Emotional theory is one of the places where depth psychotherapy, in general, and especially existential theory, takes a grand departure from the current zeitgeist of solution-focused therapy. The solution-focused therapy in many ways provides an accurate reflection of American values. A fundamental American value is that of increasing the pleasurable feelings and decreasing the unpleasant ones. Similarly, Americans have grown in current times to value safety over freedom, and therefore risk. It doesn’t take a very long look at American entertainment, politics, decision-making processes, and even religion for this to be noticed. While there are significant exceptions to this pattern, the pattern remains nonetheless.
Much of the field of psychology has come to see unpleasant emotions as negative and something to merely be “coped with” or “survived.” Existentialists offer an alternative through seeking to reclaim the variety of human emotions as being valuable and beautiful. This does not discount the significant problems in living that result from unpleasant emotions or the possibility of these emotions existing in excess at times. Rather, it creates a place for these emotional experiences.
Embodiment is the foundation for an existential understanding of healthy emotions. This was a given neglected by Yalom, but was focused on more in the writings of James F. T. Bugental and Myrtle Heery. Embodiment implicitly indicates that it is natural for human beings to embody their emotions. Nietzsche, in his writings, consistently suggested that we ought not resist that which is natural. This is not to suggest that we just follow our impulses or emotions blindly. Instead, it suggests we ought experience our emotions and find ways to utilize them. Anger, for example, can be channeled in a manner to use the energy of the anger to fight against what is not right in society in a healthy, productive manner.
In essence, then, embodiment is meant to convey that we ought to experience our emotions and view them as friends that can be used in various ways. This requires that we work to become more aware of our emotions and then consciously find how we can best utilize our emotions. The latter part of this is highly personal. There is no one correct way to use our emotions, what is important is that we find a way to do this that is consistent with who we are and our values.
The Primacy of Anxiety
The first emotion to be reclaimed was anxiety. Beginning with the existential philosophers, existentialism has a long history of valuing anxiety. Soren Kierkegaard, who is often regarded as the first existential philosopher, wrote what is considered the first book on anxiety in 1844. This book has been translated as The Concept of Anxiety or The Concept of Dread. Rollo May, often considered the father of American existential psychology, wrote is doctoral dissertation on anxiety and later published it under the title of The Meaning of Anxiety in 1950.
May (1970) made strong case for anxiety to be reinterpreted in a more positive light. Part of the reinterpretation of anxiety brought about a distinction between existential anxiety and neurotic anxiety. While the idea of neurotic anxiety can be traced back to Freud, May made significant contributions to the development of the concept within an existential framework. According to May, neurotic anxiety is disproportionate to the threat or the results of repression or an intrapsychic conflict. Conversely, normal or existential anxiety is a normal part of the human condition.
While the distinction between normal and neurotic anxiety is beneficial, both can be used in a productive manner. What makes anxiety pathological is not the experience of it, but the resistance to it. The presence of anxiety offers a guide to deeper understandings of the self, one’s relationships, and one’s problems. Merely taking away or alleviating anxiety is not necessarily productive. Rather, it has great potential to be destructive in that it removes the guide. It is very common for people who begin psychotropic medications to drop out of therapy shortly afterwards. They have not miraculously healed or grown. Rather, they have lost their motivation and guide (i.e., anxiety or the unpleasant feeling). This is not to say that no one should take medication, that medications are all bad, or that they don’t have a appropriate utility. Rather, it means that medication use should be understood in a broader context.
From an existential perspective, what becomes important is learning to sit with the anxiety and listen to it. This is not easy and takes time, but with work anxiety can be changed from something to be feared to something that is welcomed as an opportunity for learning and growth. What often occurs in existential therapy is that the experience of anxiety changes more so than the presence of it. In other words, anxiety becomes less of a miserable experience and doesn’t feel so bad or overwhelming. This, in itself, often serves to decrease the neurotic portions of the anxiety.
