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The Existential Moment: Protective Layers

Would you climb Mount Everest if you had a 1 in 100 chance of dying?

Those are the odds when you decide to climb. By one estimate, over the past thirty-plus years, approximately 1% of climbers died trying to climb Everest.

On a brighter note, the success rate of reaching the summit has doubled over that time. Improvements in weather prediction and climbing equipment (e.g., crampons, ropes, boots, etc.) have vastly improved the chances of success.

Upgrades in the materials and design of protective layers of clothing – base, insulating, and outer layers – also played an important role. For example, polyester and merino wool blends improved base layer management of moisture (i.e., sweat) near the body. Synthetic fleece and design changes (e.g., grid fleece) improved insulating layers, better retaining heat to protect from cold. New materials like Gore-Tex outer shells offered lighter weight with excellent protection from wind.

Existential-Humanistic theory holds that the self of the client relies on protective layers. A diagram of those layers includes the following:

  • Content: The presenting issue or primary concerns
  • Process: Nonverbals, patterns of speech, relational quality
  • Protections: Concrete ways of being that protect wounds
  • Relation to self: Core statement of “I am…”
  • Others: Core statement of “You are…”
  • World: Core statement of “The world is…”
  • Core wound/core decision: What is the wound(s)? What decision did the client make about that wound?

The therapist’s role is to help bring awareness to the protective patterns emerging from these layers and, more deeply, to the disowned feelings within the pattern. Bringing presence to these elements enables the client to integrate disowned feelings, create new meanings (e.g., “I am lovable”), and choose how they want to live.

The journey can be a steep climb. But the view from the summit is life-changing.

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