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: Existential Theory

Mary Lou Bryant Frank

Psychological theories are an intimate reflection of the values and biases of the people creating the theories, and existential theory is no exception. Behaviorists trust that science and logic are the organizing factors for understanding. With equal passion, existentialists know that science is complementary to meaning, relationships are more important than science, the subjective and individual experiences are as important as the objective and factual accounts, and the process is even more important than the product. For an existentialist (Craig, 2008), the journey is as important as the destination, and the existential journey takes people to the depths of their mortality.

The existential therapeutic position states that what bedevils us issues not only from our biological genetic substrate (a psychopharmacological model), not only from our struggle with repressed instinctual strivings (a Freudian position), not only from our internalized significant adults who may be uncaring, unloving, or neurotic (an object relations position), not only from disordered forms of thinking (a cognitive-behavioral position), not only from shards of forgotten traumatic memories or from current life crises involving one's career and relationship with significant others, but also – but also – from a confrontation with our existence. (Yalom, 2009, pp. 200-201).

Unlike traditional psychoanalytic, cognitive, and behaviorist counselors and therapists, existentialists focus on an individual's unique experiences – the phenomenological world. While some current theorists suggest that people struggle with phenomenological pressures within themselves and within their relationships (Berguno, 2008), the struggle is there nonetheless. Phenomenology focuses totally on the individual's perspective, setting aside the psychotherapist's point of view. What makes listening difficult is that one seldom really hears what people say without judging them. Likewise one can only guess, from one's set of biases, what is best for others as distinct individuals (Jacobsen, 2007). By setting judgment aside, counselors can help clients' true desires and situations emerge as well as empower them to change.

The purpose of this chapter is to outline the background of existentialism, explore the developmental nature of the quest for meaning, examine the major constructs of existential thought, describe applications of the theory, summarize the evaluation of the theory, and explore the theory's limitations. The theory is summarized by an applied case analysis. In the process of understanding a theory about existence, it is hoped that the reader will gain a deeper sense of self, an appreciation for what it means to live in awareness, and a heightened respect for the human struggle.

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