Person-Centered Therapy: Integration of Existentialism and the Importance of Empathy

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Introduction

Person-centered therapy belongs to the humanistic school of counseling as devised by an American psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1950s. The idea behind the development of the theory was the focus on the clients’ experiences of themselves instead of focusing on counselors’ expert knowledge of what is wrong with their clients and what they should do to get better (Cummings and Sanders, 2019). Within the focus of person-centered therapy, there is the reliance on the client’s natural self-healing process. When there is a right relationship with a therapist, a client has the opportunity to decide what they want to do further in their life. Following this logic, person-centered therapy represents a personal growth model of non-directed therapy, in which the client is not being taught the therapy model nor asked to undertake homework.

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The quality of relationships between the counselor and the client is essential to therapy’s success, often referred to as a “way of being,” with the counselor exercising the core conditions forming the basis for the relationship (Ramsay, 2019). The first out of the three core conditions is empathy, which entails the counselor trying to understand a client’s viewpoint (Gillon, 2005). The second condition is congruence, which encourages a therapist to be a genuine person (Kirkbride, 2017).

The final condition is unconditional positive regard, which entails the counselor not judging the client and making the interactions as bias-free as possible. Thus, the three core conditions help a therapist develop an approach to counseling in which the individual’s experiences are being explored from their personal standpoint and the way in which individuals consciously perceive themselves.

When applying the core values of the person-centered approach, counselors aim to help their clients develop a self-actualizing ability, which is the belief that all people will grow to reach their full potential. The approach is intended to facilitate the personal growth and relationships of clients by allowing them to explore and use their strengths to their full potential. Within this process, the counselor will provide the needed level of support to help them reach success throughout their journeys.

By means of proving a safe and comforting environment, a counselor can help a client understand their past experiences and reveal how they may have influenced the way they feel about themselves and their capacity to take steps in the direction of improvement. The approach can also be instrumental in helping clients to develop a better agreement between the actual and the idealized self, reach better awareness and self-understanding, release the negative feelings of guilt and insecurity, recognize the need for trust in oneself, develop healthier relationships with people, as well as recognize improvement in self-expression.

In general, person-centered therapy has been praised for being effective across a range of ages and issues that individuals have experienced. The type of therapy has appealed to many people because it allows clients to take control over the pace and context of sessions while there is also little pressure of being assessed or evaluated. Through the non-direct style of person-centered counseling, it is thought to be more effective for individuals who have a strong desire to explore their feelings and themselves, as well as those who want to overcome particular challenges such as anxiety or depression, stress, grief, and other mental health concerns.

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Such challenges have a significant influence on self-esteem, self-awareness, as well as self-reliance, which makes person-centered therapy helpful for people to reconnect with themselves and their worth through the limitations that have been getting them down.

In some of the psychotherapeutic approaches that have existed, the therapist and their observations have been considered ‘expert.’ However, the person-centered approach moves beyond this idea and instead trusts that people have an inner desire to find fulfillment in their potential, which is referred to as self-actualization. By facilitating the approach, it is possible to help a client recognize and understand their capacity for self-healing and personal growth. Another critical factor in the approach is the self-concept notion, which is defined as a systemic and consistent set of perceptions and views a person may have about themselves (Stangor, 2014).

They develop a critical component of total experience and facilitate perception of the world. Within the person-centered approach to counseling, it is recognized that individuals’ self-concept becomes displaced in the effort to be accepted by people around them.

When focusing on a specific core condition of the person-centered approach, empathy plays a huge role. Through therapy sessions, a counselor may demonstrate what Carl Rogers referred to as accurate empathetic understanding, which implies showing sensitivity to a client’s feelings employing active listening, and directing attention to what a client is saying (Tudor, 2011). A therapist will use the standard behaviors that are inherent to all good listeners, make frequent eye contact with their clients, nodding in agreement and understanding, thus showing that they are listening actively. A unique way in which client-centered therapists show empathy concerning a client is through reflection, which is carried out through summarizing or paraphrasing what a client has said (Seehausen et al., 2012).

