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Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

Here we are between humanistic therapies. Among them, we will look in this article on existential therapy also called existential-humanistic psychotherapy.

Existential psychotherapy is the only form of psychotherapy to be based directly on philosophy. It is to be related to existential psychoanalysis.

The origin of existential psychotherapy can be traced to Athenian philosophy, for example in the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The real depaExistential-Humanistic Psychotherapyrture from existential analysis in psychotherapy, however, is marked by Karl Jaspers‘ work in Germany in the early twentieth century (1951, 1963, 1964), the influence of the phenomenological philosophies of Husserl (1913, 1929) and Heidegger ( 1927) and also the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1939, 1943), but especially the mental health work of Swiss psychiatrists Ludwig Binswanger (1946, 1963) and Medard Boss (1957, 1962, 1979, 1988).

All have tried to understand the human condition and to highlight the daily existential struggle which necessarily and inevitably brings difficulties of adaptation and understanding. There is much contemporary interest in a modern revival of existential analysis, based for example on the work of Frankl (1946, 1955, 1967); May (1958, 1969, 1983); Laing (1960, 1961, 1967); Szasz (1961, 1965, 1992); Irvin D. Yalom (1980, 1989) and Van Deurzen (1988, 1997, 2002, 2007). This therapeutic evolution is beginning to be integrated into clinical psychotherapy in France, for example in Sophia-analysis.

Existential psychotherapy or humanistic and existential therapy aims to put the patient back at the center of psychology and focuses on positive growth rather than pathology. It also aims to support all dimensions of the individual: physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual.

What is existential psychotherapy? What are the key principles of existential psychotherapy? What are the ideological foundations of existential psychotherapy? What does existential psychotherapy consist of? How is an existential psychotherapy session held?

I – What Is Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy?

Existential psychotherapy is an approach that explores the inner conflict that the patient feels when faced with crucial concerns in his life.
In the middle of the twentieth century, within the current of American humanistic psychology comes a therapeutic practice, called existential psychotherapy, under the impulse of Rollo May, author of a thesis entitled “The Meaning of Anxiety”, in which he develops the idea that anxiety is “natural” in humans, it is actually a call to creativity, the signal that a person must exercise his freedom of Being, his freedom of conscience, to work for the improvement of its condition.

Here we find an idea quite similar to that of Jung’s concept of individuation, of self-actualization by humanist psychotherapists, and of the noodynamics exhibited in Europe by Viktor Frankl in his approach to existential analysis and logotherapy.

In addition, Rollo May proposes to reconnect with a part of the classic psychoanalytic vision of Freud and Jung by reminding us that it is essential to make conscious what is unconscious. To do this, he invites psycho-therapists to really invest the therapeutic relationship with all their sensitivity, “to go to hell, to the hell of their patient, to the hell of a life”.

Indeed, he expresses the idea that the empathy dear to Carl Rogers has led humanistic psychotherapists into a dead end where the therapist tends to forget himself to be with the other, while he is often productive in psychotherapy. use our sensitivity to question our patients.

Later, Irvin Yalom will develop the idea that some psychological disorders, such as cases of anxiety and depression, are the result of an individual’s inability to cope with the existential dilemmas of human life (death, freedom, isolation, sense of life).

Existential psychotherapy is thus an approach that explores the inner conflict that the patient feels when confronted with crucial concerns in his life. It could be:

– The inevitability of death,
– Freedom and its responsibilities,
– Existential isolation
– Loss of meaning.

In sum, this approach, which feeds on different currents (gestalt, psychodrama, transactional analysis, person-centered approach, hypnotherapy or NLP) is more of a state of mind that considers the patient, not as a patient, but as a human being in search of meaning and, above all, in the ability to make choices. He is no longer conditioned only by his infancy nor watched by his behavior, in order to stand out from psychoanalysis and CBT. Influenced by existentialist philosophy, this current also takes into account the existential questions that agitate us: freedom, responsibility, the quest for meaning, finiteness, imperfection.
This perception of existential therapy leads us to its key principles.

