Meaning-Focused Therapy

Meaning centered counseling Lecture No 3

Existential approaches and skills

Dr. Paul Wong, Ph. D., C.Psych
Toronto, Canada

European existential-phenomenological approaches

Emmy van Deurzen

Her approach to existential therapy is to enable her clients to:

(a) Become more authentic individuals
(b) Broaden their understanding of themselves and their future
(c) Create something worth living in the present.

These therapeutic goals are achieved through:

  • Clarifying clients’ assumptions, values, and worldviews
  • Exploring what is meaningful to them or what really matters to their lives
  • Empowering them to confront and live with existential givens and personal limitations

Ernesto Spinelli (1989)

The therapeutic goal is “to offer the means for individuals to examine, confront and clarify and reassess their understanding of life, the problems encountered throughout their life, and the limits imposed upon the possibilities inherent in being-in-the-world” (1989, p.127).

This goal can be achieved through:

  • Adopting an attitude of empathy and neutrality
  • Using descriptive questioning to clarify their here-and now present experience
  • Facilitating their discovery of their own meanings.
  • Accepting negative existential givens and learning to live with conflicts and limitations.
  • Affirming the possibilities of authentic living and personal growth but rejecting self-actualization as an inevitable tendency
  • Accepting both wholeness and incompleteness as aspects of lived experience.
  • Focusing on dialogues and encounters in therapeutic relationships.

American Existential-Humanistic Psychology

Rollo May (1909-1994).

Anxiety — Rollo May’s main focus

Learn to accept anxiety as an inevitable given in human existence and meaninglessness as a major problem for modern age.

The loss of traditional values and respect for personal dignity contribute to meaninglessness and anxiety.

Without traditional values as consistent guides, the individuals are thrown on their own to make the right decisions, generating anxiety.

Freedom and courage

Freedom means the liberty to choose, to design one’s own future, in spite of inherent limitations, which May (1999) calls destiny.

To May, destiny means both throwness and the “daimonic”.
All human beings are confronted with a basic choice between ontological anxiety and ontological guilt.

Empower clients to have the courage to confront ontological anxiety and exercise the freedom to embark on an unknown future.

Courage is the capacity to meet anxiety, which arises as one achieves freedom” (May, 1953, p. 192).

Courage is the best expression of authenticity, and it involves existential encounters with anxiety.

Thus, freedom and courage both contribute to anxiety and enable individuals to rise above anxiety.

Challenge clients to live each moment with freedom and responsibility.


May (1965) defined intentionality as “the structure which gives meaning to experience and it underlies the process of planning and decision making among several alternatives.”

One important challenge is to clarify the conscious intention in order to sharpen the focus of one’s motives, purpose and goal.

Humans are both good and evil

The Greek word daimon is generally translated as demon.

To May (1969), a daimon is anything that can limit one’s freedom, such as sex, anger, and power.

Basically, a daimon is “any natural function that has the power to take over the whole person”. For example, to achieve a sense of personal significance, one may be bent on seeking power through violent means.

Therefore, we are capable of both good and evil. May’s (1982) belief in the dark or sinister side of human nature sets him apart from Carl Roger’s humanistic psychology.

Empower clients to exercise their freedom and courage to do the right thing in spite of the limitations of throwness and the daimon.

His existential psychology is clearly dialectical. We are both free and determined, good and evil, alive and dead. It is through confronting and integrating the opposites that we discover meaning and authenticity.

Religion and meaning

May (1953) believes that religion can play a positive role in endowing life with meaning:

“We define religion as the assumption that life has meaning. Religion, or lack of it, is shown not in some intellectual or verbal formulations but in one’s total orientation to life. Religion is whatever the individual takes to be his ultimate concern. One’s religious attitude is to be found at that point where he has a conviction that there are values in human existence worth living and dying for” (p.180).

In his last book The Cry for Myth, May (1991) continues to lament the loss of values in the modern age, and emphasizes the need for individuals to exercise their will to create their own values to live by. In the absence of religion and God, myths may provide “guiding narratives” to make sense of our own lives and help us live authentically.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

His landmark publication was Motivation and Personality in 1954.

