What is existential counselling?
What is Existential Counselling?
The most useful counselling work often emerges when there is a particularly good fit between client and counsellor. That includes not just the way in which the two interact on a personal level but also when the client is comfortable that the counselling technique being employed in the room by the therapist feels right.
There are many different types of therapy. When I first meet clients I will often provide a very quick overview some of these various techniques in order to try to demystify the counselling process.
There is much debate in the counselling world as to whether that is a sensible approach. From my experience this can be helpful although there can be occasions when the client is not in the right place to receive that information. Sometimes the client may feel overwhelmed by what is happening in their emotional world and there is just no space for this type of reflection on the counselling process.
That is understandable and I always look to adapt my approach to fit with what is best for the client at that time. Even when the client does wish to learn more about the ways in which support can be provided in the therapy room we do need to think carefully about how to best do that. The language that we use can often be puzzling and even off putting. One obvious example is when trying to explain existential therapy.
The term ‘existential’ can for some people sound too abstract or even pretentious. I am very aware that when I start to talk about existential work an irreverent image which often comes into my mind is not of one of the intellectual existential heavyweights of the counselling world such as Yalom or Spinelli but instead that of satirists such as John Cleese.
Cleese and the Monty Python team were superb at debunking pomposity and references to existentialists were very much a case in point. Nevertheless today I will try to push past that image and use these next few notes to shed some light on this existential approach.
Perhaps a starting point is just to try to gain a view of the basics surrounding this idea of the existential. That is quite challenging particularly with reference to therapy. With techniques such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic counselling there are general definitions which are broadly accepted by all counsellors if there are still substantive differences in both practice, design and delivery. For existential work even the broadest definitions can be contentious and disputed.
Existential counselling draws from existential philosophy. But a snapshot of Sartre or Camus smoking Gitanes in a Left Bank café in Paris in the sixties seem a long way from a therapy room in Chichester in 2018. So what are the key pillars of existential thought and just how do these relate across to the counselling world?
My interpretation from a therapy perspective is to acknowledge that our very existence is built on a premise of unsteady foundations. Once we move from an infantile state we become increasingly responsible for our own actions but despite that internal accountability there is much in our lives that we cannot control.
Within our existence the only absolute certainty in life appears to be experience of continual change which brings further uncertainty. In what may seem rather dramatic terms we live life with the knowledge that our existence is fleeting. There is an inbuilt frailty in life and that spectre is a continued presence in our way of being. Given that premise, to experience what some may term anxiety about encountering life in an uncertain world may on reflection seem to be a perfectly reasonable response. And that existential anxiety will have either consciously or unconsciously, implications on how we both view and interact with our world.
Those ideas provide for me a foundation of existential thought within the therapy world. But this does not mean that existential work has to carry pessimism about the human condition. It is more that work on individual concerns starts from a premise which is open and accepting of those challenges around uncertainty. If we can acknowledge the reality of the underlying basis of our situation we can then look to devise a realistic way forward which allows us to make the most of all that is there.
That seems to me to be a more preferable approach to therapy work than one which instead tries to suggest that solid stable and secure emotional structures can always be built irrespective of the fragility of the foundations which are set down.
I wonder if those comments help with gaining an initial insight into what existential work is about. If these comments do provide some understanding I should quickly emphasise that these ideas are only my interpretation. From my experience the existential world is almost unique within counselling schools in actively welcoming disagreement, dissension and discussion. That argumentative dialectic provides a great way of progressing thoughts.
And in terms of progression and moving ideas forward the next step is to consider how to work with these ideas within the therapy room in a way that is helpful to the client.
But perhaps that is enough for now. Next time we can look at the ways in which therapist sets out to work with existential ideas within the therapy room…..