Existentially Speaking

I was recently lucky enough to be at an event where I got to hear one of the great contemporary existential therapists, Ernesto Spinelli. He challenged modern ideas of therapy which have come to mean a change for the better; an improvement; a medical intervention, when in fact the original Greek meaning, Therapeia, was the attempt to stand beside another.

I can imagine that a client who is in a lot of pain and distress might find it hard to see that my role might be to stand beside them, helping them explore their inner world, rather than trying to facilitate change whereby they will be relieved of their difficult feelings. However, I can also see that if I have an agenda about how the client should be this may not be helpful. The therapy is more effective if I can accept the person as they are and not be the superior one who ‘knows’ what is best for the client.

From this place, the first task of therapy is to assist the client to hear their own voice more truthfully and accurately. Spinelli says for this to happen, the therapist must be ‘an idiot’: asking the most obvious questions. The questioning is more along the lines of ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the client’s experience (description) rather than explaining causes. It is through describing experience that we change. Asking a client how their descriptions are experienced in their body makes it unique and more concrete, and helps facilitate a link to associations and memories.

There then entails the creation of a descriptive narrative about the story told, wherein important themes might begin to emerge. Metaphor may be added in order to be more concrete or accurate about feelings. The process offers a fuller expression of self.
The purpose of this descriptive process is that it allows ownership by the client of their experience. If the client can experience a problem as their own, they are no longer a victim of a problem and their way of being with their problem shifts.

Spinelli goes on to talk about another phase in which the therapist is the ‘the fool’ who gives voice to ‘otherness’; the therapist’s own experience of being in the room which is different from the client’s, and thereby invites the client into some other possibilities. Clients can then begin to see that the issues that brought them to therapy are related to a stance they have adopted towards themselves.

Then there is ‘the executioner’ phase in which the client must consider the wider, more complex world outside of therapy. They have had the opportunity to experience themselves under certain conditions of the therapeutic space, and must now consider whether this can be transposed to the wider world.

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