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Existential psychotherapy


The ideas of existential philosophers have various implications for psychotherapeutic practice. Heidegger’s notion of being in the world with others, Husserl’s method of phenomenology and his idea of intentionality and Merleau-Ponty’s points on perception compose a new role for the clinical practitioner. The psychotherapist is under no illusions of “scientific”, objective and completely accurate interpretations and universal theories, free to relate to his clients and explore together the latter’s experience of being in the world. Existential philosophy influenced Rogers’ view of the person and the need for him to embrace his personal responsibility, but his structured theories and his notion of empathy distant him from phenomenology. Existential philosophers proposed the value of authentic being for the individual, but may have fallen into the trap of providing a way to be. The author’s biases influenced the way this essay was written, as his position in the world affect his perception.


This essay critically examines the implications of existentialism and phenomenology on psychotherapy. Initially, the work of various existential/phenomenological theorists will be presented, focusing on their understanding of the person, his perception of the world and also on the phenomenological method of philosophical enquiry. Then, the implications of these ideas for psychotherapeutic practice will be discussed, grounded on the work of several existential psychotherapists, enriched by transcripts from the author’s psychotherapeutic practice. The inner process of being with a person and of trying to describe his experience, rather than explaining will be presented. Furthermore, existentialism/phenomenology will be compared to the person-centred approach and to CBT, highlighting differences and similarities in their understanding of human experience and of the therapeutic process. Finally, there will be a critique of those theories, followed by an analysis of the author’s biases influencing all his above points..

Existential philosophy: the person, perception and the phenomenological method

Heidegger described human beings’ distinctive characteristic in the world as that of posing questions around the reality of our existence (Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.26). These “meta-being” questions allow us to approach the sense of Being, which is a word he used to describe the shared characteristic of all the beings, the fact that they exist, “that they are” (Spinelli, 2005, p.106).  This individual is what Heidegger referred to as Dasein: “Understanding of being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s being” (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.27). Dasein is a “being in the world”, whose “understanding of Being pertains with equal premordiality both to an understanding of something like a “world”, and to the understanding of the Being of those entities which become accessible within the world” (ibid, p.27). Husserl introduced the notion of intentionality, describing that the person’s perception is affected by his intentions, which are bound to his place in the world (ibid, p.18-19), as “whatever sense we make of the world is intentionally derived (Spinelli, 2005, p.15).

Existential theorists did not believe in such a thing as a concrete subject that contains an inner structured personality. Husserl stated that “there is no psychological Ego and there are no psychic phenomena…as components of psychophysical men” (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.20). Even self-consciousness and self-identity are seen more as a process, as something that gets reconstructed every moment, as “self-identity and meta-identity are theoretical constructs, not concrete realities” (Laing, Phillipson & Lee, 1966, p.5) and “all consciousness is perceptual, even the perception of ourselves” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p.13), which “intricately and intimately bounds up our perception of the others” (Spinelli, 2005, p.74).

The person in the world is not seen as an amateur “scientist” that observes and examines the objects in the world and comes to objective conclusions, as what always exists is “the indissoluble inter-relationship between the investigator and the focus of investigation” (Spinelli, 2005). The process of perception is seen as purely subjective, as “this world, with all its Objects…derives its whole sense and its existential status, which it has for me, from me myself” (Husserl, 1960, p.26, cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.20). Heidegger underlined the significance of time, in his effort to illustrate how the “observer” is limited by his subjective “eyes”, constantly influenced by his position in the world, his temporality and his historicality:

Whenever Dasein tacitly understands and interprets something like Being, it does so with time as its standpoint. Time must be brought to light – and genuinely conceived…by explicating Dasein beforehand in its temporality and historicality (ibid, p.27-28).”

The limitations around the human being’s perception were also explored by Merleau-Ponty, who argued that “understanding the subject” is not about representing its pure essence, but it is about “seeking it at the intersection of its dimensions” (1962, p.477). That is how Merleau-Ponty highlighted the need to “consider time itself…by following through its internal dialectic” in order to “revise our idea of the subject”. He also introduced the idea that any experience, when attempted to be put into words, loses a big part of its original meaning, as it goes through the process of reflective thinking, which is a process influenced by the subjectivity of the thinker, contrasted to the immediacy of experience (Spinelli, 2005, p.20).

