Authenticity and Vulnerability: Two Sides of the Existential Self
Becoming a more authentic person means that an individual lives intentionally (Schneider, 2008), with compassion (Hoffman, 2009), and with awareness (Yalom, 2009). Existential authenticity is the context for freedom and responsibility. The authentic individual is not needy in relationships but is able to benefit from them. Likewise, existential counselors respect the challenge of being authentic and vulnerable while they honor the client's power to change. It is a risk for both because counselor and client must be genuine and empathic for healing to take place (Hoffman, 2009). As Hoffman (2009) noted, "It is the person that becomes the primary 'tool' of therapy. Technique is replaced with the person of the therapist and genuine encounter" (p. 29). Because of, not in spite of, the risks involved in being known, both the counselor and client can benefit.
Outcome research indicates that the helping relationship is one of the most important aspects of the counseling or psychotherapy process (Hoffman, 2009). Although the importance of the existential relationship varies across approaches, it is always a part of the counseling process. The relationship is professional, but the client and counselor are but two travelers in life, with the counselor having skills in empathy as well as knowledge of the journey.
The image that comes to mind is of two high-wire artists who depend on each other for balance and support but who are both in a precarious place. One of the two remains more or less stationary while the other changes orientation in space. Both are performing without a net. (Groth, 2009, p. 88)
Although skilled, the counselor or therapist is present with the client in a very real and immediate existence. But these only describe the functions, not the substance of the encounter.
The diversity and substance of relationships were probably best described by Buber (1970), who noted that relationships may be experienced at several levels or at a combination of different levels. Buber described some levels of relationships as superficial (e.g., "I to it," "I to I," "it to it"), others as lacking any individuality or objectivity (e.g., "we to we") or compassion ("us to them"), as yet others as objectified and distanced (e.g., "I to you"). Buber's greatest contribution is the description of profound meeting, the core of the existential connection, the "I to Thou" relationship (Ventimiglia, 2008). The most potent form of help involves being present in a respectful, honoring encounter.
"I to Thou" relationships provide hope for genuine understanding and healing. Here the counselor or therapist is a guide and a traveler on the same road (Bugental, 1978). In the "I to Thou" level, the whole person is considered and honored. Yalom (2009) validated the importance of relational process as the central element of existential counseling. Both the counselor and the client are changed through the I-Thou relationship.
Hazards on the Journey
The journey through the "dark night of the soul" can be difficult for counselors (Bugental, 1978, p. 77). They must protect themselves, their time, and their private lives. Making several such painful journeys with clients is bound to affect practitioners at a very personal level. Kopp (1972) wrote:
Doing counseling is like remembering all the time that you are going to die. Because the counseling hour has a definite beginning and ending, we are kept aware of its being temporary.
There is only me, and you, and here, and now. We know in advance that it will not last, and we agree to this. (p. 42)
Frommer (2009) stated that when people change, they realize a loss of control and become more empathic with the suffering of others. Being an existential counselor or therapist means being open to continued learning and awareness.
May (1979) suggested that there is a potential for losing the scientific focus when working with people at an existential level. In rebelling against the rationalistic tradition of contemporary psychology, existential counselors and therapists might be detached from philosophical or technical realities. Spiritually focused therapies (Parlow, 2008) base their interventions and approaches on divinity and not always solely grounded in a scientific paradigm.
Despite all the concerns and warnings, there is value in taking the risk to truly encounter another person. For the field, existentialism is an alternative and the only viewpoint solidly grounded in theory (May, 1983) and philosophy (Barnett, 2009). Most significantly, clients find this approach very helpful (Hoffman, 2009).