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Existentialism – The Role of Philosophy in Therapy

Philosophy, a word that translates to “love of wisdom,” underscores many if not all other fields of study. Its goals are to ask and, less often, answer questions about the thoughts, reasons, and knowledge that make up so much of our belief systems. From politics, to ethics, to morality, to science, philosophy seeks an understanding of all these subjects at a fundamental level. Psychology and therapy are no exceptions, and philosophy could be considered an essential part of all clinical approaches. The school of philosophy I’d like to focus on for this post is existentialism, which focuses on existence, autonomy, purpose, and meaning.

Existentialism, in my opinion, is one of the easier schools of philosophy to understand. It can also be a very heavy and difficult subject to navigate. The questions it poses could destroy the foundations of someone’s belief system or be the building blocks of a new one. I aim to demystify some of the existentialist concerns people have and present the subject as a way to facilitate adaptive and self-actualizing thinking rather than self-destructive spiraling.

Irvin Yalom, a prominent author and figure in existential therapy, explores the concept of universality. Universality is a term most often used in group therapy that describes the impact of sharing experiences with others. If you’ve ever been on Twitter and seen either “#relatable” or “#mood” or responded “omggg same *sobbing emoji*” to a friend… that’s universality! Sharing experiences with others and realizing that you aren’t alone in your struggles can be incredibly healing and invigorating for someone who has felt isolated. Everyone can sometimes feel alone – like no one else understands what they’re going through. Being presented with the reality that they’re not alone, that they can be understood, is a benefit of group therapy and of being open with those they love and trust.

Arguably, the most important existentialist inquiry concerns the idea of meaning. The general belief is that there is no inherent meaning in the universe and that we as humans must create the meaning we experience. Initially, that might be a frightening sentence to read. Am I saying that life is meaningless? Of course not! We and the things that we create are the meaning in the world. Apart from putting pineapple on pizza, there are no objectively bad decisions to make. One thing I always discuss with my clients (and sometimes even my friends) is that there are truly no right or wrong answers. The “right” choice will always be the best choice for you – the choice that promotes your wellness while ideally not compromising anyone else’s. Everyone has the autonomy – the freedom – to make their own decisions. The responsibility that implies can be daunting at first, but the goal is for it to be liberating. No one else gets to decide for you what is meaningful or how you choose to live your life.

Another important component of existentialist philosophy is what’s known as the four existential crises. The crises are freedom, loneliness, meaninglessness, and death. From an existentialist perspective, everyone will struggle with these four crises to a certain extent, and many challenges regarding interpersonal functioning, emotional wellbeing, and trauma can be understood using these concerns. Some people may find certain concerns more difficult to overcome than others, but it is my belief that all four crises are lifelong challenges that vary in terms of how impactful they are. The natural question you may ask is, “How does one overcome these crises?” Fortunately, I’ve already discussed many of the tools needed to navigate these concerns. Universality is an answer to loneliness. Believing that responsibility and autonomy are strengths rather than burdens is a possible answer to freedom and meaninglessness. Lastly, discovering and creating the meaning of your life and making decisions not based on the idea that it’s the “right” thing to do, but that it’s the best thing you can do in the moment, can help you overcome the fear of death and live the most authentic and fulfilling life you can. While asking yourself questions such as “What’s most meaningful to me?” can be difficult and uncomfortable, you may be surprised at the answers you arrive at and how helpful they can be.

Although this was a relatively brief post about existentialism (trust me, the literature itself can be A LOT), I hope I showed how applicable it can be both within and outside of therapy. Philosophy is a broad subject, yet it is that very broadness that makes it part of so many other subjects. While my therapeutic approach is flexible and adjusted to client needs, existentialism and humanism resonate strongly with me both professionally and personally. If you’d like assistance in exploring what’s meaningful to you, reach out and schedule a free consultation to help identify and meet your needs.

If you are thinking about starting therapy, reach out for a free consultation, today!

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