What is Existential Psychotherapy?


Existential psychotherapy is a unique approach to counseling that delves into the fundamental questions of human existence, focusing on the individual’s search for meaning and purpose in life. This therapeutic perspective emerged in the mid-20th century and has since provided a profound lens through which individuals can explore their innermost thoughts, feelings, and the complexities of their existence.

The Roots of Existential Psychotherapy

Existential psychotherapy finds its roots in existential philosophy, which gained prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries. Influential thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger laid the groundwork for this therapeutic approach by examining the nature of existence, free will, and the individual’s responsibility for creating their own meaning.

Existential psychotherapy as a distinct form of psychological treatment began to take shape in the mid-20th century, with existentialist philosophers influencing psychologists to explore the human experience in a more profound and meaningful way. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, played a crucial role in integrating existential ideas into the therapeutic context through his development of Logotherapy.


Existential psychotherapy employs a range of methods to help individuals explore their existential concerns. One common approach is phenomenology, which involves examining and describing personal experiences without imposing external interpretations. This allows clients to better understand their subjective reality and gain clarity on their thoughts and emotions.

Another key method is the use of existential analysis, which involves identifying and addressing the client’s unique concerns related to meaning, purpose, and the nature of their existence. Existential therapists may also incorporate dialogue and open-ended questioning to encourage clients to explore their beliefs and assumptions, fostering self-awareness and personal growth.

Prominent Existential Philosophers

Several philosophers have significantly influenced the development of existential psychotherapy. Søren Kierkegaard, considered the father of existentialism, emphasized the importance of individual choice and subjective experience. Friedrich Nietzsche explored the concept of eternal recurrence and the idea that individuals have the power to shape their destinies.

Jean-Paul Sartre, a key figure in existentialism, focused on the notion of radical freedom and the responsibility individuals have for their choices. Martin Heidegger delved into the concept of “being-in-the-world” and the interconnectedness of self and environment. Viktor Frankl, with his logotherapy, contributed a therapeutic perspective that centered on finding meaning in life, even in the face of suffering.

Treatment Approach

Existential psychotherapy focuses on the unique experiences of each individual, emphasizing personal responsibility and freedom of choice. Unlike some traditional therapeutic approaches that may focus on symptom reduction, existential therapy seeks to explore and understand the deeper issues that may be contributing to an individual’s distress.

A central tenet of existential psychotherapy is the exploration of four primary existential givens: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. By facing and confronting these fundamental aspects of existence, individuals can gain insight into their values, beliefs, and the ways in which they engage with the world.