DON’T PANIC he says, in large friendly letters
In a minute I’m going to use a word that will almost certainly bring all sorts of images to mind. Pictures of earnest, angst-ridden European arty types wearing black roll neck sweaters and discussing Life, Death, The Universe and Everything in dingy Parisian cafés against a backdrop of Gauloises smoke, absinth – and possibly even apricot cocktails (a favourite, apparently).
Whilst existentialism may have picked up quite a few stereotypes along the way, this branch of philosophy can help us find clarity and solutions, especially at a time when over half of the UK population identifies as ‘none’ regarding faith. Rather than offering the comfort and certainty of religion with answers which cannot be questioned, existentialism is concerned with addressing questions regarding what it is to be human, especially regarding our freedom.
Whilst these questions may never be answered, the search is itself a journey of development that can lead us down fresh paths rather than fixed tracks laid down by others, we can embrace our autonomy, rather than abdicating from it.
Existential psychotherapy has been described (Deurzen and Kenward, 2005) as having the aim to ‘clarify, reflect upon and understand life as each person in practice experiences it in order to overcome particular problems or resolve dilemmas’. In other words, rather than an ethereal search for deep overall meaning, or an academical joust between different hypothetical perspectives, existential therapy is concerned with how we cope with the underlying truths of our lives.
There are therapies which start with the early years and attachment, particularly maternal (‘if it’s not one thing, it’s the mother…’) and which assume that our life script is fixed in our early years – that by about six years old we have decided subconsciously who we are and how our lives will play out. Such approaches can point to the effect of both nature and nurture, apples not falling far from the tree and all that.
It makes sense to assume that a wall will follow the contours of the foundations as it rises. To follow the building metaphor, if a crack appears then it is probably wishful thinking to just paper over it and assumes ‘job done’. Better to trace it back down and find the cause – a failed lintel, or something wrong with the foundations? My experience so far suggests that substance use is often best regarded as a symptom rather than a cause, and that progress will come from working on the cause rather than a focus on controlling the effect – but that this may not require psychological archaeology.
As with a general Humanist approach, existentialism accepts that we are able to make changes in our lives, that we can seek to discover our true goals in life and move purposefully towards them. In contrast to some of the overly enthusiastic perspectives which seem more in tune with self-help seminars, an existentialist view accepts that our lives will have limits, boundaries and restrictions beyond which we cannot go. Attempt to run through a minefield with little more than a positive, ‘can do’ attitude, and we’ll certainly go up in the world but perhaps not in the way we want. As someone who was very nearly thrown out of a seminar for saying that I wanted to be ‘President of the U.S.A by Friday’ in response to a claim by the speaker that we could be anyone we wanted to be, this more pragmatic acceptance of the realities of life greatly appeals.
This acceptance also extends to a realisation that life – for most of anyway – bears little relationship to the works of Disney or Mills & Boone. Nietzsche propose that we should learn to love our fate (‘amor fati’), finding joy in this acceptance of the inevitable. It is certainly possible to create an alternative reality around ourselves, to construct a web of delusions, discounts and denials and don a pair of industrial strength rose-tinted goggles, and this will indeed make the intolerable tolerable – in the same that emotionally shutting down, or addictions do. All these approaches, however, keep us stuck where we really don’t want to be. If the airline takes us to Alaska by mistake, instead of the anticipated sun-drenched beach, do we say ‘mustn’t grumble’ and make the best of it, or do we kick up merry hell and get to where we want to be?
Socrates believed that a reflected life was not worth living, by looking deeply into ourselves, challenging our perceptions and discovering who we really are and who we wish to become it becomes possible to achieve an enlightenment and then liberation. Kierkegaard thought that we should tackle the difficult issues in life by not avoiding anxiety and despair but instead acknowledging and accepting them – looking them fully in the face and deciding to live life fully and honestly. Take the vinegar out of a sweet and sour sauce and it becomes sickly sweet, life needs both Ying and Yang.
Where anxiety can be seen as an illness – something to be avoided, measured and treated (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has 46 pages covering over 20 types), existential therapy looks not at the normal meaning of worry, but rather the feeling of angst that comes from this head-on recognition, the dizziness that comes not only from an awareness of our own mortality but also the recognition of the freedoms we still have to make decisions. Rather than either a medical or psychological approach, existential therapy draws on philosophy with the aim to ‘clarify, reflect upon and understand life…to gain mastery over the art of living, so that life’s challenges can be welcomed and enjoyed instead of feared and avoided’ (Deurzen 2012). Existential therapists do not offer set ways of living life, a hope that a positive attitude will conquer all or a warm cocoon of escape from reality. The work is instead a focus on the reality of clients’ lives, an awareness of their limitations as well as a discovery of their strengths and desired destination. The aim is to achieve authentic living, defined by Jaspers as ‘becoming oneself whilst suffering defeat.’
If you would like to read more, may I suggest ‘Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice’ by Emmy van Deurzen, 2012