Existential Theory

One of my favorite therapists and writers is Irvin Yalom, a man of great insight who tells captivating stories. I’ve read nearly all of his books, one of which briefly discusses the aspects of existential psychology. He wrote quite a tome dealing with it in great detail, but I’ll be quoting from the prologue of Love’s Executioner.

On Death

As we grow older, we learn to put death out of mind; we distract ourselves; we transform it into something positive (passing on, going home, rejoining God, peace at last); we deny it with sustaining myths; we strive for immortality through imperishable works, by projecting our seed into the future through our children, or by embracing a religious system that offers spiritual perpetuation.

We know about death, intellectually we know the facts, but we — that is, the unconscious portion of the mind that protects us from overwhelming anxiety — have split off, or dissociated, the terror associated with death.

A nightmare is a failed dream, a dream that, by not “handling” anxiety, has failed in its role as the guardian of sleep. Though nightmares differ in manifest content, the underlying process of every nightmare is the same: raw death anxiety has escaped its keepers and exploded into consciousness.

…though the fact, the physicality, of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us.

On Freedom

Freedom means one is responsible for one’s own choices, actions, one’s own life situation. Though the word responsible may be used in a variety of ways, I prefer Sartre’s definition: to be responsible is to “be the author of,” each of us being thus the author of his or her own life design. We are free to be anything but unfree; we are, Sartre would say, condemned to freedom. Indeed, some philosophers claim much more: that the architecture of the human mind makes each of us even responsible for the structure of external reality, for the very form of space and time. It is here, in the idea of self-construction, where anxiety dwells: we are creatures who desire structure, and we are frightened by a concept of freedom which implies that beneath us there is nothing, sheer groundlessness.

Some people are wish-blocked, knowing neither what they feel nor what they want. Without opinions, without impulses, without inclinations, they become parasites on the desires of others. Such people tend to be tiresome.

Other patients cannot decide. Though they know exactly what they want and what they must do, they cannot act and, instead, pace tormentedly before the door of decision.

Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means “slay,” as in homicide or suicide).

On Isolation

One experiences interpersonal isolation, or loneliness, if one lacks the social skills or personality style that permit intimate social interactions. Intrapersonal isolation occurs when parts of the self are split off, as when one splits off emotion from the memory of an event.

One’s efforts to escape isolation can sabotage one’s relationships with other people. Many a friendship or marriage has failed because, instead of relating to, and caring for, one another, one person uses another as a shield against isolation.

Beware of the powerful exclusive attachment to another; it is not, as people sometimes think, evidence of the purity of love. Such encapsulated, exclusive love — feeding on itself, neither giving to nor caring about others — is destined to cave in on itself. Love is not just a passion spark between two people; there is infinite difference between falling in love and standing in love. Rather, love is a way of being, a “giving to,” not a “falling for”; a mode of relating at large, not an act limited to a single person.

On Meaning

The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity; the more deliberately we pursue it, the less likely we are to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a byproduct of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts — not that engagement provides a rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes the questions not to matter.

This encounter, the very heart of psychotherapy, is a caring, deeply human meeting between two people, one (generally, but not always, the patient) more troubled than the other. Therapists have a dual role: they must both observe and participate in the lives of their patients. As observer, one must be sufficiently objective to provide necessary rudimentary guidance to the patient. As participant, one enters into the life of the patient and is affected and sometimes changed by the encounter.

Patienthood is ubiquitous; the assumption of the label is largely arbitrary and often dependent more on cultural, educational, and economic factors than on the severity of pathology. Since therapists, no less than patients, must confront these givens of existence, the professional posture of disinterested objectivity, so necessary to scientific method, is inappropriate. We psychotherapists simply cannot cluck with sympathy and exhort patients to struggle resolutely with their problems. We cannot say to them you and your problems. Instead, we must speak of us and our problems, because our life, our existence, will always be riveted to death, love to loss, freedom to fear, and growth to separation. We are, all of us, in this together.

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2 Comments on “Existential Theory”

  1. Musician Says:

    Write more. Creative juices are best used often.

  2. Denny Says:

    Such an amazing concentration of wisdom.