Maslow (1961) rejected the European preoccupation with despair, anxiety and death.

He was clearly the first positive psychologist, because he suggested that existentialism might provide a “push toward the establishment of another branch of psychology, the psychology of the fully evolved and authentic self and its ways of being” (p. 56).

This new branch of psychology would switch the focus away from the psychopathology of the average person to the authentic, self-actualized person (Maslow, 1964).

Hierarchy of needs

He is probably best known for his theory of a hierarchy of needs, which consists of five levels: (a) physiological needs, (b) safety and security needs, (c) the need for love and belonging, (d) esteem needs, and (e) the need for self-actualization.

Maslow (1964) believes that the holistic motivational principle is to pursue higher needs when lower needs are sufficiently satisfied.

It is worth noting that the motive to achieve wholeness or oneness involves dichotomy-transcendence and synergy.

Dichotomy-transcendence refers to acceptance, integration or transcendence of opposites and contradictions.

Synergy refers to the transformation of oppositions into unity.

His holistic, integrative thinking is similarly to Carl Jung’s concept of individuation, which involves the integration of opposite aspects of the personality.

Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

Carl Rogers is existential because of his focus on the importance of freedom, responsibility and authenticity in his counseling practice. Most of all, he is humanistic, because of his belief in personal dignity and human potential for growth.

His biggest contribution is his dual-emphasis on self-directed growth and conditions for healthy personality.

Along with Carl Jung and Maslow, Rogers believes that without external forces and constraints, individuals would choose to be independent and develop their potentials.

Rogers considers the actualizing tendency as the universal, inherent, underlying motivation to enhance the experiencing organism.

Each individual exists in a personal world, a phenomenological field. The individual as an organized whole, reacts to “reality” as experienced and perceived.

Every organism has the basic actualizing tendency to strive to meet all his needs and enhance the experiencing organism. Therefore, behavior is always goal-directed and purposive.

Since behavior is reaction to reality as perceived, the best way to understand behavior is from the internal frame of reference of the individual himself. In other words, we need to focus on the phenomenological world of the clients and let them disclose and discover the meanings of their inner experiences.

What is healthy personality?

Healthy personality develops where there is congruence between their actual sense of who they are and who they should be.

A healthy person has the courage to become one’s self without worrying about what other people’s expectations in terms of “shoulds” or “oughts”. This is essentially the existential concept of being an authentic person.

Psychological maladjustment results when one’s life experiences are inconsistent with the self-structure. Whenever there is a discrepancy between the person’s perception of self (an ideal self) and real life experiences (a real self), there will be problems of adjustment and personal growth.

Existential anxiety arises when individuals do not accept themselves the way they are and pretend to be someone else in order to conform to other people’s expectations.

Incongruence often results from the needs for positive regards from others. When parents say: “We will love you only when you behave well”, they in fact set up conditions of worth. In order to receive parents’ conditional positive regards, children become other-oriented and alienated from their basic nature.

Rogers (1961) observes that maladjustment or psychopathology can occur when people are not aware of their own rationality and inner voices because of their defenses or distorted self concept; as a result, they make decisions that are inconsistent with the dictates of their organismic evaluations.

Rogers (1977) believes that people are naturally rational and responsible, and they are “capable of evaluating the outer and inner situation, understanding herself in its context, making constructive choices as to the next steps in life, and acting on those choices” (p.15).

The necessary and sufficient conditions for healing and wholeness are as follows:

Unconditional Positive Regard – This means accepting the clients regardless of the nature of their struggles, without judgment or condemnation. This will undo the harm of conditional positive regard and expose them to the healing power of acceptance, openness, and trust that comes from unconditional love.

Empathy – This means that the counselor is fully present with the clients, trying to understand their inner struggles and their world of meanings. It can be very therapeutic when the clients experience that some one listens to them, understands them and cares about how they think and feel.

Genuineness (Congruence) – This means that the counselor is genuine, congruent and the therapeutic relationship is an honest, genuine one. It means that the counselor really possesses the attitude of unconditional positive regard and empathy and this reality is communicated to the clients throughout their encounters and interactions. This kind of relationship will help restore a sense of trust in people.

