Existential Psychotherapy

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Existential Psychotherapy is a form of psychotherapy which aims at enhancing your self-knowledge and allos you to be the author of your own life - though others might answer the question
"What is the Aim of Existential Psychotherapy ?" differently. Its philosophical roots are to be found in the works of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and other existential thinkers as well as Husserl and phenomenologists. Historically, existential therapy began when Binswanger attempted to use Heidegger's theory therapeutically, an approach that was adapted by Victor Frankl, Rollo May and others in the United States. More recently its leading exponents have included Ernesto Spinelli and Emmy van Deurzen in the UK and Irvin Yalom in the States. In the UK there are a growing number of existentially-oriented therapists. The School of Psychotherapy based in Regent's College in Regent's Park, London and the New School of Psychotherapy  near Waterloo, London both specialise in the training of existential therapists and counsellors. The Society for Existential Analysis is a thriving international organisation which promotes the discussion of existential ideas and their application to psychotherapy. Existential psychotherapy is perhaps one of the most well-worked out forms of philosophical counselling (the "perhaps" indicating some controversy over whether it is a type of philosophical counselling, or something distinct).


          Society for Existential Analysis

          What is the aim of existential psychotherapy ?

          How does existential therapy proceed ?

          Humour - The Existential Greyhound - the real story of how existentialism came into being

          Book Reviews

           NEW - Free Personal Development Articles

          Recommended links on existentialism

          Recommended reading

Contact Information

Looking for a therapist ?

Society for Existential Analysis

The aim of the Society for Existential Analysis is to provide a forum for the expression of views and the exchange of ideas amongst those interested in the analysis of existence from philosophical and psychological perspectives.

The Society hosts an annual conference and produces a journal which is subscribed to by some 500 practitioners and trainees in the field. It also hosts regular Friday Fora and produces a regular Newsletter.


To join ( current yearly membership £32) write to :-

Postal Address:  
Society for Existential Analysis  
BM Existential  
WC1N 3XX                   Tel:07000 473337 e-mail:exist@cwcom.net

Book Reviews

Existential Time-Limited Therapy by Freddie Strasser and Alison Strasser.

Published by John Wiley & Sons, London 1997. Review by Mike Harding


When the novelist Anthony Burgess was a young man he was informed he had but six months to live. As he survived until his 80s, this turned out to be something of a mis-diagnosis, but the initial news had set him writing with a vengeance, and four novels were completed within a year. As Dr. Johnson has commented, the thought of being hung in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully. For the existential therapist, who often sees death's metaphor in the guise of all of life's small endings, the idea of placing a limit on our time together cannot help but evoke the possibility of powerful encounters taking place within its remains. In the Strassers' book, this point is argued with a skill and clarity which challenges those -the reviewer included- whose natural tendency may be to think that 'more is better', or that therapy is by nature an extended process. In truth the book does much more than this, for it introduces the reader to the two interlocking, but different approaches embodied in its title.


Firstly we are introduced to key concepts in existential therapy in a very accessible manner -a fact for which many students will have cause for considerable gratitude. We move from Buber and Heidegger to May, van Deurzen and Spinelli, as main themes and their applications are traced out. The assumptions of many approaches are obliquely questioned as the authors lay out the ground of our ontological 'givens', and some of the possibilities for therapy in general are explored within this context. This leads naturally to the authors' main thesis: the value of brief, or time-limited encounters. Some of their arguments here will be familiar, for the trend towards short-term therapy is growing fast. However the Strassers are not offering endorsement of a trend. Within their chosen model is a challenge to the staid 'solution-focused' paradigm that predominates, and we see more clearly how the natural anxieties, which the recognition of our limited time evokes, are not echoes of some symptom to be erased, but may be the very spur that liberates.


In describing both the main concepts of the existential model, and the frame and practice of short term therapy, the authors utilise a novel aid to our understanding, which they term the wheel of existence. As the use of diagrams is very rare within the existential tradition, this is another challenge to more conventional ways of describing. It is also an effective one, for it allows many of the key points that might flow from life's givens to be clearly identified and placed within their overall context. This device is similarly used when discussing the practice of therapeutic interventions, and the areas with which they might engage. For example, to raise the issue of anxiety brings with it the question of our freedom, how we cope with uncertainty, the sense of who we are both in and out of intimate relationships, how we might polarise our experience of the world, perhaps choosing to fix our sense of reality in only one possibility, and so on. The realms of life that emerge from this careful identification of so many key issues are highlighted again in the case histories that complete the book.



