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Privilege, Existential Guilt, and Responsibility

Nanjing Masacre Museum. Photo taken by Louis Hoffman

As I write this, it has been 12-years since I obtained my PhD in clinical psychology. In many ways, I feel quite proud of what was accomplished during this year; in other ways I struggle with the existential guilt associated with the privilege that allowed for that success. I write this as I near the end of my term as president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology. The focus of my presidency was on multiculturalism and diversity. Yet, this piece was inspired in part by an email I received recently confronting me on my own mistake when, in a recent article I wrote, I easily focused on the accomplishments and status of two White males instead of choosing to be more inclusive in the people I identified. I am very appreciative of that feedback. Even though diversity is one of the primary passions of my career, I am regularly humbled by my mistakes and how much I have yet to learn.

Existential Guilt
Existential guilt can be thought of as referring to when one lives inauthentically, or fails to seek out achieving one’s potential. However, it can also be understood as something connected deeply to human nature (i.e., something ontological) or who one is as a person. Tillich (1957) distinguishes between a more particular guilt and the guilt not from particular acts, but one’s participation in a larger system:

The citizens of a city are not guilty of the crimes committed in their city; but they are guilty as participants in the destiny of [humanity] as a whole and in the destiny of their city in particular…. They are guilty, not of committing the crimes of which their group is accused, but of contributing to the destiny in which these crimes happened. (p. 58)

May (1961), however, cautions that one should not be too judgmental about deserving this guilt:

…because of this interplay of conscious and unconscious factors in guilt and the impossibility of legalistic blame, we are forced into an attitude of acceptance of the universal human situation and a recognition of the participation of every one of us in man’s [sic] inhumanity to man [sic]. (p. 50).

Existential Guilt and Responsibility

The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won. Absurdity challenges every ethics; but also the finished rationalization of the real would leave no room for ethics; it is because man’s [sic] condition is ambiguous that he [sic] seeks, through failure and outrageousness, to save his [sic] existence.  (de Beauvior, 1948, p. 129)

If, as Tillich points out, one cannot escape being existentially guilty and, as May points out, one should not be too harsh on oneself about this, what does this mean? It seems the easiest choice would be to become cynical, apathetic, or both. Yet, from an existential perspective, this is seen as a call to live more responsibility in the face of one’s guilt. Existential thinkers are often creating meaning out of paradox, and it is often from the tension of these seeming contradictions that the deepest forms of meaning emerge.

Tom Greening addresses this beautifully:

I finally went to a concentration camp for the first time in my life last August… I wanted to do that, and am glad I did. It was a very powerful experience. It sort of felt like paying one’s existential dues… if you are going to be alive in the 20th or 21st century, that you are going to claim to be alive and had lived in that time, then what should you be aware of, or in touch with?… There are a whole bunch of existential facts that one ought to really… embrace, or acknowledge, even feel existential guilt about. (as cited in Claypool, 2010, p. 110)

One’s guilt is not their final condemnation, but rather it is what frees one to respond authentically and responsibly to the inevitability of failure in one’s limited, finite state. When the redemptive purpose of guilt is embraced, it is possible to no longer experience this as a burden, but rather a positive element of responsibility.

Existential Responsibility and Privilege
My life has been one of privilege, and for this, I gladly experience existential guilt. Guilt can be a healthier alternative to the other possibilities of shame or fear. Many people of privilege, when recognizing how their privilege has benefitted them and harmed others, feel a sense a shame. This can be a normal and even healthy phase in one’s cultural identity development. However, if stuck in shame, it can lead to defensiveness or an inability to respond. Similarly, many people of privilege live in fear of being identified as a “racist” or “sexist.” However, as Granger (2013) point out, fear is often the root of many forms of racism, particularly microaggressions. When one’s fear and guilt is embraced, they are freed to become part of a powerful personal transformation.

Guilt has the potential to be redemptive in the context of privilege. If guilt is embraced it can motivate individuals to live responsibly with the reality of privilege.


What we experience as an essential quality of authenticity is humility, of allowing ourselves to not know and be humbled by the not knowing for others and ourselves. (Heery, 2009)

I could never identify, let alone reject, all of my privilege. Privilege is such a thing that one has it, even when it is not recognized. If individuals can face their prilivege directly (i.e., zhi mian), then they can be empowered to use their existential guilt in a way to counteract their privilege. Thus, the calling is to reduce and eliminate privilege where one can and, when one cannot, to use it honestly, responsibly, and authentically.

Claypool, T. (2010). On becoming an existential psychologist: Journeys of contemporary leaders. ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing (3412340).

deBeauvior, S. (1948). The ethics of ambiguity (B. Frechtmsn, Trans.). New York, NY: Citadel Press.

Granger, N. , Jr., (2013, February 21). The future of existential psychology: Fear the boogie man, not the negro. Retrieved from

Heery, M. (2009). Global authenticity. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology east-west (pp. 205-219). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

May, R. (1961). The meaning of the Oedipus myth. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 1, 44-52.

