Meaning of Life as Self-transcendence: A Critique of Egocentric Authenticity and its Practical Implication in Existential Therapy


Authors: Wu Yu Alisa

Category: Article

Pages: 19

IJEPP Issue: Vol. 11 no. 2

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Charles Taylor argues that we are living in an “age of authenticity,” in which everyone pursues self-fulfillment by staying true to themselves. This rhetoric of “authenticity” reminds us of what existential philosophers refer to as the “authentic” mode of existence, consisting in always being conscious the problem of Being and striving to realize the meaning of one’s existence. However, in the age of authenticity, being authentic no longer entails a consideration of the problem of Being or life’s meaningfulness. Despite their efforts to live authentically, people increasingly suffer from a lack of meaning in life which has become, in Jung’s terms, a “general neurosis of our age.” This article adopts an existential-therapeutic perspective in approaching the prevalent ailment of meaninglessness, aiming to shed light on its roots in order to develop a cure and investigate how this cure may be applied in psychotherapeutic practice to help patients trapped in “existential vacuums” increase their happiness and wellbeing. The focus of my criticism is the popular ideology of authenticity that fixes individuals’ views (almost exclusively) on their own selves in disregard of what transcends the self and its interests. I argue that it is precisely this egocentric mode of authenticity that detriments peoples’ ability to find meaning in life, because the true meaning of life, for it to be sufficiently heart-fulfilling, must be self-transcendent in nature, which links the individual to a higher end that lies beyond his own limited self. Self-transcendence is the cure that I seek to the ailment of meaninglessness in life. Having established a self-transcendent conception of meaning, I proceed to the practical question of how we may apply this insight to the practice of existential psychotherapy, specifically in treating patients trapped in an existential vacuum devoid of meaning. I illustrate how this key insight must be transmitted indirectly through the genuine “I-Thou” relationship between the therapist and patient in the therapeutic encountering. In the last part, closely related to my main theme of self-transcendence, I consider some social criticisms of psychotherapy for indulging the individual in his self-fulfillment in disregard of his responsibility toward others and society. I respond to such arguments by contrasting existential therapy with psychoanalysis to show that they may only apply to the latter but not the former. Overall, my findings in this article indicate that there is an intimate relationship between meaning and self-transcendence, and self-transcendence as an antidote to the problem of meaninglessness should be among the top priorities of a psychotherapy that aims to nurture growth in its patients and to help deliver them into a truly “authentic” mode of being.