Existential humanistic therapy, also known as existential therapy or humanistic-existential therapy, is a psychotherapeutic style focusing on exploring and understanding the individual’s unique experience of existence, meaning-making, and personal growth. Existential humanistic therapy is rooted in the philosophies of existentialism and humanism. This therapeutic style places emphasis on transcending life’s momentary challenges through individual freedom, personal responsibility, and search for meaning.
James F. T. Bugental, one of the pioneers of existential humanistic psychotherapy, wrote that one of the primary challenges is “to respond to the pervasive ‘dis-ease’ arising from feelings of emptiness and the lack of personal meaning” (1992). Accordingly, helping clients resolve the emptiness is a primary goal in existential humanistic therapy.
In existential humanistic therapy, the therapist aims to create a supportive and non-judgmental space where individuals can explore their authentic selves, confront existential concerns, and navigate life’s challenges. Basically, the therapist facilitates an exploration of the client’s values, beliefs, and goals, encouraging self-reflection and taking responsibility for personal growth.
Existential humanistic therapy is rooted in philosophies of existentialism and humanism, this therapeutic approach places emphasis on transcending life’s challenges through individual freedom, personal responsibility, and an existential search for creating personal meaning.
History of Existential Humanistic Theory and Therapy
We often attribute early existential humanistic theory to Rollo May, James Bugental, and Kirk J. Schneider. The existential humanistic vein of psychotherapy began to develop during mid twentieth century stemming from the work of Viktor Frankly (logotherapy), Carl Rodgers (person centered therapy), and Abraham Maslow (self-actualization).
In 1964, James Bugental outlines the five basic principles of humanistic psychology:
- Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components.
- Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
- Human beings are aware and are aware of being aware—i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
- Human beings have the ability to make choices and therefore have responsibility.
- Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value, and creativity (Tolman, 2023).
Existential humanistic theory largely transformed into an integrative therapy that therapist could conjoin with other therapy styles.
Two Fundamental Principle of Existential Humanistic Theory
Existentialism is a philosophical approach that emphasizes a holistic view of human beings that validates human emotions, thought, behavior, and choices. Existentialism focuses on our individual responsibility, need and ability to define and find our own sense of meaning or purpose in the absurdity of a world that does not have innate meaning.
Basically, the existential humanistic approach emphasizes two main concepts. First is our ability to create meaning and purpose. Second is a strong emphasis on the individual responsibility, utilizing free will, choice, self-determination, and the search for meaning and purpose to stimulate personal growth.
Another key component of existential humanistic theory is the experience of existential anxiety and guilt that arises from the responsibility that comes with freedom. Existential angst is also related to the need to accept the inevitability of one’s own mortality and future death.
One of the fundamental principles of existential humanistic therapy is that individuals possess an innate capacity for self-awareness, self-direction, and self-discovery. Consequently, the existential humanistic approach emphasizes a person’s capacity to make rational choices and maximum their potential (self-actualization).
The existential humanistic theory posits that each individual has the freedom and responsibility to transcend the meaninglessness of their life. Accordingly, the therapy process encourages clients to actively shape their lives through finding meaning and purpose. The therapist guides the client on meaning finding excursions by asking exploring questions related to identity, relationships, and freedom. “Existential humanistic psychotherapeutic encounters…may also be seen as experiments in consciousness” (Shukla, 2021).
Growth, according to the theory, spontaneously occurs when the individual confronts meaninglessness and decides for themselves how to shape their life (Osafo Hounkpatin, 2014). Schneider suggests that the fundamental goal of existential humanism therapy is to “assist clients optimize choice within the natural and self-imposed limitations of living (2016).
Existential therapy focuses on free will, self-determination, and the search for meaning—often centering on the individual rather than on their symptoms. The approach emphasizes a person’s capacity to make rational choices and to develop to their maximum potential.
Guiding a Client to Find Their Own Meaning
Existential humanistic therapy recognizes the importance of subjective experience and the unique perspective of each individual. However, the existential humanist therapist does not teach meaning but guides the client to find their own meaning and purpose. James Bugental wrote that “life offers an immense array of possibilities for our life to be rich, satisfying, and emergent; yet for too many of us, these possibilities remain only dimly sensed and frustrating chimera” (1992).
