Existential Therapy: Distinctive Features

The book, Existential Therapy: Distinctive Features by Emmy van Deurzen is a good reminder to view each person as a free individual, responsible for their life. But, on another level, the is a book about how to push a particular set of belief on another person.

Van Druzen describes the existential therapy approach as:

The life we lead, the person we become, the choices we make, are our responsibility and ours alone. Existential therapists believe that by becoming more aware of our freedom, and the responsibility it holds over us, we can make better choices for ourselves. Rather than blaming our situation on past events or on other people (say our parents) we can take responsibility for our part in what has happened and choose how to live and respond differently in the future…Existential therapy is about finding a gentle way to face those aspects of life that are difficult. It’s about facing up to life’s challenges and allowing both the good and the bad, the joy and the suffering, into our lives.

Van Deurzen attempts to understand her clients from an existential perspective, but she only goes so far. While she tries to understand her clients, she also pushes her own set of values as the ideal values. Because she works within the medical model, she seeks to medicalize problems in living so as to existentially boost herself in her chosen profession.

For example, van Deurzen values flexibility, scientific thinking, and inspiring “people with the sense that life is precious and that they have many yet unexploited abilities and talents to discover and hone.” This is all good, but not everyone values these fine aspirations.

For example, Karl Jaspers, a psychiatrist, philosopher, and existential therapist had one client commit suicide, and he considered this a case of successful therapy! His client’s decision to die voluntarily was in alignment with the client’s values.

The existentialist, unlike the psychiatrist, acknowledges that life is no picnic, and not everyone can or wants to go on living. The existential perspective should embrace all of life, including voluntary death, not just the good things in life, which van Deurzen embraces.

You can see van Deurzen’s values coming through in her video below on suicide prevention. Again, this is a fine approach, but I don’t see it as an existential approach. It does not embrace the totality of life, including death by choice. Suicide brings important values to light, and the existential perspective allows for all values to be considered, including the value expressed by suicide – that life may not be worth living.

Existential therapy should about meeting each person on their level and seeking to understand a person’s choices in the broader context of their lives, not seeking to change another person’s set of values. It is not clear whether such an existential approach is possible within the medical context.

To be clear, Van Deurzen’s approach is laudable. But, I do not see it as existential because it does not embrace the idea that each person has a unique set of values. In the final chapter of the book, Van Deurzen pushes her own set of values, which is fine, but I don’t see this as a departure from other forms of therapy. I believe that the existential approach must look to uncover each individual’s set of values and examine whether they are the values that one truly wants to hold.

As an existential listener, I don’t seek to change or diagnose, I don’t offer therapy. I simply listen, connect and seek to understand. I help illicit and illuminate the reasons why you do the things you do. Whether you want to keep acting the same way is up to you. I simply listen.

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