Counselling in Chichester &
West Sussex

Existential Moments in Counselling

Counselling and therapy work can often present two very different faces.  The first is essentially one of problem solving. The client is faced with a specific issue or dilemma which is affecting her or his emotional well-being and needs to be resolved. Once the client is able to deal with this particular challenge he or she is able to move on into a better place.

This has a clear focus on problem solving.  With a reference to resolution and cure this approach can be seen as more of a medical rather than a developmental model. The inner self is not as it should be.  Something in the emotional body is wrong and needs to be fixed.  The methodology adopted such as CBT or Solution Focussed work will then look to provide what can sometimes appear as quasi didactic support to enable resolution.

The second approach does not see a problem per se that needs to be fixed. Instead there may be a lack of clarity, a sense of something unknown, perhaps unsettling or disturbing. The challenge is not to remove an obstacle but more about finding the pathway to walk along.  The work is about understanding, development and growth rather than problem solving per se.

This type of therapy provides an opportunity for exploration rather than exorcism. It encourages the individual to use time in the counselling room for reflection and consideration. Existential work is a very obvious example of this type of therapy.  It may be that some aspects of psychodynamic work would also be seen as reflecting this more contemplative response.

Like most binary positions this rather simplistic analysis papers over the myriad of possible variations around these two themes.  Nevertheless this division into two broad approaches may resonate with client experiences and expectations within the therapy room.

Any reference within therapy to existential thinking should be made with some caution. Of all the counselling methodologies, existential work stands apart from the traditional expectations around the provision of clear definition of practice and process. An existential approach can be potentially challenging for some therapists who themselves may need a disciplined rigorous framework to work within.

A reading of works on existential therapy from Yalom and May through to Van Deurzen provides examples of variations on existential thought. This suggests that the existential approach is able to retain a flexibility which allows the counselling work to bend and flex in the theoretical breeze whilst remaining relevant for the client.

There can be differing interpretations of the existential.  That includes the philosophical descriptors as well as the practical application of existential thought within disciplines such as counselling and therapy

Within the counselling room one approach can be to regard that which affects or reflects on our very existence as being de facto existential.  Whether inside or outside the therapy room there will be occasions when our lives including our emotional well-being, will be greatly affected by the decisions we make. Sometimes those decisions or actions may threaten to enhance or diminish our very way of being.  Those can be seen as existential moments which may benefit from working through in a safe counselling space.

As far the two approaches to counselling work outlined above are concerned, an existential approach is more likely to fit with a process of investigation, reflection and exploration rather than the more structured problem solving methodologies.

Existential work invites a fluidity in understanding. In many respects existential work can encourage a celebration of the uncertainties of the human condition.  This allows those existential moments to be accepted as something to be sought rather than as issues to be resolved.

So what are the implications of existential moments for client and counsellors?  Perhaps it is to recognise again the inherent value of encouraging client and counsellor to work in that way which best meets client needs.

Existential moments can occur at any point within the counselling room as well as outside. These can be challenging for client and counsellor but should be recognised and experienced rather than ignored and avoided.

Existential moments provide remarkable opportunities within the therapy room for clients who wish to seek further personal growth and development. Existential moments can provide important doorways to bringing about change in our lives.  It is incumbent upon therapists to ensure that these moments are identified and acknowledged.

At the very least existential work reminds us both as clients and counsellors that the doorway to further personal development is always open irrespective of whatever stage in life we have reached.