Husserl was the first to highlight the impossibility of an objective observation that will represent the actual world within the mind, as he stated that “the world is for me absolutely nothing else but the world existing for and accepted by me in such a conscious cogito…..this world, with all its Objects…derives from me” (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p. 20). The method that Husserl founded in order to approach the world and examine “the being of entities” (ibid, p.28), following Aristotle’s tradition (Heaton, 1990, p.2), was named Phenomenology and was developed as a mean to “search for the essence of things” (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.18-19). His view on the world was that we “experience the phenomena of the world, rather than its reality”, which he defined as “constructs, formed as a result of the invariant process known as intentionality” (Spinelli, 2005, p.31). Husserl’s proposed way of reaching to “the things themselves” was grounded on what he called “parenthesizing” or “phenomenological epoché”, which was about the inquirer “bracketing” his hypothesis and explanations, as they were both affected by his biased perception (Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p. 20). Spinelli (2005, p.74) claimed that increased self-awareness is what improves the inquirer’s ability to “bracket”, even though “no final or complete act of bracketing can ever be achieved”. Merleau-Ponty viewed phenomenology as a philosophy that allows the individual to connect to his existence, using “description and not explanation or analysis” (ibid, p.34).

On forming the idea of an existential psychotherapist

A scientist, as defined within the positivistic paradigm, is an individual that possesses “expert knowledge” in his scientific field (Oxford Dictionary). This individual is trained to utilise his expertise to interpret situations, diagnose problems and reveal solutions, an image of a wise and objective observer which is often attributed to psychotherapists. This “expert” in mental health, who is in touch with the secrets of universe through his godlike critical thinking and who possesses master knowledge on physiology and psychopathology, is expected to diagnose, evaluate and heal. This idea of a person could inspire the person who suffers, as the “malfunctions” of his being can be flawlessly detected.

The “existential/phenomenologist psychotherapist” though, is inspired by ideas around the subjectivity of one’s perception, the limitations in one’s conclusions, the immediacy of experience and the importance of pre-reflective thinking, as well as the value of being with a person while the latter is embracing the wholeness of his being and deciding to live authentically, free from the judgement of others. He can be sure, as Socrates said, only about one thing regarding the other person’s difficulties: That he does not know anything, even though he is genuinely interested to learn from the other person how it is to be him.

Therefore, it seems that the initial implication of existentialism/phenomenology on the being of a psychotherapist is that the latter genuinely believes in the inaccuracy of his explanations and interpretations of other people’s being. By admitting the limitations of his “judgement”, this psychotherapist waits for his client’s experience to raise through their relationship, instead of looking for universal truths in manuals of psychopathology and grounded theories on personalities, which he considers as biased efforts of an individual to reduce his anxiety about not knowing.

This psychotherapist does not see the client as an object that he observes and knows. He tries not to impose his theories and views on others, as he understands that his perception is not flawless and also believes that perceiving the world is a purely subjective process influenced by the one that sees, due to his position in the world, his social roles and his intentions. He constantly makes an effort to focus on what exists in the room and on the experience of being with the other. He is oriented in enabling the client to focus on his Being, asking questions about the wholeness of his existence and he is not restricted in “ontical” questions regarding separated problems and symptoms.

This therapist, by bracketing his own experience and being aware of his own biases interfering with his perceiving, can occasionally allow for the phenomena to be explored, for the experience of his client to rise into surface. By not imposing and by creating a space for the person to be in touch with questions around his existence,, he allows him to find his way to his own truth and he does not provide him with structure or pre-constructed goals to follow. He does not promise happiness to the person on the base that the latter copies his view on world and life, but they both try to describe his experience and his authentic way of being. He does not see himself as facilitating growth and triggering improvement.