Tillich, P. (1957). Systematic theology (Vol. 2). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

An earlier version of this was published on the New Existentialist Blog ( This version contains minor changes.

Love and Other Emotions: Reflections from the Novel The Girlfriend Project (Originally Published on the New Existentialist Blog)

This review was originally published in the New Existentialist Blog: It is reposted here in its entirety. 

The Girlfriend Project (2014) by Jason Dias is not your typical novel about love. Although it could be considered a romantic novel given that its focus is a love story, the plot is more existential in nature. Embedded in this unlikely love story is an exploration of the nature of love and other emotions. And love takes center stage.

Ernest has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder and appears to accept this diagnosis as it explains many of his life challenges. Emotions, especially love, befuddle him. His recognition of emotions is not through the usual subjective process, but instead through a rather detached, somewhat objective analysis of his behavior. From his wife and his therapist, he learns to identify many emotions even if he does not emotionally identify with them.

At the beginning of the novel, Ernest characterizes himself as rather dependent upon his wife, who dies early in the novel. Because of his wife’s encouragement from before her death, he agrees to enter therapy after she dies. He does so and finds a therapist that appears to be a pretty good match.

Upon encouragement from this new therapist, he begins considering dating. However, Ernest clearly does not have much confidence or know-how in the dating department. He hires Jenny, a down-on-her-luck waitress to be his girlfriend. Jenny is attractive and socially more skilled, but also has struggled in her own pursuits of love. Out of desperation from her current financial and life predicaments, she agrees. From this very unusual situation, the love story begins.

Ernest and Jenny’s relationship traverses several unexpected twists that lead Ernest into an exploration of his childhood and his relationship with his wife. Meanwhile, Jenny has a dramatic encounter with a previous lover, which introduces an element of action to the novel. With these elements, Dias is able to keep the reader engaged at more than just the psychological level.

What is Love?
The exploration of the meaning of love has almost become cliché. Yet, this question is so essential or our very existence that it does not wear old as with many clichés—at least not when explored with sufficient psychological depth, as Dias does. But Dias adds an interesting twist: How do we understand, know, and experience love without the typical emotional understanding that most people rely upon.

Dias begins his exploration of love by taking away the most common guide to recognizing it: our subjective emotional experience. He also calls into question the many overly simplistic answers often offered by the cynics. Dias, through Ernest, recognizes that there is something important in love, even if the particular lesson eludes him. Although Ernest seems resigned that he will never know or understand love, he continues in the pursuit, even if not recognizing that it is love he is pursuing.

The description of the book says that it is an answer to Camus’s The Stranger. In a similar way to how Camus encourages the reader to examine what it means to be human, Dias lures the reader into examining what it is that they consider love. In the end, Ernest still may not understand love, but he has become convinced that it exists.

Many existential writers, at the end of their pursuit of meaning, seem to end up with answers in the genre of love, compassion, and relationship. Rarely, however, are the answers clear. Indeed, love may never be clear. It is at once the most compelling and elusive of the emotions. Dias, as a good existentialist, does not pretend to have solved the problem of love. He does, however, provide us with some important paths to explore in its pursuits. He also leaves us with the belief that love, even if we cannot fully comprehend what it is, is well worth pursing.

This is a novel well worth the time for those interested in existential psychology. Or even those just interested in examining the nature of love.

— Louis Hoffman

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The Proper Use of Tradition and Scholarly Authority (Originally a New Existentialists Blog)

This post was originally a New Existentialist Blog by Louis Hoffman, PhD. It is reposted here in its entirety from:

Quick to kindle, quick to calm down, an even quick to grow decadent, men of letters [i.e., a type of scholar] can always find reasons and precedents from the classics to justify their shifts of allegiance. (Lu Xun, 1931/2003)

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. (Nietzsche, 1892/1966)

The impulse in contemporary times, and really through all of history, is to either vilify or idealize history, tradition, and the scholars of old. We see this in our classroom, our political debates, our movies, and our books and journals. Yet, whether the impulse is to vilify or glorify, such simplistic ways of engaging tradition and history are problematic and potentially destructive.

I have long appreciated the approach of Lu Xun, an influential Chinese literary figure of the early to mid 20th century, in regard to this issue. However, as I have been working through a four-volume collection of his works, this appreciation has deepened. Lu Xun was known as a powerful critic of the cultural problems of China during his life, but this really only touches the surface of Lu Xun’s thought and work.

Lu Xun (1931/2003) wrote, “The sole hope of development for our literature lies in understanding the old and seeing the new, in comprehending the past and deducing the future” (pp. 138-139). Similarly, he was highly critical of those who were critical or defensive of tradition without understanding its history. Before we can critique any period and any scholarship or tradition from the beginning of recorded history through contemporary times, we must first seek to understand. This, too often, is missing. We are quick to debate and assert a correct position, slow to ask questions and seek to understand. And even our questions, when they are asked, are really just trickery, pretending to seek understanding while seeking to find a weakness in the position of the other. Such processes serve no constructive purposes; they only tear down and reinforce what we believe we know to be truth.

