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Essay: Existential therapy and the client-centered approach

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  • Published: 22 November 2022*
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Therapies that emerged during this period, including client-oriented, later became known as “humanistic” therapies. Despite the fact that many psychologists contributed to the development of the humanistic approach, Carl Rogers was the one who led the evolution in psychotherapy with his own unique approach. Rogers suggested that therapy may be simpler and more positive than those conducted by behavioral or psychodynamic psychologists (McLeod, 2013). Also, he claimed that «experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience» (Rogers,1959). Thus, Carl Rogers formed his concept of therapy based on his own experience and beliefs. And in the center of this concept was the patient and his needs. It is also worth noticing that Rogers emphasized that the patient should not be considered as a client, since relations that are established between him and the therapist do not require the patient to be subordinated to his doctor and to follow all his instructions without any reservations (Rogers, 1959).

The client-centered approach provides for conducting a non-directive form of therapy in the form of a conversation. It allows the client to have a conversation, while his therapist does not try to manage the client in any way (McLeod, 2013). This approach is based on one very important quality: an unconditional positive regard. This means that the therapist refrains from judging the client, being a source of full acceptance and support (McLeod, 2013). So, the client has the opportunity to speak out, and the therapist only observes the process and draws conclusions regarding the current state of the client.

Rogers’s view is very different from the psychodynamic and behavioral approaches, since he suggested that clients can be more effectively helped if they are asked to focus on their current subjective understanding, and not on some unconscious motive or someone else’s interpretation of the situation. He strongly believed that in order for the client to receive the maximum help from the therapist, the therapist must be transparent, real, and treat the client with understanding (Rogers,1961). In this aspect, C. Rogers noted that “a person contains considerable resources for self-knowledge, for changing his self-awareness, attitude and independent behavior’ and he said that the professional assistance will help to use these resources (Rogers,1951). So, according to the statements of C. Rogers, each person has sufficient resources to correct his own life, and the goal of the therapist is to identify these resources and help bring them to life.

Rogers rejected the deterministic nature of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, and argued that we behave as we think would be appropriate at the moment, because we perceive the situation in our own way. No one can know the situation better than ourselves, therefore we are the best specialists in our own psychotherapy (Rogers,1961). Believing that this theory should come out of practice, and not vice versa, Rogers developed his theory on the basis of his work with emotionally problematic people and argued that we have great opportunities for self-healing and personal growth, which ultimately leads to the necessary level of self-realization. He emphasized the importance of human perception and the way we live here and now (Rogers, 1986). Rogers noted that people tend to describe their current experience, referring to themselves in a certain way, for example, “I don’t understand what is happening” or “I feel different than I felt.” Thus, the inner world of a person, his experience and perception of the present can be the key for understanding the future and forming directions for self-realization.

It is worth noticing that one of the defining differences between the humanistic and the previously developed approaches is that patients are considered as “clients”. In particular, representatives of a client-centered approach in psychotherapy see the therapist and client as equal partners, and not as a patient and his doctor with a clear distribution of responsibilities (McLeod, 2013). Unlike other approaches, in a client-centered approach, it is the client who is responsible for improving his life and achieving the goals of treatment, and not the therapist. This is a completely different approach from psychoanalysis and behavioral therapy, where the patient is diagnosed and treated by a doctor and follows his instructions without any discussion. Instead, the client consciously and rationally decides for himself what is wrong and what needs to be done with it. The therapist is more of a friend or adviser who listens and encourages the clients to work on themselves and their problems (McLeod, 2013).

According to C. Rogers, although the symptoms of the client’s illness have arisen based on the past, it will be more useful for the client to focus on the present and the future (Rogers, 1986). In contrast to C. Rogers, psychodynamic therapists seek precisely to free patients from the past and thereby cure existing diseases. But supporters of the concept of C. Rogers hope to help their clients achieve personal development and, finally, self-realization, realizing the mistakes of the past and effectively applying even negative experience.

Considering the approach of C. Rogers it is also worth highlighting three key qualities that define a good client-centered therapist (McLeod, 2013):

1. Unconditional positive regard: as noted earlier, an unconditional positive regard is an important practice for a client-oriented psychotherapist. This is the ability to respond to the emotional manifestations of the person, his actions without any judgment of evaluation. This is a sincere relationship to the client as an equal person and who has the right to be as he is.

2. Congruence: genuine, honest and open experience of one’s own feelings, sincere self-expression in communication with the client.

3. Empathy: the ability of the therapist to accurately perceive the feelings of the clients, empathize with them and accept them, even if he himself would have acted differently. Empathy is also called “emotional responsiveness.”