Again, it is important to note that this is not for everyone. For some people, they just want the negative experiences to go away. This is the choice of the individual. But, so often in today’s society, controlling anxiety is often presented as the only viable and healthy option. From an existential perspective, this takes away the individual’s responsibility and freedom to choose. From an ethical perspective, consumers should be presented with the different options and be allowed to choose between medication, solution-focused approaches to anxiety reduction, and an existential approach (or other depth approaches).
Anxiety as a Model for Other Emotions
From this conception of anxiety, a broader understanding of emotions can be built. This same theoretical basis can be applied to the other unpleasant emotions. However, each emotional experience has some particularities, too. This could also be interpreted as saying each emotion may have a unique message or meaning. These messages are also unique to the individual experience them. In other words, the same emotion may not mean the same thing to everyone. Attempts to oversimplify how people experience emotions does more damage than good in the long run.
Depression, for example, is often more of a lack of feeling than a sad feeling. There are an abundance of metaphors in contemporary music which reflect this experience of depression. This reflects our culture and, in particular, the experience of our youth today. Depressed people will, at times, talk about hurting themselves just to feel. Pain seems to be the only emotion available that they can feel and sometimes pain is better than feeling numb. Depression often results from the repression of experience and emotions. In a sense, all a person’s energy is used in the service of repression leaving little energy left — depression. So part of working through depression is learning to feel again. But when a person begins to feel, often what they first feel is the pain which was repressed. This needs to be worked through to get to the joy.
This is just one route to depression and there are many more. The essential message is the same — emotions have a meaning. Furthermore, emotions do not go away when they are repressed; they find an expression elsewhere. This is why ideas such as “living in the moment,” “being in the here-&-now,” and “being fully present” are so important to existential theory. When a person is in the moment, they are better able to process and assimilate significant experiences as they happen.
Suffering, Beauty, & Joy
Beauty and joy result from more fully experiencing life — both the good and the bad. While joy is often interpreted as a state of bliss devoid of any negative experience. An existential reframe of this would be that joy is a state of fully experiencing the current moment including the good and the bad. Joy may contain pieces of sadness, of anxiety, or even of anger. When one aspect of experience is being blocked out, joy is then limited.
A similar application could be made with suffering. Suffering is generally made worse and/or prolonged when it is resisted and often becomes less threatening when a person allows themselves to experience it. However, an important caution should be made here. It can be quite terrifying when one first begins allowing themselves to experience emotions more deeply. For many, this is best done in the context of therapy.
Beauty is best experienced, seen, or created in the context of fully experiencing life’s emotions. Depth psychology has long been fascinated with art and artists. This is for good reason. There is a connection between the emotions and creativity. Many artists will fear losing their pain for fear that it would take away their creativity and their art. The beauty of their creation is more valuable than the pain of their experience. Some of the most beautiful art of all time came from anguished artists. There is something to learn from this.
A Postmodern Context for Emotional Theory
Any contemporary emotional theory would be severely lacking without a discussion of language. Postmodernism has helped for us to recognize that language is a social construction. In other words, we all use and experience language differently. Therapists tend to have a very rich, specific emotional language. However, many other people may have difficulty distinguishing emotions and have a limited emotional vocabulary. Furthermore, there is a lot less agreement about what emotions are than what is generally thought. What is meant by anxiety, depression, sadness, or happiness may be quite different from person to person. It is important not to assume that everyone means the same thing when they say they are depressed. This is a common mistake therapists often make.
One aspect of therapy which can be healing is the development of a language which allows the individual to better describe and therefore understand their emotional experience. While the therapist can be helpful in guiding the therapeut through this process, it is important for them not to impose their language on the client. Rather, it can be beneficial for the therapeut to be able to discover and/or create their own emotional language which best helps them understand their own experience. This can be done within the context of helping them also understand that not everyone uses language, particularly emotional language, in the same way.
Because existential theories focus on embracing emotions, existential therapy is inherently an experiential therapy. People are encouraged to experience their life, and particularly their relationships, more deeply. This can be a difficult and, at times, terrifying process. But it can also be a very freeing process. Certainly, this is not what everyone desires to achieve through therapy. The existential approach is not for everyone.
Original Version added 2004. Updated July, 2009.