Four Existential Givens

Four Existential Givens (and the implied responses)

So, Yalom (e.g., 1980) talks about the four “existential givens” or “ultimate concerns”:

  • Death (i.e., death anxiety)
  • Freedom
  • Isolation
  • Meaninglessness 

And I’m surprised how rarely (or if ever?) I find someone cogently and overtly expressing that the implied responses to each of these ultimate concerns are the bedrock principles of existential therapy (and maybe ALL therapy):

  • Approaching (rather than avoiding) anxiety (thus reducing anxiety and also the foundation for living fully)
  • Taking responsibility (and recognizing limits of both responsibility and freedom)
  • Building and maintaining connections (maybe Existential Therapy proper doesn’t do a great job of this one, but Frankl certainly talks about it at least) 
  • Defining (and then living in) valued directions 

See what I mean, though? Why is this not just a chart in all theories textbooks? Why do we always get the idea that the main things to do is SUFFER with these ultimate concerns rather than use them as guideposts?!


Comment below: From your own theoretical orientation, how do these play out? Is anything missing? 


Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books




Preposterous Quote – New Years


New year’s day – or any day of our lives – is not the beginning of a new book. It might, maybe, possibly be the beginning of a new page or a new chapter (although why that would happen exactly on this particular day of the year baffles me!). But we can’t escape the fact that pages, and chapters, and VOLUMES have already been written (in our own lives, yes. And we are also chapters and pages in the lives of many other books, past and present!). We are the same characters that we were on the last page, and thank goodness for that continuity! Otherwise, how would we actually learn, grow, and change?

You can’t be the hero of a story that starts today. But you ARE the hero in the story you’re a part of. Take all those pages, read them carefully, then author your next pages well.   





Book Announcement

So… I did a thing…

Here’s a book! I wrote it. 

ROUTLEDGE published it, and the level of fanciness I feel saying that is not measurable. 

It’s a lot like this blog, only you can get it in paper and you have to pay for it. Oh, and it has no pictures. 🙂

Actually, it’s much more comprehensive and better structured than the blog, though the writing style is a lot the same and the idea is the same – let’s BE BETTER THERAPISTS. Let’s use theory and research and our colleagues to help us do that. 

Therapists, in general, I think will really like it and get a lot out of it. So will advanced practicum students and interns. 

At any rate, I’m supposed to tell important people. So, there you go! 

It is available at Routledge and through Amazon! Oh, and if you go to the new Book page on the blog, there’s a coupon code! 



Avoidance Sucks

Avoidance Sucks

Here’s what I mean by that: 

  • Avoidance of feared stimuli increases rather than decreases fear. So it perpetuates itself at your expense. This is approximately 35% of all therapy, possibly. 
  • Avoidance is painful by itself. Every time you avoid, you’re having a measure of the pain you would have in confronting. But you avoid it over and over and over… so you have a partial measure of pain over and over and over, which almost always ends up being more painful over time. 
  • Avoidance narrows your options. I mean this in small ways, but also in the very big, existential way – like the “untimely deadness of a too narrow existence” 

Some caveats, in case you’re thinking any of these things:

  • Staying away from genuinely toxic or dangerous things/people/situations isn’t avoidance, it’s wisdom. 
  • If you believe you benefit from a “change of scenery,” you need to give a good think about if it’s escaping/avoidance or something else. A lot of that is how you use that time. If you just get away from stressors and enjoy that, it’s avoidance. If you use the time away to actively work on stuff that will improve your life when you’re back, ok. 

Comment below: How have clients sometimes gotten in trouble by avoiding? How have you?? 




Preposterous Quote – Courage

There are two levels on which I want to address this preposterous quote. 

(1) I dislike, in general, inaccurate measurements. Specifically, in therapy, I dislike the idea that our own limits are not knowable. I believe that’s part of what is fundamentally useful about therapy – building accurate self knowledge and self awareness!

Look, I don’t want clients to live in a constant state of not-fulfilling-their-potential because they underestimate themselves. I don’t want them to reduce themselves to chronic-victimhood because they aren’t encouraged. I don’t want them to choose avoidance as a proxy for safety, when they could choose skills and strength instead. I don’t want them to suffer from the “untimely deadness of a too narrow existence” (Gendlin, 1973).  

I also don’t want clients to be shamed or feel shame because they actually do have limits. I want us all to know and honor the limits of our bodies, our strength, our coping. That’s when we know to access additional resources! That’s how we keep ourselves functioning for tomorrow’s challenges! 

When you’re drowning, yes…. you do usually have more oxygen available than you’re afraid you have. And use it all, please! You do usually have another half hour in you to work on that project that’s due, even though you’re really tired.  You probably do have a little more self control left over to speak kindly to your partner even though you’re stressed out from your work day. You probably do have more strength than you are afraid you have, more than you initially believe you’re capable of.

Let’s learn our REAL limits, so we can grow at our true edges. 

(2) I don’t mind the definitions of courage than rely on fear (“It’s not brave if you’re not scared”), but I really prefer the deeply existential understanding of courage – that you willingly act without knowing the outcome. And we never really know the outcome! We pretend we know the outcome, we relax into that lie sometimes, but we don’t ever really know how anything is going to turn out – our action or our inaction. That makes pretty much everything you do “courageous,” if you’re doing it willingly and acting in “good faith” (i.e., with knowledge of your own personal responsibility in living). 



Comment below: As always… your thoughts? Your definition of courage? 

Sphere of Whelm

The Sphere of Whelm


Why don’t use this word? We say “overwhelm” and “underwhelm.” Why do we never say whelm?? Probably because it’s sort of useless, as the word “whelm” technically is a synonym for overwhelm, meaning “to be submerged by.” 

