Existential Psychotherapy: Death, Freedom, Isolation, Meaninglessness

A commonly held belief, is that psychological disorders are primarily the result of biochemical imbalances which can be treated with pharmaceutical medications. This view, however, is not accepted by all.

In the mid-20th century, there arose a therapeutic movement called existential psychotherapy, constructed upon the idea that some psychological disorders, such as cases of anxiety and depression, are the result of an individual’s inability to reconcile themselves with certain characteristics of the human condition. While biochemical imbalances may be present in such people, the imbalances are not necessarily the cause of their suffering, but rather a symptom – the cause being their inability to deal with the existential dilemmas of human life.

Treatment for psychological afflictions of this sort, according to existential psychotherapy, involves not medication but self-reflection, philosophical exploration, an expansion of awareness and acceptance of the human condition.

In this video we’ll provide a brief overview of existential psychotherapy. In the process we’ll examine some of the characteristics of human existence which can stimulate suffering, and explore ideas on how to deal with these issues and live a more vibrant life.

Existential psychotherapy has its roots in three schools of thought: phenomenology, humanistic psychology, and existentialism.

From phenomenology it borrows the idea that the individual’s immediate experience and personal grasp of reality is primary and the appropriate subject of concern.

Ludwig Binswanger, one of the best known existential analysts, conveyed this point:

“There is not one space and time only, but as many spaces and times as there are subjects.”

From humanistic psychology, existential psychotherapy borrows the idea that the individual, far from being a plaything of deterministic forces, has the capacity to change and direct their life, and fulfill the innate human desire to live fully and realize one’s highest potentials.

And finally, existential psychotherapy borrows many insights concerning the human condition arrived at by existential thinkers of the past.

These thinkers were largely concerned with what can be called the “ultimate concerns” of human existence. In this video we’ll explore 4 of these ultimate concerns: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness, as well as insights which can limit the suffering such concerns can cause.

Death is perhaps the most obvious of the ultimate concerns. While life is the “possibility of possibility” (Kierkegaard), death is the “impossibility of further possibility” (Heidegger) – the ultimate boundary that limits and structures our existence.

Some have proposed that the fear of death greatly influences our internal experience. Lurking beneath our every waking moment is a death anxiety which subconsciously influences our behaviour, and structures our worldview.

The 20th century psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg wrote that:

“If this fear were constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort.” (Gregory Zilboorg)

The 17th century French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld put the same point more succinctly:

“You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death”. (Francois de La Rochefoucauld)

Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and author, proposed that human beings repress the fear of death through the attempt to achieve what he called symbolic immortality. According to him there are three main ways this is done: 1) the biological mode of living through one’s progeny, 2) the theological mode of believing in an afterlife or reincarnation, and 3) the creative mode of attempting to live on through one’s works.

Some have noted, however, that there is a danger in repressing one’s fear of death too much, arguing that we need a little bit of death anxiety to seep into our conscious experience to help us live more fully.

The philosopher Michel de Montaigne urged that we need to practice “familiarizing ourselves with death”, keeping death in our rear-view mirror, so to speak.

“He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.” (Montaigne, Essays)

In his book Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom nicely summarized the benefits of becoming more closely acquainted with one’s fear of death:

“A denial of death at any level is a denial of one’s basic nature and begets an increasingly pervasive restriction of awareness and experience. The integration of the idea of death saves us; rather than sentence us to existences of terror or bleak pessimism, it acts as a catalyst to plunge us into more authentic life modes, and it enhances our pleasure in the living of life.” (Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom)

While death is the most obvious of the ultimate concerns, freedom is perhaps the least obvious. It is usually assumed that freedom is intrinsically desirable, but quite frequently individuals are apprehensive about freedom, and in the words of Erich Fromm, can even develop a “fear of freedom”.

“Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?” (Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm)

To be free means to be responsible for one’s life, the author of one’s own destiny. Because of the overwhelming seriousness and importance of this task, people frequently flee from freedom and hence the responsibility of determining one’s own path in life.