II – The Key Principles of Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

The goal of psychotherapy is not to “heal” patients in the conventional sense, but to help them become aware of what they are doing and take them out of the victim’s role. To achieve this goal, therapists need to help those who consult with them address their deepest fears and concerns about the inevitable challenges of life, including death, isolation, and meaninglessness.
While the ultimate concerns that structure and limit our existence – death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness – can be painful, a source of anxiety, and even lead to tragic situations, it is possible to tame by questioning ourselves about the human condition and actively working to accept the fate that binds us all.

These four concerns form the essence of existential therapy and provide the framework within which the therapist interprets the problem of the person in order to develop a method of treatment. The proposed therapy goes through the confrontation of the consciousness of our past and present wounds and anxieties, to measure that today if we have not been responsible for these injuries inflicted, we are responsible and can be authors and creators of a new way of life with all the awareness of our current limitations (sometimes also related to the consequences of our past) and give meaning to a new existence.

Thus, existential therapists believe that the keys to healing lie in self-reflection, philosophical exploration, expansion of consciousness, and acceptance of the human condition. This is done by exploring the importance of choice and acting authentically and responsibly in the face of one’s own happiness, always to build.

Existential-humanistic therapy does not escape the realities that underlie the human condition.

As frightening as they may seem, they should be confronted with new perspectives of life. By integrating the very data that underpins our humanity, we have the opportunity to make our life a unique work of art, an authentic and singular creation, to make each moment of our existence a meaningful reality that has never summer and that will never be again.

Thus explained the key principles of existential psychotherapy, we are able to look at its ideological foundations.

III – The Ideological Foundations of Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

As we have already pointed out, existential psychotherapy is the only form of psychotherapy to be based directly on philosophy. It is to be related to existential psychoanalysis. Indeed, existential psychotherapy has its roots in three schools of thought: phenomenology, humanistic psychology, and existentialism.

Phenomenology, borrows the idea that the immediate experience of the individual and his personal apprehension of reality is paramount, and that this is what the therapy should be concerned with: “how I perceive and how I live what I live “.

From Humanist Psychology, existential psychotherapy borrows the idea that the individual, far from being the toy of deterministic forces, has the capacity to change and direct his life and realize his highest potentials. “I am not limited to the sum of my experiences.”

Finally, Existential Psychotherapy borrows many points of view on the human condition from the reflections of existential philosophers: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber, Jaspers, but also Sartre and Camus. These thinkers were largely focused on what may be called the “fundamental concerns” of human existence: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

However, how does existential psychotherapy perceive the human condition?

*** Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy and Data of the Human Condition


Death is perhaps the most obvious of the basic concerns. While life is the “possibility of possibility” (Kierkegaard), death is “the impossibility of another possibility” (Heidegger) i.e. the ultimate boundary that limits and structures our existence. The underlying idea exploited in existential psychotherapy is that the key existential conflict stems from this tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the desire to continue to be.
Thus arose the idea that awareness of our finitude, and consequently the fear of death, would greatly affect our way of understanding life. In other words, it would be terribly scary to think every moment that I can die in the next moment. In order to prevent all the psychic resources of an individual from being cornered by such anguish, the thought of death must be properly contained outside the conscious mind, through mechanisms of repression or sublimation.

Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, and author proposed that humans repress the fear of death by trying to achieve what he called “symbolic immortality.”

According to him, there are three types of strategies that can be put in place to achieve symbolic immortality:

– The biological model, which consists of “surviving” through his offspring
– The theological model of believing in life after death or reincarnation,
– The creative mode, which consists of trying to perpetuate one’s presence through one or more works or contributions.

Some authors have noted, however, that there is a danger in overcoming the fear of death too much, arguing that we need a bit of death anxiety to infiltrate our consciousness to invite us to live more fully. In his book “Existential Therapy,” Irvin Yalom summed up the benefits of becoming more familiar with his fear of death:

“A denial of death at any level is a denial of our basic nature and progressively hinders our ability to consciously experience our life. The integration of the idea of death saves us; rather than condemning us to existences of terror or pessimism, it acts as a catalyst to immerse ourselves in more authentic lifestyles, and it enhances our enjoyment of living our lives. ”


While death is the most obvious of fundamental concerns, freedom is perhaps the most surprising of the list. It is generally assumed that freedom is intrinsically desirable, but very often individuals fear true freedom and, in Erich Fromm’s words, may even develop a “fear of freedom”.

