Approaches to Existentialism
North American psychologists initially reflected the focus on universal concerns through humanism. The third force arose as an answer to the limitations of the Freudian and behaviorist approaches. The positive aspects of a humanistic approach (e.g., love, freedom with responsibility, self-actualization, potential, transcendence, uniqueness, choice, creativity) were missing from Freudian and behavioral theories. While Ludwig Binswanger started the existential approach in Switzerland, Rollo May brought existentialism to the United States (Hoffman, 2009). May also served as a founder of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Humanistic existentialists emphasize unconditional acceptance, awareness of personal experience, and authenticity. The humanistic element focused on an optimistic view of human potential and on interpersonal relationships (Krug, 2009), all within an ontological paradigm of beingness.
In my judgment, the existential approach is the achieving of individuality (including subjective individuality) not by passing or avoiding the conflictual realities of the world . .. but by confronting these concerns directly and through the meeting of them, achieving one's individuality. (May, 1961, p. 51)
With humanism as the initial paradigm, the humanistic existential focus is on one's being in the world, a respect for relationships, and responsibility for choices.
Some find that tire quest for meaning is always filled with the anxiety of ultimate death. Yalom (2009) wrote, "Death is our destiny. Your wish to survive and your dread of annihilation will always be there. It's instinctive – built into our protoplasm – and has a momentous effect on how you live" (p. 115). However, dynamic existentialists (Craig, 2008, Yalom, 2009), like their Freudian predecessors, focus attention on the resolution of inner conflict and anxiety:
To explore deeply from an existential perspective does not mean that one explores the past; rather it means that one brushes away everyday concerns and thinks deeply about one's existential situation. It means to think outside of time, to think about the relationship between one's feet and the ground beneath one, between one's consciousness and the space around one; it means to think not about the way one came to be the way one is, but that one is. . . .
The future-becoming-present is the primary tense of existential therapy. (Yalom, 1980, p. 11)
Existentialism bridged with dynamic depth psychology suggests that there always is a tension that can only be partially eased through healthy relationships. Some (e.g., Bartz, 2009) believe that spiritual development may surface after scratching the existential veneer.
For some individuals, meaning emerges from the struggle with life and death, destiny and freedom, isolation and connection. Anticipated by Maslow (1971), transpersonal psychology and the religiously based counseling approaches offer a haven for people finding meaning in the spiritual realm. The transpersonal existential approach perceives death as an opportunity for the individual to rise above the given circumstances, to gain a broadened spiritual perspective and understand existential anxiety as unresolved spiritual understanding (Bartz, 2009). The existential philosophers Buber (1970), Tillich (1987), and Ventimiglia (2008), as well as the psychological theorists Maslow (1998) and Wilber (2000), believed that, from an existential quest, a spiritual awakening could unfold. For some people, hope emerges from despair.
Existentialism also has roots in contemporary religious thought. Religion's differing perspectives kindle a conflict here as well. The disagreement is one between essence (representing scientific, objectivity, and facts) and existence (representing what is real for each individual). In Western culture, essence has triumphed over existence (May, 1983). However, this battle takes place on holy ground, as indicated by Tillich (1987):
The story of Genesis, chapters 1-3, if taken as myth, can guide our description of the transition from essential to existential being. It is the profoundest and richest expression of man's awareness of his existential estrangement and provides the scheme in which the transition from essence to existence can be treated. (p. 190)
The quest for knowledge and understanding is what eventually separates humanity from the safety of objectivity. Gibbs (2005) wrote that Islam is equally affected by the struggle to understand angst and must make peace with the existential questions if it is to flourish. According to Nanda (2009), Buddhist thought would suggest that mindfulness implies a focus on the relationship and the present state of being, as it is with existential counseling. Yang (2009) highlighted the existential themes rippling through Christianity. Descartes may have won the battle, but Tillich would contend that the war is not resolved.
Existential questions themselves have a religious flavor. Some existentialists would say that religion is a superficial defense against the ultimate reality of death (Yalom, 2009), because it has nothing to do with the worldly questions of meaninglessness, anxiety, and existence. However, the dichotomy may be more one of semantics than substance. As Tillich (1987) wrote:
Whenever existentialists give answers, they do so in terms of religious or quasi-religious traditions which are not derived from their existential analysis, [but] from hidden religious sources. They are matters of ultimate concern or faith, although garbed in a secular gown. Existentialism is an analysis of the human predicament. And the answers to the questions implied in man's predicament are religious, whether open or hidden, (pp. 187-188)
Existentialists using a spiritual lens view the existential struggle as essential to finding oneself in the here and now of being.
Beginning from a philosophical approach to the world, existentialism has evolved to an approach to helping people cope with the uncertainty and complex pressures of their lives. Recognizing the individual nature of experience in the context of an objective, scientifically oriented society, existential counselors and therapists validate the anxiety people experience. Learning to take responsibility for personal choices is critical as an outgrowth of counseling (Krug, 2009; Tekosis, 2008). The importance of choice and responsibility in coping with these pressures has led existentialists today to honor the individual's experience and realize the religiosity embedded in existential questions. Central to the development of this approach that entails working through the existential concerns is the importance of the therapeutic relationship. Following the path of early existential theorists, existentialism is grounded in realism, attempting to acknowledge the authentic human experience, the importance of meaning, the power of relating, and the reality of change.