Existential Theory

Existential ideas:


Freedom and Responsibility:


One cannot enjoy the benefits of freedom without also being responsible, and yet many people spend a lot of time running from the responsibilities being free entails. Being an authentic person entails choosing to become someone who lives with their beliefs firmly expressed and acknowledged. People can avoid responsibility by merely conforming to cultural expectations and mores by affirming a kind of blind allegiance to various organizations and institutions including politics and religion and their group mindset. This is not to say that being dedicated to either of these are bad. In fact, often they can lead to very positive outcomes. The problem comes with it being blind allegiance. This occurs when a person gives up their responsibility to critically analyze their own beliefs, perspectives, and values that make up the organization. When this happens, the individual’s values are no longer authentic, they are accepted without scrutiny.


What occurs in this scenario might be questioned however when it comes to how some of the followers adhere only partially to the rules of the group. Some might pick and choose their beliefs dependent upon their own values and mores. The opposite belief can occur too when others become very rigid in their views and not willing to bend on any facet of their beliefs. There must be a kind of middle way in order for people to be free agents when it comes to their beliefs. It is also necessary to mention that many people give their power over to another person, ideal or group and feel powerless or victimized as a result. Again, this leads to loss of freedom and responsibility, as it is turned over to another segment of the population.


Psychologist Otto Rank mentions “the degree which we are unaware of how our drives, instincts, unconscious, and environment are influencing us, they control us. However, if a person chooses not to be aware of these influences, even if done so passively or unconsciously, a choice has still been made.”  We often do not think we have made a choice about things, but by not choosing to do things differently, or not choosing, we choose. Self- awareness is necessary to live in accordance with these principles. However, lack of self- awareness is not an acceptable excuse for a person’s behavior, as many would like to think. Once we know something we are responsible for it, and oftentimes, we are responsible for things we may not know in totality.


Death, Human Limitation, and Finiteness: Death is not totally a physical idea, but is also symbolic. When change is forced upon us in life, through a divorce or major illness the “death” of the old self gives way to a newer more authentic “you”. It is through examination forced upon us in these times that we grow the most and make those connections we are too busy to make otherwise.






One needs to have a dialog with the idea of death in order not to fear it, as it is an inevitable consequence of life. Living oblivious to the reality of death or human limitation is equally as destructive as to live in constant fear of its existence. To live a truly authentic and genuine life, one must face the reality of death and limitation, even though it is a societal fear.



Author Paul Tillich explains that to “truly embrace being (or our life) the reality of non-being must be faced.” This powerful conception takes the issue much deeper to include the fact that death must entail not only the ending of physical life, but the possibility of us becoming a nonbeing. While the possibility of nonbeing is not intended to deny the possibility of life after death, it brings with it the potential for a deeper understanding of our essential being.


I have always believed that to truly live one must open oneself up to truly dying. A common phrase or cliché that is used within existential therapy at times is ‘what would you do if you knew you were going to die next week or next month? How would you live differently?’  What if you could live forever? In general, the most common response is “I would start to take my loved ones for granted.” The other response which occasionally comes up is “then I could start really investing in the relationship because I’d no longer be afraid of losing them.” Depends on how one views the “glass” as being half empty or half full.




Isolation and Connectedness: Empathy vs sympathy is the starting point of this discussion. When we are sympathetic, we tell someone we are sorry, but we come from an unknowing emotional understanding. Empathy is emotional; it is a feeling of understanding. When one empathizes, they really feel the person’s pain and understand their heartache. There is a connection that sympathy does not give a person. Since we usually do not live in isolation there is a need for connection on a deeply spiritual level. Existence is less meaningful when there is no one to share it with.


Meaning vs. Meaninglessness: the key component to existential theory is making meaning in life. “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level” (Becker). There are some theorists who have broken down meaning into three groups: False Meaning, Transitory Meaning, and Ultimate Meaning.


False meaning could be described as myths without any healing or sustaining power and is typically destructive. At times, they may help people copy and maybe survive, but they have no power to address the meaning of existence. Money, power or sex are three examples of false meaning. They are false because they are transitory and do not always enduring, even though all of us seek one or more of the three at some point in life.


Transitory meanings help us cope, but cannot help for us to transcend as they lack the ability to address the existential issues. However, these are not as destructive in nature as the false meanings can be.  Working, service and leadership, education, self- growth and awareness are all values, but not meanings to an end. This type of meaning may facilitate growth and lead to ultimate meaning but, by themself are not ultimately meaningful. It would appear many of the things we seek to make meaning are only stepping stones to doing so, not the primary meaning of life.


Ultimate meaning is a type of meaning that aids in transcending the existential issues of death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. Some would maintain that this type of meaning necessitates relationship — with God or with other. However, it is not just relationship that achieves ultimate meaning, but a type of relationship. This involves a way of being in relationship that is ultimately meaningful as an end. The assumption ultimate meaning seems to hold that the relationship does not include relationship with self. This intentionally contradicts the common American value of individualism and self-sufficiency.  Ultimate meaning necessitates an “other” and assumes that humans are relational beings. However, the other is left very open so as to be able to include God, other people, animals, and potentially even nature.




Emotions, Experience, and Embodiment :


Beauty and joy come from fully experiencing life — both the good and the bad experiences. Joy is often interpreted as a state of bliss devoid of any negative experience, but in reality,  joy really is a state of fully experiencing the current moment including the good and the bad. Joy may contain pieces of sadness, of anxiety, or even of anger. When one aspect of experience is being blocked then joy is then limited.


A similar application could be made with suffering. Suffering is generally made worse and/or prolonged when it is resisted and often becomes less threatening when a person allows themselves to experience it. Beauty is best experienced, seen, or created in the context of fully experiencing life’s emotions. Most artists know is a connection between the emotions and creativity. Many artists will fear losing their pain for fear that it would take away their creativity and their art. The beauty of their creation is more valuable because of the pain of their experience. Some of the most beautiful art of all time came from anguished artists, this makes us look at the value of the more seemingly negative experiences we have in a totally new light.


Much of this information is extrapolated from a website available at: http://www.existential-therapy.com/Index.htm.







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