::rolling my eyes:: 

I RECLAIM this now useless word for special therapeutic purposes, and like many psychological terms, will give it my own definition. I like clients to conceptualize “whelm” as just the amount that I can handle right now or saturated but not spilling over. I think of it in a similar way to being in one’s “Flow zone,” but rather than engagement or skills development, I mean it to pertain to emotion regulation. 

We all definitely know that too much stress, too big of emotions, or too much going on can lead clients to feel overwhelmed; we see them all the time. Less often (though sometimes), we see underwhelmed clients – the disillusioned nihilist, or anyone with existential ennui. And sometimes we see clients who are so numbed or checked out that they seem underwhelmed, when really they’re just shut down because of overwhelm. 

Let me suggest that we can change our level of over/underwhelm by modifying the space and time we are attending to. When clients are overwhelmed, they’ve often cast their attention out too far – too far into the future or encompassing too much “distance” (which usually means too many people). No one can handle the anxiety of a nation during a pandemic. No one can handle the regret of their whole mountain of history all at once. No one can handle the existential threat to their children for a lifetime. 

When life is too much, when we are in grief, rage, or terror – we sometimes do this naturally – bring in our spheres to just our families or ourselves, to just “getting through today” or “just what I need to do next.” We invite clients to mindfully shrink their fears when we teach them mindfulness – just what you are aware of in exactly this moment, just in your body. And sometimes clients need more – think Adler and social connectedness – sometimes depression or anxiety are presenting because we are underwhelmed. over-focused on our own troubles or discomfort, and need to widen our spheres to include other people, or a longer time perspective. 

One of my favorite ways to do this with clients is as part of a guided imagery. Creating a sort of bubble that they practice shrinking and expanding until the bubble is just encompassing their heart or encompassing the whole city, and doing that safely with me.

How do you like to? I know you you already help clients do this – you just didn’t use this fancy name. What kinds of techniques do you use to help them manage their spheres? Comment below.

Living fully in the moment

“Living Fully in the Moment”

I feel like that’s a thing we say a lot. So I’d like to break it down a little bit. Specifically, I’d like to talk about what living-fully-in-the-moment is NOT, because it’s not really enough to know what something is. We don’t know the shape, the fullness of something, until we find its edges.

What living fully in the moment is NOT:


  • It’s Not-Living
    • This might be “deadness,” that depressive, withdrawn un-aliveness. It can also be “stillness” or avoidance, not going-forth because of fear. It can be disconnection from the other life (people, activity) in the world through isolation, numbness, or “tuning out.” And it can be the “early death” of an unlived life – a life made too narrow by fear or unwillingness.
  • It’s Part-living (i.e., not living fully)
    • This can be a distorted existence – constricted by too-strong opinions or too-strict beliefs, by an internal critic or demanding internal parent that allows for no exploration. This can be a life lived under pressure, “obligated” in ways that the person even has difficulty articulating. This is a life lived “in bad faith,” as the existentialists say – full of blaming others and circumstances, rather than holding the freedom and responsibility for one’s own life.
  • It’s living in the not-now, not-here
    • This might be living in the future – consumed by anxiety about situations not yet arrived. Or worry for those not immediately present, who you wish you could control or keep safe, but who you don’t and can’t possess. This can be stuckness in the past – regret, guilt, and fear or repeating past mistakes. Missing out on the present and what is becoming because the gaze is focused backwards, or too far out.

Comment: What do you see as the unlived life? How have you helped clients live fully in the present?





Existentialism – exercise

Existentialism Dessert Exercise

When you first learned about it, one of a few things probably happened. You either immediately threw up some kind of unconscious defensive wall because you heard the word Death or you started making plans to quit school, go to the beach, and drink margaritas because, well, Death.

(If you’re reading this, chances are you made it through, and didn’t take up your second choice career of selling snorkels. Great work!)

I’d like to clarify a little existential gem, if I could. And I’d like to do it with an experience. (Because, deep down, if you’re honoring the existential philosophy then your work and your life are inherently experiential. But that’s for another post.)

As you read this, it will help if you really imagine the process. But that’s NOWHERE near as helpful or interesting as actually doing this process, so I hope you do.


Ok, first you need to go procure your favorite food. I really want this to be your favorite food, and if you have to go to some lengths to get it (e.g., go to the store, call your mom and ask her to bake, drive across town to that wonderful restaurant), all the better.

Second, put one normal portion (normal for you) of just that food on a plate.

Third, divide that portion into tenths. (yes, 1/10ths) Then, throw away all but one tenth. (yes, throw away 9/10ths of your favorite thing that you just went across town for. YES, THROW IT AWAY. DO NOT put it in the fridge.)

Stop. You put it in the fridge, didn’t you? Go throw it away.

(Good, now take a moment to honor what it was inside you that wanted to keep it, and how it felt to throw it away.)

Now, approach the 1/10th that you have left. Check out how that feels.

Then, eat it. (Yeah, that’s it. No other instructions.)


After you’re done, take stock. What was it like? How did you eat it? Slowly? Did you pay more attention? Did you enjoy it more? Did you stay preoccupied with how much you threw away? Did you spoil your enjoyment by being angry at how little you had? (Or by feeling guilty that you actually left the other 9/10ths in the fridge? Good luck enjoying that now!) Did you have the urge to rush through or end the experience, which was somehow painful? Did you notice wanting to ration it, or not eat it at all? What was the experience like?

There you go. The finiteness of life helps us to focus our intention, live meaningfully, enjoy more fully. Feel free to practice this as often as you like, and just notice what changes.

Leave a comment if you really did this and want to tell about your experience!