept themselves as they are, and a desire to better themselves. I made reference to this in my previous essay on anxiety. Many of our confusions about life have to do with navigating these polarities, especially as we come become stuck in old solutions to them which do not suit the present. Hence the notion of a map is important here: Existential Therapy begins with the client's lived experience, and from that creates a map of their particular way of being, of how they are navigating life, and what choices they might make next. Questions of techniques generally fall to the wayside when people have cleared a lucid path for themselves, and made explicit their desire.
As I said at the beginning, van Deurzen has had a great influence on my therapy. In particular her elucidation of the issue of polarities has become an everyday part of how I work. The Buddha spoke of the middle way, and Aristotle of the golden mean, and Jungians of integration, and van Deurzen has elucidated this ancient and vital concept for contemporary therapy.
Where I disagree with van Deurzen - and many in the British school more widely - regards her rejection of the language of "the inner life" which she mentions sometimes when discussing her relational understanding of being and her analysis of a the four worlds (above). While I agree with the value and power of these positive ideas of hers, yet I also believe that our "inner world" is real, in some sense independent, and radically important.
The existential and phenomenological literature is full of confident dismissals of the concepts and language of the inner life, however I have found no convincing arguments from them for this dismissal. The error of classical science has been to assume that it is value free and non-ideolgical. Phenomenology and existentialism arose in part as critical rejections of this scientific worldview, claiming quite rightly that science is rooted in values and ideology. Science is a powerful ideology which serves us in great ways, but it is an ideology nonetheless, one which possesses has great vices alongside its great virtues. Existential-phenomenology seems to have taken a dual course in its critical response to the older scientific ideology: on the one hand by asserting that everything contains values and ideology, while also engaging in a pretence of value-neutrality and freedom from ideology. The phenomenological attempt at bracketing assumptions in order to get a value-free view of something is an example of this, as is the common existential objection to other worldviews that they are values-based.
Phenomenology, in terms of its tools such as bracketing assumptions, is a powerful discipline for standing back, for seeing our own values and ideologies and thereby attaining a slightly greater degree of detachment from them in order to widen our ability to see people and things more on their own terms, or as it were 'in themselves,' and less in terms of our own rigid viewpoints. This is a matter of a degree of self-awareness, and a degree of freedom or detachment from our values, rather than some absolute neutrality. At the same time phenomenology, like existentialism, is itself composed of values and ideology. It is a distinct set of such things. Just like everything else. And this is fine. It is fine from the point of view of a philosopher like myself whose roots lie in the ancient Greeks, for whom the fundamental and broad questions of philosophy regard goodness and truth and beauty, whether we think of those in objective or relative terms. The goal is not to wipe away values, or assert that "one is as good as another, nobody can judge another's choices," a delusion of existentialism and phenomenology in which it appears as a mere variant of European liberalism. I myself am most certainly a liberal and this enters into my way of being as a therapist, except that we are dealing with a liberalism which at this extreme becomes insipid, corrosive of meaning and community, and which induces despair. There is a fundamental incoherency in existentialism and phenomenology, a contradictory and hypocritical attempt to divide Enlightenment science and Enlightenment liberalism, and both reject and valorise the values they share. This is one way of understanding the matter, perhaps another is to focus on the era in which existentialis and phenomenology arose, a period in which thinkers were contending with ideologies which had mestasised into totalitarian fascism and communism, alongside a weak liberalism, but of course this is a whole other discussion.
Suffice to say, I have more in common with the philosophies of Iris Murdoch and Raimond Gaita, who speak to our actual experience of something that is captured by words and phrases such as "the inner life." Indeed a non-dogmatic phenomenology must surely lead one to notice the mysterious "observing self" within oneself, which seems to stand apart from the material and historical self? That is a core point of focus for so many philosophies, from ancient Buddhism to certain forms of contemporary cognitive science, and powerful contemporary therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). My acceptance of and ready exploration of the inner life, and my traditional philosophical focus on truth, goodness and beauty (properly unpacked and applied, of course), alongside the great value I find in Aristotle's virtue ethics, are some points among others where I am a Philosophical Counsellor more than purely an Existential Therapist. Yet I have learned a great deal from van Deurzen's model, which is a wonderful example of balancing counselling and philosophy, and in a way that is pragmatic, emotionally intelligent, and highly insightful.