The case histories are brief, but perform their task well. We see clear examples of both themes and practice, and -most importantly- the clients are allowed space for their own assessment or comment, which do not always spare the therapist' omissions or mistakes. One of the narratives exemplifies a chapter on the experience of the body, a subject often overlooked in the field of existential therapy. This is a book I enjoyed reading, clearly written and to the point, it links a whole range of ideas into a coherent practice. Sometimes, out of necessity, subjects are not always given their due space. Considering the centrality of Time to the described approach, I would have liked a longer chapter on this complex subject, though it is clearly picked up as an experiential component of the case studies.


While Time limits us all, the Strassers are not dogmatic in their own use of its boundaries, and recognise that this, itself, raises the kernel of a question. Throughout the book two main methods of working are described, a fixed term of ten to twelve sessions with two follow up sessions some weeks later, and a series of re-negotiable modules, with or without follow-up meetings. Each approach raises its own issues, and while some may cause us to question again what exactly is meant by the expression 'time-limited', each evocation only reiterates the value and importance of time's initial boundary, both in its own terms, and as a latent recognition of that frame which holds us all. This is a book which has a lot to say about therapy , both at a theoretical level -to which it brings new insights- and, perhaps more importantly, at a practical level, where it forces us to question what we do each day, and offers intriguing possibilities of a different way of working. Strongly recommended!


Mike Harding, April 1998


Essays on Philosophical Counselling by Ran Lahav & Maria da venza Tillmans

University Press of America 1995 ISBN 0-8191-9973-9 208pp

Readers may have noticed a growing number of references to something called "Philosophical Counselling". For those curious to learn more about this approach and its relationship to existential counselling I would unhesitatingly recommend this book.

The book comprises fourteen essays written by leading practitioners. Though written in 1995 it remains, as far as I know, the only book on philosophical counselling available in English. The well-written introduction by Lahav and Tillmans begins by distinguishing philosophical from psychological forms of counselling. Philosophical Counselling "assumes that underlying many personal predicaments are issues which are philosophical in nature. The role of the philosophical counsellor is to help counsellees explore their predicaments and lives, using philosophical thinking tools, such as conceptual analysis and phenomenological investigations." ( page ix). The historical precursors are said to be the ancient Greeks, most notably Socrates whose saying "the unexamined life is not worth living" has become a slogan for the movement. Philosophical counselling was reinvented by the German philosopher Gerd Achenbach in 1981 since which time it has spread internationally - mainly to Holland, Israel the USA and South Africa ( but not, in 1995, to the UK) judging by the nationality of the contributors to this volume.

The first four essays chart the history of the movement and discuss general issues like the nature of philosophical counselling and the training of practitioners. Ran Lahav's interesting essay pulls together the common threads of philosophical counselling by suggesting all perform "worldview interpretation". Worldview interpretation has some similarities with Binswanger and Emmy van-Deurzen's clarification of personal worldviews but is by no means identical. By "worldview" Lahav means an individual's personal philosophy, which roughly corresponds to van-Deurzen's "ideal world". So do philosophical counsellors ignore the client's relationship with their other worlds ? Not necessarily , since many philosophical counsellor's would consider it their job to criticise a client's worldview if it did not accord with their natural, public or private worlds ( though they would not use this terminology). For example, a philosophical counsellor would point out the inconsistency of a hermit who claimed to value friendship above all else. Nevertheless the impression that philosophical counselling places the individual's philosophy in the foreground is not misplaced.

As well as describing commonalities, Lahav's essay pinpoints five major areas of disagreement amongst philosophical counsellors. Philosophical counsellors disagree about whether they should tackle only obviously philosophical issues ( for example ethical problems and meaning-related crises) or whether even apparently psychological problems can be dealt with. Similarly there is no unanimity about whether counselling should address a particular problem or help the whole person, whether it should be open-ended or not, and whether interpretations are autonomous or more directive. Existential counselling could perhaps be characterised as a form of philosophical counselling which imposes no restriction on the presenting issue, is person- rather than problem- oriented, is open-ended and aims at descriptive interpretations.

