“But some people, not many but some, really do live inside
their feelings,” he says. “If they want to explore the roots of their
anxieties, I’ll shift focus. You have to work with the framework
that the client brings.”
Wolfe gives an example of a young, recently married woman
who came to him seeking help for her driving phobia. As therapy
progressed, he says, they discovered what was behind that phobia.
It turned out that her marriage was built on convenience
and she regretted the fact that she’d never evolved into an
independent person before she settled down.
“Her fear was that if she drove too far, she’d never come back
home, she’d never come back to her marriage,” Wolfe says.
So she felt trapped between her desire for independence and
the time and energy she’d invested in her relationship. In other
words, an existential crisis. They could have stopped therapy
after providing her with the tools to get past her phobia, but she
ultimately learned much more about herself, her emotions and
needs by going deeper, he says.
Criticism and proof
Existential-humanistic psychologists consider their looseness
and openness a strength, but their approach has also isolated
the field somewhat from other forms of psychology that rely
more on empirical evidence and quantifiable results.
Schneider says that, in the case of existential-humanistic
psychology, a qualitative approach instead is often the most
useful. “Existential psychology teases out deep, subjective shifts,”
he says, which are difficult to capture using quantitative methods.
But that doesn’t mean that these issues can’t be investigated
and discussed from a more empirical point of view,
Sundararajan says. Because it hasn’t yet been done doesn’t
mean that it shouldn’t be. “It’s entirely possible to do both
quantitative and qualitative [research],” she says. “And I think
that you should do both.”
Some researchers are, in fact, trying to quantify whether
existential-humanistic approaches to therapy work, Hayes says.
For example, an article published in December in Archives of
General Psychiatry (Vol. 67, No. 12) found that mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy was as successful as
antidepressants in preventing relapse in symptoms of major
depressive disorder. But large-scale empirical testing of existential
methods and the existential framework remains to be done.
That shouldn’t stop clients and other psychologists from
turning to the existential-humanistic framework to expand the
range of their therapies and emphasize the importance of the big
picture, though, Schneider says. That’s a worthwhile and doable
goal for anyone looking for more meaning in his or her life.
“If it’s ignored, the whole question of what is meaningful
in a person’s life — and not just what is meaningful from
an intellectual standpoint or from a culturally conditioned
standpoint, but from that person’s deep subjective point of view
— could be overlooked,” he says. n
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