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Existential Therapy: Definition & Key Concepts

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:45 Key Figures
  • 1:46 Six Propositions
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

What is the philosophy behind existential therapy? How is it structured and what assumptions does it make about human nature? Let's discover the answers to these questions.

Existential Therapy: Definition

Let's imagine a ballet dancer who has spent her entire life mastering the specific techniques ballet is built around. Now let's imagine a young girl dancing outside in the yard. The ballet is choreographed to a specific musical score and tells a specific story. The little girl dancing in the yard is free to choose any dance move and apply it to the music that she has in her head as she dances.

Like this example of the dancers, existential therapy is more a way of thinking than a neatly defined model with specific techniques. It is a philosophical approach to therapy, which assumes we are free to choose and are responsible for our choices.

Key Figures

The two main figures responsible for the development of existential therapy are Viktor Frankl and Rollo May. Frankl and May were strongly influenced by existential philosophy. Both Frankl and May believed that there is a meaning to all things in life.

Existential therapists call the condition of meaninglessness that leads to emptiness the existential vacuum. This condition often causes a person to withdraw and be unable to create purpose in their life. Existential therapy should help a person discover the meaning of their lives and find purpose in this meaning.

Peak experiences are the experiences in our lives that help us gain awareness that we can be more than we are right now. These experiences cause us to seek after this deeper meaning in our lives. These experiences help us see that we are not victims of circumstance. Instead, we are what we choose to be.

Six Propositions

There are six basic assumptions, or propositions, of the existential approach.

Proposition 1: Capacity for Self-Awareness

As humans, we are capable of increasing our awareness of alternatives, motivations, and influencing factors in our lives. As this self-awareness is developed, our potential for personal fulfillment is increased. For example, I develop awareness that I am motivated by money. Therefore, I now realize that I would excel in a job where I have the potential to make more money based on my performance.

Proposition 2: Freedom and Responsibility

As humans, we are free to choose alternatives in our lives. This means that we play the most significant role in shaping our destiny. This also means that we are responsible for our own actions. For example, I am in a dead-end relationship because I am not choosing something different.

Proposition 3: Establishing an Identity and Meaningful Relationships

As humans, we are each capable of finding a unique personal identity. We are more than what others expect of us. However, we also strive to be connected to other people and depend on relationships. It is important to distinguish between these two parts of our lives. For example, I have lost track of my own identity after assuming the role of a wife and mother for the past ten years. I want these fulfilling relationships but need to find and nurture my own identity as well. Who am I if these roles are taken away from me?

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