Existential Therapy

Format: DVD
Running Time: Over 100 minutes
Item #: 4310756
ISBN: 978-1-59147-442-5
List Price: $99.95
Member/Affiliate Price: $69.95
Copyright: 2007
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APA Psychotherapy Training Videos are intended solely for educational purposes for mental health professionals. Viewers are expected to treat confidential material found herein according to strict professional guidelines. Unauthorized viewing is prohibited.

In Existential Therapy, Dr. Kirk J. Schneider demonstrates his existential–integrative model of therapy. Developed by Dr. Schneider with the inspiration of Rollo May and James Bugental, existential–integrative therapy is one way to engage and coordinate a variety of intervention modes—such as the pharmacological, the behavioral, the cognitive, and the analytic—within an overarching existential or experiential context.

In this session, Dr. Schneider emphasizes the experiential level of contact, which gives attention to experiencing what is "alive" both within the client and between the client and the therapist. Dr. Schneider works with a 55-year-old man who is presently disabled. The client is gay, has AIDS, and is having a hard time finding a meaningful life-direction. He feels he is being discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and illness. Dr. Schneider helps him to understand how his reactions can both keep him from transforming and potentially mobilize that very transformation.


Dr. Schneider developed the existential–integrative (EI) model of therapy drawing in part on the inspiration of Rollo May and James Bugental (Schneider & May, 1995; Schneider, 1998, 2003). EI therapy is one way to understand and coordinate a variety of intervention modes—such as the pharmacological, the behavioral, the cognitive, and the analytic—within an overarching ontological or experiential context.

EI was developed in part to augment the restrictive focus on medical, cognitive–behavioral, or ego-based approaches in mainstream therapy training programs. It was also conceived to counterbalance the sometimes monolithic focus of existential–experiential practitioners and their students, and to reflect the manner in which many existential–experiential facilitators actually practice.

Far from being exhaustive or definitive, EI therapy is provisional; it is a preliminary set of guidelines based on Dr. Schneider's own theoretical and therapeutic synthesis (Schneider, 1998, 1999, 2003, in press). (See also the reviews of this synthesis in Greenberg, Watson, & Lietaer, 1998; Cummings & Cummings, 2000; Watson & Bohart, 2002; and Cooper, 2003).

EI therapy is facilitated by sensitive and timely efforts to "meet" clients "where they live." Hence, in the case of a particularly fragile client, a supportive modality may be in order; in the case of a client who is persistently intellectualizing, cognitive or dynamically oriented approaches may be appropriate. Each therapeutic intervention can be helpful in its own right; however, depending on clients' desires and capacities for change, that which Dr. Schneider terms "experiential" contact may be called for. Experiential contact is frequently, although not necessarily, the culminating level within the EI model. The creative challenge, accordingly, is how best to avail clients to that fuller mode; for whom, and at what points, is it optimal?

In this video, Dr. Schneider emphasizes the experiential above and beyond other modes within the EI framework. There are two basic reasons for this: First, fewer therapists are exposed to experiential liberation principles, and therefore could benefit from an in-depth elucidation, and second, experiential liberation is the culminating level of healing for many, if not most, moderate to long-term therapy clients. (For those desiring to know more about the full EI model, see Schneider & May, 1995, pp. 135–322; Schneider, 2003).

Depending on a client's desire and capacity for change, the EI therapist makes available an experiential or "being" level of contact. This level stresses four overlapping and intertwining dimensions:

  • the immediate
  • the kinesthetic
  • the affective
  • the profound or cosmic

These dimensions form the ground or horizon, within which each of the aforementioned intervention modes operate, and they are the context for at least one more clinically significant set of structures. These are, according to phenomenological research, the capacities to constrict, expand, and center one's energies and experiences (Schneider, 1999; Schneider & May, 1995, p. 139). Expansion is the perception of bursting forth and extending psychophysiologically (e.g., cognitively, affectively, and kinesthetically); whereas constriction is the perception of drawing back and confining psychophysiologically. Centering, finally, is the capacity to be aware of and direct one's constrictive or expansive potentialities.

