Existential Authenticity: A Foundational Value for Counseling

Article excerpt

Adopting an existential perspective in counseling is often viewed as inapplicable or a luxury for most clients. The author challenges these commonly held misconceptions. The concept of existential authenticity is presented as an organizing ethic that can bring out the positive side of existentialism in counseling. Specific values and conditions that the counselor can adopt to create an existential foundation for counseling practice are presented. The author concludes that actively incorporating these existential values into the counseling process can deepen the impact of the therapeutic work.


Bauman and Waldo (1998) found it curious that existential theory had received so little attention in the mental health counseling literature. They suggested that perhaps existential theory has not received wider attention because there is no single, prominent practitioner or theoretician to represent the perspective. Although this is partially true (Rollo May and Irvin Yalom are well-known existential theorists), there are additional prejudices that might keep many students and practitioners from developing a better and more complete understanding of what an existential perspective in counseling means.

First, an existential perspective in counseling is often viewed as a luxury that is generally relevant to the few "worried well" clients who have the time and money to engage in personal growth work. Second, existential psychology is frequently viewed as esoteric and too abstract to have practical application to common client concerns. And third, many believe that an existential perspective is based primarily on a negative view of human beings and their existence and, therefore, is not psychologically useful to most clients.

In this article, I challenge each of these commonly held prejudices. Such biases can seriously overshadow the positive aspects and potential of counseling from an existential perspective. I propose that a much more positive perspective of existential theory is not only possible but also very desirable. A central purpose of this article is to provide some practical guidance on how the concept of existential authenticity can be translated into counseling processes that can have a positive impact on counseling outcomes. Specifically, I affirm a core set of existential values that, when incorporated into the counselor's customary practice of counseling, can significantly deepen the impact of the counselor's therapeutic efforts (Krueger & Hanna, 1997). Regardless of the counselor's theoretical orientation, the impact of the counseling work can be deepened by incorporating the existential values I discuss later in this article.

Existentialism Misunderstood

In this section, I address some misconceptions counselors may have about existentialism, misconceptions that can lead them to easily dismiss the perspective as inapplicable or impractical for most counseling work. Existentialism is, first, a philosophical position that has divergent thinkers within its ranks (e.g., Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre). This has made it difficult to clarify the practical usefulness of existentialism to psychological endeavors like counseling. Warnock (1970) noted that existentialism is more a series of thinkers who reflected on human existence than it is an integrated philosophy. Furthermore, authors who have translated existential concepts into an "existential psychology" (e.g., May, 1958, 1977, 1983; Yalom, 1980) often have done so at an abstract conceptual level rather than at a practical "what does the counselor actually do" level. This abstractness has made it difficult to clearly distinguish counseling that is grounded in an existential perspective from counseling that is based on other theoretical frameworks. A notable exception to this trend is the work of Bugental (1978, 1981, 1987, 1999), who has worked for several decades to clarify the process and goals of an existentially oriented therapy. …