Existential Therapy

Yalom (1980) has done an exceptional job at providing an organizational structure for attempting to understand existential theory. He focused on the four main themes of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. He has also provided a wonderful brief summary of these themes in Love’s Executioner (Yalom, 1989). However, it should not be assumed that Yalom’s (1980) Existential Psychotherapy is a comprehensive overview of existential theory. The theory itself is far too broad to be thoroughly summarized in any singular volume. In many ways, it is best to think of the existential theories instead of a singular existential theory. While there are many shared values, there are few, if any, places where there is complete agreement amongst existential theorists.

One of the major distinctions between theorists is their view on whether the major questions of our existence can be answered. In general, theorists will agree that it is not possible to completely answer these questions while still in our finite form. However, some philosophers and psychologists believe there are no ultimate answers to these questions. John Paul Sarte and Irvin Yalom are two primary examples of this group. Prominent voices purporting this approach to existential theory has caused many to believe that existentialism is inherently atheistic, nihlistic, and pessimistic. However, this is not true of many of the existential thinkers. It is evident that people who purport this singular view of existentialist theory do not have a good grasp of the breadth or foundation existential thought.

Other existentialists provide a very optimistic viewpoint focusing on the potential for good and growth that is inherent in the human condition. Oftentimes, though not always, these theorists will claim a spiritual or religious basis for their optimism. However, even when the existential thinkers take a more positive viewpoint, there is still an emphasis that we should not deny the terrors or challenges that are also part of being human. Some examples of this perspective include Soren Kierkegaard (philosopher), Paul Tillich (Christian Theologian/Philosopher), Martin Buber (Jewish Theologian/Philosopher), and Rollo May (Psychologist).

The distinction between these two groups could be seen as the difference between a spiritual existential approach and an atheistic or non-spiritual existential approach. The spiritual existential approach is not necessarily a religious approach in the sense of believing in God, though it often could be viewed this way. The spiritual approach is one in which some type of transcendent or embodied answer to the major existential questions is believed to exist. The non-spiritualist existential approach, then, includes those who do not believe there are answers to these questions.

The overview of existential thought on this website will focus primarily on this second, more optimistic viewpoint of existential thought. For this reason, as I discuss the major themes Yalom has identified, I will reformulate the language used to classify these different aspects of the theory in a manner which reflects this distinction.

Before going into the four themes, I want to make a brief note on structure from an existential perspective. This more abstract conception is a little more difficult to grasp, and some may wish to skip directly to the sections on the primary themes below. It is important to note that these themes are not intended to be discrete or orthogonal categories. Rather, there is significant overlap in these categories. Furthermore, existential thought will general be skeptical of any such categorical approaches because of the tendency to reify the categories. A more consistent viewpoint of this structure from an existential perspective is to acknowledge that any organizational system is a human construction used to help understand the theory. Yet, any structure by its nature is forced to oversimplify and distort abstract concepts.
As previously noted, Yalom (1980) has done an exceptional job at providing an organizational structure for attempting to understand existential theory. He focused on the four main themes of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. He has also provided a wonderful brief summary of these themes in Love’s Executioner (Yalom, 1989). However, it should not be assumed that Yalom’s (1980) Existential Psychotherapy is a comprehensive overview of existential theory. The theory itself is far too broad to be thoroughly summarized in any singular volume. In many ways, it is best to think of the existential theories instead of a singular existential theory. While there are many shared values, there are few, if any, places where there is complete agreement amongst existential theorists.

One of the major distinctions between theorists is their view on whether the major questions of our existence can be answered. In general, theorists will agree that it is not possible to completely answer these questions while still in our finite form. However, some philosophers and psychologists believe there are no ultimate answers to these questions. John Paul Sarte and Irvin Yalom are two primary examples of this group. Prominent voices purporting this approach to existential theory have caused many to believe that existentialism is inherently atheistic, nihilistic, and pessimistic. However, this is not true of many of the existential thinkers. It is evident that people who purport this singular view of existentialist theory do not have a good grasp of the breadth or foundation existential thought.

Other existentialists provide a very optimistic viewpoint focusing on the potential for good and growth that is inherent in the human condition. Oftentimes, though not always, these theorists will claim a spiritual or religious basis for their optimism. However, even when the existential thinkers take a more positive viewpoint, there is still an emphasis that we should not deny the terrors or challenges that are also part of being human. Some examples of this perspective include Soren Kierkegaard (philosopher), Paul Tillich (Christian Theologian/Philosopher), Martin Buber (Jewish Theologian/Philosopher), and Rollo May (Psychologist).

The distinction between these two groups could be seen as the difference between a spiritual existential approach and an atheistic or non-spiritual existential approach. The spiritual existential approach is not necessarily a religious approach in the sense of believing in God, though it often could be viewed this way. The spiritual approach is one in which some type of transcendent or embodied answer to the major existential questions is believed to exist. The non-spiritualist existential approach, then, includes those who do not believe there are answers to these questions.

The overview of existential thought on this website will focus primarily on this second, more optimistic viewpoint of existential thought. For this reason, as I discuss the major themes Yalom has identified, I will reformulate the language used to classify these different aspects of the theory in a manner which reflects this distinction.
Before going into the four themes, I want to make a brief note on structure from an existential perspective. This more abstract conception is a little more difficult to grasp, and some may wish to skip directly to the sections on the primary themes below. It is important to note that these themes are not intended to be discrete or orthogonal categories. Rather, there is significant overlap in these categories. Furthermore, existential thought will general be skeptical of any such categorical approaches because of the tendency to reify the categories. A more consistent viewpoint of this structure from an existential perspective is to acknowledge that any organizational system is a human construction used to help understand the theory. Yet, any structure by its nature is forced to oversimplify and distort abstract concepts.