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Existential Psychology

In psychology, there are different "schools" or traditions. There are Freudians; there are the behaviorists; and there is the third school of humanistic/existential psychologists.

Existential psychology can be summarized as this: people live trapped in a box; we must get out of that box. As human beings, we have an incredible capacity for happiness. For loving involvement. For appreciation of beauty. Our mere existence is profound, mysterious, and wonderful.

We need to regain what is important in life. We are not living the lives we were meant to live. This realization shouldn't depress us. It should motivate us to action!

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."  
Henry Thoreau       

We're taught how to act, talk, think, and feel--conditioned. Some conditioning is good, but a lot mainly serves the interests of other people (individuals, governments, corporations, etc.). Our thinking is shaped by people and things with agendas different than ours. Here our human nature works against us: we are genetically programmed to imitate and conform.

The result: most of how we see the world is distorted. That limits our ability to deal with the world and other people and to do things that lead to happiness.

Adding to our problems is our tendency to worry. We constantly worry about the past and future. And in the present, we impose our needs (real or imagined) and expectations on how we see other people and the world.

Further, as we grow up, we cope with fears by adding false layers to our personality. We do things to try to appear more intelligent, more interesting, more successful, etc.

These added layers (affectations) are yet another thing that comes between our real selves and the world. Most affectations are rooted in the desire to be loved. And yet, these things make it more difficult to relate to others, and for real love to occur.


"The expression 'parataxic distortions' was introduced by Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) to describe our tendency to distort the perceptions we have of others. These distortions amount to cognitive errors which occur whenever we relate to another person not on the basis of the real attributes of the other, but wholly or chiefly on the basis of the person we see in our fantasy. The personification in our head is partly transferred from the past and partly unconsciously manufactured by us under the pressure of our needs."

Molnos, A. (1998): A psychotherapist's harvest



So there's a lot that takes us away from who we really are and what we really want. We live in a state of "alienation." Our true selves are alienated--distanced or apart from the world, from society and from other people.

Society tells us we should be happy with material possessions, etc. But we know something is missing. It's like being trapped in a box, because there is this wonderful beautiful reality that resides within us--in our hearts and souls, in our highest dreams and aspirations.

Our inner nature resists how our superficial selves attempt to live. In this war, there can only be one victor: our true nature. We cannot change who we really are. The choice is between the expression of our true selves, or a life of unhappiness.

Alienation is everywhere now. It's gotten worse. In the 1960's, people talked about it. Alienation existed, but people recognized it. Now it's out of control. People are more alienated than ever but have no idea what the problem is. They have never known anything different.

Frankly, I think you know all this. The real question is how to get out of the box.

Finding the Way Home

Above we identified several things that mess up our lives:
  • Conditioning
  • Worry and anxiety
  • Needs and expectations
  • Affectations

Getting out of the box--living life as the person your really are-- means overcoming these problems. It can definitely be done. To do so is not especially easy. But it is much easier to address these problems than to continue leading a diminished life.

Getting Lighter

When religious people talk about 'enlightenment', they usually make it seem like a big deal--like you have to go to a monastery for 20 years or read tons of books to be enlightened. I don't think that is what the spiritual masters are talking about at all.

Truth is simple, not complicated. In large part, enlightenment means simply being en-lightened--literally, becoming lightened. It is letting go of old layers, not adding new ones. It's not a matter of going somewhere we've never been, but one of returning to where we once were. In fact, we have already been in this state--as children. We've just acquired a lot of surplus baggage in the process of growing up.

"Unless you become as little children, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven."  
Matthew 18:2-4        

Don't suppose that you must read many esoteric tomes to find enlightenment. That kind of thinking is just another pitfall, another game we play to keep from being enlightened!

This doesn't mean you need to figure out everything from scratch. No, definitely avail yourself of what great minds, past and present, have said about the human condition. But do so efficiently. Don't let learning become more important than living.

So how does one become en-lightened? The first step is to realize that you have built up these layers of affectations. Look for them! Have the desire to find them. Question your habitual assumptions about yourself: that you need this or that to be happy.

Look at the various elements of your life. Your possessions. Your profession. Your friends. Your activities. Consider how each of these may relate to an affectation--something you've added to your personality to make yourself appear better, or to symbolically satisfy some personal need for security. And consider whether this thing is really you. Maybe you can even remember the time in you life when this affectation developed.

As you do you will realize how many layers are associated with the need to achieve things like love, admiration, security and friendship. In short, most affectations relate one way or another to a misguided attempt to receive something from another person.

This leads to the subject of relationships.


Relationships can be used to further trap us, or to liberate us.

Unfortunately, most relationships are based on needs. That simply does not work. A needful person imposes their needs on the other person. They tend to view the other person as existing for the sake of meeting their needs. They see the person as they want to see them, not as they actually are.

Relationships based on needs are a veritable factory for negative emotions! There is an undercurrent or worry and anxiety that the other person might stop meeting their needs. Should the other person actually not meet them, anger results. Fear of losing the other person leads to jealousy and suspicion. And should the relationship actually end, depression results.

The real purpose of relationships is to do just the opposite--not to weigh us down with more negative emotions, but to help free us from the obstacles that diminish our lives and prevent happiness.

In truth, it is rather difficult for a person to pull him- or herself out of the mental muck and reach a state of personal freedom alone. Relationships are important for this. The most obvious reason is that it is hard for us to see our own 'blind spots.' Fortunately, our blind spots are often glaringly obvious to others. So if we wish to free ourselves from habitual distorted outlooks and perceptions, the assistance of others is quite valuable.

The next sentence is perhaps the most important one on this page: Every relationship should be founded on the conscious, mutual commitment to the liberation of the other person.

What this means is that when you go into a relationship, you should realize that the other person is trapped in a very complex and difficult world. You are in a unique position. Because, you are not subject to the same illusions and distortions as the other person (not all of them, anyway). You can see around their blind spots, point things out to them, help them overcome their programming and help them to realize again who they really are and what they really want!

Add to this whatever unique skills, talents, or experiences you may have, and you are a powerful force that can be harnessed for the liberation of that person!

Every person you meet is in the midst of a desperate struggle. But the good news--the tremendous news, actually--is that you can make a difference. AND, the other person can make a difference for you!

So that is what I want to say here. I don't offer a blueprint for how to construct relationships that function in this way. All I'm doing is laying down the premise. But I take it as axiomatic that two people who recognize this principle can talk about and set about doing what it takes to make a relationship that operates on this level.


Meditation is another indispensable tool for breaking out of our boxes.

Meditation has the reputation of being very esoteric and difficult, and something that requires special training and years of study. But that is not so. Meditation is largely learning to recognize and let go of bad mental habits. It is not as hard as you think. There's not much need to talk about meditation here. Many excellent websites can be found. And no book is a simpler and finer introduction than "Sadhana: A Path to God" by Anthony De Mello. You can get the book at Amazon.com and elsewhere.

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--fix your thoughts on such things."  
Saint Paul (Philippians 4:7-9)        

This is a legacy page from an old website. For a more recent work please see my blog.

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Existential Psychology  |  Christian Existentialism |  Philosophical Counseling |  Training

Platonism |  Psychology and Religion |  Catholic Gnosis |  Reading |  Links

 2001-2009  John Uebersax, PhD
Revised:   03 March 2009 (changed web domain)