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Existential psychology

Existential psychology is a branch of psychology that explores the human condition and the challenges and opportunities that people face in their lives. It draws on the philosophical tradition of existentialism, which originated in the 19th and 20th centuries with thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus (JRank, n.d.). Existential psychology aims to understand how people cope with the realities of existence, such as self-awareness, freedom, responsibility, meaning, and death (Oxford Bibliographies, 2018). Existential psychology also offers a form of psychotherapy that helps clients to confront their anxieties, choices, and values, and to create a more authentic and fulfilling life (Psychology Today, n.d.). In this article, we will examine the origins, thinkers, and theory of existential psychology and how it can be applied in various settings.

What is existential psychology?

There are various strands of thought within existential psychology, such as existential-phenomenology, existential-humanism, existential-psychoanalysis, and existential-integrative (Schneider & Krug, 2010). These strands share some common themes, such as the emphasis on human freedom, choice, and responsibility; the recognition of the limits and possibilities of human existence; the exploration of the subjective meaning of life and death; and the importance of authentic relationships and emotions (Schneider & Krug, 2010).

Existential psychology emerged from the philosophical movement of existentialism, which was influenced by the works of 19th-century thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are considered the founding fathers of existentialism, as they were the first to focus on the subjective human experience and the apparent meaninglessness of life (The Cultural History of Philosophy Blog, 2016). They challenged the dominant rationalist and empiricist views of their time and emphasized the role of individual choice, passion, and faith in creating one’s own values and purpose. For example, Kierkegaard wrote: “The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do… to find the idea for which I can live and die” (as cited in New World Encyclopedia, n.d.). Nietzsche, on the other hand, declared: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” (as cited in Psych Central, 2021).

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Existential psychology developed further in the 20th century with the contributions of thinkers such as Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, and others. They applied existential concepts to various fields of psychology, such as psychotherapy, counselling, education, and organizational behaviour. They also drew inspiration from other existential philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Existential psychology aims to help people face their existential dilemmas and anxieties and to find meaning and fulfilment in their lives. As Yalom (1980) stated: “The ultimate goal of therapy… is not so much to eliminate suffering as it is to give it meaning” (p. 421).

Existential thinkers

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, and cultural critic who is widely regarded as the founder of existentialism, a school of thought that focuses on individual existence and subjective experience (, n.d.). Kierkegaard’s philosophy can be characterized as a form of Christian existentialism, as he emphasized the role of personal relationship with God and the need for a leap of faith beyond rationality and human understanding (, 2023). Kierkegaard also explored themes such as authenticity, anxiety, freedom, and the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, as well as the concepts of existential stages, inherited sin, teleological suspension of the ethical, Christian paradox, the absurd, and indirect communication (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.). His writings influenced the development of existential psychology, a branch of psychology that deals with human existence and its challenges (Wikipedia, n.d.). Kierkegaard is considered one of the most original and influential thinkers of the 19th century, and his legacy continues to inspire many philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and artists.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher who is often considered as one of the founders of existentialism, a movement that emphasizes the individual’s freedom and responsibility to create meaning in life. Nietzsche challenged the traditional values of Western civilization, such as Christianity, morality, and rationality, and proposed a new vision of human existence based on the affirmation of one’s will to power, the overcoming of one’s self-contradictions, and the acceptance of one’s fate (amor fati). Nietzsche’s psychology of the self was an art of self-cultivation (Bildung) that involved a rigorous self-analysis and a creative self-expression. Their influence on existential psychology can be seen in his exploration of themes such as authenticity, anxiety, nihilism, and the absurdity of existence (Oxford Academic, 2021; Springer Link, 2019; Psych Central, 2021; Britannica, n.d.).

