The Existential-Humanistic Perspective in Therapy

by Bob Edelstein on March 1, 1995

Ever since I read Freedom to Learn by Carl Rogers in 1971, I have been attracted to and passionate about the Existential-Humanistic perspective in therapy. This perspective focuses on the exploration of our existence, with the aid of a therapist, for the purpose of clarifying, defining, creating and re-creating what we want our life to be and to become. This therapy explores what it means to be human.

According to Dr. James Bugental, a noted Existential-Humanistic psychotherapist, as human beings we have certain capacities. These include the ability to choose, to act, to make meaning, to be in relationship and to be alone, to be limited, to be in a body, and to be consciously aware. The Existential-Humanistic perspective explores how we can be more alive and vital, and how we prevent this.

In this therapy, the work is accomplished through two simultaneous dialogues. One dialogue is with the internal self. Through this dialogue we learn to discover, connect with, and talk from the subjective center. We learn to open up to our internal life, our thoughts, feelings, images, bodily sensations and whatever else is going on for us in the moment. This is an inward searching process, which is essential to changing one’s life. It is the way we come to truly know who we are. Knowing who we are is essential to impacting the world in a powerful way.

The second dialogue occurs between us and the external world, that is everything outside of ourselves. Through this dialogue we learn to live in objective reality; we learn our relation to others, we learn how we impact and are affected by other human beings, nature, and society. Consciously relating to the world is essential to knowing who we are in a powerful way.

Through these two dialogues the circle is complete. We come to know our inner core, the outer world, and the relationship between the two. The challenge is to make our two realities congruent – the outer world matches our inner core, and our inner core matches the outer world. We have the power to consciously and continuously change both. As one reality is changed, the other is as well. Ultimately, we are beings in the world.

As a therapist, I’m not an expert in how the client should live his life. Rather, I am an expert in supporting the inward searching process and the connecting dialogue. The client discovers their own rightness, and develops the skills to continue doing so after we finish seeing each other formally in the therapeutic setting.

Our culture has the tendency to label, dichotomize, compartmentalize, and objectify. We focus primarily upon content, and the evaluation thereof. For example, we are either ‘sick’ or ‘well’. Treatment of illness is for the sick person, personal growth is for those who are well. Being sick is judged as bad, being well is judged as good. I advocate for the Existential-Humanistic viewpoint, that is we all live on a continuum, in which the labels are arbitrary. As a therapist, I am not treating illness or generating personal growth – I am being with the person.

In Existential-Humanistic psychotherapy the focus is on process; the aim is to facilitate an opening up in our awareness. The more we open up, the more conscious and vital we are. We make our choices based on our internal knowing of ourselves and our world. Therefore, if the issue is dependency, one aim is to facilitate a person to become aware of their dependency, and to explore all of its ramifications and associations. Dependency is not judged as being good or bad. It simply is a given at that point in time in that person’s life. When we explore our dependency in an open, discovering, non-judgmental atmosphere, we will naturally lead ourselves to the next step. This next step is merely grist for the mill, a further exploration of how we are living in the world.

We learn to trust ourselves, and know that we are on a continuum. Trusting ourselves and the process will take us naturally to the next step on our journey. Hopefully we enjoy the journey – it’s ongoing mystery and discovery.


(c) Bob Edelstein. This article was published in the Oregon Association of Marriage and Family Newsletter, Spring Quarter 1995.