The Use of Idols

All those from ancient times till now who hold no definitive views and have no guiding principle for the changes they advocate, but make use of the arguments of different schools, deserve to be called hooligans. Take a Shanghai hooligan. If he sees a man and a woman from the country walking together, he calls out, “Hey! You’re immoral—you’ve broken the law!” Here he uses Chinese law. If a peasant makes water by the roadside he shouts, “Hey! That’s not allowed. You’ve broken the law, and deserve to be locked up!” Here he is using foreign law. But in the end the law can go by the board—if you grease his palm he will let the matter drop. (Lu Xun, 1931/2003, pp. 134-135)

I grew up in a conservative religious environment, and my early studies of psychology, philosophy, and theology began in this context. From early on, I learned the law well. Yet, I also quickly became troubled by it. I remember watching it being used to harm others and justify oneself, which to me seemed inconsistent with the deeper messages of grace. It seemed there were many ways to condemn, but few routes to understanding and forgiveness. While I believe hypocrisy to be a given for all people, as no human being can live up to what they profess or even develop a complete and coherent belief system, this hypocrisy for me was too great. It was not so much the hypocrisy, but the way the hypocrisy was used and the hurt it caused.

Yet, I’ve seen these patterns recreated in each new spiritual and intellectual home that I have found, even my beloved existential and humanistic psychology. In my own approach to existential psychology, I see love, compassion, and relationship as essential foundations. Yet, too often, I have seen “humanistic” and “existential” used as a weapon. Most often, this occurs when certain important figures in the history of our movement become elevated to the level of becoming idols. I have seen this occur with Heidegger, Rollo May, James Bugental, and other leaders in our field. I have seen our students and early career professionals fearful to present or even speak up at conferences because they fear they will be harshly criticized for not having the orthodox interpretation of one of these figures.

This is a tragedy worthy of one of Nietzsche’s tirades. We dishonor those early influential thinkers in our movement when we turn them into idols. We distort the message they were bringing to us and the message they lived in their lives. I believe (and hope) that if these figures were around today that their harshest critiques would be of the way we over-revere their contributions. We love and honor our heroes when we recognize their humanity. To be revered as an idol or infallible scholar is much less of an honor than to be revered as a human who within all the limitations of being human rose to contribute a unique voice and make an important, though imperfect, contribution worthy of a lasting influence on the history of humankind. When we look closely, the heroes of existential and humanistic psychology certainly were “human, all too human.”

I have long found it interesting that many outside of existential and humanistic psychology view them as outdated and label them as “dead theories” because they believe they have not changed since their inception. Too often, there is some truth to this; we often use historical ideas and figures as the measure or standard of truth. Yet, arguably more than any other major school of psychology, such a belief or process contradicts our theory.

Our history, tradition, and influential early voices are an essential foundation to the contemporary humanistic and existential psychology movement. Yet, if we treat them like idols or view their ideas as beyond reproach, they become our greatest and most powerful adversary. Even our good values hold the potential of evil when we become bound to them and cling to them so closely that we can no longer properly see them.

Lu Xun is a good model for us. Although he is known more for his critiquing of the culture and ideas of his time, a closer reading shows that he greatly values history and tradition. He honored and revered his culture and the people of China. Yet, he was very critical when people became bound to their ideas. There must be balance. We must revere, but not over-revere; we must honor, but not create idols; we must critique, but not destroy; we must preserve, but not stagnate. This honors history and tradition. Yet, many who seek to preserve tradition destroy it by holding on too tightly. We must let our history be freer than this.

Lu Xun (2003). A glance at Shanghai literature. In Y. Xianyia & G. Yang, Ed. & Trans.), Lu Xun: Selected works (Vol. 3; pp. 127-141). Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1966). Thus spoke Zarathustra: A work for none and all (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in 1892)

— Louis Hoffman

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Finding Oneself and Creating Oneself: Implications of the Psychotherapy Folklore

This post was original a New Existentialists blog by Dr. Louis Hoffman posted at It is reposted here in its entirety.

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” –James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room, 1956/1984)

“I am going to therapy [or on a spiritual quest] to find myself.” Phrases of this sort are common in the folklore and history of psychotherapy, particularly humanistic, existential, and other depth psychotherapies. I have even heard many therapists say this is a good reason for entering therapy as well as others who use the idea of “finding oneself” as a way of distinguishing depth psychotherapy from the solution-focused therapies. While the idea of going to therapy to find oneself may not be as popular as it was in the 60s and 70s, this idea continues through contemporary times. Given it is sometimes associated with existential and humanistic psychology, it is good to consider its implications.

