A New Look at Existential Psychotherapy

By Keshen, Aaron | American Journal of Psychotherapy, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

A New Look at Existential Psychotherapy


Keshen, Aaron, American Journal of Psychotherapy


Existential psychotherapy has remained on the fringes of the mainstream practice of psychotherapy. One reason for its limited acceptance is that the literature has tended to be convoluted and existential psychotherapists' ideas heterogeneous. Another reason is the dearth of empirical validation studies. What if a more succinct, well-defined and research-friendly model of existential psychotherapy could be developed? An argument against such a manualized approach is that making the model more mechanized and structured goes against some of the tenets of existential psychotherapy. Another argument is that the heterogeneity of the field prohibits manualization of existential psychotherapy. Although these reservations have some legitimacy, the purpose of this paper is to develop a more clinically oriented adaptation of existential psychology and lay the groundwork for a manualized approach to existential psychotherapy.

BACKGROUND

Despite its long history, existential psychotherapy has remained on the fringes of mainstream practice. This is unfortunate because the therapy could be useful in a society that, some argue, is becoming more existentially minded (Yalom, 1980). One reason for its limited acceptance is that the literature to date has tended to be quite convoluted, and the existential psychotherapists' ideas heterogeneous. Another reason for its limited acceptance is the dearth of empirical validation studies. Again, I think the lack of clear definition and cohesiveness makes it difficult to evaluate the therapy quantitatively (Cooper, 2003).

So-if a more succinct, well-defined, and research-friendly model of existential psychotherapy would be desirable, why has it not been developed? One argument against developing such a manualized approach is that making the model more mechanized and structured goes against some of the main tenets of existential psychotherapy itself (e.g. subjective experience and free-form technique). Another argument is that the heterogeneity of the field prohibits the manualization of "existential psychotherapy" because there are actually quite diverse psychotherapies that fall under the existential umbrella (Cooper, 2003).

Although these reservations have some legitimacy, an effort to manualize existential psychotherapy is necessary if it is to gain wider acceptance and usability. The purpose of this paper then, is to develop a more clinically oriented adaptation of existential psychology and thereby, to lay the groundwork for a manualized approach to existential psychotherapy.

More specifically, the type of existential psychotherapy to be developed revolves around the issue of purposelessness1. I will therefore refer to purpose-centered existential psychotherapy2 instead of the more general term, existential psychotherapy. I have decided to focus on purposelessness because, in my opinion, this concept is more tangible and amenable to quantitative evaluation than other existential foci (e.g. scales are available to evaluate purpose in life). As a result, it is more feasible to develop this existential domain into a manualized model that can be rigorously evaluated.

One argument against focusing on purpose-centered existential psychotherapy is that historically it has tended to impose value judgments on its clients. Purpose-centered existential psychotherapists may, for example, suggest to clients that there is one ultimate meaning or that only certain types of "higher" activities are legitimate sources of purpose. I will argue that the approach presented in this paper, to the contrary, is relatively free of value judgments.

INTRODUCTION

This paper will accomplish the following tasks:

- distill the clinically important principles of purpose-centered existential psychology and present them in an elucidative diagram. This goal addresses the issue of providing clarity to a heterogeneous and sometimes convoluted set of ideas.

- classify and organize these distilled ideas, and also some new ideas, in a way that makes them more applicable to psychotherapy. …

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