I first read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” – a classic existential novel – when I was nineteen. From a place of teenage angst it struck a chord with me as I recognised the overwhelming sensitivities I felt at the time and typically kept to myself. Sartre speaks of experiencing the world in a felt way; a way that many sensitive individuals experience but keep to themselves, rarely entering discussion. The vividness of what it is to be alive, in the moment, surrounded by a world and society of people who are often false, guarded, hiding behind the roles we adopt and that we play with one another, like actors in a continuous theatre production. For those sensitive to the surreal pantomime of everyday life, we can long for truth, authenticity, genuineness even when we don’t quite know what fuels the longing.
“Awareness in itself is healing.”
Existential Analysis or Existential Psychotherapy is a form of psychotherapy that has developed since Freud’s lifetime as a response to his Psychoanalysis. Unlike most other therapies it is not a fixed system repeated by each practitioner, but is instead a way for each therapist to draw on his or her lived experience, existential philosophies (such as Sartre’s and others’) and a method of enquiry called phenomenology to form honest, authentic relationships with their patients.
Each practitioner, rather than repeating a set format or protocol of therapy from an instruction manual, instead formulates his or her own unique approach to therapy based on existential principles of understanding and enquiry. The individual human being is understood as a multi-dimensional, unique, free agent struggling to meet his or her needs against the forces within and around us, not least of which is existential angst or anxiety. Angst is viewed, not as a pathological symptom, but as a defining characteristic of Being, which we experience in relation to our awareness of our individual life being finite, our need for meaning, our experiential separateness from others, and our freedom to choose from a multitude of possibilities. Our tasks as individuals are to take full ownership of our choices and our life by developing our awareness, meaning, values and skilfulness in order to honestly address our physical, mental, relationship and spiritual needs. In keeping with the theme of personal authenticity, each practitioner of Existential Analysis or Psychotherapy resists the notion of conformity to a prescribed or predetermined way of working, and instead works in his or her own unique way, with some therapists employing a broad range of psychological theories, models and therapeutic methods within an existential framework of understanding.
The above video is an academic look at Existential Analysis and its roots in existential philosophy. In practice the therapy is very pragmatic, easy to understand and clear and is unrestricted as to what the patient may want to address or explore during therapy sessions.
The first step is an informal meeting that allows us to get a sense of one another in order to determine whether there’s potential to establish a relationship of trust, mutual respect and understanding that could enable us to work effectively together. This is very much a gut-feeling kind of process that we both try to sense in our first informal meeting, whether that is face to face or via Skype for example.
Assessing Your Needs, History and Circumstances
If it feels ok for both of us to continue we’d get together again and do a thorough assessment. This involves gathering up as much information about your life as possible: your history, values, how you see yourself, medications, relationships an so on. I do this using my own assessment form as well as discussing things with you in detail, listening carefully to what you need and coming to an understaning of your situation by taking into consideration all of the different pieces of information to be evaluated. Once the assessment is complete and I have a clear idea of what is happening and what you want out of therapy I give you a detailed picture of my understanding. Once we establish an accurate picture you then have a choice of whether or not you would like to start working together on your chosen area.
I’ve no interest in imposing ideas or notions of ‘normality’ on people. I think the world does enough of that already. Our work together is not about judging you but about collaborating together so that we form the best understanding at any given moment. This relies on our mutual honesty with one another – a genuine committment to being truthful with one another – and I welcome and encourage you to tell me when I get something right and when I get it wrong; what helps and what doesn’t; what you actually think and feel. In this way we create an authentic therapeutic way of relating that allows us to build more trust and a deeper understanding, opens up new possibilities and insight, and allows us to use our time to best effect.
My formulation of Existential Analysis involves the use of a wide variety of ideas, methods and approaches to understanding and problem solving and expressing experiences from the whole person (mind and body) that I have developed over the past twenty years. I am always developing my practice, and stay open to new ways of approaching the work, including suggestions that you might want to make. The core concern that remains unchanged in my work is a committment to personal authenticity and honesty in the relationship. I believe that when we are willing to be courageous enough to reveal ourselves truthfully then we create therapeutic conditions that allow change, discovery, learning, growth and personal integrity to develop. Being truthful about what we genuinely experience from moment to moment takes us out of our heads and into our senses, allowing us to bring our full attention to how we relate to one another as whole human beings.
