Five Lessons from Existential Psychotherapy

As humans, there are fundamental problems that we all face. These problems arise from the very nature of our existence; that we are mortal, impermanent beings who are ultimately alone in our experience of life.

But don’t be depressed about that. Research has shown that realizing certain fundamental truths about the human condition can have valuable therapeutic effects.

Irvin Yalom, author of the landmark textbook Existential Psychotherapy, describes a study that he administered on twenty-six successful group psychotherapy patients. He wanted to find out which outcomes of the psychotherapy sessions were most highly valued by the patients. The patients were given a sixty item Q-Sort test, where they were given cards that had sixty “mechanisms of change” written on them and were asked to sort the cards amongst seven categories from “least helpful” to “most helpful”. These sixty items were developed from twelve “curative factor” categories that each contained five sub-categories, including Catharsis, Self-Understanding, Identification (with members other than the therapist), Family Re-enactment, Installation of Hope, Universality (learning that others have similar problems), Group Cohesiveness (acceptance by others), Altruism, Suggestions and Advice, Interpersonal Input (learning how others perceive them), and Existential Factors.

When the results were analyzed, the results were surprising. Even though the therapists who administered the group therapy weren’t existentially oriented, the Existential Factors category was ranked as the highest in value by the patients. These were the five curative sub-categories:

  1. Recognizing that life is at times unfair and unjust.

When we are children, our perception of our world is skewed. But, necessarily so. We have faith that when we are hungry, our parents will be there to feed us. We are showered with love, attention and unconditional positive regard. But as we grow older and more of our life becomes out of the hands of our parents’ curation, we realize that we don’t always get our way. Our needs will not always be met as soon as they arise. Our loved ones will not always be within reach. We will not always get what we want when we want it. In our early childhood, we learn these things. But as we get older, our concept of the unfairness of life gets tested even more greatly.

In our teenage years, we often experience the disciplining from our parents as a grave injustice. Whether it be getting grounded, being forced to stay in when all your friends are going out, or being denied the money to buy something that you insist that you need, we experience our concept of how unfair the world is get more tempered and matured by our experience of reality. But as we get older, we experience levels of unfairness and injustice that are not dealt to us by our parents, but by life. Our loved ones might pass away, we could lose our job, our money, our home, or we might get injured or sick, just to name a few of life’s curveballs. But it is important to know that this is a part of our existence. Life is not always fair, and believing that it should be can cause an incredible amount of distress that could ultimately lead to a mental pathology. It may not make the pain caused by life’s unfairness hurt any less, but it will prevent one from creating more pain for themselves by believing that tragedy should not exist. It does. We can either accept that, or deny it, to out detriment.

  1. Recognizing that ultimately there is no escape from some of life’s pain and from death.

 

Are often told as we go through life that it is wrong when things go wrong. But this isn’t true. Things will go wrong throughout everyone’s life, and you shouldn’t feel like this is unnatural. Also, if things are going wrong in your life in a way that is causing you pain, believing that you should never experience pain will only cause more of it.

It is also important to recognize that death is the inevitable outcome of life. Most of us will try to deny this. In fact, some psychologists believe that the entire structure of the human psyche is built on top of a foundational denial of mortality. But, this is a truth that we can grasp and internalize as much as we can. Death can happen and will happen to us all. It may be hard to conceive, but embracing that will help you live a more fulfilled life.

There is a valuable idea from Stoic philosophy that pertains to this. Whenever something is causing you pain, ask yourself; is there something you can do about it? If not, then don’t give yourself additional grief. If there is something that you can do about it, then do what you can. Do not cause yourself additional suffering from trying to escape pain that is inevitable. Remember; pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

  1. Recognizing that no matter how close I get to other people, I must still face life alone.

 

We all need a network of friends and family to lean upon, to support and be supported by. Relationships with other people are a crucial part of what constitutes human happiness. Think back to some of the most meaningful moments in your life; chances are, they didn’t happen when you were alone.

Many people, at some point in their lives, will feel the highest amount of intimacy with a romantic partner. This is what many people think a long-term romantic partner is for; to have someone to face the difficulties of life with. Though this is true under many circumstances, such as facing the challenges of raising children, financial troubles, and some emotional difficulties that can be soothed simply by having a hand to hold. But no matter how close you get to anyone, they cannot come inside of your mind to help you face life as an individual. Putting the expectation on others that they can save you from the fundamental burdens of the human condition puts an unrealistic pressure onto them.  Ultimately, you must face life alone.

But, with this realization, one can come to adopt a sense of individual responsibility for how they manage themselves in the face of death and impermanence. Adopting responsibility in this way is the first step in developing the psychological toolkit for being existentially resilient.

  1. Facing the basic issues of my life and death, and thus living my life more honestly and being less caught up in trivialities.

Try this as an exercise; next time you get worked up about any problem in your life, to the point where you get angry and flustered, consider that you might die tomorrow.

Seriously.

You would be very surprised how many problems that arise in life are trivial when in the light of the greater realities of life.

Just take it from Marcus Aurelius;

You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

So maybe, because of facing the basic issues of your existence, you can forgive and release the petty, trivial grudges that you might hold against your loved ones or yourself. The precious and limited time we have in this life is best spent lovingly, because who really knows how much time you have left.

  1. Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others.

 

This life is yours to navigate. That realization can come with a flood of anxiety, as this realization of the ultimate freedom to live your life comes with a heavy dose of groundlessness. Other people may offer helpful philosophies for navigating life, and many others may try to convince you that their religion is the best reference to follow in the course of living your life, but you are ultimately responsible for sorting out what is right and what is wrong and acting in light of that. You might be able to lean against the structure that other people impose onto your life, but know that the only structure your life has is the structure that you place upon it.

With much of this advice given through the lens of existential psychotherapy, there is an underlying theme of personal responsibility. We all have a responsibility to face life as it is, to face it alone, to face it in a way that adds to our lives rather than subtracting from it, in a way that allows us to forgive others easily and to live life fully.

Develop this sense of responsibility that you have in the face of the difficulties of human existence, and it will only make you stronger.