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Such a method of showing empathy allows a counselor to verify the accuracy of their perceptions while also showing clients that they pay careful attention to what is being said. It is important that clients hear their own feelings and thoughts from another person because of the possibility to reach new levels of insight and self-awareness. In general, individuals undergoing therapy generally respond to reflection through further elaborating on the thoughts that have been expressed. Therefore, empathy plays a significant part in the context of patient-centered treatment. By helping clients feel better about themselves, counselors can give them self-confidence and energy to deal with their issues actively.

Understanding Existential Therapy

The existential approach to therapy is based on the principles of existentialism, pioneered by such philosophers as Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. The main question that existential therapy aims to answer is “how do I exist?” when faced with the challenges of extreme uncertainty, conflict, or death (Nigesh and Saranya, 2017). A person can reach a high level of authenticity by means of exercising courage, thus being able to discover their meaning at present and in the future. Therefore, existentialism considers critical choices that individuals have to be made, such as having true freedom and taking responsibility for one’s life, facing uncertainty, and giving up a false sense of security.

A vital characteristic of the existential view is that a person is “being in the world,” with their own biological, social, or psychological needs (Mittal, 2017). Being in the world highly involves the physical world, the relationship between one individual and their friends and relatives, and one’s connection to self (Umberson and Montez, 2010). The authentic individual within the existential view highly values imagination, symbolization, and judgment, making them able to use them as tools for creating personal meaning and awareness of the world (van Deurzen & Adams, 2016).

Therefore, therapeutic interventions that adhere to the existentialist view of the world focus on the specific concerns individuals may have during their existence (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999). As identified by Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist, the main concerns that individuals usually want to address during therapy c (Berry-Smith, 2012). Furthermore, the scholar is of a profound belief that all psychopathologies develop as a result of the awareness of the concerns mentioned above (Yalom, 1980). Therefore, it is vital that human development is tasked with confronting and coming to terms with the realities presented by each of the concerns.

Existential therapy focuses on the presentation of anxiety that takes place when an individual confronts the conflict inherent in life. The role of the therapist is to help a client focus on their responsibility for making decisions, and the therapist can integrate some of the humanistic techniques and approaches (Hoffman, 2017). For instance, Yalom (2017) states that a therapist takes the role of a client’s “fellow traveler” through life, thus using support and empathy to elicit the desired choices and insight. According to the psychotherapist, since people exist in others’ presence, existential therapy can be carried out in a group context as a practical approach toward solving the challenges of inherent conflict.

Empathy Within the Context of Existentialism

As the principle of empathy is a core component of person-centered therapy, which is humanistic in its nature, it is essential to discuss the points of divergence and convergence between existential and humanistic approaches to psychology. The humanistic and existential approaches have often been merged into one, mainly because they both underline the importance of the meaning-making capacities of individuals in an inherently meaningless world (Winston, 2015).

The first point of convergence between the two approaches is their phenomenological orientation due to the emphasis of both on the value of lived experiences, subjectivity, and freedom (Hoffman, 2006). The second point of similarity between humanistic and existential therapy entails the quest for authenticity, which is considered an indicator of psychological health (Winston, 2015). Thus, in order for an individual to be at peace with themselves, they should find their self and live life according to who they are.

The first point of divergence between the approaches is concerned with the subject of inquiry as existential psychology focuses on human existence while humanistic emphasizes the human self. Thus, the therapeutic goals are inherently different, with existentialism aiming to reach acceptance of the human condition while humanism seeks to accept the human self (Heidenreich et al., 2021). In terms of temporal orientation, the approaches are different in how the present attains its meaning, with existential psychology implying that the future gives the present meaning and humanistic psychology suggesting that the “here and now” is at the center of giving the present meaning (Winston, 2015). Considering the points of divergence as well as the points of convergence of the two approaches offers a framework for understanding how empathy, which is at the core of the person-centered theory, is applied within the existential perspective.

Empathy is a term that has been widely applied for denoting the experiences of people of connecting and feeling with another human being. Both phenomenologists and psychologists have used the term for explaining the biological capacity of understanding others (Izard, 2009). However, within the existentialist perspective, it is not always possible to exhibit empathy, especially if it is used to mean that an individual knows the feelings of another person (Ioannidis, 2019). As suggested by Ioannidis (2019), it is an equivocation in the term’s use, which conditions the appropriation of others as one may think that they know how another feeling (Meneses, 2011). Besides, claiming that one knows and understands the feelings of another person or any of their intentional experience means appropriating the experiences through one’s own.