The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent up potentialities turn into mobility and despair, and eventually into destructive activities
Schneider explains that he views existential humanistic therapy as integrative. He wrote that “it is integrative of the of the question, ‘how is one willing to live, in this remarkable moment, with this extraordinary opportunity for support?'” (2014, p. 71). Certainly, clients may need relief from immediate pain. Powerful disrupting moments need addressing. This may be through various different modes of therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing, pharmacotherapy, etc…). However, once the immediate need is treated, the therapist brings the client to the availability of the potential for “whole full-bodied, in depth experiences of discovery” (Ibid. p. 72).
Perhaps, Schneider is referring to something akin to William James’ reference to forming a union with something ‘more.’ James explained that most if not all theologies agree that the ‘more’ really exists and that something really is “effected for the better when you throw your life into its hands” (James, 2017, p. 497).
In brief, existential humanistic therapy maybe adding something ‘more’ to the nuts and bolts of the other therapies that adds to our whole experiences after our momentary pains are soothed. Schneider wrote that “recent therapeutic outcome research has shown convincingly that the existential-humanistic principles of therapy are integral to the effectiveness of most bona-fide psychotherapies (2016).
The Role of Suffering in Existential Humanistic Theory
Existential humanistic theory acknowledges our potential for the suffering inherent to the human condition. Accordingly, the existential humanistic therapist encourages individuals to confront difficult emotions and existential dilemmas to foster personal transformation and a deeper understanding of oneself and one’s place in the universe. We accomplish this, according to the theory, first through awareness, and then with a blend of acceptance and coping mechanisms.
Suffering is an integral part of our existence. We natural seek escape from the discomfort. We may run or avoid misfortune that painfully reminds of the reality of our existence. However, this approach invites a variety of maladaptive behaviors. We establish defense mechanisms that disguise reality, decorating fears with more palatable narratives. A better response may require willingness to confront mortality. Barry E. Wolfe wrote that “existential psychotherapy suggests that confronting one’s mortality is life affirming.” He continues, “it motivates personal agency and change rather than paralysis. It motivates one to develop a personally meaningful life” (2016, p. 58).
Meaningful Narratives Motivates Active Response
Schneider explains that from the existential approach to life upheavals emerges “an increasing ability to shift from abject terror to growing wonder; from paralysis to intrigue about feelings, meanings, and implications of that paralysis for a different and more expansive life” (2014, p. 72). In Spinoza terminology, in an existential perspective we view life suffering “under the aspect of eternity rather than from the personal and the mortal (Muzika,1990, p. 92).
The goal is not mystical explorations, clouded by altered states of consciousness, but honest contact with the reality of life; its joys and sufferings. We refer to this as authentic perception. Schopenhauer wrote “one way to achieve a more tranquil state of consciousness is through aesthetic perception” (Wicks, 2017). We achieve this by transcending normal judging and examination of the moment, moving from despair to a state of awe as realistic moments unfold in beauty and wonder.
When we throw up our hands and give up, we become helpless. Rollo May suggests helplessness and emptiness are related. He wrote, “the experience of emptiness…generally comes from people’s feelings that they are powerless to do anything effective about their lives or the world they live in” (May, 2009). One may surmise that existential therapy addresses this by addressing both lack of meaning and empowering the self to take action.
Long and Short Term Solutions
As briefly mentioned earlier, existential humanistic therapy is not a replacement for therapeutic treatment to acute symptoms happening in the moment. Bugental wrote, “the primary benefits of the brief therapies are reduction of specific symptoms in a relatively short time—a valuable and humane contribution.” Bugental continues, “the central goal of most short-term therapies is increased coping skill and better adjustment to one’s life” (1992).
Coping skills are essential. However, coping just brings us to the staging ground where the ‘more’ may be experienced. Resolving symptoms in the moment through different therapies and medication may be necessary before we can engage in deeper explorations of meaning. Bugental explains, “by no means is the absence of distress the equivalent of, or even a path to, a more fulfilling life.” He continues to explain short term solutions, “while somewhat effective, can prove ineffective in the long run in eliminating the many ways that we curtail our capacity for greater aliveness. In helping to expand awareness, humanistic therapies enable patients to ‘culture’ and confront the most virulent self-limitations that infect and restrict their being fully alive”(Bugental, 1992).