The Meaning of “Finding Oneself”
The idea of trying to find oneself suggests that there is some essential self that lies outside of one’s awareness or, at the very least, some essential nature that one is trying to discover. I consider both options below.

Finding One’s Essential Self
The essential self in this context is a typically an idealized self that, by the very idealization, remains elusive if not a burden through serving as a constant reminder of one’s inability to measure up to this ideal. Yet, the vision of the search and journey toward finding oneself is often highly romanticized. Once this self is found, it is assumed that peace and happiness will come with it.

If considered in the context of humanistic psychology, it is often purported that the self is essentially good. Some humanistic perspectives can contribute to this idealization; however, this tends more common with “pop psychology” versions of humanistic psychology (see Hoffman & Rubin, 2013). Existential psychology tends to place more of an emphasis upon the paradoxical nature of being human, including the potential for good as well as the potential for evil (Hoffman, Lopez, & Moats, 2013). This suggests that any self would likely be different from the idealized self that may initiate or inspire the search.

Deeper issues lie in the assumption that there is some essential self to be found. At quick glance, it may seem that much of existential and humanistic psychology is based upon the idea of an essential self. After all, we often talk about the idea of authenticity, which is sometimes conceived of being connected to an essential self. Sometimes we talk of soul, and soul is frequently conceived of as that essential self, though not necessarily so. The soul, in particular, can be conceived as an essential self that may go beyond the bounds of biology in some spiritual, religious, and/or transpersonal perspectives.

The self, and whether there is an essential self, also has important religious, spiritual, and cultural implications. Hoffman, Stewart, Warren, and Meek (2014) maintain that the idea of the self is socially constructed with different constructions in different theories, religions, and cultures. We refer to different “myths of self” to reflect these different conceptions and maintain that there is no one understanding of the self that is “healthiest” for all people. While the nature of the self and existence of an essential self may long be debated by philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, in the more practical, lived experience, different understandings of the self have a place.

Hoffman and colleagues (2014) further suggest that there can be problems with imposing a view of the self upon people. For example, it can be very problematic and counterproductive from a mental health perspective to impose a Western conception of the self upon someone from an Eastern culture, particularly individuals holding certain spiritual perspectives about the self.

Although it may be prudent to be cautious about imposing a particular view of self, it may at the same time be wise to be skeptical about seeking an essential self. As a therapist, I have had clients begin therapy saying that they want to find themselves. When this occurs, I believe it is important for me to be upfront with them in saying that I am not sure that this is a realistic therapy goal. Even if such a self exists, I am not sure it can be found. Furthermore, I worry that seeking an essential self that is believed to innately exist can, at times, work against a client’s agency and taking responsibility for themselves and who they become.

When clients present with the desire to find oneself, I will say that I do believe gaining a better understanding of oneself is important and something for which I can offer help. I also will typically add that I believe that there are aspects of oneself that can be changed or are under the influence of the individual. It is not necessary that the client and I agree about the nature or definition of the self or engage in a philosophical discussion about this; however, I think it is important that we be honest in our conversations relevant to this topic, especially if it is connected to their reason for entering therapy. At times, if beliefs are held rigidly enough, it may signify that we are not a good fit to work together. However, I find most of the time that there are ways we can work together while honoring these differences.

Finding One’s Nature
Seeking to discover one’s nature is different than seeking an essential self. It is not searching for something as specific. Instead, it could be conceived as seeking an understanding of the human condition as well as how one personally relates to or situates oneself in connection with the human condition. This weaves together the social and personal with the nature of being human. I believe this is part of what Baldwin is getting at when he states in the quote from the beginning of this article that finding oneself, “does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” This suggests that there is something missing in one’s awareness or experience that is being sought rather than seeking the discovery of some essential self.

Existential and humanistic psychology both tend to purport that human nature is connected to potential and an innate growth orientation. In other words, there is something good in human nature. However, existential in particular as well as many humanistic viewpoints also acknowledge that there is innate limitation (i.e., finiteness) that is part of being human, or even the potential for destructiveness and/or evil. Awareness of both potentials can be understood as an important aspect of living in the fullness of responsibility (Hoffman et al., 2013).

The search to find how one is situated in connection to their human nature is a journey that most likely does not have a definitive destination. Yet, the search can still be valuable, and maybe more valuable, if one recognizes that one may never reach the end, or, if one does, they may not realize it.

Creating Oneself
An existential perspective is better represented as a dual process of seeking self-understanding or self-awareness and creating oneself. This is part of what Rollo May (1981) was pointing toward with his conception of freedom and destiny. There are aspects of what it means to be human (i.e., human nature) and what it means to be oneself (our personal nature, including our genes, our family, our culture, etc.) that cannot be controlled. These comprise our destiny that we cannot choose. However, we are also free. May believed that even if our freedom was minuscule in comparison to our destiny, it still makes things quite interesting. In this conception, finding oneself is also, at least to some degree, creating oneself. No matter how small the creating aspect may be, it is the one for which we have the most responsibility and the one that makes the journey to “finding” oneself the most interesting. May’s conception could be integrated with the idea of myths of self. This would suggest that there are many different conceptions of the self that can be considered valid or healthy; however, within each of them there is some degree of freedom and destiny.

