Fun with Existential Theory

I think existentialists have gotten a bad rap over the years. They don’t deserve their depressive reputation. If you’re not sure about this claim, invite a bunch of existentialists over for a party. They know how to have a good time. Just think of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I’m sure they did some table-dancing (among other things) in their time.

Why are they so much fun? Well, in addition to their tendency to go on and on about death and meaninglessness, existentialists were some of the original embracers of carpe diem. They believe in seizing the day (or moment)–regardless of whether they’re playing Pokemon Go or working with you in counseling or psychotherapy.

Below I’ve included a short excerpt from the upcoming 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. One of the reasons I’m posting this is because one of the reviewers of the 2nd edition noted that we were trying too hard to to be “cute” . . . so I thought I’d see if any of you blog-readers think that’s the case. This particular excerpt is as cute as we get in this chapter. What do you think?? Overboard? Just right? Or should we try to be more like Stephen Colbert. You be the judge in this moment in time.

Theoretical Principles

As noted previously, there’s no single theorist or theory of existential psychotherapy. Consequently, although we focus on key existential philosophical and phenomenological principles, other existential writers and theorists may emphasize principles slightly different from the following.

The I-Am Experience

The I-am experience is the experience of being, of existing (R. May et al., 1958). The experience of being is often referred to as ontological experience (ontos means “to be” and logical means “the science of”). Literally, then, a major focus of existential therapy consists of exploring immediate human experience. You might think of it as suddenly waking up and being completely tuned into what it’s like to exist and be here and now in this particular moment in time.

Existentialists like to use hyphens to capture the interconnectedness of phenomenological experience. For example, in contrast to May’s I-am experience, Boss (1963) and Binswanger (1933) used Dasein (which is translated to being-in-the-world) to describe the sense-of-existence. Also, the phrase, “Dasein choosing,” which is translated to the-person-who-is-responsible-for-his-existence choosing is used. We should note that this practice is in no way related to our own hyphenated last names, although it has inspired John to consider adding a hyphenated middle name so he can refer to himself in the third person as, “John-who-is-responsible-for-his-existence-Sommers-Flanagan,” which he thinks sort of rolls right off the tongue.

It follows, as-if-anything-really-follows-from-the-preceding, that existential therapy is almost always in the service of self-awareness or self-discovery. However, unlike psychoanalysts, existentialists seek to expand client self-awareness rather than interpreting client unconscious processes. This is because existentialists believe the entirety of an individual’s human experience is accessible to consciousness. It’s not so much a matter of uncovering an elusive unconscious as it is a matter of elucidating the conscious and deepening the relational.

Four Existential Ways of Being

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

The first three of these existential ways of being were described by Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958). The fourth way of being was added by van Deurzen (1988).

These four dimensions of existence are ubiquitous and simultaneous. Some people focus more on one dimension than others or shift from one to another depending on particular intentions or situations. For example, while on a mountain hike up the Stillwater gorge in Montana, it’s difficult not to become profoundly into being-with-nature as water powerfully cascades around you, making all conversation (being-with-others) impossible. However, depending on other factors, this experience can take people inward toward eigenwelt, toward an uberwelt spiritual experience, or stimulate a deep mitwelt (albeit a nonverbal one). In most cases the direction that your being moves in a given situation is likely a combination of several factors, including, but not limited to: anxiety, previous experiences, intention, as well as your spiritual predisposition.


7 thoughts on “Fun with Existential Theory”

  1. Dear John-pretty-darn-funny-sommers-flannagan,

    This particular being-in-the-world totally appreciates you humor. I think if more people wrote with that sort of off-the-cuff-type style combining high intelligence and humor, more students-trying-to-be-therapists might actually read theories textbooks. On the other hand, I can see where some editors who live in places other than Montana, and who do not know know you personally might find it a bit over much, and too informal. I really liked the example of being-with nature and the waterfall. Then again people who have no experience outside of cities might not get it at all, and you might want to add an example of being with subway noise.

    See you soon.


  2. Hey John,

    Hope all is good. I’m about to read your latest e-mail. Thought you might get a kick out of the pics. I’ll be looking forward to seeing you later this month. Is there a new class you’re teaching? I’ll take it if it’s gonna’ be good!



    Sent from Outlook


    1. Hi Bill.

      All my classes are good? I don’t know how you could even wonder about that:).

      It’s nice to hear from you and I’ll be seeing you soon. Will you be riding into down on one of your horses?

      The class you haven’t taken is COUN 620: Advanced Theories. Mostly we do CBT stuff.

      Enjoy your last month of freedom.


  3. Don’t you dare change this chapter to be “less cute!” This is one of those places in the book that I laughed out loud while reading and thought about how lucky I was to be so engaged in a textbook, laughing out loud–not falling asleep out of sheer boredom. There are plenty of books like that out there in the world. I’m happy yours isn’t one of them!
    Thanks for your humor! It is MUCH appreciated!

    1. Hi Becca.

      You’re the best! That’s exactly the answer I was hoping for.

      And thanks for your quick feedback on the chapter. I have to prep for an upcoming conference, but will try to get to your feedback as soon as I can.


      John SF

  4. Hi John,

    I think the critique of being “cute” is a projection of his status quo “textbook mindset”. You and Rita bring humor into the textbook and I don’t see humor as taking away from learning at all. In fact, for me just the opposite. Humor makes it interesting enough to keep reading. However, it’s always nice to hear what others who think differently than yourselves have to say. It can keep you humble and sometimes help improve an already great product. It’s a trademark and I wouldn’t change it, unless of course the publisher makes you.

    R/ Una

    1. Hi Una!

      Thanks for your supportive comment. It’s always good to stay humble and work to improve ourselves . . . which is a part of my life plan. I hope all is well for you in Hawaii.


      John SF

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