To be free means to be responsible for one’s life, the author of one’s own destiny. Because of the severity and overwhelming importance of this task, people frequently flee freedom and therefore their responsibility to determine their own path and to draw their own lives.

To use Abraham Maslow’s metaphor of “Jonah complex”, it is certainly true that many of us escape our vocations (call, destiny, a task in life, mission …) by invoking limitations (time, the obligations …) which are in fact so many excuses allowing us to stay in the domain of the known to avoid facing the anxiety resulting from the responsibility of the choices that we could make if we exercised our freedom.

Many practitioners in existential-humanistic psychotherapy have suggested that, when one ignores our “free-man nature” and lives in an inauthentic way, it is possible to find the path to an authentic existence with the help of feelings. of guilt.

As such, Irvin Yalom writes: “He who fails to live as fully as possible, feels a deep and powerful feeling that I here designate as” existential guilt “… existential guilt is a positive constructive force, a guide reminiscent of someone one to himself “.

To the extent that we accept our freedom, and therefore the fact that we are responsible for our destiny, we are confronted with the frightening observation that we are alone in the face of this freedom, especially in the face of that of the conscience. No one can be free in my place, no one can even see the world through my eyes, much less even live what I live, since precisely no one is me since I exercise this freedom.

Free Man does not refer to an external morality, a religion, or other external values, he is his own master and does not depend on anyone for his choices. The challenge here is that the full awareness of one’s freedom confronts us with our responsibility and, consequently, to experience guilt.

Existential Isolation and Loss of Meaning

Existential isolation, referring to “an unbridgeable gap between oneself and any other being,” is, therefore, another fundamental concern that everyone will have to face in the course of their psychological development. The fact that manifesting one’s existential freedom generates a consciousness of fundamental isolation explains why many people turn away from their approach of individuation preferring rather relieve their feeling of loneliness by conformity and immersion in the mass.

It is Erich From in his book “The Fear of Freedom” which first established an intimate link between existential isolation and conformity: “… it fully adopts the kind of personality that is offered to it by the cultural models; And so it becomes exactly like all the others are and as they expect it to be. The gap between the “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of loneliness and vulnerability … The person who abandons his individuality and becomes an automaton, identical to millions of other automatons around her, no longer has to feel alone and anxious. But the price she pays, however, is high; It’s the loss of itself. ”

The path to becoming an individual in its own right requires that we not run away from this isolation, but embrace it, accept the suffering that accompanies it, and develop the capacity to actively confront the feeling of being alone, for example by admitting that others are just as fundamentally isolated as us, but that this existential loneliness connects us since we are all concerned by the same tragedy.
The feeling of being alone and abandoned by the world leads us very logically to question the meaning of life, another fundamental concern with which every individual must struggle.

For Viktor Frankl, human beings can discover or relate to the meaning of life in three different ways:

– Achieving a work or a “good action” obviously makes sense of one’s life. It’s about mobilizing one’s self-transcendence abilities (participating in something bigger than oneself).

– To experience goodness, truth, beauty, to know the uniqueness of a human being through love is the second way to give meaning to one’s life. Love is the only way to know the essence of another person. It reveals to the one who loves the essential characteristics of the loved one and even the possibilities that it has not yet realized. In addition, thanks to the love of the other, this same person becomes aware of his potentialities and strives to achieve them.

– It is possible to find meaning in one’s life even in a desperate situation. The important thing is then to appeal to the highest potential of the human being, that of turning a personal tragedy into a victory, suffering into a realization. When we cannot change a situation – if we face unavoidable death – we have no choice but to transform ourselves. Suffering stops hurting when it makes sense, it becomes a sacred act, a sacrifice.

IV – Conduct of a Meeting

Sessions can be individual, couple, or group. The patient works to free himself from the beliefs and modes of functioning that prevent him from choosing and living freely. The therapist helps his patient to act more authentically because he alone is responsible for his own happiness, always to build. He can also guide him in his quest for philosophical meaning. The goal? Self-realization!


This approach is appropriate for anyone who wants to engage in personal work and questions himself and the meaning of existence.

Duration and price

Existential therapy can last a few sessions, months, or years, depending on demand. The cost is about 60 to 80 Euros per session, one session per week, or every two weeks.

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