Existential Phenomenological Psychology. Try that ten times fast.
I encountered that combination of words for the first time as I was looking for grad programs on my journey to becoming a therapist. To be honest I did not have a good understanding on what that meant at the beginning, only that reading the program description felt right. Seven months in and what I’ve come to realize is that my gut recognized something I hadn’t been able to know consciously before I accepted the offer to be a therapist-in-training in this program: the world is mysterious and unknowable and it is a beautiful gift to be able to meet people in their most vulnerable moments to accompany them through their suffering and meaning making.
Let’s start with the often undiscussed foundation that individual therapy is a relationship. Two people show up in a room to have a conversation. Throw the blank canvas description out the window, fellow therapists/therapists-in-training. You are a sedimented being with collections of stories, meanings, patterns and relationships. Your patient is the same. It is always a disservice to not acknowledge who each of you are, the way you come together, and the context of this relationship. Maybe it’s just me, but that feels radical from what I was taught about therapy in popular culture and is beautiful and so damn important.
'It is a beautiful gift to be able to meet people in their most vulnerable moments to accompany them through their suffering and meaning making.'
Now I am no philosophy buff. I struggled with the best of them during my undergraduate courses. Yet I was always drawn to the idea that there are and were people who dedicate their lives to being curious about the world we live in. My conceptualization of therapy never included that - at least not so obviously - before starting this program. I did not think as a future therapist that I could bring my own curiosities into our conversations and I have been thrilled to find an approach that allows me to be curious alongside my patients.
Existential therapy asks you and your patient to wonder about what it means to be alive at this exact moment in history: what it means to be your gender and your race, what it means to have grown up in this culture, and what it means to have the language available that you do to describe your suffering. It allows for exploring the patient’s lived experience with non-judgmental curiousness - which once (or if) you experience this approach to therapy, I think most people will come to value profoundly.
Phenomenology allows us as therapists to seek to understand phenomena in its immediacy without explanation, prediction, or attempting to control. I found this to be valuable in realizing a patient’s perceptions may change on their own when given the validation and the curiosity to look into the function of a behavior instead of trying to reason with the ‘unreasonable’ (read: absence of reason). A patient may enter a therapeutic relationship worried of voices and instead of trying to obliterate the voices by reasoning that they don’t really exist, phenomenology asks the therapist to explore what it is like for the patient to live with these voices. Phenomenology may even point the therapist and patient to talk to the voices, ask what they want, and so forth.
'Phenomenology is the lived experience of our patients which I have come to value as something so incredibly validating. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, there just is.'
Phenomenology is the lived experience of our patients which I have come to value as something so incredibly validating. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, there just is. It de-pathologizes behaviour in a way I was not aware was possible and yet it feels so in line with how I imagine practicing.
It is a difficult, vulnerable and radical thing to move beyond this culture of certainty and diagnoses. I cannot imagine being a therapist without the grounding I have now of existential phenomenology. A therapeutic relationship is the space where healing can happen. This program has taught me that I can have expertise in the theory and that the patient is the expert on themselves. I will never enter the therapeutic relationship believing I hold answers for the patient that they cannot access. I am happy to accompany the patients I see on a journey of wonder, suffering, and uncertainty that this orientation towards therapeutic work has introduced me to. The three big words at the beginning of the article have given me the ability to be a healer in the most authentic, powerful and humbling way I have ever encountered.
Sydney is a trainee therapist at Seattle University in the Existential-Phenomenological Psychology program. She is also an agency affiliated counselor who works with the youngest survivors of abuse and neglect. Outside of school and work, she is an avid reader, writer, photographer and coffee drinker.