The second section of the book pursues the issue of philosophical counselling's relationship to psychotherapy further. Gerd Achenbach, the founder of the modern movement, argues against the view that philosophy exists merely to support science (including psychotherapy) when science faces problems it cannot solve, for example in deciding grand metaphysical truths. He opposes this view not only because it underestimates philosophy's value but also because philosophy cannot deliver these particular goods. "If there is anything which characterises philosophy, it is that it does not accumulate … stores of truth which only wait to be called up when needed". Far from concluding that philosophy is therefore useless, Achenbach takes to this to form the basis of philosophical practice. Philosophical counsellors should provide an encounter of the client's subjective reason with "the other", rather than telling the clients objective philosophical facts. He cites the example of a bereaved man who did not want to be talked out of his grief, rather he wanted "the opportunity to speak out his questions, to think about them, and to take them seriously" (page 70). Achenbach may be closer to existential approaches than he realises.

One contributor who would not be surprised to find himself categorised as an existential therapist is Steven Segal. His essay is an in-depth account of the crisis faced by Tolstoy who, at the height of his success, could no longer see any meaning in life and found himself contemplating suicide. Segal argues persuasively that Tolstoy's crisis is best seen as a philosophical crisis rather than a psychological one and distinguishes between various existentialists analysis ( e.g. Sartrean nausea versus Heideggerian anxiety). Segal argues that Heidegger's analysis is the most penetrating, a view I suspect will be shared by many readers. This chapter reminds us that there is as much danger in psychologists treating philosophical questions as the reverse.

The final section of the book considers specific topics for counselling such as business consultancy, marriage counselling and dealing with suicide survivors. Of particular interest was Louis Marinoff's description of "ethical counselling". Marinoff describes how counselling can help people escape "decision paralysis". The counsellor can help " the counsellee to determine whether some possible action is consistent or inconsistent with the counsellee's total belief system." ( page 177). He gives two case studies where client's were helped, within a single session, to have a better understanding of their ethical problems. Though Marinoff does not suggest this, it seems to the present writer that such an approach would be of great benefit to counselling supervisors and could usefully feature in their training.

This book is not a manual on how to do philosophical counselling. Rather it is a survey of the field as it stood in 1995. Differences in approach between contributors are real, indeed even the name of the approach is variously called "philosophical counselling", "philosophical practice" and "philosophical consultancy". Moreover there are a number of questions raised which are tackled briefly, if at all. For example, is the aim of philosophical counselling truth, rationality, the well-being of the client or some hybrid of these and other aims ? To what extent should practitioners consider psychological issues ( e.g. whether a client is "ready" for a particular intervention) rather than purely philosophical ones ? Nevertheless the book is brimful of ideas and in general very well-written. Essential reading for all counsellors who consider philosophy to be an important part of their work.

Tim LeBon


Therapy - A Novel by David Lodge (Secker & Warburg, 1995) Review by Tim LeBon

In this novel David Lodge, one of our leading novelists and the author of such comic masterpieces as Small World and Nice Work, turns his attention to the worlds of therapy. The hero of the book, Laurence Passmore, has a lot of therapy. On Mondays he has Physiotherapy, on Tuesdays Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and on Fridays either aromatherapy or acupuncture. A seemingly happily married, successful TV sitcom writer, to the layman he may be just seem to be going through a mid-life crisis. His Cognitive Behavioural therapist thinks he has a self-esteem problem but the exercises she and the other therapists set him seem to do little to help either his angst or his mysterious knee pains.


It is only when Laurence accidentally stumbles on the writings of Soren Kierkegaard that he begins to make more sense of his life. It being Kierkegaard, religion, as well as existentialism enters into the story, as Laurence sees parallels between himself and Kierkegaard in terms of both their experiences and attitude to relationships and life in general. I've no idea whether Lodge would see this book as a vindication of existentialism or a criticism of therapy - but one interpretation is that Laurence comes to terms with his life more through his own decisions and reading of Kierkegaard than anything his therapists do for him. I thoroughly recommend this book as an entertaining and intelligent read, and to members of the Society it obviously has an extra dimension. The question which remains in my mind is - what might have happened if Laurence had seen an Existential therapist ? I'll leave that as an exercise for the interested reader ...


 Tim LeBon


 What is the aim of existential psychotherapy?

Emmy van Deurzen ( in Handbook of Individual Therapy, ed Dryden)

"The goals of existential therapy are :-

to enable people to become more truthful with themselves

to widen their perspective on themselves and the world around them

to find clarity on how to proceed in the future while taking lessons from the past and creating something valuable to live for in the present" 

Ernesto Spinelli (The Interpreted World - an introduction to phenomenological psychology page 127)

"the aim ... is to offer the means for individuals to examine, confront and clarify and reassess their understanding of life, the problems encountered throughout their life, and the limits imposed upon the possibilities inherent in being-in-the-world "

Irvin Yalom ( Love's executioner - page 4-5)

Yalom thinks that the purpose of therapy is to help clients face and overcome the anxiety that emerges from a person's attempts to cope with the givens of existence.

