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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Existentialism

 

When people think of care in regards to mental, emotional, and behavioral health (collectively, “mental health”), I imagine that they don’t necessarily anticipate that I’ll expose them to existentialism. Regarding this matter, one source expands:

 

Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence. Existentialist philosophers explore questions related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence. Common concepts in existentialist thought include existential crisis, dread, and anxiety in the face of an absurd world and free will, as well as authenticity, courage, and virtue.

 

Through practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I invite people to consider the limits of their existence – the fact that one day they will die. In consideration of this inevitability, I encourage them to consider what they may do to lead a purpose-driven and meaningful life until then. Put another way, one source states:

 

REBT is existential because it looks at the person not merely as the thinking subject but the acting, feeling living human being. It does not moralise [sic] but rather helps the client to pursue their enlightened interests and goals. It acknowledges human suffering and choice for each individual. So it helps clients to face up to their situations, accept fallibility and be honest about their experiences.

 

Thus, Rational (thinking), Emotive (feeling), Behavior (acting) Therapy (treatment and management) considers imperfect humans from a holistic point of view. As such, positivistic conceptions of mental health may inadequately address what one source describes as “the human condition and the anxiety-provoking givens of death, freedom, and meaninglessness.”

 

To elucidate this point, consider seeking mental health services with the intention of feeling better. You sit with an REBT psychotherapist who, from the onset of therapy, calls to your intention the inevitability of your death.

 

This isn’t the sort of topic one may associate with perceptions of improved mood. After all, feeling good or experiencing “positive vibes” seems to be the aim in life for many people. Nevertheless, one of the objectives of REBT is to help people get better, not merely feel better.

 

Through acknowledgement of truth and reality, anxiety-provoking beliefs about the human condition can be addressed authentically. Consequently, REBT practice entails consideration of positive, neutral, and negative aspects of existence – not purely focusing on optimism.

 

So, how does existentialism inform the practice of REBT? One of the first steps to reducing self-disturbance is to take personal responsibility and accountability for one’s finite life.

 

Responsibility relates to one’s obligation and accountability concerns consequences regarding one’s obligation. This obligation-consequence connection can be positive, neutral, or negative.

 

For instance, I have a personal obligation to feed myself in order to stay alive. Because I fulfill this duty, the consequence is that I continue to exist. If I choose to remain among the living, then life is a positive consequence of my fulfilled obligation.

 

Likewise, I have an ethical obligation not to push my beliefs onto clients. Success with this duty relates to a neutral consequence whereby I don’t indoctrinate clients while offering as unbiased an appearance as I can.

 

Additionally, I have a legal obligation not to murder anyone. If I violate this societal requirement, I’ll experience the negative consequence of incarceration or capital punishment.

 

Therefore, responsibility and accountability encompass positive, neutral, and negative aspects of existence. Moreover, these elements relate to an individual living in a collective society, not solely concerned with self-focus. Regarding this matter, one source states:

 

[A] more explicit taking up of existentialist themes is found in the broad ‘existentialist psychotherapy’ movement. A common theme within this otherwise very diverse group is that previous psychology misunderstood the fundamental nature of the human and especially its relation to others and to acts of meaning-giving; thus also, previous psychology had misunderstood what a ‘healthy’ attitude to self, others and meaning might be.

 

In relation to concern with the self, others, and life, REBT utilizes unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance as techniques to reduce suffering. Thus, a meaningful life may involve self-improvement, tolerance and acceptance of others, and unconditional acceptance of life and death.

 

The late psychologist who developed REBT, Albert Ellis, once stated, “Have acceptance that your present path is not likely to work, acceptance that hassles will still exist, acceptance that you had better try a different path, and acceptance that the new path (or any new paths) may still not work.”

 

Consequently, through the practice of unconditional acceptance it’s understood that permission of an event doesn’t mean that circumstances will unfold according to one’s will. We are born and we die, and anything in between those two points is mostly out of our control and influence.