The idea of “finding oneself” has a long and complicated history in psychotherapy. It is a process often misunderstood, and it may even misrepresent what psychotherapy is about. This is particularly true within an existential and humanistic paradigm. Yet, the self-discovery process, especially when combined with the recognition that we also play a role in creating who we are to become, is an exhilarating and valuable journey.

Baldwin, J. (1984). Giovanni’s room. New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published in 1956)

Hoffman, L., Lopez, A., & Moats, M. (2013). Humanistic psychology and self-acceptance. In M. Bernard (Ed.), The strength of self-acceptance: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 3-17). New York: NY: Springer.

Hoffman, L. & Rubin, S. (2013, December 25). Rediscovering humanistic psychology: Understanding its complicated history. [Review of Encountering America: Humanistic psychology, sixties culture, & the shaping of the modern self]. PsycCRITIQUES-Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 58(no. 50). doi 10.1037/a0034938.

Hoffman, L., Stewart, S., Warren, D., & Meek, L. (2014). Toward a sustainable myth of self: An existential response to the postmodern condition. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. Pierson & J. F. T. Bugental (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice (2nd edition; pp. 105-133). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

— Louis Hoffman

Read more stories by Louis Hoffman on the New Existentialist Blog

Why Become an Existential Therapist?

As an existential therapist, I’ve frequently heard colleagues and students comment, “I’ve always liked existential theory, but I don’t know what to do with it in the therapy room.” Students considering taking a course on existential therapy have also asked questions such as, “Am I going to be able to understand this theory?,” “Are we going to have to read Kierkegaard and Sartre?,” and “Will this class be relevant to what I do in therapy?”

Existential psychotherapy seems to draw both intrigue and hesitation from students and professionals in the mental health field. This is not a surprise from a therapy approach embracing paradox and priding itself in being largely technique-less. However, the fear of existentialism is largely due to a lack of understanding. In this overview, I hope to demonstrate that existential therapy is less threatening than it first appears, but also much more exciting and powerful than is often realized.

Flexibility with Foundation

It is important to continually re-evaluate where you are at as a therapist, including where you are at in your theoretical development. For many years now I’ve considered myself an existential therapist, but continued to read broadly into other approaches to therapy. Through this process I’ve become heavily influenced by contemporary/relational psychoanalysis, humanistic therapy, and constructivist approaches. At times, I’ve wondered whether one of these approaches to therapy would be a better label for what I do on a day to day basis. However, as I’ve assessed this process I continue to realize existential is the best title from how I approach therapy.

One of the advantages of the existential approach is that it provides a framework from which other approaches can be integrated. Kirk Schneider and Rollo May (1995), two of the most influential existential therapists, outlined an existential integrative approach. This places existential therapy as the foundation, but allows for an integration of other theories. However, because of the emphasis on authenticity, genuineness, and critical thought, it also demands that approaches or aspects of approaches which are integrated remain consistent with the foundation.

The flexibility of existentialism comes from many sources. By its nature, existential therapy does not fit with the fundamentalism that develops within many other approaches. The most successful therapies adapt to the strengths of the individual therapist, but also to each client. As Yalom (2002) states, a new therapy is created with each client.

Existential psychotherapy also avoids the opposite problem of too much flexibility incurred in eclectic approaches. A weakness of many eclectic approaches is that they loose their foundation through their attempts to be adaptive and pragmatic. Pragmaticism often seeks to accomplish goals without taking into account the consequence of the process to or result of attaining the goals.

Central Tenets of Existential Thought

Yalom (1980) identified the four major themes of existential thought as death, freedom/responsibility, isolation/loneliness, and meaninglessness. While Yalom’s organization is generally agreed upon, it also reflects a significant point of distinction. Yalom states these themes in a manner which emphasizes their finality. Yalom does not believe there are ultimate answers to these questions. Rather, they are viewed as existential terrors with which we all much cope. Other existential thinkers disagree. May, Tillich, and many others state that while there may be ultimate answers to these issues, we are not able to fully attain these answers and the questions remain difficult.

The issue of death refers to the reality of a physical death, but is also symbolic of all human limitation. These two prongs of finiteness are difficult realities for many people to accept. Ernest Becker’s (1973) The Denial of Death, is often considered a classic in this discussion. Becker makes a penetrating analysis of our attempts to deny our finiteness. In Becker’s (1975) follow up, Escape from Evil, this argument is extended to the concept of evil. Becker purports the basis of evil is the denial of our finiteness.

Freedom is the next existential reality Yalom (1980) discusses. It is essential to connect freedom with responsibility. You cannot have one without the other. Yet, this is what many people seek and also can contribute to the problem which bring many individuals into therapy.

