Following on from my last reflection, Ernesto Spinelli is a British existential therapist and philosopher whose work provides an interesting contrast to that of Emmy van Deurzen. The title for Existential Therapy is almost short-hand: more fully, it is Existential-Phenomenological Therapy. While drawing very much on both, most existential therapists work in a way that is either somehwhat more existential (overtly philosophical) than phenomenological, or more phenomenological than existential. To me, van Deurzen represents the former, while Spinelli represents the latter. I too am somewhat more existential than phenomenological, however phenomenology forms the basis of my approach as it does for most existential therapists. In my view Spinelli is the leader in thinking about phenomenology in Existential Therapy.
The phenemenology versus existential distinction shows itself with Spinelli in emphasis on the quality of the relationship between therapist and client, suggesting that the way in which things are talked about in therapy is often far more important than what is discussed. Spinelli's approach offers therapists a way of being which they can come to embody, more than a framework by which to understand clients or that serves as a blueprint for living. This is far closer to Carl Roger's philosophy of the therapeutic relationship, with its core qualities of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence, than to the existential therapists of Emmy van Deurzen or Viktor Frankl. It is somewhat closer to Irvin Yalom, however Spinelli's therapy is radically phenomenological, whereas Yalom's psychoanalytic roots introduce a more hypothetical or theorising approach to his clients.
Spinelli's phenomenological approach focuses on the subjective experiences of clients. Drawing on the work of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the core of this approach involves an attitude of openness. The therapist creates a safe space for clients to explore their experiences without fear of judgment or criticism. This openness involves the therapist acknowledging their own assumptions and biases and setting them aside. By means of this "bracketing" of their assumptions, therapists can avoid imposing their worldview on the client and can create a safe and non-judgmental environment for exploration. By inviting the client into this same approach of bracketing, they can come to see themselves as they are rather than in terms of their own assumptions and judgements. For example, I find that clients often assume they are lazy, when in fact something else is going on which they have not paid attention to. Insofar as they remain with these presumptuous self-condemnations, they never come to know themselves, or to understand their problem, and they substitute these pathways foward with self-loathing instead. In essence to do therapy in this phenomenological way, is to pay genuine, unhindered attention to the client, so that the client to come to pay genuine, unhindered attention to themselves. In our distracted, avoidant world these two things are seldom and poorly done.
In Spinelli's view, the therapeutic process should be both "being with" and "being for" the client. "Being with" refers to staying with the client's experienced truth as it is being related, rather than seeking to confirm its objective validity. "Being for" means being prepared to step into the client's lived-worlds as fully as possible, to try and experience their world as they experience it. This involves immersing oneself in the client's subjective experience, not just as an observer, but as a participant. In some sense we are each radically alone in this world, insofar as we are each an irreducible consciousness. Here is a therapy where another, as far as possible, wades out into the lonely space we occupy, to hear and feel and in that sense be with who we are, and how we are, in this space.
To put this into slightly more ordinary terms, these practices are part of a genuine, caring human relationship which can provide clients with the kind of caring engagement that allows them to honestly reflect on, and reconsider, their lives. By developing a clearer and clearer understanding of the client's lived-world, therapists can facilitate this exploration and help clients explore their interpretations of their world, and particularly their interpretations of who they, themselves, are. Clients become thereby more free to chose who they want to be, in their self. People can open and reshape their self, to let more of life in.
But what is the 'self' which one comes to know and shape? Here is a particular fascinating aspect of Spinelli's therapy. In contrast to the traditional notion of self in psychotherapy, which assumes that individuals have a fixed and stable self-identity, Spinelli proposes an alternative understanding by distinguishing between an individual's self-structure and their lived experiences. The self-structure is the particular, limited construct we make to define who we are. For example I am a rural person, and would not like to live in the city. According to Spinelli, individuals tend to disown or dissociate from experiences that do not fit in with their self-structure. For example, imagine that I go to the city and enjoy it, and notice the benefits I might gain by moving there, but I dismiss these because I cannot see how to reconcile them with my need for the bush. The more fixed an individual's self-structure is, the greater the number of experiences that remain unacknowledged. Imagine somebody who tells themselves that they do not need other people, when a part of their actual experience is a pain and longing for connection with others.
As an interesting side point, this distinction between self-structure and lived experience helps us to make sense of life without the problematic notion of the unconscious. It aligns with Sartre's critique of Freud and his replacement of the unconscious with his concept of "bad faith." Bad faith is the avoidance of ourselves and life, by the way we construct our identity. Speaking for myself I use both concepts, because I think both are true. Freud foresaw that many of his ideas would be replaced with concepts for a future neurological science. We live in the age of that science, and can easily make sense that human beings carry forms of programming within themselves, which interact dynamically with our environment for the sake of achieving certain ends.
In Spinelli's approach, the self-structure is not an independent entity, but something that is constructed and maintained in relationship to others. An individual, for instance, does not just see themselves as weak, but sees themselves as weak in comparison to others who are strong. Furthermore, Spinelli argues that this relational self-structure is only one of four inter-related foci that can be examined in every encounter. For not only has an individual developed some sense of themselves, but they have developed some sense of the other that they are encountering, some sense of what goes on between the two of them, and some sense of how that other relates to further others in their world.
Within the therapeutic relationship, Spinelli suggests that clients can be encouraged to explore each of these realms, as well as the extent to which their experiences of self, other, we and they in the therapeutic relationship are representative of their experiences of self, other, we and they in extra-therapeutic encounters. A client, for instance, who experiences herself as passive in the therapeutic relationship, her therapist as hostile and the interaction between them as frosty, may experience much the same thing with her friends and family. Indeed, the structured exploration of these four "realms of encounter" is what provides existential therapy with its uniqueness.
In other words, in the therapeutic relationship, therapists should keep an awareness of these four different realms in the back of their minds and encourage their clients to explore each of these aspects of the interpersonal encounter. For Spinelli, the therapeutic relationship provides a particular opportunity for therapist and client to explore the third, interactional realm – an exploration that can throw light on the client's experiencing of the other three realms. Once again we see a strong resonance with Carl Roger's Person-Centred Therapy, but again we also see this presented in a radically explicit phenomenological philosophy. To me this is the strength of "the British school" of Existential Therapy: it is explicitly and genuinely philosophical. This is by contrast to a psychological therapy with existential themes, such as Irvin Yalom's brand of Existential Therapy.
In conclusion, I might simply say that I have left out a lot. Spinelli's book Existential Psychotherapy presents his framework in detail. It can feel like an overwhelmingly dense book, however with patience I do not believe it is so at all. For the budding Existential Therapist it is well worth investing the time to go deeper into an explicitly phenomenological analysis of the structure of therapy.