Ludwig Binswanger was a Swiss psychiatrist and writer who applied the principles of existential phenomenology, especially as expressed by Martin Heidegger, to psychotherapy (Britannica, n.d.). He developed a form of psychoanalysis called daseinsanalysis, which aimed to reconstruct the inner experience of patients, even severely psychotic ones, and to help them confront their existence and exercise their autonomy (Oxford Reference, n.d.). Binswanger was one of the early voices of the existential-analytic movement in psychology and psychiatry, which focused on the study of the total person in his or her life context (Saybrook University, n.d.). He was also interested in the interpersonal aspects of human existence, and explored the concepts of love, friendship, and family in his writings (APA PsycNet, 2000). Binswanger’s contribution to existential psychology was significant and influential, as he introduced a new perspective on human nature and psychopathology that challenged the dominant medical and biological models of his time (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Medard Boss was a Swiss psychoanalytic psychiatrist who developed a form of psychotherapy known as Daseinsanalysis, which united the psychotherapeutic practice of psychoanalysis with the existential phenomenological philosophy of friend and mentor Martin Heidegger (Wikipedia, n.d.). Boss sought to combine psychology and philosophy, helping to give rise to existential psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on the human condition as a whole, rather than on isolated aspects of personality or behaviour (JRank, n.d.). Boss believed that human existence is fundamentally relational, temporal, and spatial, and that psychological problems arise from the alienation or distortion of these dimensions of being-in-the-world (Boss, 1994). He proposed that Daseinsanalysis can help people to rediscover their authentic existence by clarifying their existential situation and possibilities through dialogue with the therapist (Boss, 1957/1963). Boss’s contribution to existential psychology was characterized by a consistent and stringently developed position, and he is considered one of the main figures in his field on the European continent (Watts & Cockcroft, 2009).

Rollo May (1909-1994) was an influential American existential psychologist and author who contributed to the development of existential psychotherapy and humanistic psychology. He was inspired by European existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, as well as by psychoanalysts such as Freud, Adler, and Rank. He challenged the dominant behaviourist and psychoanalytic paradigms of his time and advocated for a holistic and phenomenological approach to understanding human experience. Furthermore, he emphasized the themes of freedom, responsibility, anxiety, creativity, love, and will to be central to human existence. He also explored the existential dimensions of social and cultural issues such as violence, alienation, conformity, and authenticity. May’s work has been widely recognized and applied in various fields such as counselling, education, art, and spirituality (, n.d.;, n.d.;, n.d.;, n.d.;, n.d.;, 2019).

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Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a prominent figure in the field of existential psychology. He developed a form of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which is based on the premise that humans are motivated by a “will to meaning”, or the desire to find purpose and significance in life (Frankl, 1963). Frankl argued that life can have meaning even in the most difficult and tragic situations, and that finding meaning is the key to overcoming suffering and despair. He also emphasized the importance of free will, personal responsibility, and values in shaping one’s destiny (Frankl, 1988). Frankl’s ideas were influenced by his own experiences as a Holocaust survivor, as well as by his extensive clinical practice and philosophical studies. He wrote several books on logotherapy and existential psychology, such as Man’s Search for meaning (1946), The Doctor and the soul (1955), and The Will to meaning (1969). Frankl’s contributions to existential psychology have inspired many researchers and practitioners, as well as people from various walks of life, who seek meaning and fulfilment in their lives (Devoe, 2012).

Therapeutic practices influenced by existential psychology

Some of the therapeutic practices influenced primarily by existential psychology are:

  • Existential therapy, which helps clients understand their place in the world and cope with the anxieties and uncertainties of life (BACP, n.d.).
  • Existential-humanistic therapy, which integrates existential and humanistic approaches and emphasizes human capacities and aspirations as well as human limitations (GoodTherapy, 2019).
  • Existential-integrative therapy, which combines existential and relational perspectives and focuses on the therapeutic relationship as a vehicle for change (Psychology Today, n.d.).
  • Existential-positive therapy, which applies existential concepts and techniques to positive psychology interventions and aims to enhance well-being and meaning in life (PositivePsychology, n.d.).
  • logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence and the search for purpose in life (Wikipedia, n.d).
  • Daseinsanalysis explores the fundamental structures of human existence and the modes of being-in-the-world. (Oxford Bibliographies, n.d.).

Existential psychology has been influential in psychological practices of today by offering a holistic and relational perspective on human nature, emphasizing the role of self-awareness, choice, and responsibility in creating a fulfilling life, and addressing the existential anxieties that underlie many psychological problems (Oxford Bibliographies, 2018). However, existential psychology also has some weaknesses, such as being too abstract and vague, lacking empirical evidence and scientific rigour, and being culturally biased and insensitive to the social and economic factors that shape human experience (Wikipedia, n.d.). Therefore, existential psychology can be seen as a valuable but potentially limited approach to understanding and helping people in their existential struggles.

In an article by Correia (2018), he compares and contrasts four branches of existential psychotherapies: Daseinsanalysis, existential-phenomenological therapy, existential-humanistic therapy, and existential-integrative therapy. The author concludes that “the four branches share a common philosophical ground, but differ in their theoretical and technical aspects” (p. 139). He also suggests that “existential therapists could benefit from a dialogue among the branches, as well as from an integration of their contributions” (p. 140).


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