Tag Archives: Emmy van Deurzen

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.

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