As with all theories of psychotherapy, there are many misperceptions about existential psychotherapy. This, in part, is due to the fact that many attempts to present overviews of the different theories are presented by single individuals from within their frame of reference. This often occurs in classes or books which try to give an overview of the different theoretical orientations. A second factor influencing the misperceptions about existential psychotherapy is the first misperception:
1) There is a singular, united existential theory.
While it would be much easier if this were true, it is not. One of the reasons why there are so many misperceptions about existential theory is precisely because so many people have attempted to describe existential theory in this oversimplified manner. There are some consistent themes, but few places of complete agreement.
While this may appear to be a weakness of the theory, I would argue that it is both a strength and a benefit. The internal tensions have provided motivation for continual re-examination of the most basic assumptions. Furthermore, it allows existential theory to be widely adaptable to therapists and consumers with very different values.
Probably the most basic unifying theme, as discussed the Brief Summary of Existential Theory, is the focus on trying to understand human existence. This generally brings theorists to the issues of freedom and responsibility, death, relationship, and meaning.
2) Existential Psychology is the same things as Existential Philosophy
Again, this would assume a singular, unified theory which, as discussed above, doesn’t exist. Yet there is an open, continual dialogue and respect between existential philosophers and psychologists. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, and others are frequently referenced by the existential psychologists.
Any student of existential philosophy would also be able to recognize there is also a tremendous diversity in existential philosophy. The most extreme example of this may be seen through a comparison of the nihilistic perspective of Sartre and the more optimistic perspective of Kierkegaard or Tillich.
3) Existential Psychology (& Philosophy) is Atheistic
This very common misperception continually amazes me! It doesn’t take too long of a look at the prominent existential philosophers, psychologists, and theologians to recognize many of these individuals were devoutly religious and/or spiritual. While generally they were not religious or spiritual in conventional ways, the still were very committed to their beliefs. Kierkegaard, who is generally considered the father of existential philosophy, was a Christian theologian. So was Tillich who was maybe one of the most influential people in popularizing existential thought in America.
Yes, there were also the existential atheists. Sartre, Nietzsche, and Yalom were three of the most famous. The nature of existential theory is neither inherently religious nor atheistic, however, it does point one in the direction of the religious or spiritual questions. Our very existence begs the questions of whether God exists, whether there is an afterlife, and many other spiritual questions. The way these questions are answered will also make a great impact on the type of existential theory that is developed, but that doesn’t necessitate a specific answer. Rather, it demands that certain questions be asked.
4) There is no difference between Existential and Humanistic Theory
While Humanistic Psychotherapy and the differences from existential psychotherapy will be addressed in a separate section in more detail, some issues are important to address here. There are many therapists who label themselves as either humanistic-existential or existential-humanistic. James Bugental is maybe the most well-known example. These individuals represent attempts to integrate the two different theories. Some of these attempts have been quite successful. However, there are also some significant differences that must be resolved in attempting to do so.
For example, while both humanistic and existential theory have a positive view of human nature, humanistic theory tends to place more of an emphasis on this. In general, humanistic psychology does not deal as well with the concepts of evil, the shadow, and the daimon. Humanistic psychology tends to focus on human potential, while existential psychology focuses on realities of existence. Which leads to another misperception…
5) Existential Psychotherapy is pessimistic.
It is easy to see how this misunderstanding could occur. Dealing with the realities of existence is not always pleasant, but existential psychology generally sees this as important or necessary. However, in a sense, even the belief that humans can handle this experience and benefit from it is rather optimistic!
In general, existential theory maintains that the pain is part of the joy. If we don’t hurt, we also don’t feel good. To have one we must have the other. Furthermore, the journey to happiness, peace, and joy is often requires going through many difficult experiences. As May (1991) proclaims, this is maybe represented most eloquently in the Dante’s Divine Comedy where Dante first had to travel through the depths of hell in order to reach heaven.
6) Existential Psychology is primarily a cognitive, intellectual approach
A shared proclivity of many of the existentialists is a draw from both the intellectual and the arts. Many of the historic figures such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Tillich are not very easy to read. In fact, they can be downright exhausting at times! Yet, the basis of existentialism is not on the intellectual. In fact, in reality it is much more of an experiential approach. There are those who have applied existential theory in a more cognitive realm, but I would still maintain an experiential approach is a much more natural fit. This is discussed more in the section on Emotions and Experience.
7) Existential Psychotherapy only works with higher functioning, intelligent people with relatively few problems to begin with.
Most psychotherapies work best with people who are psychologically-minded and relatively free of any severe problems. In this regard, yes, existential therapy also works best with this type of individual. However, to make a blanket statement that existential therapy is only appropriate for the ‘ideal client’ is absurd.
As Yalom (2002) points out a good therapist must create a new therapy with every person they see. For people who are less psychologically-minded or dealing with more severe problems more adjustments are needed. Yet this does not render existential therapy useless or ineffective. For example, if the person presenting for therapy is suicidal, this portion of therapy is not the time to explore the depths of their experience or encourage them to deepen their experience of their emotions. Rather, it becomes important to help the client cope and increase their stability. Once this has been established and maintained for a period of time, then it may be more appropriate to move to a more challenging phase of therapy.
The more important consideration in determining whether existential therapy is appropriate is the desired outcome. If the individual presenting to therapy desires a quick fix or does not desire to explore their intrapsychic processes, then existential therapy is not appropriate. While existential therapy can be effective with a wide range of problems and individuals, it is not the right therapy approach for everyone.
These seven are not the only misconceptions of existential therapy, but, from my experience, they are the most common. It important to highlight once again that there is great variance among the existential theorists. So not all theorists would agree with these misconceptions or the approach described on this website. This is one of many viewpoints on what best represents the breadth and depth of existential thought.
Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.