Existential–Humanistic Therapy Over Time
In Existential–Humanistic Therapy Over Time, Dr. Kirk J. Schneider demonstrates this distinctly American expression of existential therapy. Emphasizing freedom, experiential reflection, and responsibility, this approach draws from Schneider's existential–integrative framework. The goal of this therapy is to help clients free themselves from self-imposed limitations. The focus of the approach is here-and-now, which involves frequently asking clients to check in with their emotions and bodily sensations. By not only discussing, but experiencing the problems they face in-session, clients come to a deeper understanding of their authentic life goals, versus those imposed by others or by a rigid sense of self.
In this series of six sessions, Dr. Schneider works with a woman in her late 40s who has come to therapy with many challenges: a history of abuse, depression, alcoholism, and recent losses, including her brother being killed before the third session of therapy. By being truly present with the client, and showing her how to be present with herself, Dr. Schneider helps her to see the bigger picture of her life, and through that awareness address her most pressing concerns, such as fear and guilt, the need to grieve, and the struggle for life-purpose.
Schneider developed the existential–integrative (EI) model of therapy drawing in part on the existential–humanistic approach of Rollo May and James Bugental (Schneider, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2008). 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 Schneider's own theoretical and therapeutic synthesis (Schneider, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2008; see also the reviews of this synthesis in Cooper, 2003; Greenberg, Watson, & Lietaer, 1998; Cummings & Cummings, 2000; Wampold, 2008; and Watson & Bohart, 2001).
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, and so on. Each therapeutic intervention can be helpful in its own right; however, depending on clients' desires and capacities for change, that which 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, Schneider emphasizes the experiential above and beyond other modes within the EI framework. There are two basic reasons for this: his client's readiness for deeper self-contact; and her desire to make life-changes, not merely changes in symptomatic or behavioral patterns. Although the client's progress is delimited, due to the brief nature of this six-session format, her case illustrates that even with severely challenged individuals, existentially oriented therapy can provide a staging ground for significant life-transformation, including one's sense of meaning, purpose, and spiritual direction. (For those desiring to know more about the full EI model, see Schneider & May, 1995, pp. 135–322; Schneider, 2003, 2008.)
Depending on a client's desire and capacity for change, then, the EI therapist makes available an experiential or "being" level of contact. This level stresses four overlapping and intertwining dimensions:
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, 2008).
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/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 (e.g., become whole), and the parts that press to revert (e.g., 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. 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?"; or "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?"; or "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 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, and centering yet open to what evolves. Put another way, experiential liberation fosters awe—the ability to dwell in (appreciate, coexist 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; Schneider, 2008 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.
Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and leading spokesperson for contemporary humanistic psychology. He is current editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vice-president of the Existential-Humanistic Institute, and an adjunct faculty member at Saybrook Graduate School and the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is also a fellow of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Schneider has published over 100 articles and chapters and has authored or edited seven books (one more is in preparation), The Paradoxical Self: Toward an Understanding of Our Contradictory Nature; Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-teachings of the Monster Tale; The Psychology of Existence: An Integrative, Clinical Perspective (with Rollo May; currently being translated into Chinese); The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research and Practice (with J. Bugental and F. Pierson); Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life; Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts to the Core of Practice (Chapter 5 currently being translated into Russian); and Awakening to Awe (in press).
Dr. Schneider is the 2004 recipient of the Rollo May award for "outstanding and independent pursuit of new frontiers in humanistic psychology" from Division 32 (Humanistic Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. Most recently, Dr. Schneider coauthored with Ed Mendelowitz the chapter on Existential Psychotherapy for Corsini and Wedding's Current Psychotherapies (8th ed.).
Major recent interviews on "Rediscovery of Awe" can be heard on San Francisco Bay Area's KQED Radio program Forum with Michael Krasny and San Francisco Pacifica Radio's Spirit in Action program with Reverend Matthew Fox.
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This book discuss the history, theory, and practice of this distinctly American expression of existential therapy.