Existential Analysis

Existential Analysis

The existential approach in coaching & counselling goes beyond such topics as performance or achieving.

It goes to a deeper and specifically works with life topics that lay beneath, such as our values, authenticity, our work mission, life fulfillment and the true meaning of the things, activities and relationships we devote our life-time to.

It helps us to see the substance of our lives, to perceive and respect our own essence, to organise our direction, to make decisions consciously in accordance with our life intentions and to act with full internal consent.

We are continuously challenged and questioned by the four existential motivations – world, life, self, context and future (meaning).

The practice of Existential Analysis relies on dialogue as the main therapeutic tool to explore these challenges at the individual level.

Existential fulfilment is the result of a life with “inner consent”.

The cornerstones of existence are the four existential fundamental motivations:

1/ We are motivated by the fundamental question of existence:  I exist – can I be in this world where I live?

The first condition arises from the simple fact that I am here at all, that I am in the world.

  • Where do I go from here?
  • Can I cope with my being there?
  • Do I understand it?
  • I am here, this is me – how is that even possible?

This seemingly self-evident fact can lead to questioning of great depth.

If I really think about this, I realize that I cannot truly comprehend this. My existence appears like an island in an ocean of ignorance and alludes to connections that surpass me. The most adequate attitude towards this incomprehensible fact is one of astonishment. I can only be astonished that I am here at all.

But I am here, which puts the fundamental question of existence before me: I am – can I be?

To bring these questions to a practical and manageable level, I might apply them to my own situation. Can I claim my place in this world under the conditions?
This demands three things: protection, space, and support.

  • Do I enjoy protection and acceptance, and do I feel at home somewhere?
  • Do I have enough space for being there?
  • Where do I find support in my life?

When we experience these, we feel accepted and this in turn enables us to embrace an accepting attitude toward ourselves.

A deficit can lead to anxiety.

2/ We are motivated by the fundamental question of life: I am alive – do I like this? 

Once someone has their space in the world, they can fill it with life. Simply being there is not enough.

We want our existence to be good, since it is more than a mere fact. It has a ‘pathic dimension’ which means that life does not simply happen but rather we experience, suffer or enjoy it (from the Greek ‘pathos’, suffering, used for example in ‘psycho- pathology’).

Being alive means to cry and to laugh, to experience joy and suffering, to go through pleasant and unpleasant things, to be lucky or unlucky and to experience what is worthwhile and what is worthless.

As happy as we can be, we can also suffer deeply. The amplitude of emotionality is equal in both directions, whether this suits us or not.

  • I am, therefore, confronted with the fundamental question of life:
  • I am alive – do I like this fact?
  • Is it good to be there?

It is not only strain and suffering that can take away the joy of life. It may also be the shallowness of daily life or neglecting areas of one’s life that make life stale.

Do I truly live?

In order to seize my life and to love it, I need three things: relationship, time and closeness.

We can verify the presence of life by asking:

  • Do I have relationships in which I feel closeness, for which I spend time, give my time and in which I experience?
  • community?
  • What do I take time for?
  • Do I take time for valuable things that are worthy of my time?

To take time for something means to give away a part of one’s life and spend it with someone or something.

  • Can I feel close by maintaining closeness to things, plants, animals and people?
  • Do I allow the closeness of someone else?

And yet, it is not enough to have relationships, time and closeness. My active participation, my consent, is also required. I must seize life by engaging in life. When I turn to other people, to things, animals, intellectual work or to myself, I turn towards life. When I move towards something or someone, allow myself to get close, allow myself to be touched, I experience life as vibrant. By fully acknowledging what is before me I not only experience life as vibrant, I equally experience such things as loss and grief. If I am to move freely in life, my consent to being touched by life is necessary.

  • Do I have access to my emotions?
  • Do I feel my emotions, and do I feel their value?

Experiencing the value of my life makes me aware that it is good to be alive – “that I am here”.

Deficits can lead to depression.

3/ We are motivated by the fundamental question of “self”: I am myself – but do I feel free to be myself?

The first two fundamental conditions are, however, not sufficient in themselves for a fulfilling existence. In spite of my being related to life and to people, I am aware of being separate and different.