Such a psychotherapist creates a space for the person to exist in his own way, trusting that this psychotherapeutic process could allow the person to avoid following the herd looking for safety and to exist genuinely instead. This person can be some times in charge of his life and fully responsible of his own actions.

As the person lives in the world with others, his search for his identity has to be done with the presence of another human being (Laing, 1960, p.139 / Spinelli 2005, p.30). The proposed psychotherapist can be this “Other”, who is not interested in evaluating, controlling, judging, but is genuinely curious and willing to take the journey in his client’s life. He is there to experience, reflect and to witness the person’s experience coming into surface, like the mother witnesses the infant’s first steps in the world.

On trying to be this ‘existential psychotherapist’

It goes without saying that the above description of an “existential/phenomenological psychotherapist” is nothing more than the author’s understanding of his practice, influenced by the work of some existential theorists and directed by his own subjective biases. This almost manual-like description could also be the product of the author’s own need to sooth his anxiety about relating by forming a structured model of what should be the being of a psychotherapist. Below, a reflection of the author’s practise will be attempted through the disfiguring mirror of fitting into words the experience of being with another person.

Ken, 71 years old, wanted to be in therapy because after his retirement he had been feeling “depressed”  (his words) and he felt the compulsion to check his bin up to 10 times a day, as he was anxious that he had dropped there something valuable. Below, the process of being in the room with him will be explored and then connected to ideas that have been expressed by several existential psychotherapists/philosophers.

Objectifying the client and avoiding my own existential agony

To begin with, I spent only a couple of minutes reading Ken’s “assessment”, as I chose not to ground my understanding and experience of him on his mental health diagnosis and his assessor’s thoughts. I preferred to be open to what he made of this diagnosis, on how he experienced his problems.

K: I suffered from depression right after my retirement.
P: When you say depression, what do you mean?

Furthermore, I was eager to listen to his whole story and to experience all the dimensions of his existence. After my setting’s supervisor suggested that I should buy a book on OCD, I was tempted to hear him, as I desperately wanted to “explain” his habit to check his bin, but I managed to resist my need to be in control and stay with my agony. In order to achieve that, I kept in my mind that what might be driving a psychotherapist to treat the client as objects and as “something pathological” is that by doing so he “will avoid to examine his own existential agony” (Frankl, 1973, p.74). I knew that soothing my own anxiety was not the thing that mattered and I was positive that I will have to put the client’s needs first.

Need for security and the internal fight

During my work with Ken, I was constantly feeling the need to search within my internal “library” in order to make sense of his difficulties, a process that I was also constantly trying to stop. When he spoke about his retirement and his best friend dying, initially I felt strong emotional distress, possibly connected to my own feelings around death and the fear of the responsibility of working with someone that is close to dying. Maybe that explains why I thought of Yalom’s theory of “death anxiety” (1980, p.9) again and wandered whether it could provide me with some insights. It was proven futile and soon enough I realised that I will have to “stay” with Ken and explore his particular way of experiencing death. By acting in such way, I was overcoming my “desire to predict and control my client” (Spinelli, 2002, p.66). Heaton (1990, p.5) referred to theory and practise, claiming that working in an existential way premises not depending on structured theories, but only being “interested in the theory and system in a person’s life”.

Problem of linearity

While Ken was exploring issues around his past, including his anger towards his father who “never loved him”, his loneliness and his anxiety over relating to other people, he focused on what he said to be the most critical event of his life, which was “responsible for his depression” (his words). With his eyes full on tears, he spoke about his first romantic relationship when he was 17 years old. To my surprise he revealed that it was not the story of a girl rejecting him, but rather of him breaking up with her because he felt their relationship was getting “serious”.

K: A day after I left her I had a nervous breakdown; the first of my life.

P: (Instantly I tried to think what constitutes a nervous breakdown and if I had read anything about it in my psychology degree but I “pulled myself together” and I just asked him instead)
You said nervous breakdown?