Isolation is the third existential reality (Yalom, 1980). Here, we are pushed to deal with the reality that everyone experiences isolation and loneliness. Yet, the desire for love, connection, and intimacy is arguably the strongest and most central human drive. Don’t let the odd placement of relationship as the third existential issue trick you. Many, maybe most, existential therapists place relationship is the primary issue of human existence.

Meaning, the final of the central existential issues, unites the three other theories. Humans are meaning seeking creatures. The attainment of meaning requires the facing of the three previous existential issues. This also returns us to relationship; many existentialists believe authentic relationship is the most powerful form of meaning a person can achieve.

How Therapy Heals

The common adage “it is the relationship that heals” is consistent with existential therapy. While it would be a mistake to claim any one theory on how change occurs according to existential theorists, the general tendency is toward a phenomenological, experiential, and relational perspective.

While the focus is on the relationship, there are many other aspects of therapy which contribute to the healing and growth process. First, insight is extremely important. Existential therapists may interpret aspects of the unconscious differently, but they still believe in the importance of the unconscious. Existential therapy also helps people make changes in their attitudes, decisions, behaviors, and thoughts through the awareness process. While the approach to accomplishing these changes is very different than brief therapy, existentialists agree they are part of healing.

A third component of healing is experience. Experience can be thought of in terms of experiencing a genuine relationship, but also is conducive to the idea of a corrective emotional experience talked about within many psychodynamic approaches to therapy.

As should be evident, healing occurs through a variety of processes in existential therapy. However, the therapy relationship remains a central component in all the various aspects of healing.

The Experience of the Therapist

The therapist takes a unique role in existential therapy. We are co-participants in a deeply rewarding, but sometimes painful process. While therapist and client sit facing each other, the process of therapy focuses their vision in the same direction. Existential therapy is, at its heart, a very collaborative approach.

Because of the focus on genuineness, authenticity, and awareness, it requires the therapist to be emotionally present and available. Additionally, it is vital that the existential therapist continue to keep their vision as clear as possible by doing their own work, continuing in the self-reflective process, and seeking out their own continued journey.

While it is often thought that depth therapists are passive in their way of relating with clients, this is a misnomer. Existential therapists are very actively engaged in the therapy process. However, their engagement is not in a directive manner. Rather, it’s an engagement in the relationship process as it unfolds and develops. Being passive is not genuine.

Advice for those Considering Becoming an Existential Therapist

If you are considering the pursuit of becoming an existential therapist, I would recommend beginning by reading three authors which will give you differing perspectives. Yalom is a good place to start because his reading is the most accessible. I recommend beginning with Love’s Executioner (1980) and Existential Psychotherapy (1989). The former begins with a brief overview of existential theory before offering 10 tales or case histories of existential therapy. The latter is the most comprehensive overview of existential therapy written to date.

Yalom was heavily influenced by Rollo May, who is generally considered the father of American Existential Psychotherapy. May, like Yalom, is an excellent writer who has an ability to make existentialism accessible. Love and Will (1969) and The Cry for Myth (1991) are two excellent places to start with Rollo May. The former has more clinical utility, while the latter is more abstract but an immensely important book.

Frankl provides a much different approach than May and Yalom. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1984), is a classic far beyond the realms of existential thought and psychotherapy. It begins with Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps during World War II and follows this with an overview of logotherapy (Frankl’s approach to existential therapy). However, for a better summary of Frankl’s approach to therapy, Man’s Search for UltimateMeaning (2000) is recommended.

Two other resources may help get a vision of the existential approach and deserve mentioning. First, are the many videos of James Bugental. Bugental was one of the early existential therapists strongly influenced by Rollo May and many humanistic psychologists. His legacy includes many brilliant therapy demonstration videos which do an excellent job of illustrating existential therapy. A second resource is Kirk Schneider’s Rediscovery of Awe. Using an existentially informed depth psychotherapy approach, Schneider gives a vision of how existential thought and depth psychotherapy can have an impact beyond the therapy room.

There are a growing number of other training opportunities in existential psychotherapy. If you remain interested after some initial reading on existential therapy, it may be beneficial to seek out one of these training opportunities and/or contact an experienced existential therapist to talk with them in more detail about what it like to be an existential therapist.


Being an existential therapist is an extremely exciting career. The experience of working with suffering people to help them find healing, new insight, and authentic relationship in itself is rewarding. An added benefit is the colleagues you will meet. It is a wonderful group of people that is drawn toward existential therapy and we are always happy to welcome new colleagues.

Review of The Beautiful Risk by James Olthuis

James Olthuis is an impressive therapist and writer. I was first introduced to this book when attending a presentation on Olthuis’s approach to therapy. I was so struck by the deep compassion and love that was evident in his presence. When providing a therapy demonstration, it was evident that Olthuis is truly gifted in his ability to connect with people and recognize their suffering.