There is a singularity that makes me an ‘I’ and distinguishes me from everybody else. I realize that I am on my own, that I have to master my existence myself and that I am essentially alone and perhaps even solitary.

But there is so much more that is equally singular. The diversity, beauty and uniqueness that exist in all dimensions of life produce feelings of awe and respect in me.

In the midst of this world, I discover myself unmistakably, I am with myself and I am given to myself.

This puts before me the fundamental question of being a person: I am myself – may I be like this?

  • Do I feel free to be like this?
  • Do I have the right to be what I am and to behave as I do?

This is the plane of identity, of knowing oneself and of ethics.

In order to succeed here, it is necessary to experience three things: attention, justice, and appreciation.

Again, we can verify this third cornerstone of existence in our own life by asking: Who sees me?

  • Who considers my uniqueness and respects my boundaries?
  • Do people do justice to me?
  • What am I appreciated for?
  • How do I appreciate myself?

If these experiences are missing, solitude, hysteria and a need to hide behind shame will result. If, on the contrary, I have experienced attention, justice and appreciation, I will find myself, find my authenticity and my self-respect. The sum of these experiences builds my self- esteem and who I am at my core.

In order to be oneself, it is not enough to simply experience attention, justice and appreciation. I also have to say ‘Yes!’ to myself. This requires my active participation. I have to look at other people and encounter them. At the same time, I have to delineate myself, stand on my own and refuse whatever does not correspond to my sense of self. Encounter and regret are the two means by which we can live authentically without ending up in solitude. Encounter represents the necessary bridge to the other. It makes me experience another person’s essence as well as my own; discovering the ‘I’ in ‘You.’

  • Am I allowed to be who I am?
  • Do I experience attention, justice, appreciation, esteem, respect, my own worth?
  • Do I feel I have the right to be me?

Deficits at this level can lead to a histrionic complex of symptoms and to the main personality disorders.

4/ We are motivated by the question of meaning: I am here – for what purpose? 

If I can be here, love life and find myself within these, the conditions are fulfilled for the fourth fundamental condition of existence in which I recognize my life and what it is all about. It does not suffice to simply be here and to have found oneself. We have to transcend ourselves if we want to find fulfilment and to be fruitful. Otherwise we would live as if in a house where nobody ever visits.

Life’s transitory nature puts the question of the meaning of our existence before us: I am here – for what purpose?

Three things are needed: a field of activity, a structural context and a value to be realized in the future.

  • We can ask ourselves practical questions such as: Is there a place where I feel needed, where I can be productive?
  • Do I see and experience myself in a larger context that provides structure and orientation to my life; where I want integration?
  • Is there anything that should still be realized in my life?

If this is not the case, the result will be a feeling of emptiness, frustration, despair and frequently addiction. If, on the contrary, these conditions are met, I will be capable of dedication and action and finally, my own form of religious belief. The sum of these experiences adds up to the meaning of life and leads to a sense of fulfilment.

It does not suffice to simply have a field of activity, to have our place within a context and to know values to be realized in the future. A phenomenological attitude is needed. As each situation places a question before me, an attitude of openness represents the existential access to meaning in life. ‘What does this hour want from me, how shall I respond?’ The meaningful thing is not only what I can expect from life. In accordance with the dialogical structure of existence, it is equally important what life wants from me, what the moment expects from me and what I could and should do now for others as well as for myself.

My active part in this attitude of openness is to bring myself into agreement with the situation, to examine whether what I am doing is really a good thing: for others, for myself, for the future and for my environment.

  • What is present today that may make my life part of a meaningful whole?
  • What do I live for?

A deficit can lead to suicidal tendencies, aggravate addictions and other dependencies.

We are continuously challenged and questioned by the four existential motivations –
If I act, if I respond to these questions, my existence will be fulfilling.

 

Credit: Alfried Längle, M.D., Ph.D., Professor
Psychotherapist, Physician, Clinical Psychologist, Coach
Scientific developments in Psychotherapy and Existential Analysis
President of the International Society of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (GLE-I)