Key Concepts and Unique Attributes
Corey (2006) describes existentialism as a "philosophical approach that influences a counselor's therapeutic practice" (p. 132) rather than a therapeutic model or a separate theoretical approach. This influence implies people are free to determine their own lives. Existential theory acknowledges the influence of the same unconscious directives that are emphasized in psychodynamic theory, but they believe people are capable of making life altering decisions rather than Freud's more deterministic view. Existential theory believes people make conscious choices and are not victims of unconscious directives (Corey, 2006).
Carl Rogers, the key figure in the development of person-centered therapy, embraced many of the same tenets as existential therapy but further emphasizes the ability of the client to self-heal within a beneficial and safe client/therapist relationship (Corey, 2006). Rogers believed that people were motivated toward a natural tendency toward growth and health, and unlike existential theory, believed it was this natural tendency, rather than angst, that was a primary motivational factor in such growth. Corey (2006) uses the description of the acorn's natural tendency to become an oak tree under normal conditions as a metaphor for the human inclination toward growth and development in healthy, nurturing conditions.
Existential therapy aims to teach clients to reflect on life, become aware of the various options available as a means to creating a meaningful and purposeful existence. It believes people seek such meaning and purpose and strive toward continual personal transformation. In existential theory, psychological challenge or disturbance takes place when an individual is not true to him or herself, whereas Roger's person-centered theory believed defensiveness, disorganization, and incongruent circumstances led people from their natural path to fulfillment. Person-centered theory believes people are self directed, even without the help of a therapist, and will succeed in making necessary changes to solve personal problems. Rogers believed that a client is best supported by a therapist who is genuine, accepting, caring, and empathetic. In such a therapeutic environment, growth and development are natural tendencies.
Although the key recognized figures in existential theory are Viktor Frankl and Rollo May, this manner of thinking had its roots in the earlier philosophical influence of thinkers and philosophers from the 1800s and early 1900s. These foundational influences proffered the concept of human angst as a primary motivating force in human behavior, and the struggle of the human condition of being in the world without having a permanent place in it. May believed when people understood their freedom and responsibility they would experience angst which motivated them to find meaning and purpose in their lives (Corey, 2006).
From several 19th century philosophers came a central influencing theme is the dynamic between the individual and the world, and the personal belief system that connects the two. One significant influential character was Kierkegaard who believed "we live in extreme anxiety and trembling over death and dread, and despair over who we are" (Mills, 2002, para.3). Existentialists believe human beings were compelled to self-actualize, which, in part, meant to find a greater meaning and purpose in life. Existentialists are concerned with individual existence, how the individual copes with a miniscule existence, and what the individual does and believes to give the existence some context and meaning (Corey, 2009).
In the more contemporary existentialism, Viktor Frankl and Rollo May were key figures in the early beginnings of this movement. Frankl was originally a student of Freud and Adler, but became more influenced by early existential writings. Rollo May was influenced by Freud and Adler as well, but also found existentialist thought compelling. He believed in a constant human struggle of having the freedom to choose, along with an overwhelming responsibility in that choice (Corey, 2006).
Carl Rogers was the first psychotherapist to use the word client instead of patient. This helped to move psychotherapy away from the strict medical model used by psychoanalytic approaches. Rogers came to believe his client-centered approach must focus on the deeply personal psychological experiences of the client. This emphasis, along with the warm, caring, empathetic attitude of the therapist were the ingredients that encouraged and supported the actualization of human potential (Corey, 2006).
Rogers adamantly believed behaviorist and psychoanalytic therapies did not support client's potential to self-actualization. His theories grew from frustration over behaviorist and psychoanalytic notions and he theorized clients had the intrinsic knowledge to solve the issues for which they sought counseling. During his work at the Institute for Child Guidance, he began to realize he obtained better results from simply listening attentively to his clients and letting them talk in a safe, caring environment (Corey, 2006).
In person-centered therapy, the therapist's role is to create and support a psychological atmosphere appropriate for natural human growth and the individual's capacity toward self-actualization. In existential therapy, therapists are mainly concerned with " understanding the subjective world of clients to help them come to new understandings and options." (Corey, 2009, p. 148). Helping clients accept the responsibility of their own lives allows them to move from emotional angst and self-deception, toward the joy of achieving personal potential (Corey, 2009). The therapist acts as a mirror, of sorts, to reflect some of the self-imposed constrictions and limitations preventing the client from further growth. Most existential therapists use a variety of loosely stated techniques with clients.
Person-centered therapists encourage growth and change by providing an environment fertile for that development, whereas existential therapists provoke and use the client's angst to strengthen motivation to grasp alternatives and options to contemporary client issues. Existential therapists may appear more provoking whereas person-centered therapists may seem more supportive, although both approaches work toward healthy growth and development (Corey, 2009).
Research Support for the Theory
Rogers created a scientific parameter which accommodated research and client-centered theory lent itself to scrutiny by the scientific method. He infused into his theories the necessary elements for psychological growth by defining and including conditions that would lead to the theory's evolution (Kirschenbaum & Jourdan, 2005). May denounced scientific methods because he believed they were inadequate to release and reveal the accurate nature of humanity. Neither May's theories nor existential psychology lend themselves to verification or falsification. May's writings did, however, deeply affect many people. Because of a lack of definitive rules and methods, a wide disparity exists between contemporary existential applications.
Rogers was careful to maintain consistency in his therapeutic application and as a result, yielded consistent results. Feist and Feist (2009) believe his work is a prototype for future theorists. Rollo May neglected important aspects of human personality and was often inconsistent and confusing in his explanation of theories. Perhaps because he took many of his ideas from philosophical sources, he was unable to translate them into consistent scientific theory and were often seen as abstract to scholars and his peers (Corey, 2009). It is interesting to note, however, Corey (2009) believes existential theory is effective in multicultural therapy because of its use of common and pervasive human issues. Mills (2003) believes existential psychology "remains foreclosed and underappreciated by the psychoanalytic community" (para. 5).
Corey, G. (2009). Case approach to counseling and psychotherapy (7th ed). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Feist, J. & Feist, G. (2009). Theories of personality (7th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.
Kirschenbaum, H., & Jourdan, A. (2005). The current status of Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 42(1), 37-51. doi: 10.1037/0033-3188.8.131.52
Mills, J. (2003). Existentialism and psychoanalysis: From antiquity to postmodernism. Psychoanalytic Review, The, 90(3), 269-279. doi: 10.1521/prev.90.3.269.23621