This book is an excellent book, but does not replace the power of attending one of Dr. Olthuis’s workshops. While Olthuis does not consider himself an existential therapist, the similarities abound in his relational approach which he describes as being strongly influenced by relational theory, feminism, and postmodernism. An important point of convergence between Olthuis and existential thought is in the valuing of the relationship. He demonstrates the power availed through a compassionate relationship between therapist and client. Some of the most powerful illustration in this book are the times when Olthuis talks about the power of crying with his “therapeuts.”

A central theme throughout this book is love. For Olthuis, the basis of this is his spiritual beliefs and convictions. The Beautiful Risk, in embracing this relational perspective, the concept of love, and spirituality provides a great example of a high quality integrative perspective. Yet, it is still a good read for those not interested in the more spiritual approach.

I highly recommend this book for therapists and those seeking to become a therapist, especially those who feel stifled by many of the ways therapy is practiced in today’s society.

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Review of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donahue

Dr. Robert Murney, my long time mentor, was the first person to introduce me to Anam Cara. It was during a time when his wife had been diagnosed with cancer and he was trying to prepare for the possibility of losing her. He showed it to me one day and said this was the only book he had ever read seven times. The book intrigued me for two reason. First, it had such an incredible grip on Dr. Murney. But also because as he described the book it just seemed filled with existential wisdom. I quickly purchased the book and devoured it in a couple of days. It remains one of the most profoundly intriguing books I’ve ever read. Not more than a year later, we were joking that we should be getting a commission for all the copies of this book that we gave away as gifts or that were sold upon our encouragement.

John O’Donohue is a Catholic priest living in Ireland. However, his writing has not always been very well accepted within the Catholic community. This is partially because it is rooted as much in Irish paganism as it is in Catholicism. This is an issue which O’Donohue addresses in Anam Cara. When Christianity entered Ireland, it was blended with folk wisdom and religion, just as has occurred in many other parts of the world. It is this rich blending of traditions that brings this little book to life.

“Anam Cara” literally means “soul friend.” This is comparable to what is often referred to as “soul mates.” Unfortunately, the concept of soul mates has often been degraded by superficial, romantic views of what it means to be soul mates. The view presented in Anam Cara, however, is far from shallow or superficial. For O’Donohue, an Anam Cara is someone who deeply impacts who we are as a person. It’s more than finding someone to marry or even someone to spend your life with. It’s more than a best friend. It’s someone who becomes a part of you.

O’Donohue’s version of a soul mate interacts with many ideas not considered in the more traditional literature. For example, he views time apart and death as two extremely important aspects of being a soul friend. It is death, that makes life and our relationships so precious. It is time apart, or solitude, that allows us to invest deeply into our immediate relationships. These harsh realities are part of the beauty of relationships.

Anam Cara has been a great lesson for me as a therapist, but even more it has been a great lesson for me as a human being. Dr. Murney, who introduced me to this book passed away several months before I sat down to write this review. In his death, I realize the preciousness of his life and friendship. I think he’d be happy to know that in his death I think of this book and that it has been a comfort to me in my grieving for him.

The lessons in this book are very much alive. It is an important read for all those in the professions which deal with the soul and relationships.

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Review of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra may be Nietzsche’s most important and brilliant piece of writing, and Walter Kaufmann’s translation, with its insight translation notes, may be the most significant version. Though the overarching theme of this book is fairly evident, there is a tremendous amount of confusion not only about the book, but even its central theme. In concise terms, the thesis of this book is that people must overcome themselves. Nietzsche speaks of this in terms of the overman, which is often translated as superman.

The traditional translation of superman, according to Kaufmann, may account for much of the confusion. Superman, in Western thought, easily becomes imbued with super powers or godlike qualities; however, this was not Nietzsche’s intent. The overman is less about super qualities and more about the courage to face himself or herself. The overman is willing to take responsibility for his or her life while creatively engaging the world. Included in this engagement is the willingness to not accept the values of one’s world, culture, and even religion; instead, the overman critically examines these worldviews while creating their own values.

In concept of overcoming oneself, Nietzsche takes on one of his most controversial and misunderstood topics: religion. It is clear that Nietzsche is not religious and to attempt to reconcile him as a man of faith would significantly misrepresent his thought. However, Nietzsche is neither pro-religion nor the as much an enemy as he is often portrayed. The main concern Nietzsche has with religion is blind faith and conformity. This type of religion, Nietzsche is adamantly opposed to. However, a religion in which the individual has struggled to attain is not seen as dangerous.

