A moment of love, and connection with another being is an existential moment. Undoubtedly. It is with the powerful feelings of intimacy and closeness that the appreciation and meaning of being alive can be experienced.
When I hug my baby son, enjoying the softness of his hair and the plumpness of his cheeks against my skin, I often think about life as a whole. I think about time that passes and us, humans, as we grow older. I imagine the time when my son will be an adult and I no longer will able to scoop him into my arms and rock him to sleep. A thought of death inevitably passes my mind. I imagine the time when my son will have to say goodbye to me at my funeral and know that he’ll never see me again. It makes me wish with all my heart to hold onto the present moment for longer, savor it, experience it fully, imprint it in my memory.
I acknowledge then, that this is a truly happy moment, but does such awareness make the happiness bigger or not? Perhaps not, and I guess that’s not the purpose of the awareness. It teaches me something else. It teaches me to be present, experience here-and-now fully and appreciate the moment of closeness with another human. Overtime, I believe that reflecting on these moments made me a better psychotherapist, and perhaps a more existential one.
Many people ask me what kind of therapy I practice and what is existential therapy anyway. “How does it work?” they ask and I used to struggle with this question. As I became more thoughtful about existential moments in my own life, I found it easier to articulate what it is I am actually trying to offer people. So, indeed, how does it work?
What actually happens in existential psychotherapy sessions?
Two People Talk. About Anything.
There is no particular agenda in sessions. Whatever the client brings and initiates will be paid attention to. Sometimes clients, willing to have a “productive” session and use time efficiently would say something and catch themselves:
“I don’t know why I brought this up, it is irrelevant”.
But I say, everything is relevant, because things seemingly randomly popping up in our heads are closely connected with our unconscious minds. For example, a client comes in and talks about a difficult relationship with a friend. Suddenly the client remembers that she forgot to take garbage out that morning. Before dismissing the memory about the garbage we explore why it might have “popped up”. Soon enough it appears that indeed the client had had a feeling of being treated like a “garbage” by her friend, but decided not to think of it in this way, judging herself for being too negative.
Us, As Humans, Are Recognized And Acknowledged.
I constantly have to remind my clients that it is normal, and human, and it is okay to feel worried, upset, lonely, needy, envious, angry, etc. Aiming at treating those as symptoms and trying to “talk yourself out of it” won’t work. Simply being a human, we are already prone to those feelings and only by listening to what we feel and using our feelings as information we can learn to live a more satisfying life. For example a client comes to the appointment complaining about work colleagues, who she finds frustrating. She says they gossip, they contribute to the unwelcoming atmosphere at work and she generally feels left out by them. Looking at her feelings closely, we had to acknowledge that she also envies some colleagues who got promoted, an feels unfair that her own work hasn’t been recognized. Gradually the client feels less ashamed to talk about her envy and she allows herself to explore her own needs and identify how they are not being met.
Mortality And Meaning Of Life Are Discussed.
Clients often come with one particular issue they want to focus on. However more often than not, few sessions down the track, they walk away with quite another focus. Part of the therapy process is to determine what is important in their lives and what is not. Almost always the shift in focus happens when the manifested goal is just an ideal picture, a notion people have in mind, rather that what lies close to heart. For example someone might come to therapy to focus on alleviating depression and become more productive at work, because they think work is important to them. As we move further in our therapy, they might discover that depression comes from other things they might not be getting in life, like love and intimacy, and their focus on work has become a mere substitute. In such case, keeping focus on productivity at work would never result in alleviating depression long term. Only addressing a deeper seated need will do that. Asking a client what is meaningful for them, bearing in mind that their life will end, is a call for clearer goals. It is also a call for change with some urgency attached to it.
Can Existential Therapy Help You Resolve Existential Issues?
Existentially we as humans have quite a few needs. Needs for connection, affection, attention, etc. While we can provide for most of our material needs, by ensuring we have food and shelter, we require other people to provide the love, care and attention. Loneliness and need for connection with another human is felt acutely from birth till death. Sometimes it becomes so hard for some people to fulfill that need that in despair they say: “I don’t need anyone!” Quite often they come to see a psychotherapist hoping that therapy will make them “stronger”, i.e. less needy of others, less dependent, less vulnerable. My clients often request that I coach them towards independence and self-sufficiency. However I always respond that paradoxically it doesn’t happen this way.
The longer you engage in existential therapy, the more alive and vulnerable you feel.
The more alive you feel – the better you recognise your needs, which in turn may appear daunting and even more depressing. It is beneficial to have those conversations early on in therapy to adjust client’s expectations of what is likely achieved in existential therapy. Do not despair though! According to this famous TED talk it is mentally healthy to be vulnerable and it is actually the only way to become really strong.