"I have found that four givens (of existence) are particularly relevant to psychotherapy, namely

How does existential therapy proceed ?

Emmy van Deurzen ( in Handbook of Individual Therapy, ed Dryden) points to following four main methods.

Ernesto Spinelli (The Interpreted World - an introduction to phenomenological psychology pages 130-134) argues for the following four elements of existential therapy

 Recommended Books on Existential Therapy



Existential Counselling in Practice

Emmy van Deurzen Sage 1988 ISBN 0 8039 8127 9

A major work which lays down the authors own approach to existential counselling based on the clarification of world views, and the coming to terms with life and its paradoxes.

Order this book at amazon.co.uk by clicking here

Existential Psychotherapy

Irvin D.Yalom Basic Books ISBN 0-465-02147-6

Classic American text which lays down Yalom's way of dealing with the various defences against death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.

Order this book at amazon.co.uk by clicking here

The Interpreted World - an introduction to phenomenological psychology

Ernesto Spinelli Sage 1989 ISBN 0 8039 8115

As the title suggests, this book focuses on phenomenology and its application to therapy. Usefully and unusually, it carefully distinguishes existentialism and phenomenology and also compares and contrasts phenomenological psychotherapy to humanistic therapies.

Order this book at amazon.co.uk by clicking here

Other recommended books

The Passions - the myth and nature of human emotion

Robert C. Solomon Anchor Press / Doubleday 1976 ISBN 0 -385-09740-9

Leading American philosopher argues for the existential position that the emotions are our own chosen and purposeful way of making our lives meaningful. The view that reason and the passion are necessarily at odds is, according to Solomon, a myth. Includes an extremely interesting "register of the emotions" in which Solomon analyses anger, envy, love, pride and the other emotions.

Existentialism from Dosteoevsky to Sartre

W. Kaufmann (ed) Meridan books

Useful collection of source material from Kiekegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and others

Man's search for meaning - an introduction to logotherapy

Victor E. Frankl Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0 340 38831 5

Classic work by the founder of logotherapy, in which the basic concepts of logotherapy are expounded in the context of the author's experience in a concentration camp.

Demystifying Therapy Ernesto Spinelli Constable 1996 ISBN 0-09-472940-9

A critique of therapists and their propensity to mystify their work, which also gives an overview of Spinelli's phenomenological approach


Love's executioner and other tales of psychotherapy

Irvin D. Yalom Penguin ISBN 0-14-012846-8

Best-selling case studies of existentially-inclined therapist. Extremely lucidly and entertainingly written and begins with a most useful prologue expounding the author's views about therapy.

Everyday Mysteries - Existential dimensions of psychotherapy

Emmy van Deurzen Routledge 1997 ISBN 0-415-0870508

Surveys the historical and philosophical background to existential therapy and its theory and practice. Includes a detailed case study.

An introduction to existentialism

Robert G. Olson Dover ISBN 0-486-20055-8

Useful text which covers the subject through considering the main existential themes - reason and unreason, freedom, authenticity, the other and death.


Some recommended links

Official Society for Existential Analysis Site


Events, contact info and other information about the Society for Existential Analysis

Realm of Existentialism
Excellent collection of texts, links and photos. Material on Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and most of the other big names

Heidegger's Page--Ereignis (U.S.A.) Comprehensive Heidegger site.

ExistentialismUseful short piece from Miami University, with further links

D. Anthony Storm's Web Site on Kierkegaard Good material on the Dane who started it all.

 Christopher Scott Wyatt's primer on existentialism  Another comprehensive site

Society for Phenomenology and Existentialism site - SPEP US-based professional society

Robert Cavalier's site including Lectures on Being and TimeMore useful material

International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) Web-site - very good site on meaning-centred therapy, logotherapy and the meaning of life

Ian Owen's site - well-known phenomenologist's site

Contact Information

  Wise Therapy: Philosophy for Counsellors by Tim LeBon order at amazon.co.uk by clicking here

Looking for a therapist ?

If you are looking for an existential therapist/philosophical counsellor/cognitive therapist  in  London then please contact me at tim@timlebon.com 


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Last Revised: July 2006

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