Existential Psychotherapy: Nothing Is Real Until You Experience It

Existential psychotherapy: nothing is real until you experience it

Sören Kierkegaard is the father of existentialism.  This is a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” Existentialism is interested in the truth of the individual and what he really is and desires. Existential psychotherapy and psychology go hand in hand with the existential philosophy that emerged in Europe before the Second World War.

Soon after, it reached the United States. Well-known psychologists such as Allport, Rogers, Fromm and Maslow refer explicitly to existential philosophy. On the other hand, existential psychology has had a major influence on humanistic psychology. Its influence was so great that it adopted some methods and fundamental aspects.

The humanistic-existential models

The existential analysis is part of the so-called humanistic-existential models. These models appeared in the North American context in the 1960s as the result of multiple influences.

We must first look at its evolution in light of its social and cultural consequences on the North American scene. Then we can study its development in Europe. In this regard, it has also developed beyond academic psychology.

We regard existentialism as the third force against behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Yet it lacks a professional model. Today, the humanistic-existential models are regarded as a series of therapeutic procedures. Usually they are disconnected from the main academic schools of thought.

The main antecedents of these models are thus existentialism and phenomenology. Franz Brentano’s school of thought developed phenomenology. Brentano focused on experience, the active nature of the psyche, and the nature of any psychological act. Moreover, Brentano had a great influence on the most important representative of phenomenology: Edmund Husserl.

According to Husserl, the immediate experience of the act is the revelation of the real nature of things. Therefore it is necessary to adopt the ‘epoché’ or the phenomenological attitude. This means that we have to observe the phenomenon in its purest form. So we should not install prejudices or beliefs beforehand (before the experience).

Jean Paul Sartre

The existential psychotherapy

The central focus of existential psychotherapy is the existential project. According to JP Sartre, existence precedes essence. This means that human beings do not appear including a human being to evolve. They have to find that person themselves.

Sartre sees man as a radically free and indeterminate being. However, he is limited by his factuality. That’s because you couldn’t understand him without that factuality. The existential project thus determines human beings themselves.

The following quote is from José Ortega y Gasset. It may explain the main focus of existential psychotherapy: to live you always have to do something (even if it’s just to breathe). The goal of existential psychotherapy is to dissect the structure of what we do in life.

Binswanger calls this structure ‘Dasein’. Sartre, on the other hand, called this an existential project. L. Martín-Santos developed this tradition in Spain in 1964. In addition, there is also M. Villegas who is currently working with this method.

Villegas has described existential psychotherapy as ‘a method of interpersonal relationships and psychological analysis’. The objective is to generate sufficient self-knowledge and autonomy so that someone can take in and develop their existence in a free manner.

Existential psychotherapy clarifies and creates insight into the values, meanings and beliefs that the individual has applied (as strategies) to understand the world.

It looks for evidence of the assumptions that have shaped our way of life since the moment we began to doubt our own existence.

The existential psychotherapy

Psychotherapy in the humanistic-existential models

From the psychotherapeutic point of view, the most essential feature of the humanistic-existential models is the importance they give to immediate experience as the main phenomenon. This means that the theoretical explanations and the visible behavior are both subordinate to the experience itself and the meaning the person gives to it.

These models emphasize willpower, creativity and the ability to evaluate aspects of human behavior. This emphasis is very characteristic of these models. Beyond these general features, it is difficult to speak of other basic concepts.

For this we have to refer to the specific theories in which these models seem logical. These theories are existential analysis, the person-centred approach, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, psychodrama and bioenergetics.

Existential emptiness as a psychopathological disorder

The existential void as a psychopathological disorder

We’ve already mentioned it. The main idea within existential psychotherapy is the existential project. The aim of this psychotherapy is to dissect and change this project.

Thus, this psychotherapy does not try to change the external, physical or social reality, but the person and his perception of things. This is because it is radically assumed that this is the only thing that depends on itself. It is also the only one where there is a greater capacity for control.

The goal is to bring the individual back so that he can take control of himself and define himself. This also includes confronting him with himself at some point.

The individual often feels lost or alienated. He then makes efforts to solve the problems caused by his radical freedom of choice. The analysis of the structures of his world aims to discover the ways and the points of alienation.

After all, that is the only way in which his freedom can be fully restored. Moreover, he acquires an alternative reconstruction of his experience. According to existential therapy, nothing is real until the individual has experienced it.

Existential psychotherapy regards the various psychopathological disorders as false ways of existence. They are stagnations or existential voids, the loss of freedom or resignation. They are mechanisms for dealing with the world or denials that one is ‘in the world’ (Villegas, 1981).


Finally, we can say that it is not easy to explain clearly what existential psychotherapy is.

However, we can say that it promotes a personal analysis. That analysis encourages the ability to pick and build individual schemas in life. In addition, it is claimed that this psychotherapy changes and enhances the daily life of an individual by using a philosophical approach. 

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