Perhaps, we may see it as short term therapy removes the thorn, and existential humanistic therapy treats the wound and promotes long term healing after the therapist stabilizes the immediate and critical symptoms and injuries. In effect, the doctor first stops the bleeding and only then can she address long term healing.
A common theme in existential humanistic theory is the experience of awe. Kirk Schneider wrote that “the awesomeness of life is the starting point for psychology. Any psychology worth its name must begin with this premise. By awesomeness, I mean first of all, mystery—incomprehensibility, and second of all, magnificence—bedazzlement. I am speaking of the brute awareness that we exist at all” (2004). In a spectacular way, life itself inspires awe.
Our task is to step back from the momentary grind to see the wonder and experience the awe of existence. Perhaps, awe is a main healing factor contained within existential humanistic therapy. Keltner and Haidt explained, “Awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values. . . Awe inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth. The potential power of awe, combined with the mystery of its mechanism, may itself be a source of awe” (2003, p.312).
Shukla suggests that seeing the world through the lens of existential awe “is akin to the opening up of a new dimension.” An existential therapist creates experiences of awe through “subtle nudges,” creating an awareness in the client “of the inherent beauty that exists in their life experiences” (2021).
When we are able to transcend normal myopic views of the world, we pause in a state of awe. Accordingly, ailments that haunt our minds dissipate and we begin to heal.
Existential Guilt and Anxiety
Within an existential holding of life is experiences of guilt and anxiety. Accordingly, existential humanistic therapists must work with the client through these life disrupting emotions.
Existential guilt, as opposed to normal guilt, is a guilt rooted in “human existence as a universal experience.” Rollo May suggests that existential guilt is experienced as a result of self awareness and that it has a constructive potential. Basically, existential guilt can motivate healthy action. Hoffman explains that “existential guilt easily becomes neurotic if not faced, but when individuals directly face their existential guilt is can become productive” (2020).
Guilt is strongly associated with freedom. If we had no freedom to act, we would have no reason to experience guilt for wrong action. Existential guilt occurs when we “fail to make a conscious wholehearted choice.” Marijo Lucas, Ph.D. explains “One’s sense… is of having abandon and betrayed the self” (2004). Consequently, when we run away from a sense of responsibility to fulfill our potential in a wider view of existence, we experience pangs of guilt.
However, this guilt is universal because we never can become what we fathom in our idealistic visions. We all fall short. We all fail in some measure to become everything we believe we can become because we are human. Abraham Maslow refers to this as the Jonah Complex.
Maslow wrote, “we are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under most perfect conditions, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities” (Lucas, 2004).
Existential anxieties rises from the finality of choice. Some authorities refer to existential anxiety as akin to angst. Existential anxiety is described as “a natural reaction to the vastness of choice and isolation, a predictable response to the loneliness of individual life and choice” (Hoffman, 2020). Paul Tillich suggests that existential anxiety belongs to existence itself (2014).
Our entire future rests on choices made in the finite moment.
Existential guilt and anxiety create emotional discomfort which motivates a reaction to resolve the uneasiness. Our reactions may be adaptive or maladaptive. Accordingly, we may respond with appropriateness to the guilt and anxiety or in fear with defensiveness. A therapist must employ both short-term and long-term strategies. They assist the client in building regulatory skills to manage the intense emotions. However, they also should take the “opportunity to delve into the deeper meanings that may be brought into focus when existential threats are present” (Hoffman, 2020).
Through a collaborative and empathetic therapeutic relationship, existential humanistic therapy aims to empower individuals to make choices aligned with their values, develop a greater sense of self-awareness and personal meaning, and live more authentic and fulfilling lives.
A therapeutic relationship, according to existential humanistic theory, should be built on humanistic principles like unconditional positive regard, creating the environment where the client naturally grows. Within the relationship, the therapist does not pathologize symptoms but creates an environment where the symptoms dissipate into the grand beauty of our existential existence.
In conclusion, existential humanistic therapy offers a holistic and person-centered approach to psychotherapy, emphasizing the exploration of the individual’s existential concerns, personal growth, and the pursuit of meaning and authenticity. It invites individuals to embrace their own agency and responsibility in shaping their lives, guiding them towards a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
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