Together, these attitudes will provide a safe environment for clients to (a) explore and experience aspects of self that have been hidden or distorted, (b) recognize the blocks to personal growth, and (c) regain a sense of direction and courage to move forward with courage, openness and self-trust.

Rogers also believes that these core conditions for healing and personal growth can be applied to home, school, work and community. His message on the need to treat people with respect and dignity and to create a healthy environment is much needed in the present climate of ruthless competition, brutal conflicts, and unethical manipulation of people as instruments.

Providing a safe and positive environment is more likely to bring out the best in children and adults.

The biggest challenge is: how we can bring up a new generation of young people, workers and leaders who would internalize the values articulated by Rogers so that they can be fully functioning and help create a healthy society.

Irwin Yalom

Like Rollo May, Yalom believes that we can live meaningfully when we confront death anxiety and other existential givens. In fact, we can live life at a deeper and richer level only through confronting our own mortality.

The basic existential tension stems from the unconscious conflict between defense mechanisms against existential anxieties and the striving to live an ethical and fulfilling life in an uncertain and chaotic world.

Existential therapy aims at reducing maladaptive defense mechanisms in order to become fully engaged in life.

Yalom (1980) lists four existential givens relevant to psychotherapy:

  1. The inevitability of death (death anxiety)
  2. The freedom to choose how we live
  3. Our sense of ultimate aloneness (alienation)
  4. The obvious meaninglessness of life in the face of the previous three givens.

Many psychological problems arise from our defense mechanisms against existential anxieties.

  • The objective of psychotherapy is to help clients confront their fears and anxieties so that they can become engaged in life courageously and creatively.
  • They need to identify and replace their maladaptive defense mechanisms in order to develop the necessary resources to pursue meaningful life goals.
  • We need to invite our clients to examine threatening and unresolved emotional issues which the defenses are protecting them from. We need to work with our clients to explore the meanings and roots of their irrational feelings. However, we should do so in a way that does not overwhelm the clients. Timing is a key factor.

According to Becker’s Denial of Death (1973), to live a truly authentic and genuine life, one must face the reality of death and limitation. According to Tillich’s 1952 book The Courage to Be, to truly embrace being, we must face the reality of non-being.

Yalom (1980) discusses two ways of denying death: 1) the ultimate rescuer and 2) specialness.The clients may keep these defenses until they find something better to protect them against the terror of death.

Fear of death may lead to fear of living. Neither denial nor preoccupation with death is solution.

Need to achieve a balance between consciousness of their own mortality and consciousness of their need for authentic living in the present.

‘What would you do if you knew you were going to die next week or next month? How would you live differently?’ Facing up to the reality of death allows us to experience life in a deeper and more meaningful way.

Being authentic is to become who one is. The positive aspect of existential therapy is to discover is what one is meant to be. Only the client can discover this truth.

Emphasize the here-and-now encounter and engagement in therapeutic alliance. Need to stay present and stage together to persist through the impasse and storms. To do so, both therapists and clients need to be willing to be honest, authentic and vulnerable.

Concern about one’s own ego and success invariable narrows one’s vision and hinders the effectiveness of therapy.

The process of existential psychotherapy is to fully engage the client in an authentic manner no matter how difficult and insist on full cooperation from the client to work hard together on resolving the problems and rediscovering the hope and passion for living.

Need to assess the therapeutic relationship and how they feel about each other.

Need to fully understand the client’s subjective experiences, complaints, dreams, images, stories, metaphors in order to see things from the client’s perspective.

Can never fully reconstruct the client’s past or understand the core identify, but we can approximate the meanings of the client’s world by paying full attention to the details and nuances of the interactions and the dynamics of the process.

We are more likely to approximate the truth, if we conscientiously stay neutral, non-judgmental and will not allow our own ego and feelings obscure our clinical observations.

Do not take insult or rejection personally, but employs it as a window of opportunity for therapy.

Even when nothing seems to work, trust the process. Always evaluate the process to make sure that there is no blockage or digression. If you stay present, stay with your client, and stick to the process, things are more likely to work out eventually.