We recently interviewed Professor Emmy van Deurzen for our upcoming Holistic Change Summit, which will take place on 7th-11th September 2020.

Professor van Deurzen is a Counselling Psychologist, Philosopher, and one of the world’s leading Existential Therapists.

In this post, we summarise four of our key takeaways from speaking with Emmy.

#1 – Mental Health Isn’t Just in Your Head

Existential Ideas

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

‘All actual life is encounter.’― Martin Buber

Existential therapy is an approach to psychotherapy that sees human beings in the broadest possible context. Most forms of psychotherapy and psychiatry focus primarily on a person’s mind, and tend to be very individualistic. However, this individualistic approach ignores the fact that our brains can never exist in isolation from the world around us.

Existential therapy, on the other hand, focuses on the human condition as a whole.

It is concerned not only with what is going on inside your mind, but also the key relationships in your life. Your relationship with other people (friends, family, romantic partner), your relationship with the cultural environment you are situated in, your relationship with your past, your relationship to your future, etc.

The existential approach confronts life’s biggest challenges and dilemmas head on. It deals with the core issues of human life that we all must contend with, such as death, freedom, responsibility, isolation, choice, and anxiety. Importantly, it aims to help people live more meaningful and engaging lives, and make the most of their time on the planet.

#2 – Existence is Multi-Layered

Existential Ideas - 4 Worlds

‘Human existence, always, is layered.’ – Emmy van Deurzen

Commonly, we think of ourselves as existing in one world.

However, existentialists view human life as multi-layered; as existing in multiple worlds simultaneously.

Professor van Deurzen’s Four Worlds Model is one example of this.

This model states that we exist in the following four worlds at any point in time:

  • The physical world – your relationship with your body (nutrition, exercise, sleep), the physical environment, your daily living and working conditions, etc.
  • The social world – your relationships with other people. We are a social being, and can only exist in relation to others. The social world takes into account the relationships we have with the key people in our lives; romantic partners, family, friends, work colleagues, etc.
  • The personal world – your relationship with yourself. Do you treat yourself as if you were someone you cared for? Are you kind to yourself?
  • The spiritual/ideological world – your relationship to something bigger than yourself. Do you have a transcendent sense of meaning and purpose? Are you clear on your values? Are you living in alignment with them each day? To be clear – this doesn’t have to be a religion. It simply refers to how connected we are to something beyond our ordinary every day ego.

Problems in life often occur when we get out of balance, and neglect one of these four worlds because we have become increasingly and exclusively absorbed in another.

When you have this framework to view your life through, it gives you a broader view of your existence and enables you to see which of the four worlds you might be struggling in, and therefore, the areas you need to give more attention to.

When Emmy is working with a client for the first time, she tries to get a sense of where the individual is in each of these four worlds because it gives her a good starting point for how to effectively structure the therapeutic process.

#3 – Happiness isn’t the goal

Existential Ideas - Happiness

Photo by Stan B on Unsplash

‘And this too, shall pass.’ – Abraham Lincoln

Our culture is obsessed with happiness.

If you sign in to social media, you are greeted with an abundance of pictures, stories and snapshots of everyone you know at their best moments in life; whether it’s getting engaged, getting a promotion, or finishing their 50th marathon in 50 days.

Because we only see the bright side of everyone else’s life, it subconsciously tricks us into thinking that most people are happy most of the time.

And this leads us to feeling that there must be something wrong with us if we’re not overflowing with positive emotions each and every day.

So, when we’re feeling down, not only are we unhappy, we’re unhappy that we’re unhappy -which creates a reinforcing loop of negative emotions.

Existentialists take a different approach.

The view happiness as just one temporary emotion which exists on a wide spectrum of possible others.

Crucially, existentialists do not see experiencing happiness all of the time as the primary goal in life.

Instead, they argue that your aim should be to be able to fully experience all of the emotions that are possible.

That way, you don’t have to suppress sadness or any other ‘negative’ emotion when it comes.

It can freely pass through you like a wave, because you know it is passing and will not last forever.

Professor van Deurzen has developed the emotional compass to help people improve their emotional literacy, and identify where on the spectrum they might be at any given point in time.

Existential Ideas - Emotional Compass

This can be a powerful tool to keep at hand because it helps you to see that all of your emotions (good and bad) are transitory, and therefore you do not become overly attached to any of them.

#4 – Use Anxiety as a Trigger for Taking Action

Existential Ideas - Anxiety

Image from ideapod.com

‘Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way, has learned the ultimate.’ – Søren Kierkegaard

Anxiety is predominately seen as a negative thing in our culture.

Something to be avoided.

Existentialists take a different view. They see anxiety as an essential ingredient of a fully lived life. They argue that it is like a form of ‘activation energy’ that serves the purpose of helping us meet a challenge, overcome an obstacle or achieve a goal.

It’s the energy that runs through our body when we feel called to do something that we know is important to us.

Anxiety’s purpose is to ‘activate’ us to actually do that thing.

It might be asking someone out on a first date, getting your point across in a meeting, or putting your hand up to ask a question during a university lecture, with hundreds of other students in the room.

Take the example of asking a question during the university lecture.

Before you do it, your body will provide you with a surge of energy that wakes you up and gears you to ask the question. If you manage to get the question out, your confidence will increase because you’ve taken a risk and expressed yourself in a situation that made you uncomfortable. For the rest of that day, it’s likely that you’ll feel more fully alive and engaged with the world, and that you’ve grown as a person.

However, if you shirk away from asking the question, the energy your system has generated is suppressed and doesn’t find an outlet. Instead of being used productively to engage with the world and meet the obstacle, it stays suppressed in your system, and may come back to haunt you later.

When we view anxiety as a form of ‘activation energy’ that helps us to grow, it becomes something to be embraced rather than avoided.

The trick is to use your anxiety as a trigger for taking action.

In other words, if you start to feel that ‘activation energy’ running through your system, it is usually a signal that you should take a risk and engage with what is in front of you.

If you can develop the habit of doing this regularly, you will gradually increase your sense of agency, self-confidence and authenticity in the world.

Further Reading and Resources

The Existential Meaning of Emotions – Professor Emmy van Deurzen

Existential Philosophy and Psychotherapy – Professor Emmy van Deurzen