“It is certainly true that many of us evade our constitutionally suggested vocations (call, destiny, task in life, mission). So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate.” (Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

Many existential thinkers have suggested that when one ignores their “constitutionally suggested vocation”, and thus lives inauthentically, it is possible to find one’s way back to an authentic existence through feelings of guilt.

Irvin Yalom wrote:

“One who fails to live as fully as one can, experiences a deep, powerful feeling which I refer to here as “existential guilt.”…existential guilt is a positive constructive force, a guide calling oneself back to oneself.” (Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom)

To the extent that one accepts their freedom, and thus the fact that one is responsible for one’s destiny, one is faced with the chilling realization that one is alone. Existential isolation, referring “to an unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being”, is another ultimate concern that each individual must come to terms with through the course of their psychological development.

The 20th century psychotherapist Hellmuth Kaiser wrote:

“Becoming an individual entails a complete, a fundamental, an eternal and insurmountable isolation.”

The fact that becoming an individual entails isolation explains why many people cower from the task of becoming an individual, preferring instead to alleviate their feelings of loneliness via conformity and immersion in the masses.

Erich Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom noted the intimate connection between existential isolation and conformity.

“…he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness…The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious anymore. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self.” (Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm)

The path to becoming an individual requires that one not flee this isolation, but embrace it, suffer it, and develop the ability to

“actively face the feeling of being alone…and abandoned by the world.” (Aldo Carotenuto, The Difficult Art)

The feeling of being alone and abandoned by the world can force one to question the meaning of life – another ultimate concern each individual must wrestle with.

It is very common these days for people to struggle with the question of life’s meaning which Albert Camus called the “most urgent question of all”. But confronting this question is of the ultimate importance for as Carl Jung commented:

“Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.”

Many existentialists have stressed that the ultimate meaning of human existence is unattainable, as Viktor Frankl put it:

“[The] ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

But while the ultimate meaning of life may be out of our grasp this does not preclude one from finding personal meaning, or meaning to one’s own existence.

“Modern…humans face the task of finding some direction to life without an external beacon. How does one proceed to construct one’s own meaning – a meaning sturdy enough to support one’s life?”(Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom)

Although constructing one’s own meaning is an individual task requiring an individual solution, numerous thinkers have isolated self-actualization as a particularly potent solution.

In the 4th century BC Aristotle asserted that the proper end, or aim, of each thing is the realization of its own being, or the actualization of its latent potentialities. An acorn’s proper end is to develop into a healthy oak tree, while the individual’s proper end is to actualize the latent capacities within: an idea expressed in the Ancient Greek poet Pindar’s assertion to “Become who you are”.

Becoming who you are is not a guarantee but a difficult and arduous task requiring self-knowledge, commitment and courage – and is thus a purpose or meaning worthy and sturdy enough to support one’s life.

“…it is reasonable to assume in practically every human being…there is an active will toward health, an impulse toward growth, or toward the actualization of human potentialities. But at once we are confronted with the saddening realization that so few people make it. Only a small proportion of the human population gets to the point of identity, or of selfhood, full humanness, self-actualization.”(Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

While the ultimate concerns which structure and limit our existence – death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness – can be burdensome, fear-provoking, and even tragic, it is possible to come to terms with them by reflecting on the human condition, and actively working towards an acceptance of the fate which binds us all.

Although these ultimate concerns are problems which have no single solution and cannot be solved once and for all, it is important to remind oneself of Seneca’s insight into the power of the human mind.

“…there is nothing too difficult and arduous for the mind of man to be able to master and that does not become familiar by constant meditation.” (Seneca)

Each of us has the ability to integrate the ultimate concerns of human existence into our being, meditate upon them, and eventually rise above them.

For as Nietzsche said

“There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic.” (Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Or in the words of Carl Jung:

“…the greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble… They can never be solved, but only outgrown…What on a lower level had led to the wildest conflicts and to emotions full of panic, viewed from the higher-level of the personality now seemed like a storm in a valley seen from a high mountain top. This does not mean that the thunderstorm is robbed of its reality; it means that, instead of being in it, one is now above it.” (Carl Jung)

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