books Existential PsychotherapyAuthor Irvin D. Yalom –

The noted Stanford University psychiatrist distills the essence of a wide range of therapies into a masterful, creative synthesis, opening up a new way of understanding each person's confrontation with four ultimate concerns: isolation, meaninglessness, death, and freedom

10 thoughts on “Existential Psychotherapy

  1. John John says:

    I love this book! I've heard people, again and again, make the assertion that philosophy, and in particular existential philosophy, has no real-life, down-to-earth, practical use. Well, Irvin Yalom's Existential Psychotherapy proves that to be false.

    Yalom draws on the insights of existentialism in order to formulate an approach to psychotherapy that is grounded in the ultimate concerns of life; namely the concerns of death, freedom, existential isolation, and meaninglessness. These concerns, Yalom reports, are part of the ontological foundation of human existence, and it is our struggle with these issues that characterizes many of our neurotic difficulties. We often avoid thinking about these things consciously because they provoke dread in us, but Yalom insists, as do all the great existentialist philosophers, confronting these issues is absolutely crucial in the quest toward authenticity. Ultimately there is nothing that we can do about the fact that we will die, that we are responsible for our own choices, that we are alone among others, and that we must cobble together our own form of meaning in life. These are just facts about the nature of human existence. What we can do, however, is to grab hold of our situation, face it and dive into the flow of life rather than allowing ourselves to become cynical and detached from the world.

    The one aspect of Yalom's book that puzzles me is his treatment of meaninglessness. In the rest of this work, Yalom suggests that facing the reality of the human condition head-on is key to becoming psychologically healthy, mature and authentic. However, when it comes to the issue of meaninglessness, Yalom suggests that the therapist help patients to look away from the question rather than grappling with it directly. (p. 483) His point is that in all of its manifestations, the experience of meaninglessness is rooted in the fact that meaning does not exist ready-made, waiting to be discovered, as a part of the world. Meaning, as existential philosophy tells us, is something that humans confer upon the world. The person who becomes too focused on the question, What is the meaning of life? runs the risk of thinking that there is a potential answer to this question on par with questions such as, What is 1+1? or What is the definition of the word dog? This, of course, would be a delusion, and inevitably leads to despair and disappointment. Better, then, claims Yalom, to avoid this particular question and instead invest energy and effort into actually making life meaningful by becoming engaged in the flow of life.

    I understand Yalom's point, however I do think there is something positive to be gained by directly confronting the issue of the meaninglessness. While there may be practical utility attached to diverting one's attention from the world's lack of intrinsic meaning, there is, I think, a greater degree of existential wisdom to be gained by meditating upon just this situation. I fully disagree with Yalom's characterization of nihilism, in particular, as a kind of existential sickness. Heidegger suggests in his book on Nietzsche that there is nothing necessarily negative about nihilism, and with this I agree. Nihilism is not a sickness, but an ontological condition in which humans desire a meaningless world to exhibit meaning. Understanding this, rather than simply looking away from the situation is, I think, a necessary part of living authentically and fully accepting our own responsibility for pursuing the life projects that we choose. The danger of simply throwing one's self into the flow of life without first questioning why we are doing so is to run the risk of forgetting an important feature of the human condition. Since nihilism is part of the human experience, I think it is something that we can and should learn from. Any time that we are encouraged to think deeply about the fundamental aspects of our being-in-the-world, we alleviate at least some of our self-alienation. The hasty rush to overcome nihilism may harbor its own kinds of destructive consequences.

    Nonetheless, as stated above, I love this book. It is clear, well written and deeply insightful. Especially today, when it is more common for people to seek quick fixes to their psychological troubles through drugs and gimmicks than through deep, philosophical reflection, Yalom's message is very important.

  2. alison e alison e says:

    Before anyone enters therapy I would really recommend reading this book. It will probably save you the 180 bucks a week. It might not solve any of your problems, but at least it will help you realize that no one else can either.

  3. Michael Michael says:

    121217: this book becomes more interesting and convincing as it goes- and this is a long book. for me, the application of existential thought in psychology is most interesting when directed to therapists rather than patients, when clarity, approach, thought, is applied in finding and directing therapy, not to certain pathological cases eg. psychosis but to the point everyday conflicts of searching for meaning, purpose, value in life... such is not an easy process...

    i have read of and by many existential thinkers, particularly the ones referred to here, sartre, heidegger, schopenhauer, kierkegaard, so i am conversant in the portrayal of the universe requiring engaged meaning from humans, as in camus, but it is useful to see these thoughts in another, parallel, emotional, psychological realm. this book is long because there are many vignettes, cases, which are used in support of the thesis that in fact human ultimate concerns, of death, freedom, isolation, meaninglessness, are underlying symptomatic psychological problems...

    there is more direction to therapists, rather than academic argument, or patient experiences, and this reminds me of the Indic philosophy contention that any philosophy without moral, ethical, pragmatic, application is no philosophy... with eagerness this book seeks to correct this deficit for existentialism, however simplified, and does succeed in such project, as it presents comprehension, action, according to this philosophy, as useful and appropriate, and how this is not transcendental meditation, est, primal scream, or other popularized psychology ways...

    the final section, on meaninglessness, is a curious interpretation, more zen than existentialism, but is perhaps offering a place of rest from constantly living 'authentically' or as an individual 'creating meaning', for he does suggest approaching this angst obliquely rather than directly, that is just 'doing' the immediate, accessible, concrete, acts that give you meaning, and when the big question is subsumed in living- the big 'meaning', the moral, ethical, pragmatic, will answer itself... well i like zen as well...

    indeed the reason i give this a five is perhaps more in recognition of existentialism being incorporated, the aspiration rather than success of such, for though i have taken psych at u that was years (decades...) ago, and was more convinced the answer to meaning, purpose, value, was in reading another book... well i continue to read a lot, not with the idea of 'solving' the problem of life, but 'living' the experience of life... this book definitely helps...

