Existential Theory

The Fundamentals of Existential Theory

Existential theory is of the premise that individuals do not exist separately in the world; rather, the world exists only because there are people to experience it.

The Advocates of this theory propose that behavior is not merely the result of external forces acting on the individual but is a complicated response to the individual’s interpretation of external events.

Individual existence is not predetermined, nor is it instinctual or biologic; instead, it depends entirely on the daily choices the person makes. Self determination lies within the grasp of everyone. Marram (1978) outlined the following existential beliefs:

  • Every individual has the freedom to reach maximum potential.
  • Recognition of immediate reality increases and enhances the potential for change.
  • For an individual to resolve problem it is necessary only to know what they are and not why they exist.

The fundamental problem facing individuals is to determine whether their existence is authentic (based on truth) or inauthentic (based on deception). According to existential theory, few people reach their full potential, but anyone who chooses to try can achieve a more authentic existence.

The search for an authentic existence requires courage, and few people are courageous all the time. Most individuals vacillate between progressing and regressing. For an existentialist, however, regression may not always be detrimental; in fact, it may become a new beginning. For example, an alcoholic who loses his job, his family, and his self-respect may be inspired by desperation to begin all over again.

Children in particular have great potential unless they are damaged by adverse conditions early in life. Whenever a child is greatly burdened with guilt or anxiety, he or she is likely to become an adult who avoids responsibility and whose life lacks truth or authenticity. But even persons damaged in childhood can be aided by receiving love and acceptance from other people—provided that they accept responsibility and self-determination.

A basic premise of existentialism is that human beings and their lives are more important than any theory or therapy. The question of who or what one is can only be settled by one’s own choices and actions. Nothing and no one is predetermined by social or biological forces, since each of us shapes our own behavior. Although existentialist are humanists, they do not accept the idea of universal human nature, since they believe that everyone forms his or her own nature and his own being.

Existentialists differentiate responsibility from obligation. People are responsible for their actions, but there is no obligation to make choices merely to please others or to live on terms that others dictate. When choices are motivated by obligation, the result is self-deception and self-violation.

Existentialism is a humanistic philosophy that respects people’s potential to solve their problems in a manner that enhances their own lives and contributes to society. In reinforcing responsibility and self-determination, humanists oppose rigid beliefs about psychic determinism, asserting that most people have the capacity to grow, to progress, and to break away from the chains of the past, if they so choose.

Existential theory has had an impact on a number of therapeutic modalities, including rational emotive therapy (Ellis and Harper 1961), logo therapy (Frankl 1959), and reality therapy (Glasser 1965). These treatment approaches differ in detail, but all emphasize personal responsibility and self determination.