 

Concerning this fact, Ellis once stated:

 

REBT is in many respects an existential, phenomenologically oriented therapy because its goals overlap with the usual existentialist goals of helping clients to define their own freedom, cultivate individuality, live in dialogue with others, accept their experiencing as highly important, be fully present in the immediacy of the moment, and learn to accept limits in life.

 

Nevertheless, Ellis also criticized existentialist therapists by stating:

 

The Existentialists, too, or at least some of them, overlap with this kind of thinking and with major parts of my own views. They see, for example, that it is clearly a person’s philosophy of life, and not just the things that happen to him in the course of his life, which importantly affect his personality development.

 

But the Existentialist therapists, while clearly revealing to and analyzing for the patient his world view, and showing him how it relates to his emotional disturbances, are very namby-pamby when it comes to helping him change this view and thus undo his neurosis. Like the classical psychoanalysts, they apparently believe in the magic power of insight – while the rational therapist believes that self-understanding must be expected to lead to behavior change.

 

Existentialist therapists usually forbear from attacking and undermining the patient’s childish, irrational assumptions; and in this respect they are relatively ineffective in helping him.

 

The interpretation of Ellis’ perspective on existentialist-specific therapists was that although they offer clients insight, these therapists apparently fail at effectively disputing irrational beliefs which cause self-disturbance. Allow me to briefly illustrate this distinction.

 

Client: I have a lot of anxiousness related to death. When I think about dying, I feel afraid, my chest tightens, I become nervous, and I seek ways to distract myself, but that rarely works.

 

Existentialist therapist response: During that moment you’re thinking about death, what has value to you? It appears to me that you may want to channel this negative experience and apply it to what has worth, moving forward.

 

REBT practitioner response: I see that you properly formatted your experience according to the ABC model. The Action was you sitting around and thinking about death. It may be tempting to suggest that this event led to the Consequence of anxiousness, nervousness, fear, tightening of your chest, and avoidance or escapism.

 

However, there was no Action-Consequence connection at play. Rather, what you unhelpfully Believed about the Action – during which you thought about dying – is what created your unpleasant Consequence. This interplay represents the Belief-Consequence connection. In essence, you upset yourself.

 

Helping a client with insight related to death may allow an individual to understand how self-disturbance occurred. However, it does little in the way of helping a person undermine the factor that caused the disturbance.

 

Thus, disputation of one’s irrational beliefs works in conjunction with insight. It’s this distinction between existential therapy and an REBT approach that helps people get better concerning their issues, not merely to feel better with understanding about problems.

 

When people are made aware that they not only can know about their issues, though do something about their problems, they can then make a healthy choice regarding the alleviation of needless suffering. Concerning this clarification, one source states:

 

Since REBT considers that humans are at the center of their universe (but not of the universe) and have the power of choice (but not of unlimited choice) with regard to their emotional realm, it has its roots in the existential philosophies of Heidegger and Tillich.

 

Consequently, people have personal agency (ability to control or influence) and personal ownership (responsibility and accountability) for their emotional and behavioral responses to unreasonable beliefs about undesirable circumstances. Accordingly, REBT and existentialism go hand in hand.

 

Perhaps prior to reading this post your outlook on mental health related to a feel-good, positive-vibes-only approach to care. With hope, you now understand that an REBT approach to mental health care incorporates existential philosophy that values realism and not idealism.

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


 

References:

 

AEI. (n.d.). About Albert Ellis, Ph.D. Albert Ellis Institute. Retrieved from https://albertellis.org/about-albert-ellis-phd/

Aho, K. (2023, January 26). Existentialism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/

 Burnham, D. and Papandreopoulos, G. (n.d.). Existentialism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://iep.utm.edu/existent/

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College of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies. (2017, February 1). Ellis’ REBT – transdiagnostic humanistic and existential CBT model. Retrieved from https://www.cbttherapies.org.uk/2017/02/01/ellis-rebt-transdiagnostic-humanistic-and-existential-cbt-model/

Ellis, A. (n.d.). Rational emotive behavior therapy. Unknown source, as obtained through uncited printout received during graduates studies for social work.

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Wikipedia. (n.d.). Paul Tillich. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tillich

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