  4. Kara Kara says:

    I might actually be in love with Dr. Yalom (or Irv, I call him Irv). His take on existentialism explains...everything. And his style is so clear that this book, which is meant to be an academic text, is comprehensible (and enjoyable) by anyone.

  5. John G. John G. says:

    We used Yalom's textbooks on group counseling when I was in graduate school back in the day and I was so intrigued with his writing ability and his earnest approach, that I decided to read quite a few of his fiction books, but also this text on Existential Psychotherapy, in fact, I'm using his four givens of existence as a framework for a professional presentation. I love reading his books, who would ever think a text could be so gripping and interesting and real? Yalom and Fromm to me, are the best psychotherapists out there, they have both offered so much to humanity at large and to counselors and therapist specifically. What he writes about in this book has provided a conceptual framework for life itself that to me, supersedes even religion and seems more honest. I recognized some depression for what it truly was, existential guilt and angst and proceeded to do something about it. This is a towering contribution to therapy and he writes in a way that makes sense to ordinary, curious individuals.

  6. James James says:

    Irvin Yalom is as brilliant a communicator as he is a psychiatrist. Together with his book on conducting group therapy, this is one of the clearest, best organized, and most comprehensive books I've found yet on any aspect of my profession.

  7. Corin Corin says:

    A monumental book focusing on 4 aspects of life that concerns psychological defense structures: death, freedom, meaninglessness, and isolation. I am about 1/2 way through the first section on death, and it's fascinating how he integrates literature, philosophy, and clinical case studies of people with neurosis or psychosis. Irvin Yalom seems as much a philosopher as he is a psychotherapist, summarizing in non-jargonized language the ideas pertaining to the subjects from people as diverse as Kafka, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Proust, Tolstoy and so on, discussing the experiences of people who have clinical psychopathology but in humanistic terms (similar to Rollo May) and empathizing with the all too insecure nature of human existence. However, the pathological behavior he considers is pretty ordinary in terms of what we all seem to encounter; something that seems evidence of everyday insecurity or overcompensation--the kind we see in others but conveniently forget in ourselves, perhaps--is analyzed in an existential paradigm.

    As with most serious clinical texts this is a pretty formidable book and it seems fairly weighty in both physical and metaphysical matter. I recommend it because it is a practical work that will probably have an influence over the way I would like to live and in my own work with people. But it is not everyone's cup of tea, being both a highly European-centered text (though using a critical tradition of post-Freudian European continental philosophy and literature) and yet also it contains some technical data that is hard to understand for someone without the clinical knowledge. However, the cases he discusses are fascinating because he appears to invite reflections on deep meanings--i.e.. anxiety is not just a disorder, it is a symptom of something: a void, a repressed awareness of mortality; a fear of annihilation; etc.

  8. Golshan Tabatabaie Golshan Tabatabaie says:

    “Mature love is loving, not being loved.”

    I did not receive much explicit definition and description of the true nature of Existential Psychotherapy. It was rather implied through examples, references, stories, dreams, and literature and that is what makes it more comprehensible but the cost to this is the length of the book. As a first reader of such a topic, I can say that this book was an easy read and maybe the best to start with since it covers the generality of the topic. I cannot say for sure if it is appropriate for those who are aware and knowledgable about the subject.
    I'm not gonna say that this book had zero amount of dullness to it. At some point it the content became repetitive but it gained back its freshness. For me, the extreme amount of stories about patients was unnecessary. Also, other than the fact that the dreams told in this book were terrifically complex and seemed unreal, it made me frustrated how every one of them had a metaphorical meaning to it.
    The categorization couldn't have been more clear and on point. And once again I admire Yalom's writing ability and I'm sure I will read more of his works in future.

  9. Barnaby Thieme Barnaby Thieme says:

    In this classic textbook for therapists, Yalom identifies four primary existential problems that have widespread clinical implications, analyzes their etiology, and describes possible avenues for treatment. Yalom identifies four basic problems and explores them based on psychological, philosophical, and literary treatments: death and fear of mortality, freedom and the problem of contingency, isolation, and meaninglessness.

    His basic model is Psychodynamic, which is to say he believes that people may develop classical defense mechanisms to compensate for existential problems. Although his theoretical outlook is essentially Freudian, his general approach and characterization of these issues finds kinship in the non-medical psychology paradigms in wide currency these days, such as positive psychology.

    This book is highly readable and extremely useful for the layperson who is interested in these topics.

  10. Rami Hamze Rami Hamze says:

    Anything that Yalom writes has a touch of genius! excellent reference for readers seeking indepth understanding of existential psychotherapy. No jargons, this works equally well for both experts and novices.