Two important quotes may help understand Nietzsche’s view of God:

“Alas, my brothers, this god whom I created was man-made and madness, like all gods! Man he was, and only a poor specimen of man and ego: out of my own ashes and fire this ghost came to me, and, verily, it did not come to me from beyond. What happened, my brothers? I overcame myself, the sufferer; I carried my own ashes to the mountains; I invented a brighter flame for myself.” (p. 31)

“In their hostilities they shall become inventors of images and ghosts, and with their images and ghosts they shall yet fight the highest fight against one another. Good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low, and all the names of values – arms shall they be and clattering signs that life must overcome itself again and again.” (p. 101)

The first quote demonstrates some bitterness toward religion, though it does not rule out the possibility of healthy religiosity. Nietzsche’s position is not that different from Freud (1927/1961), and quite possibly contributed to Freud’s perspective. Essentially, Nietzsche viewed God as a projection of our wishes (will-fulfillment) and our pathology; not a metaphysical reality. Because of this, God’s characteristics are dependent upon the individual and the culture. This helps to explain Nietzsche’s controversial claim that “God is dead.” Frequently, this is interpreted as a metaphysical statement; however, this was not the nature of Nietzsche’s claim. Instead, Nietzsche was stating that the cultural and individual understanding or creation of God is dead. It is a critique of culture and individuals, not God.

A review of Thus Zarathustra Spoke would not be complete without some notes on the literary style. If nothing else, the literary style of this book demonstrates Nietzsche’s brilliance. He utilized a tremendous understanding of religious literature with he often mocked through his style of writing. A person familiar with the Bible will quickly recognize his frequent indirect references to Biblical ideas, stories, and quotes. It is through these that Nietzsche shows his wit and command of literary style. It is also where Nietzsche likely offends and drives away many of his readers. This is unfortunate. Even if one does not agree with Nietzsche’s appraisals of religion, or care for his clever mocking; there is still important messages in this book for the religious and the non-religious.

To the religious, Nietzsche challenges people to become more than sheep. However, it is clear that he believes most people chose to be sheep: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse” (p. 18). If one chooses to be religious, they should know what that choice entails! One should take the time to learn if it what they truly believe or if it is what they seek to achieve security escaping the fears and anxieties of life. Escapist religion is dangerous religion; however, religion achieve through struggle and genuine belief may be a responsible choice.

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Review of The Cry for Myth by Rollo May

In all the significant books written by Rollo May, this is the book which has had the greatest impact upon me and my thinking. The breadth of May’s knowledge and the depth of his understanding quickly become very evident. It is also interesting to note the influence of Jung’s theory in this book. While Jung’s influence is apparent in many of May’s works, perhaps none as much as this volume.

In the first section of the book, May provides an outstanding overview of the concept of myth from an existential framework. May defines myth in a very Tillichian (Paul Tillich) fashion as that which cannot be proved, but yet is believed. However, in stating it cannot be proved it is not claiming that myths are false. In one of the most powerful lines in the book, May states: “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular – though profoundly mistaken – definition of myth as falsehood” (p. 23).

 In the next several sections, May applies this to many of the great myths of our society. Part II examines “Myths in America.” Included in this analysis are Gatsby and the American Dream, the American frontier myths, individualism, and narcissism. Part III expands to include the “Myths of the Western World.” In this section May examines Dante’s journey through hell, Peer Gynt, the Briar Rose, three views on Faust, and the devil & creativity. The final section, Part IV, closes with a discussion of “Myths for Survival.” Included are the issues of women’s liberation, mortality, planetism, and humanism.

Whether a psychotherapist or just interested in existential perspectives, this is an excellent book.

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Review of Paulus: Tillich as Spiritual Teacher by Rollo May

This short book is one of my favorites of Rollo May. It’s only a little over 100 page, has been out of print for a while (though still fairly easily accessible), and is not your typical Rollo May book. However, it did win the 1987 American Psychological Foundation Gold Metal Award.

The book is a tribute to May’s mentor and friend, Paul Tillich. Tillich, one of the most famous American theologians, spent many years teaching philosophy and theology at Union Theological Seminary. His work has not only be influential on theology and philosophy, but he has also been a powerful influence on existential psychology.  His most famous work in psychological circles is The Courage to Be.

May compassionately gives the story of Tillich’s life and thought in a way which applies to psychological theory. Tillich is presented in a very human manner in this book. His mistakes, including his affairs, are not hidden from the reader. Rather, Tillich is presented as who is very human yet able to make profound contributions to the world of thought.

One of the greatest contributions of Tillich’s thought which May addresses is the benefits and agony of doubt. Tillich saw doubt as contrary to faith, but rather as part of it. This also forms the basis for one of Tillich’s greatest quotes: “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful” (p. 71). This statement is one that has become my teaching philosophy.  I believe it can be applied well beyond the the topic of faith in God, to many other realms of thought.

Another important contribution in this book is May’s discussion of Tillich’s presence. This is the basis for the title being referred to as “Paulus,” which brings a much more intimate feel with it. May goes through extensive detail about his perception of Paulus’ presence. This has been the basis for much of my own though development around the issue of presence — both in examining my own presence and also in using this as a teaching technique for those studying to be therapists.

Overall, this is an excellent, excellent book which I highly recommend to therapists, theologians, and anyone interested in existential theory.

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