Principles of Existential Psychotherapy

Existential psychotherapy is based on a person’s sense of their place in the world and their willingness to face life and its problems. It is not based on past experiences but on what is happening in the present. It looks at the client’s ability to make decisions and focuses on increasing self-awareness. Existential psychotherapy encourages the client to take control of their own lives and to make positive changes to them. It is a philosophical approach rather than using techniques where clients are encouraged to explore the meaning of problem areas.

Existential psychotherapy is based on the existentialist belief that there is no predetermined meaning to life and that everybody is entirely free and ultimately responsible for everything that happens and so meaning has to be found or created. It helps to clarify the client’s understanding of their values and beliefs. It helps the client to live more authentically and purposefully but at the same time helps them to accept their limitations and contradictions because they are human.


The existentialism movement on which existential psychotherapy is based started in the 19th century and is based upon the beliefs of the theories of philosophers such as Sorn Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Their work focused on exploring human existence in a personal manner. The therapy is viewed as a way of looking into what it means to be human, including things that are usually avoided. As these exploration scan bring great strength and joy.

The main influencers of existential psychotherapy were Victor Frankl, Rollo May and Irvin Yalom. Frankl was a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps between 1942 and 1945 where he lost his whole family. He believed that spiritual freedom and independence of mind can be had in even the worst situations and that the essence of life lies in searching for meaning and purpose The American psychiatrist, Rollo May wrote many books on existential psychotherapy where he integrated psychoanalysis with existential therapy. He wrote extensively on the questions of intimacy, monogamy and the morals of relationships. Irvin Yalom practiced therapy through meaning, therapeutic love and the themes of existentialism.


This is the area of philosophy concerned with the meaning of human existence. It asks questions about the issues of love, death and the meaning of life and how a person deals with the sense of value and the mean of their life. Existentialists believe that it is an oversimplification to suggest that fixed physical laws control people. It focuses on the positive aspects of being human such as their growth and achievement.


The main principle of existential psychotherapy is that of freedom and responsibility. This can be broken down into three principles.

1. That people are fee to chose from different alternatives and they have a big role in shaping their own personal destinies.

2. That it is the way in which a person lives and what they become are the result of the choices they make.

3. People must accept the responsibility for the direction that their own lives take.

The Capacity for Self-Awareness

The basic principle of existential psychotherapy is that the greater our self awareness the greater our possibilities for freedom. We must realize that we are finite, that our time on the planet is limited. We must realize that we have the potential and the choice of whether we are going to act or not going to act. The meaning of life is not automatic; this is something we have to look for. We must also realize that we are subject to loneliness and isolation, meaninglessness and emptiness and guilt.

The Search for Meaning in Life

Existentialism theory states that meaning is like pleasure, it must be pursued. Finding the meaning to life is a consequence of a life committed to creating, working and loving. Life is not meaningful in itself. A person needs to create and discover meaning in their own life. Meaning cannot be given to a person’s life by another person. That person has to be willing to search for it by themselves. There are three possible ways of finding meaning in life.

Firstly, by learning to appreciate what the world has already given us, by enjoying nature or the pleasures of the senses. Secondly, adding to the pleasures of the world either by being creative or giving things to others and thirdly by suffering. If a person endures great difficulties such as pain, disappointment or hard labour, they can find an attitude of human dignity.

Problems encountered with Existential Psychotherapy

The client can resist the process. This occurs when the client does not take responsibility for their own lives, is not aware of what they are feeling or isn’t honest about the way they deal with life. This resistance isn’t usually directed at the therapist, it is simply the client’s way of dealing with a threat that they feel is overwhelming or a mistaken view or the world if they don’t have true perception of themselves. The client can also transfer their attention to the therapist. This is known as transference.


Existential psychotherapy is a deep analysis of what a particular individual feels it means to be a human being. The process of facing up to thing that people normally avoid can be very painful but the whole process can give an individual great strength and joy. It is a very difficult process and can sometimes involve encouraging guilt and anxiety rather than soothing them. The whole point of this type of therapy is to remove our human vanities and remember that we are all born to die. Existential psychotherapy just won’t make sense to anybody who has had an easy life, only to those who have to overcome great difficulties alone.