What is existential therapy?
Like all the best questions, this one has no simple answer. We can start, though, with the time-honored tradition of asking a question with a question: what is life?
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘you only live once’, but underneath what may seem like an empty truism lies the most profound truth of all. Whatever beliefs we may have about existence after death, the life you live on earth is the only one you will get. Your life may be imbued with meaning, connection, and passion, or it may not. Your life may be weighed down by emptiness, loneliness, and disappointment, or it may not. If you lead a meaningful life you will have contributed something unique and special to the universe, for the only person who can be you is you. Existential therapy is your path to your version of the life truly lived. Authenticity. Because you are unique, your experience in existential therapy will be unique, as unique as the life that therapy will help you to live.
Existential therapy as paradigm shift
In recent decades, the emphasis in psychotherapy has been on making outward changes in the fastest possible time. Therapists will offer ‘practical tools and strategies’ to combat anxiety and depression, which will make an impact in ten sessions or less. I’m not here to knock that kind of therapy. Practitioners of CBT, DBT, and EFT do great work helping their clients hold down a job, maintain their relationships, and function as a member of society. Existential therapy is about something different, not just living, but living well, not just being a more functional person, but being a better person too. By becoming a better person you trust that you will become a happier person too, but that is not the reason you do it.
Existential therapy is not for everyone. If you need relief from crushing back pain to get out of bed, then a new exercise routine is not going to cut it. If your mental pain is unbearable, then you have the right to seek treatment that can provide you relief. Existential therapy is about something different. Whereas a typical therapist looks at depression or anxieties as problems to be solved, or at least ‘tuned down’, in existential therapy we look at your feelings of anxiety, sadness or despair as a part of you. We won’t look for ways to avoid them, but for ways to confront them, to understand them, to feel them more deeply, more profoundly, so you can integrate them into a greater version of you. The goal of existential therapy, in short, is to help you find a way to live more authentically with yourself so you can contribute to this world.
Seattle and the Existential Crisis
For most of us, life in Seattle is great. It’s the fourth fastest growing city in the U.S. for a reason. And yet living here is so hard. It’s not just the rain, it’s not just the traffic, the high cost of rent, or having to take a long plane ride to get pretty much anywhere. It’s all of these things and something more. Amidst the craft beers and sushi, the nice tech jobs and outward signs of comfort many are asking themselves existential questions. ‘Am I a burden on people around me?’ ‘Am I the only one who feels this way?’, ‘Why does my great relationship feel so shallow?’, Will I always be this way?’ These problems can’t be solved by getting a better job or a better partner, not least because the people thinking them often have great jobs and partners already. Nor can these thoughts be shut away with mainstream talk therapy.
In Existential therapy, you will find a place to explore these thoughts and find the answers within yourself. In therapy, I work hard to understand you, not so I can provide you with an abstract analysis, but so I can struggle with you towards a life of meaning. Existential therapy is based on an understanding of the human in which outward change is the naturally flowing product of inner transformation. We won’t work on finding short-term strategies to manage anxiety or be more effective at work, this will happen by itself as you solve the fundamental challenge of your life: how to be you. Once you build momentum, you may find yourself surprised at the rapidity with which previously unsolvable problems dissolve away and you make choices that you never thought possible. The exact course you will take is unknown because no one can know what your life lived to the full looks like until you do it. You will find that the meaning you seek is present in every part of life: meaningless is only meaningfulness not yet discovered.
Existential Therapy in Seattle with Caleb Dodson
There are many therapists who will include ‘existential therapy’ in their list of treatment modalities. The truth is, however, that the number of therapists in the United States who have received a formalized full psychotherapy training in genuine existential therapy or analysis is very very small. This orientation has been the focus of most of my development as a person and therapist, the focus of my masters thesis, and I am in my first year of such a training. If you are looking for existential therapy in Seattle or just want to learn more, please fill out the contact form or give me a call. I'd love to visit – it’s what I do!
600 North 36th Street #311
Seattle, WA, 98103