Our days are filled with choices, big and small.
What tie or shirt should I wear today? What should I have for dinner? What should I study? Should I take that job? Should I buy a house – and which one? Is she or he, the one for me?
Our lives are full of big moments and big decisions – when we stand at a crossroads, facing major decisions about our career path, relationships, and life transitions.
At the heart of existential therapy is the belief that we all have the freedom to make the big choices, the ones that affect how we are going in life.
However not everybody recognises or takes advantage of this freedom. This can occur for various reasons – some people find the choice (or the change that it may lead to) too difficult, or they are fearful of the possible consequences, and having to bear the responsibility for those choices.
At the end of the Woody Allen film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, the philosopher says:
“We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of these choices …” (source)
Whether you agree or disagree with the statement, we all have times when we face a crossroads, and the need to make major decisions about our career path, relationships, and life transitions.
These life choices can be made actively or passively (even making no decision is really a decision); regardless, both ways carry the same consequences if those choices lead to living in a way that contradicts the individual’s needs and values. Anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, hopelessness and helplessness are often the result.
Making Major Life Choices
Mary* came to see a psychologist because she couldn’t decide whether she should stay or leave her marriage.
Like many people, she expected the therapist to help her to make the decision. It seemed to her that all she needed was to get a clearer idea of the pros and cons of staying or leaving, and then the answer would be made for her. Mary viewed the decision-making process as a technical exercise, of adding up and comparing objectively, the pros and cons.
However, this way did not help her to resolve her dilemmas and make the choice that was right for her, and in line with her personal values; conversely, she continues to struggle with uncontrollable rumination.
How Existential Therapy Works
From an existential therapy perspective, the aim of the therapy is always ultimately to help a person get a clearer vision of what is going on, even when it is not a pretty picture. This is because our willingness to face our problems is the first step in learning how to own, rather than disown, the consequences of our actions.
Paradoxically, when we become aware of the risks involved in living, we may be able to liberate ourselves of our fears and dare to live with anxiety.
If Mary from the illustration above, was to examine her deepest needs and values through existential therapy, to reach her decision, the pay-off – whether the decision turns out to be “successful” or “unsuccessful” – would be the same. Whatever the consequences, she would gain a greater sense of autonomy and ownership of her life.
Therapy may not be able to remove your life stresses completely; however, with assistance to recognise and implement your freedom to choose, you can resolve inner conflict, alleviate emotional pain, and embrace the path your life takes.
Author: Claire Pang, B Psych (Hons), Masters of Clinical Psychology.
As a Clinical Psychologist, Claire has been trained in psychological assessment and evidence-based therapies for both individual adults and couples. She is result-orientated, practicing a wide range of therapeutic approaches with great success. Claire has a special interest in helping adults and couples coping with change; she gains great fulfillment and inspiration through witnessing human resilience again and again in her clinical work.
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*Not real name
- Van Deurzen , E & Adams, M (2011). Skills in existential counseling & psychotherapy. London: Sage.
- S, Lacovou & Weixel-Dixon, K (2015). Existential therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.