semester in graduate school, in a class on individual counseling, I was
asked to write a paper about my "Theory of Choice/Philosophy of Human
Nature." I consider myself eclectic, and I did then, but I chose one and
wrote this. It still makes a lot of sense to me and tells you something
about how I see things.
|THEORY OF CHOICE / PHILOSOPHY OF
by Gabi Clayton
Existential/Phenomenological (E/P) paradigm offers a philosophical frame
of reference that meshes well with my own experience and my belief that,
as Rollo May said, "There is no such thing as truth or reality for a
living human being except as he participates in it, is conscious of it,
has some relationship to it."
creating reality is a dynamic lifelong journey. The emphasis in E/P
therapy is on immediate experience. The therapist facilitates the
unfolding process of the person, as "midwife to the birth of the
patient's yet unlived life."
Emphasis is on the present, reaching into the future. The past is not
static fact or historical truth, but something created in the present -
memories reaching back from the present, memories transformed by the
call of the now experiencing person.
One of the basic ideas
that attracts me to E/P therapy is that the person and the world
co-constitute each other, each emerging from the relationship between
the two. They cannot be separated from each other without the loss of
Having studied art, the relationship between
"figure" and "ground" helps me to understand the way this person/world
relationship works. An artwork in which figure (subject) and ground
(background) are treated as separate parts is disjointed and
incomplete. When there is unity, the figure/ground (or person/world) are
locked together in a mutually dependent balanced tension.
In a helping
relationship, I believe a process E/P psychotherapists call
"bracketing," is necessary. Assumptions and biases are clearly laid out,
and the therapist attempts to set them aside, not once, but as an
ongoing process throughout the course of the therapeutic relationship.
It is necessary for the therapist to be able to understand the
person/world of the client, to enter into a relationship with the
reality of that individual. I think Carl Jung was referring to this same
process and how it works for the therapist when he said, "Learn all your
theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the
miracle of the living soul."
I understand this from
my knowledge of the process of making art. A painter starts a new work
with some idea, a picture in his or her mind. At some point in the
working process, that painter will stop and step back to see the
work-in-progress. Now the painting is not what the artist pictured. The
artist can try to force it to become that idea, but this is not
successful because the painting is made of real paint on real canvas,
and has taken on a kind of life of its own. The artist must put aside
(bracket) the original idea in order to engage the painting as it is.
The four ultimate
concerns that Existential therapy focuses on are: death, isolation,
freedom, and meaninglessness. An E/P therapist will listen for these
much in the way an RET therapist listens for a client's irrational
Death - We all must deal with the death of
those we love or have cared for, and with the realization that we grow
older every day, and will die. There is death in the impermanence of all
that makes up our world, and in the anxiety we deal with during
transitions in life. Out of our knowledge of death comes a search for
immortality, through our children, the memories of those who have cared
for us, our work, the artworks we leave behind, and our spiritual
Existential isolation is the unbridgeable
aloneness of each human being. Relationship with others: family,
friends, community; lessens the separateness, but never completely.
There is a need to stay in touch with the self, taking time to
experience the I-am.
complicated, frightening freedom. Out of that word comes:
responsibility, willing, wishing, choice/decision, guilt - all of
concern to the therapist. For example, there is the question of where
responsibility for our existence is to be placed. The Existential answer
(and my own), lies in a tension between two ideas. One idea is that we
are responsible for, and the creator of, our individual reality (the
absolute idealism of Sarte). The other idea is the belief that human
beings are "thrown" into their world, absorbed by a history not of their
own choice (the fatalism of Heidegger). The E/P therapist helps the
client to "make peace" with and take ownership of the past as a personal
reservoir of experience. "Simply to appropriate this set of facts and
own it as one's personal history is already liberating."
At the same time, the therapist challenges the client to take
responsibility for choices that have been and will be made, helping the
person to work through decisional crises, "...responsibly steering a
course now toward a future only dimly seen."
Meaninglessness is the
last ultimate concern. From the E/P perspective, meaning in our
existence is found in engagement on three levels: Umwelt (translated as
world around, the natural/environmental world), Mitwelt ("with-world,"
the human community), and Eigenwelt ("own-world," the inner,
"Death, freedom, and
isolation must be grappled with directly. Yet when it comes to
meaninglessness, the effective therapist must help patients to look away
from the question: to embrace the solution of engagement rather than to
plunge in and through the problem of meaninglessness. The question of
meaning in life is as the Buddha taught, not edifying. One must immerse
oneself in the river of life and let the question drift away."
 Rollo May (ed.),
Existential Psychology, (Random House, New York, 1969), 14.
 Rollo May and Irvin Yalom, Existential
Psychotherapy, in Raymond J. Corsini and Danny Wedding (eds.), Current
Psychotherapies, (F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.; Itasca, Illinois;
Donald Moss, Psychotherapy and Human Experience in Ronald S. Valle and
Steen Halling (eds.), Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in
Psychology, (Plenum Press, New York,1989), 205.
 Donald Moss (see above).
 Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy,
(Basic Books, New York, 1980) 11.