Here are some of the methods I use to help patients develop their courage to get in touch with their genuine experience within the therapeutic relationship:
- Written work: journals, specific diary exercises, therapeutic task sheets, support plans that help you create a kind of road map of where you’re going, and therapeutic writing
- Art work: drawing, painting and any kind of visual media that might allow you to access feelings or memories and explore them in a non-threatening way; this and other methods that allow you to keep painful or distressing experiences at ‘arms-length’ can be used as first steps towards examining and integrating these types of experiences and difficult memories in a safe, graded way.
- Monodrama: this involves re-enacting an event or idea or dream and putting yourself in the shoes of someone or something in that event or dream. This is an excellent way to access solutions and discover blind spots that are not so obvious through normal discussion
- Talking: the most obvious vehicle for doing therapy, but it can be much more than discussion. Experimenting with sentences, affirmations and things that you may be ‘saying’ with your body are a few of the ways we can use talking in creative and therapeutic ways.
- Film, music, art and literature: using films, music, art and literature as a way of exploring ideas and possibilities that come up in therapy
- Somatic Experience/ Body work: I’m also a qualified yoga instructor and regularly use specific yoga postures and breathing exercises to enhance body awareness, release stress and manage anxiety, helping you train your body to respond with greater calm and composure to difficult situations and experiences. Somatic therapy also helps you release old unexpressed emotions that we tend to hold in the body as tension, allowing people to let go of the old and be more open to new experiences.
- Meditation: I use a wide variety of meditation techniques to help you develop awareness and cultivate states of calmness and transparency in your daily life
- Guided awareness: I use a variety of methods to guide your awareness to greater acceptance, relaxation and visualisation of helpful states of mind or ‘safe spaces’ that you create in order to better manage stress, tension or difficult experiences.
- Tackling problem situations together: sometimes it can be helpful to visit a situation together so that we can work through whatever problems you’re having in specific locations. For example, anxiety states or phobias associated with being outside or in crowded places, talking to strangers etc.
- Your chosen medium: if you are interested in photography, writing, painting, music or writing, I would encourage your use of these and other creative media in the service of your therapy. During sessions you’re welcome to bring anything along that can help us understand and explore your perspective.
- Emotional intelligence and healing trauma: I use a variety of methods to help you access your emotions in safe, gentle ways. This can include very painful emotions from past events or traumas. In such instances I would pay particular attention to a. teaching you specific techniques for making you feel safe and grounded; b teaching you specific techniques for looking at painful events safely; c. helping you establish a strong foundation or ‘safe place’ before d. using the least invasive or emotive methods to explore past trauma in very small periods of time. With such work we go at a pace that is right for you, taking great care to ensure that you are not ‘re-traumatised’.
These are just a few of the tools that are available within my practice and I approach each patient as a unique person with unique requirements and do my best to tailor what I offer you at each stage of your development or progress throughout the work. Therapeutic work is then only limited by the creative possibilities we agree to pursue, with the work amounting to a creative process of discovery and learning.
Structure and Format
In keeping with this approach of flexibility and creativity I also do my best to collaborate with you to create the best possible therapy format and support structure for your needs and particular circumstances so that you get therapy delivered in a way that gives you the best chance of success. This can involve varying the frequency of sessions, using different ways of undertaking the sessions, providing specific kinds of support between sessions, and other ways of creating support provision for times of stress or urgency outside normal hours. Therapeutic work is always conducted within clear professional boundaries designed to protect our mutual interests and with a view to helping you make the most of our work together.
A scene from the inspirational film “Dead Poet’s Society” in which the tutor – played by the late, great Robin Williams – teaches one of the fundamental existential truths to his students: the importance of treasuring each moment of our very short life. Watching this film is a therapeutic exercise in itself.
Main image used under Creative Commons free usage licence from dreamypixel