Experiential liberation fosters the capacity to choose (or center oneself) within the constrictive and expansive limits of living. Experiential liberation, in other words, is a "reoccupation" project—mindfully assisting clients to reoccupy (embody, revisit) the denied parts of themselves. The result of this reoccupation, ideally, is that clients are able to maximally access themselves, and to respond to (rather than merely react against) the sides of themselves that are estranged. Rollo May (Schneider & May, 1995, p. 171) called this responsiveness "intentionality," which is one's whole-bodied orientation toward a given direction or value. (This approach it should be noted, is quite distinct from—although can clearly complement—today's prescriptive models of therapy).

Experiential liberation encompasses not only physiology, environmental conditioning, cognition, psychosexuality, and interpersonal relations but also relations to being, the cosmos, or life. Experiential liberation is intersituational in that it pertains not just to this or that content or period of one's life, but to the preverbal and kinesthetic awarenesses that underlie contents and periods of one's life (that is, to a life-attitude). Another way to state this position is that experiential liberation optimizes the freedom to range within, and the freedom to range within, in turn, optimizes a sense of life as an adventure: both humbling and wondrous, limited and yet distinctly malleable.

Experiential liberation proceeds through a series of invitations to clients to attend to (be present with) that which is charged and "alive"—within themselves and between themselves and their therapist. Such invitations help clients to clarify how they construct their worlds, where those worlds are in conflict, and how best to address that conflict. Put another way, experiential liberation emphasizes presence. Presence holds and illuminates that which is palpably (immediately, affectively, kinesthetically, and profoundly) relevant, within the client and between client and therapist.

That which is palpably relevant almost invariably entails a battle. Battles are comprised of two basic aspects: the parts of clients that aspire to emerge (i.e., become whole), and the parts that press to revert (i.e., go back, polarize). By attending to the manner (i.e., process) in which clients approach their battles—and not just the words (i.e., content) they use to describe them—clients are assisted to experience, rather than merely report about their alternating pulls. They are also helped to feel, sense, and image what really matters to them, and how it is that they block off what really matters. Dr. Schneider calls alerting clients to that which is emerging invoking the actual; and he calls alerting (and sometimes alarming) clients about how they block themselves from that which is emerging vivifying and confronting resistance (or protections).

Both by invoking the actual and vivifying and confronting resistance (where appropriate), clients are intensively apprised of their battles. Some examples of invoking the actual are:

  • "Your eyes moisten when you talk about your son."
  • "See if you can stay with that feeling for a moment—what other feelings or sensations arise?"

"I feel a pang when I hear you speak about your marriage."

Some examples of vivifying and confronting resistance are:

  • "A moment ago you were infuriated, and now you are casually joking."
  • "I feel you backing away from me right now—I wonder what that could be about?"
  • "You say you 'can't' live the life you really want, but don't you really mean you 'won't?'"

Following numerous oscillations between the parts of clients that are ready to break through, and the parts that pull them back, clients learn (in an embodied, here–now way) what they are up against in life, and how and whether they are willing to accept those barriers.

To the extent that clients become "fed up" with their compulsive and polarized stances, they begin to align with their emergent stances; their passion to break free. This alignment leads to a fourth phase in the experiential liberation facilitation: "meaning-creation and the cultivation of awe." Meaning creation and the cultivation of awe are the fruit of the whole-bodied, many-faceted immersion in one's therapeutic battle. From this whole-bodied immersion, clients become able not just to discern, but to take action on their hard-won battles. This action may take the form of a renewed career path, or a decision to wed, or a reclamation of one's physical health.