By inviting him to speak about what this “nervous breakdown” was for him, he gave me plenty information around his relationship with his parents, the traumatic event of hearing from his mother that he was not his father’s son and a sexual experience for which he felt embarrassed. So, instead of spending our time speaking about symptoms we had a mutual journey back to his early adulthood. In a way I may have offered him the space where he could become “transparent in his own Being” (Heidegger, cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003 27)

I could not think of a single reason why the events of his life would cause this kind of suffering and I tried to relate it to his relationship with his mother. Maybe, I felt the desire to do that in an effort to find structure in how my own therapist works with me, as she often succeeds. However, I reminded myself that I am a different person to Ken and my therapist different to me. So, I left these thoughts behind and I started enquiring like a little child around the matter.

K: I was really close to my mother

P: When you say close what do you mean?

K: I mean…She loved me and she took care of me.

P: Took care of you?

K: Yes. She was always there to make me feel better.

P: Better…How?

I soon realised that, feeling the freedom of not knowing and not having to know I was even enjoying his story, which I was experiencing as a really touching, dramatic old movie, whose star I really liked. In that way, cause and causality was not a part of my thinking – at least for that moment, as I was freed from any possibility of coming to conclusions, by acknowledging world as chaotic (Spinelli, 2005, p.8).

K: Thank you for today, it almost felt like I was 17 again and you were there watching me.
P: And how was that for you?
K: Actually, it was really difficult at the beginning. I felt like I was telling you something terribly boring.
P: You felt like I would not be interested in what you have to say.
K: Yes. It is funny but whenever I am excited because I share something important with someone I also feel something unpleasant. I am afraid that I put pressure him.
P: Sounds like when you connect with a person by opening up, you are afraid that you are asking too much off him

Relating not imposing

My work with K has not been about me teaching, or even facilitating growth and providing insights, it was more about describing, rather than explaining. It never included a conscious decision to show him positive regard, or to engage with him empathetically. It was influenced by a genuine esoteric confession that I knew nothing and can learn a few about the reasons of his problems and possible solutions.

K: I don’t know why I have to act like a fool.

P: You think you act like a fool?

K: Pretty much! You agree, don’t you?

P: I wander whether you believe that I agree or not.

K: I think you feel sorry for me. You are sweet and you want to help me but you are young and you can’t feel what I am going through.

P: I think I definitely agree on the last bit, about not knowing what it is for you. But I would be honestly interested in how it is for you.

K: Well it’s not as bad as you think (laughs). No, now I’m lying. It is.

I was there to acknowledge all that and to be a vital part of the exploration; I was not sure about how and if it was helpful for him but I could be sure that my acquaintance with K triggered many things in me!

After 15 sessions I still had nothing to say when my setting’s supervisor asked me about Ken and his problems. I could only admit that I loved meeting him, as his stories where really interesting. Also, whenever I surrendered in my desire to explain and I tried to interpret his words, I could see that this would rarely bring anything valuable in the room. These failed attempts were there to remind me that there exists no such thing as a “correct interpretation, since such would pressurise that we had direct knowledge of an ultimate reality” (Spinelli, 2005, p.8). I was trying not to collect only information that could fit a grounded hypothesis, being open instead to all he had to reveal and explore them as signs of the wholeness of his being. VanDeurzen (1990, p.10) states that with an integration of apparent contradictions and a never ending flow of becoming, a true existential dialectical process thus becomes possible”.

I guess that this lack of conclusions about Ken and our work irritated my supervisor, who kept on “bombarding” me with possible interpretations about Ken. I managed, though, not to allow any of those to affect my practise. I knew that even if some of those were true, by using them I would “rob the patient of the potential fruits of his spiritual struggle” (Frankl, 1973, p.74). When, to my surprise, my supervisor argued that the existential approach requires the therapist to also interpret, I kept in mind that “the existential approach has to be created anew by each practitioner” (VanDeurzen, 1990, p.6). And then I thought of how interesting it is that my dispute with my supervisor was the major dispute I would like one day to have with my father, which gave me some interesting sessions in my personal therapy

