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The Existential Moment: The Four Dimensions of the Therapeutic Encounter

“She’s going, boys,” came the cry. “It’s time to get off.” 

Those were the words spoken in 1915 aboard the three-masted schooner Endurance as the south pole explorer, Captain Ernest Shackleton, and twenty-six crew surrendered to the reality that after being trapped for nine months, the vessel was being crushed in the ice flow off Antarctica. It is difficult to grasp the severity of the trials and traumas that the captain and crew faced on their twenty-four-month odyssey. The pinnacle of incomprehensibility, Shackleton and five crew members set sail on a 14-day, 800-mile, open ocean voyage in a modest lifeboat to seek help on South Georgia Island. Miraculously, the mission resulted in the rescue of the entire crew. Not one life was lost.

The voyage to South Georgia is one of the most remarkable feats of navigation in human history—the small crew sailed nearly a thousand miles with nothing but unassailable will, knowledge of celestial seafaring, and a sextant. 

We all need a sextant. 

Orah Krug, coauthor of Existential-Humanistic Therapy and former EHI Clinical Director, provides a terrific tool for organizing, orienting, and pointing on our therapeutic journey with our clients: “The Four Dimensions of Therapeutic Encounter.” 

The Client is the first dimension. The Client’s “way of being” reflects an understanding of self, world, and others. Much of this “self and world construct” presents implicitly, and the therapist needs then to attend to the verbal and the non-verbal.

The Therapist is the second dimension. We, as therapists, need to attend to our own experience. It is critical information, and yet it is also a risk for “acting out.”

The Interpersonal, the “We” in the room, is the co-created, third dimension. This is where therapist and client work together to build the foundations for successful therapy: safety, intimacy, honesty. And this is the principal domain of healing and growth.

Finally, the Cosmological is our ever-present, shared human experience that permeates the other dimensions. It includes, in paradoxical tension, the existential givens of life/death, freedom/contingency, meaning/absurdity, and community/aloneness. Attention offers possibility; disregard raises risk. The Cosmological is also the domain of beauty, mystery, and awe. Openness to these in ourselves fosters openness in our clients.

Sextants are not seafaring. The Four Dimensions are not therapy. However, both are invaluable tools on a journey of discovery.

Link to additional resource:
The Four Dimensions of the Therapeutic Encounter [PDF] by Orah Krug, PhD, LMFT

[reprinted from EHI Existential Moment email sent on April 1, 2021]

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