In existentialism, in which Husserl had played a significant part, intersubjective experiences play a crucial role in individual’s constitution of both themselves as objectively existing subjects, other experiencing subjects, and the objective spatio-temporal world. Intersubjective experiences are usually empathetic; they take place in the course of the conscious attribution into the intentional acts to other subjects, during which people can put themselves into the shoes of others (Meneses, 2011).

For studying such an experience from the phenomenological attitude, one is expected to bracket their beliefs in the existence of the respective target of the act and ask themselves which of the further beliefs justifies the existence-belief as well as their act-ascription (Deketelaere, 2018). In Husserl’s view, an important additional step concerned with answering how empathy is embedded into the intersubjective experiences is the motivation behind it (Svenaeus, 2018). In Husserl’s most well-known work regarding the empathetic theory of intersubjectivity, Cartesian Meditations, empathy is narrowly referred to as a “transcendental theory of experiencing someone else” (Husserl, 1960, p. 92).

In the theory, social cognition has a narrow scope, whereas social engagements with empathy extend to all lived bodies. In the existential view, empathy represents a mechanism by which intersubjectivity develops; it represents a bridge between subjectivity and the community of subjects (Fuchs, 2017). As Husserl notes, some objects in the world are seen as subjects or selves characterized by internationality (Beyer, 2020). Thus, the perception of humans is different from the perception of others who are non-minded.

Applying empathy within the existentialist perspective is challenging because of the need to detach oneself from personal experiences, which form the core of existential therapy (Krug, 2009). De-centering one’s values and perspectives goes against existentialist principles as those serving their clients are required not to let their feelings and perspectives interfere with the process of therapy. When considering Yalom’s view on existentialism, there is a reality in which humans cannot fully overcome their isolation, which is a part of being human (Ackerman, 2017). The inability to overcome this limitation can lead to dependent and neurotic patterns of relationships. Those participating in the therapeutic process must acknowledge this limitation in order for them to be able to relate to one another on a deeper level.

Thus, combining existential therapy with empathy will require the separation of a therapist from lived experiences that have affected their formation as individuals in order to exercise the desired degree of professionalism (Kass, 2012). Through the existentialist therapy lens, which implies addressing client challenges associated with depression, stress, grief, and other mental health concerns, not experiencing empathy accurately can hinder the process (Rey, 2011). Specifically, too little empathy can harm the therapy process and can be ruptures in the therapeutic alliance, while too much empathy can also be related with the negative reactions of a client.

Because existential therapy is often perceived as pessimistic or dark because of its need to embrace the hurtful and painful elements of life, it can cause significant issues to a therapist in terms of empathy (Holland, 2020). Besides, even though most psychotherapeutic interventions are focused on one-on-one interactions, the study by Kuhnel et al. (2020) revealed that group therapy might be more effective for individuals practicing existential therapy, which presents additional challenges in terms of empathy. In their research, Feizi et al. (2019) also supported the claim that existential therapy is highly beneficial in group form as they revealed that educated women homemakers reported ‘self-flourishing’ and an improved attitude to life. Importantly, existential group therapy facilitates high levels of empathy among participants because they tend to have similar experiences for which they are undergoing therapy (Malhotra and Baker, 2020).

Conclusion

To conclude, for an individual to put themselves into the shoes of someone else and stimulate their perspective upon the world that surrounds them, one cannot but assume that such a world coincides with their own. Understanding empathy as a fundamental component of humanistic therapy enables a more controlled and reciprocal therapeutic process that builds upon the client’s experiences. Depending on the goals and the perspectives of therapy, the person-centered approach can widely integrate existential counseling as a means to facilitate ongoing reflection on the anxieties that takes place when an individual confronts their life conflict.

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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Person-Centered Therapy: Integration of Existentialism and the Importance of Empathy." July 17, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/person-centered-therapy-integration-of-existentialism-and-the-importance-of-empathy/.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Person-Centered Therapy: Integration of Existentialism and the Importance of Empathy." July 17, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/person-centered-therapy-integration-of-existentialism-and-the-importance-of-empathy/.


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PsychologyWriting. "Person-Centered Therapy: Integration of Existentialism and the Importance of Empathy." July 17, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/person-centered-therapy-integration-of-existentialism-and-the-importance-of-empathy/.