 Phenomenology and Rogers

The work of various existential theorists seems to be around issues of personal responsibility and freedom to live in an authentic way, which resonates with Rogers’ notion of congruence and his idea of internal locus of evaluation.  Sartre (1945/1996: 259) stated that “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself“. Before him, Nietzsche referred to the “repulsive and desolate creature” of a man who chooses to live conventionally and chooses to “hide himself behind customs and opinions” (1983, p.127), a man whom he defined as “wholly exterior” (1983, p.127). May (1953, p.17) also suggested that these individuals depend so much on how others experience them, therefore when being alone they feel that their own existence is threatened. Frankl (1973, p.73) defined these individuals as experiencing a total loss of meaning, an “existential frustration“, having a spiritual and not a mental distress. All these ideas could be connected to Rogers’ notion of the individual mistrusting his experience and having an external locus of evaluation, therefore blaming others for his unhappiness, which results on him not being able to be genuine (Rogers, 1961, p.61).

One of the foundations of person-centred practise is the therapist’s choice to not direct the process and to allow instead for the other person to lead the dialogue. His role is not to ask questions, interpret or suggest, but to reflect and describe how he experiences the client’s statements (Brink & Farber, 1996, p.15-24). Similarly, in existential psychotherapy the therapist’s practise is about describing and not explaining, reflecting and not imposing (Heaton, 1990, p.5 / Spinelli, 2005, p.8).

On the other hand, there are foundational differences among Rogers’ understanding of the person and of the therapeutic process. His idea of a positive human core is a hypothesis, part of a theory that describes a general characteristic of being a person. This could be considered as opposing to the lack of faith in universal theories that characterises existential thinking. Rogers could be seen as undermining straightforward experience by creating a structured theory (Spinelli, 2005, p. 33).

Furthermore, Rogers built his theory upon the ground of an inner strength inside the person, which enables him to seek for constant improvement and change. He considered the enhancement of what he called this “actualising tendency” (Rogers, 1961) as an objective of psychotherapy. Examining from the standpoint of existentialism/phenomenology, there is no such thing as improvement as a result of therapeutic work, as “there are no advances in philosophical therapy, just changes according to the situation in which it is practised” (Heaton, 1990, p.5).

Rogers suggested that the therapist’s empathetic understanding of his clients is one of the three necessary conditions to promote the person’s growth. It is a quality that the therapist should possess and communicate at all times and it is what enables the two individuals to connect and relate (Rogers, 1961, p.284). However, through the ideas of existentialism, such a concept of complete, almost totallistic understanding of the other’s experience seems impossible. As Laing suggested, we should always keep in mind “the inexorable separateness between man and man, that no love, not the most complete experience of union can annul” (Laing, 1961, p.130)

Existential Psychotherapy and CBT

With the author’s limit knowledge on CBT, there is huge contrast between its view of the person and that of existentialism/phenomenology. Heidegger stated that in an effort to define the “essence of man as an entity” we are neglecting the basic questions around man’s existence (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p. 29). CBT and its purpose to treat the symptoms, the “problem”, could be seen by Heidegger, through the author’s eyes, as posing only “ontical” questions opposed to ontological. He described such questions as “pseudo-questions which parade themselves as problems” (ibid, p.28), adding that “only as phenomenology is ontology possible” (ibid, p.28). If we examine phenomenology through Heaton’s description of being a philosopher-psychotherapist we see how irrelevant CBT is to this kind of practise, since philosophy is interested in healing the person and not parts of his mental functioning, it is not about techniques but “a way of living” (Heaton, 1990, p.10). Nietzsche (1983, p.131) in a similar way defined as the task of a true philosopher-educator that of “moulding the whole man into a living solar and planetary system”

Philosophers’ biases and my biases

Mitchell (2002, p 238) argued that the same theorists that underlined through their ideas the significance of self-directed learning and being, are also presenting a structured “manual” on how to be, depriving the thinking individual of his freedom to learn. This reflects some critical questions about on what extent did these philosophers “bracketed” their own assumptions and biases and on what extent their intention was to explain and not to explore, to find structure or to allow the space of the unknown, and for some to what extent they intended to be understood.

