existential therapy probing the nature of being human
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Existential Therapy Probing the nature of being human. as illustrated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rollo May. Born April 21, 1909, in Ada, Ohio. (died in 1994) Childhood was not particularly pleasant His parents didn’t get along and eventually divorced His sister had a psychotic breakdown

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existential therapy probing the nature of being human

Existential TherapyProbing the nature of being human

as illustrated by

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

rollo may
Rollo May
  • Born April 21, 1909, in Ada, Ohio. (died in 1994)
  • Childhood was not particularly pleasant
    • His parents didn’t get along and eventually divorced
    • His sister had a psychotic breakdown
  • Went to Michigan State (asked to leave because of involvement with a radical student magazine). Received B.A. from Oberlin College in Ohio.
  • After graduation, went to Greece
    • Taught English at Anatolia College for three years
    • Worked as an itinerant artist
    • Studied briefly with Alfred Adler
  • Returned to U.S. and entered Seminary (received B.D. in 1938)
  • Suffered from tuberculosis (spent three years in a sanatorium).  Facing the possibility of death was probably the turning point of his life
  • Studied psychoanalysis at White Institute. Met Harry Stack Sullivan, Erich Fromm.
  • Went to Columbia University in New York, where in 1949 he received the first PhD in clinical psychology that institution ever awarded.
  • Taught at a variety of top schools.  In 1958, he edited the book Existence, which introduced existential psychology to the U.S. 
existential theory
Existential Theory
  • Based in philosophy (inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers, & Buber)

“How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn't it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?” (Kierkegaard's literary character Young Man in Repetition, 1843)

  • Helps people examine issues of personal meaning

"Now it is no longer a matter of deciding what to do, but of deciding how to decide."(May, Love and Will, 1969).

  • Less about theory and more about offering perspective on the human condition
basic assumptions of existential therapy
Basic Assumptions of Existential Therapy
  • The Primacy of Experience: Every individual is unique
    • Isolation: We are born alone and die alone.
    • Personal Meaning: What is the purpose for living?
      • How we live our life (being-in-the-world)
      • Do we visit all the rooms in our house?
  • Self Awareness: Live in the here and now
basic assumptions free choice
Basic Assumptions (free choice)
  • Free Choice: People can choose what they become
    • Freedom: People have fear of freedom because with freedom comes choice and the possibility of choosing poorly (responsibility)
    • Buffy says:

“The other night, getting captured and all, facing off with Faith . . . things just got kind of clear. I mean you’ve been fighting evil here for about three years, and I’ve been helping out some, and now we’re supposed to be deciding what we want to do with our lives, and I realized that’s what I want to do. Fight evil. Help people. I think it’s worth doing, and I don’t think you do it because you have to. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.” (Willow, in “Choices” 3-19)

basic assumptions responsibility
Basic Assumptions (responsibility)
  • Responsibility: We are responsible for our own lives
    • Genes and environment are important. They are just not deterministic
    • Many individuals, at some point, struggle with accepting this responsibility and, therefore, deny or limit their own freedom
    • Sartre: “Statements of bad faith”; inauthentic to assume that our existence is controlled by forces external to ourselves
      • Displace responsibility onto others (“My boss made me work late”)
      • Think of self as helpless victim of circumstances (racism)
      • Attribute behavior to unconscious drives (“I’d never do something like that”)
      • Absolve themselves of responsibility by a sort of temporary insanity (“It was the beer talking”)
      • Buffy says: “Something made us different. We’re warriors. We’re built to kill” (Faith in “Consequences” 3-15)
  • Viktor Frankl (1978): The Statue of Liberty on the East coast should be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West coast.
existential principles rollo may
Existential Principles (Rollo May)
  • Wish: To be in touch with what one really wants
    • Indecisiveness
    • Impulsivity?
  • Will:  To organize oneself in order to achieve one’s goals (roughly “ego”) or “the ability to make wishes come true.” 
    • Neo-puritan: All will, but no love.  Amazing self-discipline, can “make things happen”... but no wishes to act upon.  So they become “anal” and perfectionistic, but empty and “dried-up.”  (archetype?)
    • Infantile: All wishes but no will.  Filled with dreams and desires, lack self-discipline to make anything of their dreams and desires, and so become dependent and conformist.  They love, but their love means little.  (archetype?)
    • Creative: A balance of these two: “Man’s task is to unite love and will.” 
the impact of anxiety and fear
The impact of anxiety and fear
  • How are our lives safer because of fear?
    • Fear and anxiety are signals of problems
    • They help us recognize the problem
    • They motivate us to cope with the problem
    • Normal anxiety is good
  • How are our lives poorer because of fear?
    • Avoid responsibility for our acts
    • Avoid recognizing we have choices
    • Avoid anxiety and play it safe
    • Avoid real intimacy
    • Stay busy so we don’t become aware of our fundamental aloneness
    • Stay busy so we don’t become aware of the finiteness of life
anxiety and fear continued
Anxiety and fear (continued)
  • Neurotic anxiety is not good.

