This form of counseling is based on German existential philosophy and adapted for therapy in the 1960’s. Rather than focusing on the scientific aspects of psychology, therapists and psychologists began asking different questions. When they realized that human beings are essentially alone in the world and finite, they began to deal with the anxiety of such a tense state. The result is Existential Therapy, which requires a great deal of courage, but also offers many rewards.
The Historical Context
These streams of ideas coalesced over time from several different thinkers, especially Nietzshe, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. The philosophy was combined with therapy as a structural framework for work for therapy, but is open to other schools of thought as well. Existentialists reacted to Adler’s “feel good” social determinism by changing the orientation of the counseling philosophy: what if we are alone in the world? This individual determinism comes out of Western notions of individualism, freedom, and subjectivity to answer big questions about what it means to be human. The theory developed enough to be applied to therapy in the 1960’s, a time when society was radically altering its view of itself with the reality of an immoral war in Korea and Vietnam, the introductions of hallucinogenic drugs, and the questioning of traditional social norms. As psychology gained ground in the public eye as something not just for sick crazy people, clients came in not with easily diagnosable mental illnesses, but with anxieties about everyday life and living in the shadow of death.
The Major Contributors
- Rollo May: (April 21, 1909 – October 22, 1994) was an American existential psychologist. He authored several influential books about humanistic psychology. May earned his B.A., a B.D. in 1938, and a PhD in clinical psychology in 1949 from Columbia University. He is an American Psychological Society Gold Medal winner. In the years before his death in 1994, Rollo May set about to write his final thoughts on life, death, mythology and psychoanalysis. As a result, the world gets an unparalleled book, The Cry for Myth. Dr. May, a student of literature, theology and clinical psychology, explains his ideas in extremely accessible ways, allowing the reader to ponder their own lives in the grand scheme of things as he comes to the end of his (May).
- Erich Fromm: (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was an Orthodox Jew whose studies of the Talmud and Freud led him to re-examine the story of Adam and Eve as their existential moment of self-awareness and the guilt and shame that followed. He used this as a base for articulating existentialism. A strange result from someone who immersed himself in social-psychology. He was strongly influenced by religion, especially Jewish law, and later, Buddhism. Funk sees that Fromm “focused on two problems, one of which is the historically decisive question of whether man will once again become the master of his creations, or whether he will perish in an overly technological industrial world” (Funk)
- Viktor Frankl: (March 27, 1905 – September 2, 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Influenced by Freud, but later became a student of Adler, developed logotherapy by combining existential philosophy and therapy (Corey).
- Existential therapy focuses on the individual’s experience of being in the world alone and identifies the basic dimensions of the human condition:
o Capacity for self-awareness
§ The greater our awareness, the greater our capacity for freedom.
o Freedom and its corresponding responsibilities
§ We choose the manner in which we interact/react with the world: our reality is the result of our choices.
o Creating identity and establishing meaningful relationships with others
§ Discover or create substantial core identity and then merge with others in a mutually healthy way.
o Search for meaning, purpose, value and goals
§ Identify, evaluate and—if necessary—discard old values and replace them to fill the void. If one finds meaninglessness: create meaning.
o Anxiety as a condition of living
§ It is a normal part of living, but it can get out of hand and become neurotic. The client must recognize that in order to open up to life and find meaning, we have to have courage to face our fears about change.
o Awareness of death and non-being
§ Death gives significance to life because it makes our short time here substantial. (Corey)
- Rollo May offers this response to the existential questions: “Every individual seeks—indeed must seek if he or she is to remain sane—to bring some order and or without. Each one of us is forced to do deliberately for oneself what in previous ages was done by family, custom, church, and state, namely, form the myths in terms of which we can make some sense of experience” (May 29).
• Those in existential crisis see fairy tales and lies around them, but must work towards finding the myth beyond it by following the Greek idea of “know thyself”. “Fairy tales are our myths before we become conscious of ourselves” (May 196).
Evaluation of the Theory from My Religious Perspective
I view existentialism as Scorpio therapy, for it tackles the great questions that the astrological sign wrestles with: death, the nature of life, sex and love. Existentialism asks what it means to be human, which is a question we all come to sooner or later, and the resulting crisis dictates the direction of our lives, if we let it. These are the great questions that religion and myth answer, and which Wicca addresses in a contemporary way that pays homage to where we have come from through tradition and ritual.
Philosophically, Wicca seems to accept and enfold existential ideas within it, and offers ways to create meaning, know thyself, and develop personality substance. But I think the idea of isolationism and alienation does not hold well under Wiccan theology. We learn the axiom “As Above, So Below” which means that everything that happens inside us, also happens in the broader world. While we are unique individuals following our own life path, our experiences have happened to other people before, and will happen again. Facets of life are shown to us in mythology as we become the hero of our own story, which is acted out in ritual theatre. We aren’t alone because facets of ourselves are mirrored in the sky (via astrology), in nature, by the Gods which we know through mythology, and by other beings.
Sometimes I do feel lonely, but I think it is because I am disconnected. When I reach out to the world, the world reaches out to me. I perform rituals to get me back in rhythm. Wicca offers answers through participation in the Wheel of the Year, the eight seasonal festivals. We learn that in the height of summer is the shadow of death, but that in the dead of winter there is a glimmer of hope, and these cycles and anxieties are faced yearly through the seasons, but also within ourselves. Existentialism assumes that the angst of the client is caused by a fear of death, but as you progress through Wicca, you face death every year. Many times have I traveled to the Underworld to face my demons, confront the Gods, or leave things behind. I have no fear of death because I know what comes after…because I’ve seen it. In a great many ways does Wicca address these concerns.
Corey, G; Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. 8th edition. Thompson Books. 2009.
Funk, R; “Life and Work of Erich Fromm” © Logosonline 2007 <http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_6.3/funk.htm>
May, R,; The Cry for Myth. W. W. Norton and Company. NY, NY. 1992.