The Existential Approach, Techniques, Theory into Practice, Practical Application

The Existential Approach

People live by the choices they make. Self-determination is freedom of choice. The founders of existential theory (May 1950; Frankl, 1963; May & Yalom, 1995; Yalom, 1980) developed this theory to bring an awareness of being, responsibility, freedom, and potential to individuals. One goal of this theory is to encourage clients to take a more active role in shaping their personal reality and putting themselves first. The client is taught to shift the process of thinking from an outward to an inward approach. This results in a better understanding- ing of the relationship between decisions and present and future actions.

Existentialists emphasize the importance of anxiety, values, freedom, and responsibility as one searches to find meaning. Because people author their lives by the choices they make, no longer can live’s choices depend on the judgment of others. The client uncovers life’s meaning by doing a deed, experiencing a value, or by suffering.


There are no specific techniques for the existential approach other than an assurance of the student’s readiness to work in an open and inquiring manner. The counselor encourages the student to accept the truth and learn how to work through ambiguity. The counselor must remain open and self-revealing to help the student become more in touch with personal feelings and experiences. 

The emphasis in the relationship is on spontaneity, authenticity, and honesty. The use of confrontation, goal setting, and imagery help the student see that everyone is responsible for her or his life and should not allow outside influences to affect choice or behavior. Issues are presented not as problems but rather as learning experiences that can motivate one to strive to succeed.

Existentialism respects diversity and places importance on an individual’s ethnic and social background. Existentialism may be used in conjunction with other theories such as behavior modification and cognitive theory to assist in cases such as alcoholism and severe depression. This style of counseling is so individualized that each counselor practices in a different way and tends to be more philosophical than theoretical. 

Existentialism ascribes to the belief system that connects individuals to the universal problems faced by humankind such as searching for peace and confronting life’s challenges through honest expression. Feelings are not classified as negative or positive; they are simply accepted. Since no two individuals are alike, this theory focuses on uniqueness.

Existentialist philosophies also can be combined with other theoretical models such as person-centered and Adlerian because both of these are sensitive to individual uniqueness and focus on the student’s personal well-being and effective adjustment in society. The ultimate goal is for the student to work and live productively and peacefully in the student’s current environment.

Theory into Practice

The debate continues as to whether existentialism is a philosophy or a counseling approach, not an easy discussion to resolve. However, let’s consider that the existential approach helps students realize the importance of meaning, responsibility, awareness, freedom, and potential. The student can not be merely an observer of life but also must be a participant in meaningful personal activity. What matters most in the existential approach is the student’s perception, not someone else’s.

In a school setting, the counselor must be both open and inquiring; however, the student must offer the same. Students assume responsibility for their own life. Students participate in guided imagery and awareness exercises and goal-setting activities similar to other models.

Practical Application

You have been invited by the team of eighth-grade teachers to collaborate on developing a program that will help the students make a smooth transition from middle school to high school.


Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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