It will not surprise you that being human is complicated! You may have heard of the term ‘existential angst’, in other words, existential anxiety, that arises from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. Life becomes easier if we own and embrace that complexity and existential coaching offers an opportunity to grasp that concept in a truly positive way.
So what is existentialism exactly? Well, in its broadest term, it is the philosophical belief that humans are solely responsible for developing their own unique sense of purpose and truth. It acknowledges that our lives are not set in stone and defined for us despite the many variables of our genetics and environment which impact us from birth. Instead, through our very existence, we are free to make myriad choices to map out our lives. We are ultimately responsible for the life we choose. We are in charge of our destiny.
Irvin Yalom was one of many great philosophers who believed that most of our inner conflicts stem from confrontation with the givens of existence. These givens are death, isolation, meaning and freedom and, in our efforts to navigate our existence, we collide with the rigidity of these givens, causing great inner conflict.
As a clinical psychologist, I am aware of the theory of existentialism and its influence on the therapeutic approach. However, I am enjoying uncovering how it is integrated into an existential coaching practice and the many benefits it can unveil.
How does existentialism impact the coaching relationship?
From a coaching perspective, the idea is that this philosophical way of thinking enables a deep exploration of the self and encourages the client to understand and shape new ways of approaching challenges in life through a rich and varied understanding of the topic. This gentle investigation into the relationship between a client and their outside world is positive and affirming – like all areas of coaching, the objective is to provide greater awareness and an increased sense of well-being.
Working together, coaching sessions encourage clients to look at their lives using key existential themes as a guide. The key themes include but are not limited to:
Facts about the human race (e.g. death) – there are some things we simply cannot change about being human.
Freedom and responsibility – we are all free to make choices. To be born is to be free but humans must accept the responsibility that goes with that freedom.
Meaning – none of us are born with a meaning attached to us. Life can feel futile without meaning and purpose, but we all have the power to create meaning and purpose in our lives.
Anxiety - is normal and a symptom of being human. Choosing to see it in this way frees us to accept its existence rather than continue fighting it.
Authenticity – is essential, we strive to live the life we want and accept the consequences of being honest in relation to our needs.
What can clients expect from an existential coaching session?
Using these themes to provide deeper insight into what it means to exist as a human, client and coach begin to delve into the client’s unique experiences. Below are examples of some of the questions I might choose to explore with my coaching clients.
We might explore the meaning of life and what is your purpose in life. My clients who report lacking purpose in their lives are usually ‘not happy with their lot’ and seek coaching to explore what would help them to feel happier.
We might discuss how you choose to deal with the inevitability of death. I often work with clients to explore what needs to be done before this inevitable ending. To ensure their lives are as rich and fulfilling as possible.
We might question how we can cultivate healthy relationships and stay connected whilst understanding we are all unique individuals who must learn how to exist simultaneously.
We would embrace the opportunity to be positive about the responsibilities and challenges of life. We all have a choice to make the best of any given situation, despite potential difficulties.
We might start to unearth how we stay connected to our true selves and enable ourselves to retain some semblance of authenticity.
We might work on enhancing your self-awareness and a better understanding of your blind spots, being curious together about life’s dilemmas, contradictions and the resultant paradoxes.
We would work on embracing your existential anxiety as a normal part of human existence, which in turn might feel very freeing for navigating your life.
There is no limit to the depth of discussion in existential coaching. The philosophical insight coupled with the positive coaching relationship provides wisdom and a safe space to interpret and apply that knowledge. Trust and a willingness to explore fresh new perspectives can lead client and coach on a fascinating new journey of self-discovery.