What is Existential Phenomenological Psychotherapy?


Existential Phenomenological Psychotherapy may not be a familiar term for most people, but you have probably heard of Sartre, Husserl, Heidegger. In the 1960’s, some psychologists and psychotherapists, i.e. Ludwig Binswanger, Rollo May,  R.D Laing,  Irvin D. Yalom, were inspired by their thinking, and they integrated existential phenomenological thinking into psychotherapeutic practice as a way to understand human beings and their mostly confronted key issues. Let’s start with being-in-the-world-with-others.

Being-in-the-world-with-others

From the moment we exist, we cannot choose a world without other people, hence relatedness is a primary state of being. However, we can choose how to respond to this primary relatedness – we can concern ourselves with it or turn our back on it. Inescapable as it is, being-in-the-world-with-others is not always easy, it may provoke uncertainty, anxiety, and other uncomfortable feelings. So what can Existential Phenomenological Psychotherapy offer in the realm of being-in-the-world-with-others?

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is about issues related to being in the world, such as birth, aging, sickness, death, and etc., as well as the choices that people make when they are confronted with these issues in life.

What is Phenomenology psychotherapy?

Martin Heidegger once stated that scientific theories have deviated from our true experience, therefore, we should return to our experience itself. The aim of Heidegger’s phenomenology is ‘to let which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’. Take a chair as an example: we do not need to discuss about what a chair is or how it is made. The meaning of a chair comes from the experience when we really sit on that chair. So that we can have a better understanding of that chair. In other words, through the interaction with the chair, we know what a chair is. In order to understand someone, we will have to interact with the person.

What is Existential Phenomenological Psychotherapy?

Now, the question is how to apply existential phenomenology to psychotherapy. Actually, this question should be “What is the relationship between existential phenomenology and psychotherapy?” As stated before, human experience is not based on theories but on interactions, during the therapeutic process, I will constantly and consistently attempt to attend to whatever the client brings, and to pay attention to what the therapeutic relationship reveals. As Yalom said: “It’s the relationship that heals.” I can help the client to bring something to light and facilitate his or her self-exploration and self-understanding. Gradually, some aspects will then be unfolded, i.e. how one trusts; how one communicates; how one resolves conflicts; and the degree of one’s yearning for relationship; in short, how to be with others. Through discussing how the client is in relation to being-with-others and being-with me, the client and I will be able to recognise what the givens are and where his/her choices lie.

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