Whatever the byproduct, meaning–creation is almost invariably accompanied by a renewed sense of life—a sense of life that parallels the therapy: both humbling yet emboldening, centering yet open to what evolves. Put another way, experiential liberation fosters awe—the ability to dwell in (appreciate, co-exist with) mystery, and the thrills, anxieties, and fulfillments that attend.

Although the EI approach can be drawn upon in a wide variety client populations (see Schneider & May, 1995, for examples), it is typically optimized in settings and populations that can afford longer term engagements (e.g., from 6 months to 5 years, with the average engagement about 2–3 years). It is also maximized by clients who have (or develop) the ability to introspect, delay impulses, articulate feelings, and tolerate a modicum of ambiguity.

About the Therapist

Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and leading spokesperson for contemporary humanistic psychology. He is an adjunct faculty member at Saybrook Graduate School, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology; a fellow of the American Psychological Association (through Divisions 32 [Humanistic Psychology], 42 [Psychologists in Independent Practice], and 12 [Society of Clinical Psychology]).

Dr. Schneider is presently editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and a member of the editorial boards of the Society for Laingian Studies, Humanistic Psychologist, Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice (2002–2004), Review of Existential Psychiatry and Psychology, Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, and Psychotherapy Patient.

Dr. Schneider is also past president and founding member of the newly formed Existential-Humanistic Institute of San Francisco. This is a training institute in existential–humanistic psychotherapy that holds workshops for Saybrook Graduate School and provides group case consultation.

Dr. Schneider has published over 70 articles and chapters and has authored and edited five books—The Paradoxical Self: Toward an Understanding of Our Contradictory Nature (1990; 1999, paperback edition); Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-teachings of the Monster Tale (1993); The Psychology of Existence: An Integrative, Clinical Perspective (co-authored with Rollo May, 1995; translated into Slovak in 2005, and presently being translated into Russian), The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research, and Practice (2001; 2002, paperback edition), and Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life (2004; public radio interviews on the book are available at KQED Radio and KPFA Radio).

In March 1998, Dr. Schneider wrote the lead article in the American Psychologist entitled, "Toward a Science of the Heart: Romanticism and the Revival of Psychology," and he completed (with Larry Leitner) the chapter on Humanistic psychotherapies for the Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy (2002). Dr. Schneider also wrote the chapter on "Existential–Humanistic Psychotherapies" for the second edition of the widely distributed "Essential Psychotherapies" (2003) edited by Alan Gurman and Stanley Messer.


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Suggested Readings
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.
  • Bugental, J. (1987). The art of the psychotherapist. New York: Norton.
  • Cooper, M. (2003). Existential therapies. London: Sage.
  • Cummings, N., & Cummings, J. (2000). The essence of psychotherapy. New York: Academic Press.
  • Greenberg, L., Watson, J., & Lietaer, G. (Eds.) (1998). Handbook of experiential psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.
  • May, R. (1969). Love and will. New York: Norton.
  • May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York: Norton.
  • Schneider, K., & May, R. (1995). The psychology of existence: An integrative, clinical perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Schneider, K. (1998). Existential processes. In L. Greenberg, J. Watson, & G. Lietaer (Eds.), Handbook of experiential psychotherapy (pp. 103–120). New York: Guilford.
  • Schneider, K. (1999). The paradoxical self: Toward an understanding of our contradictory nature (2nd ed.). Amityville, NY: Humanity Books (an imprint of Prometheus Books).
  • Schneider, K. (2003). Existential–humanistic psychotherapies. In A. Gurman & S. Messer (Eds.), Essential psychotherapies (pp. 149–181). New York: Guilford.
  • Schneider, K. (2004). Rediscovery of awe: Splendor, mystery, and the fluid center of life. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
  • Schneider, K. (in press). The experiential liberation strategy of the existential–integrative model of therapy. (Special Issue on Humanistic Psychotherapies). Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.
  • Watson, J., & Bohart, A. (2001). Humanistic–experiential therapies in the era of managed care. In K. Schneider, J. Bugental, and J. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice (pp. 503–517). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

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