The Future of Existential Psychology: How to Make a Best Friend Forever: Counseling and Existential-Humanistic Psychology

Melson Hall at the University of West Georgia.
Melson Hall at the University of West Georgia.

Why can’t we all just be friends? Too simple, some might say even naïvely simple, but for me, the question contains a powerful message regarding the hope of partnership and a call for acceptance. This, in essence, is the resounding call of this piece and what is to follow.

I have always felt like I have straddled two worlds. As a result, I see myself in many ways like Hermes who is the Greek god of the in-between and carries messages among the divine and mortal realms (Hyde, 1998). This shows up in my life, for example, through my education history. My undergraduate schooling took place at a liberal arts school where I majored in philosophy and psychology—two spheres that I tried to reconcile in my senior thesis. Afterward, I pursued a clinical path towards a counselor education program, earning a Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Not feeling fully satisfied academically, I decided to pursue a PhD in Psychology in Consciousness and Society at the University of West Georgia. This is the bridge I am trying to build today—between the world of counseling and the world of academic psychology.

I have found that my previous program in counseling and my current program in psychology complement each other very well. I am intrigued by these congruencies, and I think it is helpful for both professions to explore this. In this article, I will lay out my vision for the future of existential-humanistic psychology in that I believe it can benefit from making friends with kindred disciplines such as the counseling profession.

The counseling profession is largely grounded in the person-centered approach of Carl Rogers. Counseling emphasizes Rogers’s (1957) core conditions, some of which are congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. This corresponds to the existential-phenomenological approach to psychotherapy, which aims to have the therapist bracket his or her assumptions, enter the world of the client, and validate the client’s experience as real.

In fact, Rollo May (1983) noted this similarity in The Discovery of Being by stating somewhat pedantically that:

Rogers’s viewpoint is at times naïvely optimistic, whereas the existential approach is oriented more to the tragic crises of life, and so forth. What are significant, however, are Rogers’s basic ideas that therapy is a “process of becoming,” that the freedom and inner growth of the individual are what counts, and the implicit assumption pervading Rogers’s work of the dignity of the human being. These concepts are all very close to the existentialist approach to the human being. (p. 159)

I do not necessarily agree with May’s characterization of the person-centered approach as a “naïve.” However, I guess that might be tame considering what some psychologists might say today—that Rogers’s approach or even the counseling profession in general lack a historical and philosophical foundation and an understanding necessary for interpreting the human way of being adequately. Critics often say that counseling suffers from gimmicky techniques, relies too heavily on brief-therapy models, and panders too much to managed care.

While there may be some truth to these claims, the description seems more like professional posturing rather than constructive criticism. In my experience, parts of psychology (yes, even existential-humanistic psychology), at times, still retain a kind of elitism. The good news is that it is not our fault, because I believe that this exclusivity was inherited mainly from philosophy. I can say this because I was once philosophy major—and, yes, I am making a pretty big generalization here but please just go with it for a bit.

Even to go beyond May’s (1983) characterization, I have personally experienced this. My experience transitioning between the two disciplines has, at times, been rough. For example, I gave a presentation recently in my teaching practicum course on the Wellness Approach in the counseling profession. When it came time for feedback, one of the psychology students said that the presentation “seemed superficial.” If I had been thinking in the moment, I would have said—to make Rogers proud—“to me, that seemed judgmental.” (Okay, maybe Rogers wouldn’t have that, but I still wish I had).

Look, I am not trying to pit the two professions against each other, nor am I saying that counseling can’t have its moments of snootiness too. Moreover, I am certainly not saying anything disparaging about the program at West Georgia because my list of superlatives regarding the quality of that program would be far too long to list here. My goal here is to tease apart this antagonism in hopes that we can re-orient ourselves to what is similar instead of what is different. This is part of my vision for the future of existential-humanistic psychology. How we can, as a discipline, ally with other professions that share similar assumptions, even if they are not historically based—even if they are just praxis parallels. After all, at the end of the day, we are just trying to help people.

Does it really matter that we do not all come from the same philosophical lineage? Maybe instead of hanging out with just our “family members,” we can make new best friends. Oftentimes, the humanities see us too technical, traditional psychology thinks we are just a bunch of nostalgic hippies (or ontological dreamers), and the “hard” scientists laugh at our qualitative approaches.

The way I see it, the counseling profession and existential-humanistic psychology have the potential to have a great friendship. I know that inroads have been made here and there between the two. My utopian vision, though, starts at the very echelons of existential-humanistic psychology and permeates the geist of the discipline as a whole.

I use the counseling profession as an exemplar in this case. Of course, the idea of focusing on what is similar can be applied to other cases and other disciplines. Where else can existential-humanistic psychology make friends? Who shares the same values, beliefs, and ideas of what it means to live a “meaningful” life? This, I will say, is the “implications for future research” portion of my paper where I will leave these questions open for other researchers to explore. After all, the discipline of existential-humanistic psychology is an amalgam of two philosophical approaches. That has been one of our greatest strengths: synthesizing what works into a comprehensive view of the human condition.

As I type that sentence, I can actually feel some of my colleagues shuddering. This does not mean that our kind of psychology won’t be scientific. In fact, there are many who argue that we need to return to a real science, a human science instead of the scientism adopted by much of the rest of psychology. What’s more, it does not follow that adopting the attitude of looking at what’s similar and what works causes us to fall into the “E” word—eclecticism—which only becomes dirty if we deny an intuitive kind of knowing. On the contrary, it makes the discipline stronger by adding bricks and mortar to our already robust foundation.

Why can’t we all just be friends? Simple, yes, but when we focus on what’s similar and what works, then it becomes possible to see the other not as a foe, but as a kindred spirit. If the foregoing analysis seems, dare I say, superficial, then perhaps I will need to re-consult with Hermes and adjust my message. In the meantime, take a few words of perfunctory advice from a mortal: wander out into the Epicurean garden, make friends, and enjoy!

Hyde, L. (1998). Trickster makes this world: Mischief, myth, and art. New York, NY: North Point Press.

May, R. (1983). The discovery of being. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 21(2), 95-103.

— Jake Glazier

Today’s guest contributor, Jake Glazier, is a PhD student at the University of West Georgia who practices humanistic-narrative counseling and whose current research interests are diversity as it applies to the mental health professions; especially as it relates to gender and performativity.

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