Having just finished a very long, grueling text book chapter exploring anxiety disorders my interest in existential counseling has once again been piqued. I’ve been interested in existentialism for years having studied the philosophy of Kierkegaard and the prose of Camus.
As an art major attending college in Manhattan I spent many an afternoon in the halls of the Museum of Modern Art discovering the paintings of DeKooning and Jackson Pollock. And of course, being a thoroughly modern woman I devoured the feminist manifesto “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir. What do all of these incredible icons have in common? They were each existentialists. Although one or more of them may’ve thrown a glass of wine in your face if you met them at a cocktail party and called them one. Personally, my favorite existentialist (if not self-identified as such) is Samuel Beckett who created characters steeped in angst and faced with adversity at every turn – kind of the way real life is when you look at it very, very closely.
I hadn’t known there was a psychology theory born from existentialism until my first year of graduate school. Immediately enthralled I read the works of Viktor Frankel and poured over “The Art of Existential Counseling” by Van Kaam. Frankel survived the death camps of Germany and maintained that we each have the choice of how we react to circumstances. My classmates and I learned about this theory in a freshman class and in many ways it seemed to be one of the more difficult theories to implement. The strength of the approach, however, is it completely eradicates any inkling of a victim mentality and puts power into the hands of the client.
After reading about anxiety disorders extensively I began to reconsider existentialism and its potential role in therapeutic sessions. Anxiety is an important element in existential therapy and it is supported by the viewpoint that anxiety is manifested by an individual’s complete freedom to decide and complete responsibility for the outcome of such decisions. Just writing that gives me angst! Yet, I find this view of anxiety as very empowering, if a little intimidating. This way of thinking considers anxiety an energy that can be channeled, used and not simply eliminated.
A being free in the world – this is the existential view of the client. However, it’s important to remember that the world in the case means the client’s subjective world of meaning – her attitude toward the world in she was born, raised, and educates and participates in daily. It is a subjective experience - once again challenging the counselor to see the world through the client’s eyes.
Susan Jennifer Polese is a counselor in training, a personal coach and a freelance writer. Her areas of interest are mindfulness, divergent thinking, and creativity in counseling.