Existentialism in Psychotherapy, viewed from a person-centered perspective

I stumbled upon a text that seems to be written for my thoughts right now — I read a little and thought a bunch about existentialism recently, but of course my perspective was influenced by what I’ve done before, and I think in terms of my philosophical foundation there is a lot of a person-centered counselor in me. So here comes an article „The Person-centered Approach from an Existential Perspective“ in that same volume of Existenzanalyse 2008–1 quoted in an earlier post, that points out the many areas of overlap as well as the substantial differences, and helps me to locate myself in between. I highly recommend the whole read, but here are some of my key points, on notable differences and additions of an existential approach to the person-centered stance:

Tragic dimensions vs. optimism

For existential philosophy anxiety is the flip side of freedom, which is one of the fundamental existential givens. It arises in the wake of avoided possibilities. It is not the cause but, rather, the symptom! Guilt is equally not a cause; rather, it is a result of the feeling of avoided life activities and missed encounters.

Although separation and parting, as well as the transitory nature of life and death, are often relevant in psychotherapeutic practice, it is notable how little these themes have been taken into account by Rogers. If we look at the title of one of his later publications „Growing old – or older and growing“ (1980), we see that his dominant perspective is growth, even when he was already 78 years old! At the end of a video recorded in 1984 he states stoically: „When death comes, it comes“.

„Call“ of the world and dialogue vs. the actualizing tendency

The actualizing tendency is the only a priori axiom in the person-centered approach. It promotes the maintenance and enhancement of the organism including its sub-system, the self (Kriz and Stumm 2003, 18–21). Together with the human need for positive regard and self-regard, it represents a cornerstone of person-centered developmental theory. It is thought to have specific characteristics, for instance movement in a constructive and social direction.

The concept of the actualizing tendency has a great impact on person-centered therapeutic practice, as it implies a rather non-directive attitude. As just stated above, person-centered theory tends to facilitate the client’s capacities by providing specific therapeutic conditions, thus actualizing the client’s potential. This often leads to a rather passive understanding of the therapist’s role in the therapeutic process. To use a metaphor, person-centered practice sees the client rather as a wind-surfer taking advantage of the power of the wind. As compared to that, existential practice sees the client — and the therapist — rather as rowing through rough waters, and sometimes facing the calm of the wind with no other means than their own efforts to move forward. Existentialism holds that the human being is asked and called by the world.

Friedman — a Buberian — brings to light the opposition between self-actualization and dialogue. He holds that existential thinking views the dialogue as a goal and the self-actualization as a by-product; for Rogers sometimes the encounter is seen as a value in itself, while at other times it is just a means of promoting self-actualization — according to Friedman (1986, 416) a „pseudobiological“ construct.

Here’s finally an issue that seems most controversial and unclear to me right now:

Loneliness/existential isolation vs. relationship/„encounter“

In my opinion, this controversial field is well illustrated in Rogers‘ commentary on the case of Ellen West (1961b/1980). In this case, Rogers arrives at very divergent opinions and evaluations from the Daseinsanalyst, Ludwig Binswanger, who in 1944 had presented the case. While Binswanger focused on the tragic fate and existential isolation of the young woman, who finally committed suicide, Rogers‘ comments on the case reveal both his therapeutic optimism and his deep conviction that the self-alienation and loneliness of the client could have been kept at bay through healing care and appropriate understanding in a nurturing relationship. For Rogers, „existential isolation“ is definitely not an „existential given“.

And I would like to close by quoting from the author’s summary what I agree is the valuable foundation that the person-centered approach provides:

At the same time, existential therapies can also profit by valuing, implementing, and applying in practice some person-centered principles. The positive effects of being client-centered, in terms of being open to the world as the client perceives and experiences it, seem obvious to me. These include the crucial role of empathy in the person-centered approach; a clearly non-authoritarian stance; a view critical of the therapist as an expert of client’s matters, while seeing the client as the ultimate judge relying on their ability to figure out their concerns, experiences and decisions; and a reservation against methods and techniques that might interfere with the therapist’s immediate experience of the client and of the encounter between the client and the therapist.

Or should we become modern priests after all?

Datum: Dienstag, 22. März 2011 17:22
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