Musings on Being an Existential Psychotherapist

My Life Is My Message

There is a story told about Mahatma Ghandi in which a reporter was running up to him as his train was gradually pulling out of the station. ‘Mr. Ghandi,’ the reporter asked loudly, ‘I would like to bring a message back to your people. What shall I tell them?’ Ghandi quickly took a piece of scrap paper, wrote a sentence on it, and handed the paper to the reporter. The sentence read: ‘My life is my message.’ 

To me, being a psychotherapist is one of the most difficult, hence most rewarding of human professions. It is so difficult for me because I am continually faced with the depth of being human. Being a psychotherapist is also rewarding for exactly the same reasons: I continually face the depth of being human along with the joy and awe of being alive. 

This is also how I understand the words of Ghandi. ‘My life is my message’ means that I work on understanding the world and myself, and I ask the same of my clients. Because I am on this journey of understanding, I can allow myself to ask my clients to do the same: to gain awareness of themselves, how they live, and how they may behave and think in certain ways that cause them suffering, sadness, and despair – but also joy, fun, and laughter. 

As therapists we speak with our lives. This is what we existential psychotherapists mean when we speak about authenticity and integrity. It is not enough for me to say to my clients that they should please work on becoming more conscious, more aware of how they themselves contribute, for example, to their relationship struggles, their suffering at work or in the world. It is not enough to simply use words without applying the same process of awareness to myself. If I do not myself experience directly how difficult and painful, how joyous and exciting, is the task of recognizing my patterns, of changing and accepting myself, how can I ask this of my clients? ‘My life is my message’ means foremost: Do as I do, not as I say I do. To be authentic means that I do not ask of a client what I am not able to do or be myself. If I want to lead my client to a deeper understanding of himself and life, I lead by example. This says to my client: ‘You can trust me. I have been down this path before. It won’t be an easy journey, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes very painful – but whatever it might be, I will be with you, right on your side.’ If, as the therapist, I am not a credible example, little trust and confidence will be inspired in the client. My clients will know and sense if I only talk about the journey of awareness without being willing to go down this road myself. Of course, clients sense when their therapists merely talk rather than walk with them, and they react in mostly unconscious ways. Among many different possibilities, clients can show this awareness through their reluctance to follow therapeutic suggestions and by frustrating therapists’ attempts to deepen their process. Some therapeutic schools call this behavior ‘resistance’. Could it be that this ‘resistance’ actually applies more to therapists themselves and their unwillingness or inability to be authentically present with their clients? ‘My life is my message’ presents existential, process-oriented psychotherapists with their working credo. This credo translates into a very different attitude I take as a therapist. Foremost it means that I am not in a role, that I do not ‘play’ being a therapist, that I do not separate who I am as a person from who I am as I a therapist. ‘I am a therapist’ means exactly that: ‘I’ and ‘therapist’ are one – they cannot be separated. Being a therapist is not a piece of clothing I put on and then place back into the closet after I am done. The very best actors profess that they become their role; they are the person they are playing. As existential therapists we are foremost human beings who want to help others with their process of becoming. Therapist is only the title for what we do; it does not prescribe how we do it. To be a therapist is to help our clients using our humaneness, our own willingness to struggle with becoming more aware of who we are and more conscious of the meaning for our being. Rollo May has likened the task of the therapist to that of a Dantean journey where Virgil accompanies the client into the Inferno, continues with him through Purgatory and onward to the threshold of Paradisio. For therapists to accompany their clients on such a journey, they need to be able and willing to enter into the difficult domains of being human themselves. When Dante is afraid to continue on his trying journey, Virgil, his guide, assures him: ‘I will not leave you to wander in this underworld alone.’ As a therapist I do not stay at the door while I request my clients to walk through it. Rather, to walk with the client requires of me the utmost honesty in how I am present with and how I present myself to my clients. Let me give a concrete example that speaks to a fundamental mythology of today and how this myth infiltrates psychotherapy: the myth of knowledge.

