Kirk Schnieder, Psychology

Photograph of Kirk Schnieder

Kirk Schnieder

Psychology Faculty
Psychology Alumni 1992

 “An emphasis on quick fixes runs deep in our culture,” says Kirk Schneider, and that’s a problem for everyone interested in mental health.

Real satisfaction with life comes from profound choices made over a lifetime; they come from a sense of awe toward the world we live in; and they come from presence in the daily moments we experience.

Happiness cannot be prescribed like an antibiotic; it can’t be picked up in 15 minutes like a drive-through meal. All too often, quick fixes are a big part of what makes us unhappy – but they’re what we demand our mental health professionals give us.

Much of the mental health world has given in, tacitly agreeing that whatever your insurance company pays for must be good for you. But ever since 1993, when Rollo May asked him to co-write a textbook on existential psychology, Kirk Schneider has been pushing back.

A Saybrook alumnus, today Kirk is a practicing psychotherapist, the editor of The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and Vice President of the Existential Humanistic Institute.

He is one of the leading theorists breaking new ground in “talk” therapy and showing, over and over again, that psychologically addressing your hopes and problems, fears and dreams, can be far more effective than wishing them away with medication or quick fixes.

“What makes therapy effective involves its ability to meaningfully connect the big issues and questions of life to the way a person lives day-to-day,” Schneider says. “If you’re not doing that … if you’re looking for a quick fix … then actually you’re making real growth much harder.”

Effective therapy also has a great deal to do with “contextual factors:”

“The relationship with a therapist should hold and illuminate that which is palpably charged and alive within the client, instead of just talking about it. It’s a chance for personal growth and change.” Schneider says. “Too often, that’s what people are being denied when they ask for help.”

Schneider understands the power of good therapy as a client as well as a therapist. A family tragedy when he was a young boy, the death of his older brother, got him asking life’s toughest questions at an early age.

“That was my very informal and disturbing introduction to existentialism,” he remembers. “His death opened the deepest questions of existence. Who am I? What is a human being? What is our purpose? I was too young to ask those questions directly, but I knew they were rolling around, and I had some great fears about existence.”

It was a therapist, he remembers, “a particularly great healer,” that helped him work through it, and rediscover his love of life.
At some level, Kirk’s known what he’s wanted to do ever since.
He majored in psychology as an undergraduate, found the humanistic and existential approaches to be the most exciting, the most relevant, and never looked back.

He studied at Saybrook in the 1980s with such luminaries as James Bugental and Rollo May, and eventually came to work closely with them. Rollo May served on his dissertation committee; Bugental offered him one of the first internships at the Interlogue Counseling Center; and soon Schneider was actively publishing on ways that the pioneering existential approaches to therapy his mentors had developed could be expanded into new areas and enriched.

He began to take it to the next level with the book he co-authored with May, The Psychology of Existence, the last book May would write.

“That’s where I really developed, based on Rollo and Jim’s inspiration, Existential-Integrative psychotherapy,” Schneider says. “
Existential-Integrative therapy (EI) is Schneider’s attempt to both advance existential therapy as originated by May and to make it more relevant to today’s clinical climate.

“This is at the cutting edge of contemporary practice,” Schneider says. “We know now that what makes therapy effective is these contextual factors, is the quality of the relationship between therapist and client: why not develop an approach that other approaches can look to, like existential therapy, that not only include but specialize in these aspects? That’s where, I think, psychology as a whole is headed, now that it’s been shown again and again that you can’t simply check symptoms off a list and hand out drugs and expect someone’s life to improve. You need to engage the client as a whole human being – at the level of his or her core struggle, and that’s what we’re offering to the broader profession.”

Now a faculty member at Saybrook, Schneider says he’s working to teach the next generation of practitioners to understand therapy as more than just an intellectual process, but as an engaging –and relational – approach to healing and to life.

“We don’t just talk about presence, we try as best we can to illustrate it,” he says. “We really encourage embodiment and experiential contact with what we’re doing – and that seems to be the thing that students appreciate most. That as we develop the next generation of therapists, they’re not just listening to a lecture but experiencing how therapy works, at its core.”