Can Existential Therapy Give You a Sense of Wellbeing?
My journey to becoming a therapist began with a desire to develop greater significance in my life and improve the quality of my relationships. Having worked as an organisational psychologist for many years, my work increasingly involved coaching senior managers in the art of managing their organisations. These sessions revealed that, contrary to my expectations, the help they required was related to more personal aspects of their lives outside of work.
Despite considerable coaching experience, I felt that if I were to assist them on this journey into exploring meaning in their lives both inside and outside of work, I would have to develop more specific psychotherapeutic skills. I began my search for my psychotherapeutic home. Over the next few years, I dabbled in many modalities, including psychodynamic, transpersonal, cognitive behavioural and humanistic. Despite these approaches having much to offer, I felt that their underpinning assumptions didn't fully mirror my own philosophical beliefs about what it is to be human. Then I stumbled upon existential psychotherapy.
Existential psychotherapy is a form of therapy that is grounded more in philosophy than psychology. Existential philosophy offers a radically different perspective on 'who we are as individuals'. It focuses on certain aspects of our existence i.e. choice, freedom, responsibility and anxiety within the limits of our own lives and our lives as human beings. In this way, psychological distress is not seen as pathological but as a normal aspect of struggling with our own personal answers to life's challenges. From this perspective, the problems, dilemmas and paradoxes that we face are not unique but shared challenges for us all.
Anyone who has tried to explore these concepts from the philosophical literature will be aware of how complex and inaccessible they can be. On the other hand, these concepts are discussed in more simplistic terms in films, magazine articles and conversations. So how can we explore choice, freedom and responsibility in the context of our own self-development and, more specifically, in therapy?
Personal change and mastery in my own life began with questioning the choices I made and exploring ways in which I could really exercise freedom in my life. It involved developing a very personal relationship with my self and trusting that I was the best judge of what was good for me. It required me to challenge others' expectations, and appreciate the ways in which I was created and defined by what I did and with whom I interacted. It invited me to clarify what I wanted from my life and identify the unchallenged assumptions under which I operated. It allowed me to evaluate the rightness of my choices rather than using others' criteria of success. This way of being became a journey, not a destination.
Many books have been written on how to bring about change in our lives. Some operate as a self-help checklist where goals and objectives are set to focus the reader on realising their potential. Others offer a way to escape from the rat race and become more independent and autonomous in our work. However, real freedom to exercise the choices in our lives comes from recognising that we already have complete freedom now to be who we want to be. Slavish adherence to goal-setting and planning can become as much a trap as going along with what is expected of us by others.
Often major life events initiate change in our lives: the death of a family member, loss of a job, divorce or illness. Sometimes we are suddenly plunged into the depths of despair and fear, becoming paralysed and desperately wanting to maintain the status quo. Alternatively, we may embrace the change and make new choices that alter our lives even further. Why do we so often rely on imposed change to make those choices? How can we harness the energy and power to choose desirable changes as a way of being in the world? If we fail to embrace change, our life will become like the wallpaper in our home - at first we notice its pattern and texture but after a time we cease to realise it is there. We also need to know what to change and what not to. Change for change's sake is as meaningless or as constraining as not exercising choices. So how can we realise those choices and make the changes in our lives that we want? I believe that insight begins with identifying the underlying assumptions and values under which we operate. The assumptions we have made about ourselves and others inform our lives and may limit the choices we believe are available to us. Our values underpin everything we do and when these are challenged or when we place ourselves in situations that compromise those values, we often feel defeated or powerless. We may resort to blaming others for our predicament, or we might focus on how to improve our interactions and communication with others. However, this rarely works because we are no longer functioning from a strong internal base. We have compromised our values and lowered the value we put on ourselves. Communication and relationships can only improve if we honour our values and operate from a position of autonomy and freedom. Therefore we need to get in touch with what is important to us - our own values - and then see how they inform our lives.
Some of our values are so strongly held that they immediately come to mind; others may be inferred from our behaviour and life choices. In order to identify your values it is helpful to begin with a review of your life and the choices you have made to date. I try to interpret these concepts in a straightforward and accessible manner through the language of Myths. Through practical activities, levelled at our individual everyday choices, we can explore our options, the implications of taking different paths and the anxiety that results from choosing. For many of us, the concept of Myths has mystical connotations and is understood in an allegorical, legendary or fabled manner. I think of Myths as unquestioned assumptions that impinge on every aspect of our decision-making. Myths are therefore pervasive, fictitious, invented, make-believe or untrue.
Within our social and cultural world we are bombarded with expectations and pressures of how to dress, what to eat, what career to pursue or how to relate to other people. We are constantly told what to expect as we enter different life stages, as if each of us were no more than members of a cloned group. We can of course choose how to respond to those expectations. We can conform, withdraw or act as individuals or institutions to bring about social change. However, those unquestioned assumptions are so pervasive that we may never stand back from their stronghold and consider our choices beyond a narrowly defined set of options. Our culture and socialisation inhibits us from exploring the vast array of available options. As Rousseau said, 'Man is born free but is everywhere in chains'.
How is existential philosophy relevant to us in the context of therapy? What are our choices and how can we live with the anxiety of challenging the status quo or questioning the rightness of our decisions? We have to live in the social world and consider others and the rules which enable us to realise our choices. The issue is not one of rejecting all that is expected of us - the issue is that we DO have a choice. The question is whether we challenge the unquestioned assumptions, expand our choices and live with the anxiety that meaningful living entails.
The validity of our choices is often questioned when we become disillusioned with our lives, despite achieving many of the things we dreamed of. We long to have it all but find it increasingly difficult to juggle our jobs, our children, our homes and our sanity! We believe that if only a balance could be struck between the different areas of our lives, we could relax. Invariably, this balance is never achieved and we become observers in our own lives, wishing for the day when it would all improve. We are constantly bombarded with choices about how to live and how to be happy. But what do we want to do with our lives?
As a psychotherapist, I passionately believe that we are each the best judge of what is right for us. By examining the role of Myths in our lives, we can expand our options, reconnect with our choices and judge the rightness of them. Whether we choose to develop meaning and understanding through reading self-help books or entering therapy, we are the authors of our own lives. By taking responsibility, we develop a greater awareness and sense of wellbeing.
Clare Mann is a psychologist and existential psychotherapist who runs a private practice in Sydney, Australia. She is author of the "Myths of Life and The Choices We Have" an Existential Philosophy based self-help book. (http://www.lifemyths.com/)
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