Being Human Means Not-Knowing

It was Nietzsche, well over a hundred years ago, who expressed this equation most directly. He wrote, ‘The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge.’ This statement is especially true in psychotherapy. Yet, our discipline has been as infected as most others with this insistence that we therapists must possess this thing called ‘knowledge.’ In my training of psychotherapy students I often hear reluctance on their part to admit to a client that they do not know – for example, when a client asks the therapist what to do in a given situation. This is quite interesting and very understandable. After all, therapists supposedly get paid for knowing what to do. However, the truth is that we may know or sense what to do when it comes to our own lives but rarely do we know what is right to do for another person’s life. I may say to a client who is asking me for advice, help or direction: ‘You know, I can probably tell you what would feel right to me in this situation, what I would do. But this answer only applies to my life, not yours. To know what is best for you, you will need to search within yourself for an answer. If you would like and need assistance, I can help you with your search.’ In admitting to our clients that we don’t know what is best for them, we also model that it is okay not to know. As a matter of fact, many of my clients suffer under just this very pressure: that they should know what to do, that they should know how to be. When my clients learn that it is all right not to know they often begin to relax. Then client and I can learn together how we may find out what is right, how we may find answers to our questions. These answers are always time-bound answers. They are valid for a given situation, a given moment in our lives. As such these answers do not constitute knowledge. They are momentary truths that work now. Tomorrow and another situation will probably require different answers. As important as it is to teach our clients how to discover their own answers, it is equally important, through this not-knowing, that I remain truthful to myself. For only the rare human beings among us truly know the answers to their questions of life and living. Most of us common folks are incessantly searching for what is right for us, continually question our path, persistently ask ourselves whether we are living the life we are meant to live. Living in a world of such doubt about own our affairs, how could we possibly know the answers to somebody else’s life questions? Just as Ghandi’s phrase ‘my life is my message’ speaks to an attitude to life that admits that we are in a continual process of becoming, so it speaks as well to the fact that there exists no fixed or static knowledge as far as human beings are concerned. I can never know anything for certain. When I say to my client: ‘I don’t know – but I am willing and able to help you find the knowledge you seek and need,’ I speak in line with this awareness. This response also expresses an attitude of humility towards my clients and myself. As a human being I know how complex I am, that after many years of work on myself, after many years of trying to understand who I am, of trying to change what I don’t like or want in myself, I am still in the process of changing. Such is the pace of change. Jung was fond of saying that we may know what to do intellectually with our lives, but our psyche will take its own time, will permit change to happen only very slowly. With each client I stretch myself further. The moment I am not aware is the moment I present a danger to my clients. I will harm my clients with all my unaware edges. A stance of humility and not-knowing can guard me from this danger, since I will remain open to questioning myself. I am less prone to get caught in my beliefs, my ideas of how things should be, how the client should be. This, then, is my job as therapist: to continually stay aware and open to the challenges my clients and life place before me. This is what my clients pay me for when I work with them. This is my responsibility to my clients and myself as I walk through life, as I practice psychotherapy.

Staying Aware

Staying aware is hard work. To stay aware demands that I remain alert and work on myself using the tools our profession: continued study and self-study, consultation, personal therapy, journaling, supervision, inner work, understanding my personal relationships. I am constantly a-work-in-progress as a therapist, as the person I am. I am learning to adhere to the premise that in all that happens around me I can also find a part of myself. When I get upset with my partner for being messy in our home, I am learning to ask myself how I have contributed to my own irritation. What are my expectations? How do I communicate my need for order? Or do I communicate my needs at all? What is my sense of order anyway? What is messy to me? Do I place my partner into the role of the ‘messy one’ because I am too orderly, so structured as to make the home rigid and unlivable? Is she reacting to me in her ‘messiness’? Do I make the me or the we more important in our relationship? In this simple example lies much potential for understanding who I am and who my partner is. Yet, this kind of self-questioning is hard work. It can take hours, sometimes days, weeks, months, even years. This kind of self-questioning does not know holidays, weekends, or vacations. Self-questioning becomes my life. I wake up in the morning and ask myself why I had this dream. I walk down the park on a sunny day and ask myself why my life feels so heavy at the moment. I drive to work and wonder if I can help the client I will meet next. I start wondering, what does it mean to help at all? And suddenly I find myself questioning the very basis of my life – is what I am doing really what I should be doing with my life? Is there something else waiting for me? Am I really living my life? I used to think that these ever-present questions were a burden to me. I used to believe that one day I should have clarity about my life. I once thought I would grow up and see clearly my path, would understand life, my life. I used to hope that one day soon I would wake up being content. I used to think& I confess, I am still thinking and hoping. But within me a feeling is growing that what is, is. This, presents me with a clear choice: Accept it or fight it. Accept my not-knowing, my constant questioning as my way of life and see it as the gift that it is. Or continue to suffer under this feeling that life should somehow be different from what is. I am far away from accepting all there is, but I have also moved away somewhat from rejecting my suffering, from making it wrong. I have come to appreciate these sleepless nights of agonizing over my meaning and the meaning of my clients’ lives. I am beginning to understand that my relationship struggles are not a waste of time but constitute important learning for my work with clients and myself. And I am not alone in this struggle. There are also my friends, family, clients, students, and the community of people within which I live. They are a part of me, each one illuminating another unknown corner of myself. I deeply appreciate how they hang in there and struggle with me. Perhaps I have come to like this struggle for meaning and understanding. I am beginning to think that for me there may be little more beautiful than exactly this struggle. I am beginning to think that I love working on my life, love the process of understanding what it wants me to be. And I am beginning to think that my life, one day, might become my message too.

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