Existential Psychotherapy: An Introduction [WORKSHOP]

[4 mins reading]

Existential Psychotherapy started to take shape in the time when European psychiatrists expressed their different views towards Freud’s psychoanalytic that Freud relied too much on the principle of determinism in which they wished to approach the patient phenomenologically by entering patient’s experiential world and listen to that phenomena without presuppositions that distort understanding.

During that time, the field of existential psychotherapy started to go but less knew about Ludwig Bainswanger, Melard Boss and Victor Frankl until Rollo May’s published a book “Existence” into American community.

Rollo May, Adapted from azquotes.com

It was followed by another influential figure, Irvin Yalom who published Existential Psychotherapy which presented the “look” of existential psychotherapy based on the contributions of previous thinkers. Existential psychotherapy is not a specific technical approach which comes with rules for conducting therapy, instead it asks patient deep questions about the nature of anxiety, despair, grief, loneliness and more…

With that, Yalom presented four basic conflicts that drive human behaviour: Death, Freedom, Existential Isolation and Meaninglessness. The goal of therapist in conducting psychotherapy is to journey along with the individuals when they confront these universal facts in life, thus individuals can gain deeper awareness about themselves. It is important to know that the aforementioned universal concerns are not limited to certain individuals, instead it represents the overall essence of human condition and experience.

Everyone of us face these concerns. We must, because we are. 

Irvin Yalom, Adapted from //cls.unc.edu


There is no doubt that theme of death is one of the most obvious existential concerns. We are constantly aware of the inescapable truth that death is part of our life. Death reminds us the reality of our finiteness. A core existential conflict is always described as the tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the wish to continue to live.


Looking back to our human history, man has to sought to be free. Many have been willing to sacrifice their lives to attain freedom. Freedom may seem positive compared to the theme of death. However from an existential perspective, freedom can also mean nothing and void. Freedom is a confrontation with groundlessness, directly opposite to our wish for ground and structure. In addition to this, responsibility always comes together with freedom, instead it is inherent in freedom itself. Having freedom (which means no external structure in life) in life, we are the author of our life, we are responsible for our entire lives, we are responsible for our choices, life-making decisions and more. Being fully responsible for one’s entire life can be quite anxiety provoking in the view of existential psychotherapy.

Four givens: Death, Freedom & Responsibility, Isolation and Meaninglessness
Adapted from //img13.deviantart.net

Existential Isolation

Existential Isolation is the individual’s true “aloneness” in the world. Despite of having many friends and a good relationship with spouse or family (interpersonal relationship), existential psychotherapist believes that we enter this world alone and we leave this world alone. This can manifest through depression, anxiety and physical pain (For instance,  we are truly alone in the suffering of physical pain) through the conflict of being aware of our absolute ‘isolation’ and the desire to contact with others.


Asking the reason why we exist often links to the act of searching the meaning in life. Victor Frankl believes that our primary motivation in life was one’s search for meaning. However, there is no true meaning in life unless we find the meaning in it. There is no meaning assigned to us when we come to this world. We are living in a world without meaning at the first place, and no one can help us to create meaning or give meaning to us. Instead, as unique human beings, we have to seek for the meaning in our own lives.

These four concerns, or often described by Yalom as givens of existences make up the backbone of existential psychotherapy which is an approach based upon the common universal concerns which are inescapable part of human essence and condition. Living throughout our lives, we have to face the questions of our existence, as always as it is. When we approach these concerns, we might feel anxious, insecure, fearful and vulnerable. The experience might be painful but it defines our journey as unique human beings. The balance between how we can live by being aware of these concerns but not to be overwhelmed by them is the key component in existential psychotherapy.

If you want to know more and learn about the basic concepts of psychotherapy, I would like to share with you one upcoming workshop organized by National University of Malaysia (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) on 6 May.


This one-day workshop allow participants to explore some of the main concepts of Existential Psychotherapy. Starting from simple questions such as-
“What is existential psychotherapy?”
“What techniques do Existential Psychotherapist use?”
In line with one of the principal concepts of Existential Psychotherapy, thisworkshop will highlight the theme of meaning such as its significance to one’s experiential journal towards personal growth and exploration with the givens in our life.

Venue: Seminar Room 04 & 05, Blok D, UKM Kampus KL
Date: 6 May 2017
Time: 8:00am to 5:30pm


Additional reading: //www.tmswiki.org/dl/MeaningDraft.pdf


Posted in Psychology articles and tagged , .

Hailing from Sandakan, Sabah (The Land Below the Wind), Gary Yap has developed a keen interest in psychology and mental health issues ever since he was 15 years old. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree of Psychology in HELP University, he volunteered at the Psychiatric Department of Duchess of Kent Hospital and worked as a para-counsellor at a private psychiatric clinic. He later completed his Master’s in Clinical Psychology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

During his training in becoming a clinical psychologist, Gary was professionally trained at the Health Psychology Clinic, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; the Psychiatry Department, in Hospital Kajang; and the Psychiatry Department in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre.

Gary is currently a clinical psychologist associate at SOLS Health and also the director of MY Psychology (Malaysia’s Leading Online Psychology Educational Platform) where he and his team utilized the strength of social media to increase psychological literacy and awareness about mental health issues in the public community. With the motto of “Learn . Share . Apply”, he is striving to build a society where psychology is for everyone.

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