Would the True Existential Therapy Please Stand Up? Eclectic, Antagonistic, or Integrative?

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One of the interesting aspects of being an existential therapist is learning the perceptions that others have about what it means to be existential. After having taught about existential psychology at seven universities, I have heard quite a few different perspectives. However, the diversity within existential psychology is maybe as diverse as the perceptions from outside.

I have advocated that there is no one existential psychology, and that to advocate for a single or pure existential psychology is actually quite unexistential (Hoffman, 2009). In many ways, it is better to see existential psychology as a mosaic in which there are a number of different values and positions that most existential therapist ascribe to; however, there are not any essential ideas or values that serve as a litmus test to identify a true existential therapist.

The Relationship of Existential Psychology to Other Therapy Orientations
Although there may not be a singular existential approach, it is important to consider the relationship of existential psychology to other approaches. Existential and humanistic psychology has a reputation of being antagonistic to other approaches to therapy. It is often pointed out that humanistic and existential psychology began as a reaction against behavioral and psychoanalytic approaches and has always had a bit of a rebellious flair.

Certainly, there is some truth in this characteristic of existential psychology. However, as Grogan (2013) points out, this was not the intent of many of the early founders of the third force movement. Maslow and Rogers did not see humanistic psychology as opposed to mainstream approaches (i.e., behavioral and psychoanalytic, at that time), but rather as building from them while addressing some of their limitations. Similarly, May (as cited in Grogan, 2013) said, “…if humanistic psychology is only a protest, we can be sure that its demise will be assured” (p. 291).

While humanistic and existential psychology always intended to provide a critique of the mainstream, we must keep in mind what the best critiques are all about. It seems that in contemporary times, many associate critical thinking or offering a critique as simply finding the weaknesses, being critical, and maybe even attacking the position being considered. However, this is often the exact opposite—the lack of critical thinking! To critique or provide critical thinking means to think deeply and consider the strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and applications—not merely to be critical. At times, the best critiques are quite positive.

If existential and humanistic psychology are nothing but critical of mainstream psychology and other approaches then our credibility ought to be called into question. When we rebel, it is vital that we have a cause and that we offer an alternative. We must, particularly given our reputation, make sure that our critiques are well grounded and balanced, lest we not be taken seriously by anyone but ourselves.

At the same time, it is important to stand for something. My concern about eclectic approaches to therapy is that they often have no foundation from which to stand. The idea of eclectic is essentially, “we use what works,” but often insufficiently considers what it means to work. Additionally, it does not consider whether what is deemed to works fits with the values of those for whom it is purported to work. As C. S. Lewis stated:

Of all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.… To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. (as cited in Szasz, 1997).

It is dangerous to proclaim a cure without ever discussing with the client what the cure looks like or if they want it.

Toward Integration
We must stand for something, but in doing so, it is important that we do not stand against everything else. In moving toward an integrative perspective, existential therapists are able to maintain a solid grounding in existential psychology while considering, dialoging, and integrating other approaches. It is important that this is done with thoughtful consideration and critique. If one tries to integrate what does not fit with one’s foundation, then the therapist is likely to confuse the client while working against oneself.

Schneider’s (2008) existential-integrative approach is not only a solid model for existential therapy, but it is also an important model of integration at its best. Some approaches to integrative therapy really are nothing more than eclectic approaches in a dressed-up language. Other times, the integrations have so many internal contradictions that they are no longer intelligible as a consistent approach to therapy.

Integration, when done right, combines the strength of having a consistent foundation for clinical practice with the adaptability that comes from drawing upon the strengths of different therapeutic approaches. Yet, it avoids the problems inherent with eclectic approaches or sloppy integrations.

Existential therapy is a natural integrative approach. From the early origins of existential thought, it has always been opposed to rigidity and fundamentalisms. Furthermore, integrative approaches avoid the errors of antagonism and being overly rebellious on one hand, while avoiding the groundlessness of eclectic approaches. Additionally, the focus on integration provides a corrective to some of the problems of extremes that has been associated with existential psychology in the past, regardless of whether these problems were based upon reality or not.

Grogan, J. (2013). Encountering America: Humanistic psychology, sixties culture, and the shaping of the modern self. New York: HarperPerennial.

Hoffman, L. (2009). Introduction to existential psychotherapy in a cross-cultural context: An East-West dialogue. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology East-West (pp. 1-67). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Schneider, K. J. (2008). Existential integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. New York: Routledge.

Szasz, T. (1997). Mental illness is still a myth. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 23, 70-80.


— Louis Hoffman

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