Steve Smith

What is Existential Counselling?

Existential Counselling/Psychotherapy is an approach that originally developed in the mid 20t h century partly in reaction to what some psychotherapists felt was the dogmatic and narrow nature of psychoanalysis – the hugely influential therapy developed by Sigmund Freud.  Although Existential Psychotherapy does share some of the characteristics of Freud’s approach it differs in many ways, particularly in its focus on the present rather than the past. It draws on many different sources for its inspiration including, philosophy, phenomenological psychology, person centred counselling, literature, art, film and on psychoanalysis itself.

For that reason there is quite a wide variation in the way psychotherapists who might describe themselves as existential work, but below is a list of points to try and give you some idea of what I mean by ‘existential' and what you might expect from counselling.

  • The initial aim of the counselling sessions is to get a detailed, clear and honest  picture of how you see yourself, the world and your place in it, coloured as little as possible by the ideas, assumptions and theories of the counsellor. Simply doing this without fear of judgement or criticism can be helpful and calming.
  • When you see the feelings and assumptions you take for granted laid out clearly you can look at them, evaluate them and decide what you really think about them.  
  • If you decide some these feeling and assumptions might be the roots of problems like anxiety, depression, obsession or addiction and patterns of behaviour you want to change, we can work out how you can free yourself from their power. If necessary you can learn cognitive behavioural (CBT) techniques to help you do this.
  • Giving voice to difficult feelings and accepting that you have them is often as not the first stage in freeing you from the exaggerated power they have over you.
  • Emotional problems and pain do not often have not come ‘out of the blue’ but are logical, if unhelpful, responses to what life has dealt you.
  • No life is without anxiety and difficulty. Some things we can change, some things we can’t.  If we can’t change things the only other option is to change our attitude towards them.
  • Anxiety is not something we should seek to eliminate entirely: it is inevitable as soon as we become self-conscious and aware of our vulnerability and mortality. The better option is to learn how to use anxiety creatively as a guide and a motivating force in our lives.
  • We all look for meaning and purpose in life and living without it causes problems. Part of what counselling can do is help you find new meaning and purpose if you feel you’ve lost track of it.
  • Counselling is a collaboration between you and your counsellor. The role of the counsellor is to act as a guide and to help you uncover the courage and resources that will enable you to live your life according to your true values and beliefs; your role is to commit to the work and possible discomfort this may involve and to accept responsibility for the freedom you have to change or not to change.
  • If you come to trust the counsellor the counselling room becomes a safe place where you can try out being different to the way you are in the rest of your world.  You can get a feel for how it might be to try being that way outside the counselling room.
  • Hopefully you will go away from counselling with a new more flexible attitude to life that will enable you to deal better with future problems as they come up.