Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Therapeutic Tuesday: Existential Therapy

"No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse."
~ Nietzsche, 1892/1966, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (W. Kaufmann, Trans.), p. 18

First off, the existentialist view on life is largely considered to have began with Nietzsche and has grown and blossomed into a useful therapy for mental health issues. I, for one, am a fan of the take Victor Frankl had on existentialism, but for it to be useful, quite a few existentialists say that you must take it and make it your own. If you do not, it becames painfully aware that it is either inauthentic or you are not effective.

Additionally, it seems that as long as you know your subject, creating your own out of the existentialist pool needn't be that difficult. Many, including Rollo May (one of the big names in existentialism), note that throughout existentialist base, one will find influences from Jungian ideals to Gestalt psychology, Psychodynamics and more. With so many influences, it can be easy to get lost, but it can benefit the true existentialist in developing his or her own thoughts on the matter.

Okay, so what is existentialism? If you go strictly by the book, Merriam Webster's defines it as:

a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.

As previously mentioned though, that is dry, scholary, yet at the end of the day, still inauthentic. Taking a page from Louis Hoffman's website, one of the chief binding agents of the existentialist theory is the question as to whether there are any major answers to this existence. Many believe that one cannot gain access to that answer until after this life has concluded. There are optimists, and I tend to fall into that party more, that focus "on the potential for good and growth that is inherent in the human condition."

However, even the optimists will conclude, for the most part, that any structure found is merely there as a "human construction to understand the theory." I think of it as trying to describe an abstract. You can use metaphors and stories all day long to explain love or hate, but it is hard to say exactly what love or hate is without confining it to a limited definition. Maybe I'm way off here, but I see the optimist point of view as saying, okay, the human condition is at times cruel and cold, but rather than focusing on the horrible parts, let's highlight the good things in one's life.

Again, I'm just starting to find what I believe and under what banner I would like to live. My wife could do a much better job at this than me, but in attempting to share with you the ideas behind existentialism, I can grow and re-evaluate my surroundings which is ever more beneficial than simply allowing someone to write this up for me. I hope.

"Our thesis is that symbols and myths are an expression of man's unique self-consciousness, his capacity to transcend the immediate concrete situation and see his life in terms of 'the possible,' and that this capacity is one aspect of his experiencing himself as a being having a world."
~ Rollo May, 1961, "The Meaning of the Oedipus Myth"
In Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Volume 1, p. 44