Furthermore, there will be an attempt here to reflect on some information around the existential theorists’ lives that could illustrate some of their biases that might have influenced their ideas. Heaton described how Greeks and Romans used to examine the philosophers’ life, arguing that “philosophical therapy rises out of the philosopher’s life” (1990, p.5). Spinelli (2005, p.13) also mentioned how several physicists have stated that like in every science, their theories are influenced by the “mental faculties of the individual”.

Heidegger himself claimed that “phenomenological Interpretation must…let Dasein interpret itself” (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.31). Heidegger did not refer to how his personal being affected his writing, so it could be useful here to raise some possibly relevant questions. Did Heidegger’s need for power, which to the author’s eyes was demonstrated by his participation in the Nazi party and Husserl’s dethronement in Freiburg University influenced him to write in the least understandable way? Did his wish to write in an idiosyncratic language reflect his desire to be followed and seen as superior? How could he propose the idea of historicality and temporality as limiting the thinker’s perception, while never disclosing his own biases and interpret himself?

Loewenthal described how existential theorists use a style that could be making “communication impossible and destabilization too much to take” (2008, p.150). Van Deurzen (1990, p.9) also referred to Nietzsche’s ideas and how his scepticism and his ideas on subjectivity may have led to his “disastrous” way of living. Sartre interpreted Merleau-Ponty’s theory on pre-reflective thinking as his own need to re-examine his difficult childhood (Moran, 2000, p.391). Also, Sartre’s famous idea around personal choice was re-viewed by Loewenthal as ignoring the effect of unconscious, ethics and language on our being, not allowing us to “have full agency (2008, p.150).

In an effort to avoid falling in the same trap myself, I would like to critically reflect on my own experience of reading and critiquing the above philosophers. My own experience of reading Husserl, Nietzsche and Heidegger was that I was getting angry and irritated by them for expressing their ideas in the least understandable fashion. This difficulty to engage with their ideas might have created an anxiety in me as I could not make any sense of it and it was becoming a meaningless training experience for me. Therefore, I tried to think about their own reasons for writing in such a way and correlate this to their own biases and life, in an attempt to reach for an explanation. I was prepared to perform huge research around their lives in order to justify that the reason for me not being able to understand their words was due to them not wanting me to understand. But I managed to reflect that maybe this was my need to find and establish meaning in a meaningless experience, as a part of my being “cannot tolerate meaninglessness” (Spinelli, 2005, p.10)


The final part of an essay is often dedicated into summarising the points and maybe reaching to insightful conclusions. In this essay, however, conclusion will be oriented in demonstrating how all the arguments made above could be influenced by the historicality, temporality, intentionality and social roles of the author. This acknowledgement is not used in order to prove the complete invalidity of the ideas presented, but more to reinforce the statement that perception is more of a biased, intentional and subjective process of conceptualising and creating a meaning within the world.

The above statements were made by an individual as part of his training in Existential Psychotherapy. At least in the author’s eyes, this essay will be marked more favourably if presented in a writing style relevant to the existential/phenomenological thinking. The author’s intentions to get a good mark and a positive feedback influenced the way he wrote. Also, apart from the pragmatic benefit of getting a good mark, this was also enforced by the way the author has been relating to his father, as his good performance in school was something that always triggered his father’s affection. On the other hand, the author’s parents are both psychiatrists and they are often experienced acting as such in everyday family life, to the author’s major frustration. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that a ideas around the limitations of knowledge would have a positive appeal.

This personal confession ends here before it has even started. The author’s intention was not to reveal himself (at least not consciously), but more to demonstrate some important dimensions of the phenomenological method of enquiring: intentionality, being in the world and biased perception. A method that allows/restricts the individual to deconstruct his own biases and intentions and position in the world and bracket his assumptions, as they can never be objective or “represent” reality, allowing him to engage with the other person’s experience. The author’s experience is that this could become a mutual therapeutic process, as it eventually leads to ontological questions on behalf of the therapist, as well as the client.


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