Choices are opportunities, not problems

  • Sometimes “life happens” Deaths, accidents and traumas can:
    • Force us to become aware of a problem
    • Force us to reconsider how we live life
    • Cause us to accept responsibility for the direction of our life
  • Existential anxiety
    • Makes us aware of the “big issues.”
    • Helps us steer an effective path through life
    • Helps us become aware of separations from:
      • Self
      • Others
      • World
    • Cannot be lived with constantly, but should be revisited time to time
the gift of death
The gift of death
  • Death: It kills us but without it we would not know we were alive

“As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity . . . of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.”

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

buffy on death
Buffy on death:


  • BUFFY (opening scene of “Intervention”, 5-18):

“I mean, I can beat up the demons, until the cows come home. And then, I can beat up the cows. But I'm not sure I like what it's doing to me. Maybe being the perfect Slayer means being too hard to love at all. I already feel like I can hardly say the words.”


  • FIRST SLAYER: Death is your gift.
  • BUFFY: Death . . .
  • FIRST SLAYER: Is your gift.
  • BUFFY: Okay, no. Death is not a gift. My mother just died. I know this. If I have to kill demons because it makes the world a better place, then I kill demons, but it's not a gift to anybody (“Intervention”).
  • FIRST SLAYER: Your question has been answered [disappears]
may s stages of development age salient not age dependent
May’s stages of development(age-salient, not age-dependent)
  • Innocence -- the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant. The innocent is pre-moral (i.e., is neither bad nor good).  Like a wild animal that kills to eat, the innocent is only doing what he or she must.  But innocents do have a degree of will in the form of a drive to fulfill their needs!
  • Rebellion -- the childhood and adolescent stage of ego development or self-consciousness. It is characterized primarily through contrast with adults, from the “no” of the two year old to the “no way” of the teenager.  The rebellious person wants freedom, but does not yet understand the responsibility that goes with it.  The teenager may want to spend her allowance in any way she chooses -- yet still expect the parents to provide the money, and complain about unfairness if she doesn't get it!
  • Ordinary -- the normal adult ego: conventional and a little boring.  This person has learned responsibility, but finds it too demanding, and so seeks refuge in conformity and traditional values.
  • Creative -- the authentic adult, the existential stage, beyond ego and self-actualizing.  This is the person who, accepting destiny, faces anxiety with courage!
a life long process
A life-long process…
  • Life circumstances or developmental changes can bring up existential crises, even if they were successful resolved earlier
  • Buffy says (after the resurrection): watch video clip

Buffy: Every single nightThe same arrangementI go out and fight the fightStill I always feelThis strange estrangementNothing here is realNothing here is rightI’ve been making shows of trading blowsJust hoping no one knowsThat I’ve been Going through the motionsWalking through the partNothing seems to penetrate my heartI was always brave And kind of righteousNow I find I’m waveringCrawl out of you grave You find this fight just Doesn’t mean a thingVampire: She ain’t got that swing

Buffy: Thanks for noticingDemon and vamps:

