It matters that people have a way to use the latest findings in psychology beyond buying a pill for depression. It matters that people have a way of looking at their lives that lets them ask the big questions and determine how they want to live – and that this is supported by therapists and mental health professionals.


Modern Day Existentialism

Posted on 11 Sep | 1 comment
Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho

Existential themes permeate our society, supporting the notion that no matter how many ways we try to hide, there is no running from what it means to be human. Although our society is quick to assuage the anxiety brought on by existential awareness, the themes are there, and it is up to us as the new existentialists to tease the awareness out and into consciousness.

One of my passions is to make heady philosophical themes accessible to the general public. After all, isn't that who we are attempting to reach? In many ways, we have limited our reach by remaining in our Ivory Towers discussing themes that one needs extensive education to understand such as "Dasein." We also limit our reach by discussing philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Kierkegaard when many of the people we desire to impact are unfamiliar with philosophy and how it may apply to their life and who simply want to know what help is available.

The world needs what existential psychotherapy has to offer; the culture is crying out for vivification, for enlightenment and to awaken and to transform. In order to meet that need, we as the Modern Existentialists must learn to speak the language of the people and introduce them to the works of existentialism on their terms.

Recently, I was watching a television show entitled "The Vampire Diaries." In this particular episode, one character was transforming into a werewolf for the first time. His friend, a vampire and fellow high school student, stayed with him during this painful first transformation. Although she (the vampire) knew the risk posed to her if she were to be bitten by the werewolf, she refused to abandon her friend in his time of need. Throughout his transformation from human to vampire, during which he was deeply tormented and ashamed, she stayed with him and retreated only when the situation became dire. When the danger passed, she returned to the friend/werewolf and held him. I was struck by this scene as it reminded me much of what happens in existential psychotherapy: the client struggles to (or against) transformation while the therapist creates a safe place for them to do so. Indeed, the therapist is not interested in moving the client to transform but is tasked with the much more challenging call of bearing witness to another's pain with what Schneider (2009) calls "effortful nonattachment," meaning that one is deeply engaged in the present moment without an agenda or desired outcome (p. 169). Trying to describe this process to a person who has never experienced it or something very similar to it is, at best, an exercise in futility. One can, however, point a potential client (or students in training) to scenes similar to the one described above that illustrate the process in a different and perhaps more relatable way.

There are many other existential thinkers in our world who are saying the same things but in different language. Take, for instance, Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist. Coelho has written books such as "Veronika Decides to Die," which tells the tale of a young woman who attempts suicide, and it isn't until she is told that she is not going to live that she decides to truly live. Many of Coelho's books carry deeply existential messages, and because he is such a beloved author, it is easy to introduce existential themes to readers. Indeed, there are many books, movies, television shows, and musicians who are speaking to existential themes if we only have an ear to hear. These newer, more modern existentialists can bridge the gap between past philosophy and present-day need.

-- Lisa Vallejos

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Comments and Discussions

Hi Lisa,I've read a couple of

Hi Lisa,I've read a couple of your posts here, and they always resonate with me. This one inparticular, as I have just been reflecting on this very topic of how to aide other in discovering the messages of existentialism which are so vital for our wellbeing. I'll share it :-)

'When I think of how I understand a person, their attributes, their struggles, the reasons for these, how they can effect desired change, the blockages to that, I see a vast picture. Often I have wished for the skills of artistry, so I could paint this breadth of vision on a singular page.

I walked the dogs this morning thinking about this topic. I realised that underpinning all else, the primary message of our existence, and the cause of our greatest distress, stems from this quote sitting in front of me: ‘humans find comfort in placing unlimited power in a person, place, or thing in order to curb against the anxiety of personal agency’.

The disordered attachments, and their frenetic distractions, the chaos of hiding in substance fuelled hazes, the trauma of lived emptiness and unidentified selves, those boundaries and confusing triangles of enmeshment, the diving in and drowning within cultural illusions, they all stem from this deepest issue of all, our human fear of being alone, being responsible, and understanding what on earth we are doing here, ultimately alone, for this 85 years of life, and what we are meant to do with this time.

I wonder what is so terrifying about being still. I wonder about how best to help people understand this lesson which has taken me 34 years of dedicated exploration to discover. I am asked how I work therapeutically, which frameworks I like, and sometimes I get stumped by what a peculiar question it is. Suddenly these frameworks all seem like religious orders, none holding quite the truth they think they do. When Kierkegaard said subjectivity is truth, he uttered the truest words I’ve ever come across.

An Individual Treatment Plan is exactly that, so now that I am conversing with agencies about future employment and being asked how I view a client, I am reflecting about how I am to respond with honesty accuracy and integrity. There is value in beginning with client centred practice and CBT, it aides rapport and gives the unaware client something tangible to take away from the session, which they want. But how do I understand who they actually are, how they have come to be that person, and what area in their complex selves to work with in order to aide them in creating their self-declared changes?

My understanding is dependent upon the unique interaction I have with them. My strongest influences in how I case conceptualise come from existential therapy, psychodynamic thinking, and attachment theory. My interventions from those fields however are subtle, because I think more obvious and useful interventions are necessary to help someone learn the basics before the depths. My Masters was a deep analysis of the techniques, theories and interventions of a whole range of different therapies, so I feel quite confident in being able to draw upon knowledge from different areas and not being a ‘specialist’ as such in one field. I suppose in long term therapy the first phase/s would be with this approach, then shifting to deeper more explorative philosophical musings.

With this shorter term department-funded work I am currently in, I suppose I can say I work directly with CBT, Mindfulness, Motivational Interviewing, and Solutions Focused models as interventions. And can go on to explain that my understanding is much broader theoretically speaking, but I am aware of the confines of the system I am working within, and want to give my clients something useful to manage the here and now, as well as subtly including deeper insights should they chose to reflect on them at some stage.'

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