Along with the client-centered approach, an existential approach is also popular among humanistic approaches. The majority of psychotherapeutic areas are aimed at changing the life situation of a client, certain aspects or a look at one’s own problems. In contrast, the existential approach does not set such a goal. The essence of it lies in the full acceptance of the existence of the client, a comprehensive and benevolent understanding of it. Therefore, an existential psychotherapist does not strive for any changes. Existential (lat. Existentia – existence) psychotherapy is a psychological assistance based on the respect and active knowledge by the therapist of all the characteristics and aspects of the individual being (existence) of the client’s personality, without intending to determine the pathological or ineffective characteristics of his life, behavior and activities (McLeod, 2013). However, in accordance with the C. Rogers client-centered approach, even if the therapist does not use standard methods to identify the root cause of the client’s condition, he must understand what had contributed to the development of the disease. It is also important for therapists to get the maximum set of client characteristics, even if it’s about negative ones (Rogers,1951)

Human life is considered in existential therapy as a series of internal conflicts, the resolution of which leads to a rethinking of life values, the search for new ways in life, the development of the human personality. In this light, internal conflicts and anxiety, depression, apathy, alienation, and other conditions resulting from them are not considered as problems and mental disorders, but as necessary natural steps for personal development (Cooper,2003). Depression, for example, is seen as a stage of loss of life values, opening the way for finding new values; Anxiety is viewed as natural sign of the need to make important life choices and that it will leave a person as soon as a choice is made. In this regard, the task of an existential therapist is to lead a person to the realization of his deepest existential problems, to awaken philosophical reflection on these problems and to inspire a person to make a life choice necessary at this stage, if a person hesitates and puts him off and depression (Yalom,1980).

The origins of existentialism are associated with the name of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). It was he who introduced and approved the concept of existence (the uniqueness of human life) in philosophical and cultural life. He drew attention to the turning points of human life, which provide an opportunity to change life in the future. In this aspect, this feature of the existential approach is somewhat similar to the customer-centric approach. That is, to identify the possibilities of changing the client’s state in the future, it is necessary to analyze his experience.

According to the philosopher of the twentieth century Paul Tillich, existential psychotherapy rightly and honestly confronts the “higher dangers” of life, including loneliness, suffering and the meaninglessness of being. Clients are particularly concerned about their experience, but modern existential psychotherapist Irwin Yalom argues that universal fears are death, isolation, freedom and emptiness [9]. Existential therapy focuses on anxiety and the role of the psychotherapist is to correct the client’s behavior in the direction of increasing his personal responsibility for making vital decisions. I. Yalom, for example, perceives the psychotherapist as a “companion” in life, who displays sympathy and support.

Existential therapy helps to cope with many seemingly dead-end life situations: depression; fears; loneliness; addictions, workaholism; obsessive thoughts and actions; emptiness and suicidal behavior; grief, the experience of loss and the end of existence; crises and failures; indecision and loss of life guidelines; loss of the sensation of fullness of life, etc. Along with this, it is worth noticing that the client-centered approach also has a whole set of methods to combat the above states. However, the difference is that in the client-centered approach, it is important not only the correction of disorders, but also the formation of positive perspectives for the future happy life of the client.

Therapeutic factors in existential approach are: the client’s understanding of the unique essence of their life situation, their attitude to their present, past and future, the development of their ability to act, taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The existential therapist ensures that his patient is as open as possible to the opportunities that arise during their life and able to make choices and actualize them. The goal of therapy is the most complete, meaningful existence.

Therapists practicing existential psychotherapy don’t focus on the person’s past. On the contrary, they work to discover and explore the options that clients have. Thanks to the retrospective, a person in therapy and a psychotherapist work together to understand the consequences of decisions made in the past only as a means of moving towards a goal – to make a more vivid picture of themselves. In existential therapy, the emphasis is not on dwelling on the past, but on using the past as a tool to promote freedom and new hope for a better future. Having come to the realization that they are neither unique nor intended for a specific purpose, a person in therapy is able to release binding chains that could prevent them from fully existing. When this happens, they then achieve the ability to become truly free. Given the above, it can be stated that this is a common feature for both approaches considered. Since according to the approach of C. Rogers, the past is a significant incentive for human development in the future. The only problem is to identify gaps in past behavior and identify areas for improvement.

To sum up, it can be said that both of the considered approaches belong to the so-called humanistic, which are fundamentally different from the other existing therapeutic approaches in psychotherapy. A common feature of both approaches is that in the first place they put a person as a person and his self-improvement. Both approaches involve the active participation of the patient (in the client-centered approach he is called “client”) and less participation by the therapist. A distinctive feature of these approaches is that in the client-centered approach, the patient must understand by himself what his problem is and come to its solution. But the existential approach focuses at the uniqueness of the patient’s anxieties, which are the roots of all problems. In any case, both approaches are focused on the personality and its development, as well as the formation of perspectives for a further free life without burdening the past negative experience and the consequences of certain decisions. To the common features, it is also worth mentioning that in both approaches the role of the therapist comes down to listening to the patient and directing his thoughts in the right direction, but in no way imposing his opinion. That is why therapy occurs in the form of a friendly, open conversation. In general, both approaches are extremely popular and are actively used by modern practicing psychotherapists.

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