She does pretty well with fiends from hellBut lately we can tellThat she’s just Going through the motionsFaking it somehowDemon: She’s not even half the girl she-ow…Buffy:Will I stay this way foreverSleepwalk through my life’s endeavorHandsome young victim man: How can I repay-Buffy:-WhateverI don’t want to beGoing through the motionsLosing all me drive I can’t even see if this is really meAnd I just want to be


therapeutic goals
Therapeutic Goals
  • Find meaning in life -- even from the terrible
  • Change meanings to those that are more healthy and adaptive
  • To “live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)
  • How can this be accomplished?
    • Listen and understand client’s worldview.
    • Communicate your understanding to client.
    • Only when client recognizes that therapist understands, can therapy focus on shifting meanings.
the therapeutic process
The Therapeutic Process
  • Being in the moment: Focusing on the here and now.
  • Focus on owning feelings, desires, and actions
    • Can’t vs. Won’t
    • Whose unconscious is it?
  • Making connections to the past: Clients are encouraged to emotionally relive past life events.
  • Integrating the felt experience (including in therapy) into primary relationships
  • Integrating what was learned: Being a new person in the present moment.
    • Deal and confront inability to feel and/or want
    • Identify and deal with conflicting wants
    • Help client process the “what ifs”
specialized techniques lukas 1984
Specialized techniques (Lukas, 1984)
  • Reframing -- searches for the positive in the situation.  Must wait until client feels heard
  • Paradoxical intention -- encourages client to do what client is afraid might happen.  Returns control to the client.
    • Buffy says:

You're addicted to the misery. It's why you won't tell your pals about us. Might actually have to be happy if you did. They'd either understand and help you, God forbid ... or drive you out ... where you can finally be at peace, in the dark. With me. Either way, you'd be better off for it, but you're too twisted for that. (pauses) Let yourself live, already. And stop with the bloody hero trip for a sec. We'd all be the better for it. (Spike, “Normal Again, 6-17)

  • Dereflection -- redirects focus from the maladaptive to the healthy
    • You’ve been spending a lot of time worrying about your daughter -- and driving you both crazy!  Perhaps this would be a good week to find something else to do.  You’ve talked about wanting to…
advantages of existential therapy
Advantages of Existential Therapy
  • Contemporary developments have made it more flexible and easier to use
  • It has been adapted to briefer systems of intervention
  • It provides a theoretical framework from which to be eclectic
  • It is conducive to collaboration with the client to find a unique way of working together
  • It is emotionally powerful and fulfilling for client
    • Buffy says:

Things have really sucked lately, but that’s all going to change, and I want to be there when it does. I want to see you grow up, the woman you’re going to become. Because she is going to be beautiful and she is going to be powerful. I got it so wrong. I don’t want to protect you from the world. I want to show it to you (“Grave,” 6-22).

disadvantages of existential therapy
Disadvantages of Existential Therapy
  • It is dense, complex and difficult to master.
  • There is very little guidance for the practitioner.
  • You can be an existentialist but you cannot do it. It is not about technique but your own personal stance.
is our society in an existential crisis
Is our society in an existential crisis?

By Paul Majendie, Thu Jan 25, 10:37 AM ET LONDON (Reuters) –

Beware the Affluenza Virus. An epidemic of mindless consumerism is sweeping the world with the compulsive pursuit of money and possessions making people richer but sadder. That is the stark warning issued by best-selling British psychologist Oliver James after a "mind tour" of seven countries chronicling how depression envelopes the affluent.

"We have become addicted to having rather than being and confusing our needs with our wants," he told Reuters in an interview to mark publication on Thursday of "Affluenza.“ Globe-trotting from New York to Sydney, Singapore and Shanghai via Copenhagen, Moscow and Auckland, he concluded after interviewing 240 people that "selfish capitalism" has run riot.

Bigger houses, more cars, larger televisions, younger faces -- these goals are frenetically pursued by middle-class workaholics afflicted by "Affluenza.""Studies in lots of different nations show that if you place high value on those things, you are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, addictions and personality disorders," he said.

u s unenjoyment rate
U.S. Unenjoyment rate

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