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What is an Existential-Humanist Therapist?

Therapists have many orientations to the space of therapy. Some take a more medical-approach, like symptom-reduction, or looking at things from a mental-illness/mental-health model, and may have specific training in how to diagnose, support with medication-management, etc. Some therapists take a behavioral approach, and look at the work from a place of behavioral modification–offering concrete, solution-oriented support in facilitating measurable change. Some therapists utilize creative tasks and interventions as ways to deepen, or access less conscious, more emotional parts of one’s person. All therapeutic modalities have value. All approaches are suited best to certain people’s needs. And given all that is out there, finding what works best for you, and knowing what to look for, can feel confusing!

I practice from an Existential-Humanistic perspective, so that is most of what I can speak to. For me, this is what resonates. In training programs, we are encouraged to choose an orientation that speaks to us, that fits into our worldview and perspective around therapy, rather than having to fit into it. It is less about implementing a structure so much as finding what intuitively makes sense to us as people.

Existential-Humanism (EH) speaks to me because it is about being grounded in the importance of being authentic as a therapist in the room with a client, forming a genuine relationship, and supporting one’s clients in their own process-driven work. This makes sense to me, because this is what I crave as a client too. I like to feel my therapist show up in the room as a human being, with real emotions, struggles, and hurdles of their own. I like knowing my therapist doesn’t think they know better about my life. From an EH perspective, no person other than you, can be an expert on your life!

Getting more technical with it, EH marries two, very complimentary, schools of thought. Existential therapy, rooted in existentialism, is a philosophical approach to questions around being human. What are the limitations of being human? We live with the knowledge of our own death, and of those we love. We live with the inevitability of suffering. These are the givens of existence that we all contend with. There is no inherent solution, no way out. Yet existential thought emphasizes that the freedom we do have is our perspective, and how we choose to live our life. We have no clear structure, no gameplan. There are no rewards, and sometimes little sense to be made of our struggles. But we try to make the best of this, and we try to make sure not to live how anyone else tells us to. We try to get in touch with the deepest, truest voice within us–its own specific values, wants, and needs, and we try to orient from there. Because it is when we have lost touch with this core self that we experience the most anxiety and despair.

Humanistic therapy arises from the positive-psychology wave led by theorists and practitioners like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Feeling like therapy, and psychology in general, was too focussed on what was “wrong” with a person, they felt it necessary to shift the dialogue toward human growth, potential, and transcendence. Humanistic therapy is an approach toward therapy and toward being human that holds we all have a deep drive toward knowing ourselves and living full, meaningful lives. Specifically as an orientation to therapy, humanistic therapy is person-centered. This means that the therapist is not an expert. A humanistic-oriented therapist also holds a few basic, but important, beliefs toward the work of therapy–the importance of holding unconditional positive regard, of being congruent, or authentic, with the client, and practicing empathy. Humanistic therapies are growth oriented and grounded in the valuing of meaningful and genuine therapeutic relationships.

Together, Existential-Humanism forms a united orientation to the therapeutic process. They suit each other well. They are, as Bob Edelstein, past-president and founder of Existential Humanism NW calls it, the head and the heart. Existentialism is philosophical, meaningful, and perhaps more heady. Humanism holds the importance of our potential for growth and our universal aspiration for meaningful existences, thus it is like the heart.

I orient this way as a therapist because I found a great community of therapists among this perspective, and it makes sense to me! The most challenging times I’ve felt in my life have been among the most painful as well as the most profound. I’ve made meaning of them, and they’ve informed what I care about in this world. I also believe intrinsically that though we humans have a lot of work to do, and a long way to come in our societies and institutions, there is inherently a lot of good out there too. I believe in the process of therapy as having the potential to be a profound and transformative space–a journey in which there need not be a direction, just like life! In EH, we have the notion of fellow travelers. We therapists are no masters of living. We do not have the answers for anyone else. We just tend to feel a lot of respect and appreciation at what it takes to be human, and we feel a lot of meaning in getting to walk this journey with another.

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