The following article series is a critique of existential psychotherapy by Stanton L. Jones. According to the existential psychotherapist Irving Yalom, existential psychotherapy is “a dynamic approach to therapy which focuses on concerns that are rooted in the individual’s existence. According to Stanton L. Jones, only 4 percent o American psychotherapists identify as existentialist therapists. One Christian psychotherapist, named John finch, has strongly influenced the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. That said, it is difficult to define existential psychotherapy as a monolithic school of thought.
Kierkegaard was one of the original thinkers in the existentialist movement, and identified himself as a Christian. He emphasized the importance of what we might become in the future, and stressed the freedom individuals have in deciding their own fate. We are the authors of our own lives and must decide what to become, creating ourselves in the process.
Kierkegaard emphasized the pain we all experience when considering the potentially infinite possibilities with respect to the choices we can make regarding our lives. There is the temptation to lose courage and resign oneself to a pointless, meaningless life or a life of fantasizing about what could have been.
Kierkegaard taught that becoming a true self begins with anxiety. The individual becomes anxious about the awareness of the availability of our choices and the synthesizing of elements which do not belong together. Indeed, Kierkegaard believed that we are constituted by inherently contradictory elements. He saw anxiety as a necessary component of human life, and those who reject anxiety end up denying the reality of human choice.
Abdication of one’s journey to become a self was referred to by Kierkegaard was despair. This entails deciding not to be a self. It is an objective state, for Kierkegaard, rather than an emotion. Just because one is in objective despair does not mean that one experiences the emotion of despair.
In any case, one has to work in order to become a self. This involves synthtesizing internally contradictory elements. First, there is the aesthetic stage. This entails the belief that life consists of getting one’s own way. It is basically a form of heathenism. After this there is the ethical stage, in which the individual commits to ethical principles. Finally, those who consummate the task of selfhood go on to the religious stage. This entails trusting the Triune God of Christianity.
For Kierkegaard, true self-hood involves responding to the “gift” of anxiety by existing in a totally honest or transparent relationship to God. Kierkegaard summarizes this by saying “the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God.” The self as a true self is grounded in relationship with the creator God. This involves becoming fully aware of our tendency towards self-deception. Kierkegaard was, in this respect, a kind of Christian psychologist.
A more contemporary existential psychotherapist is Viktor Frankl. He wrote “Man’s Search For Meaning,” a guide to his “logotherapy.” He discusses the relevance of his own experience in a concentration camp during WW2, and argues that we can find meaning in even the most utterly devastating circumstances. He believed that humanity experiences a fundamental “will to meaning.” He argued that this will is fundamental in a manner similar to the drives related to sex, survival and aggression. He thought that each person could choose their own meaning and that this would determine the direction of their existence. For Frankl, this universal will to meaning is what is responsible for the religious impulse. Although an agnostic, Frankl believed that humans were, in this way, innately predisposed to religion.