An Existential-Christian Approach to Human Nature in Counseling

Introduction

The collaborative nature of counseling involves a specific kind of interaction, unique to the counseling relationship, where the client invites the counselor to participate in their life in such a way that the client feels understood and is empowered to make decisions for their life.  It is the process of understanding their problem and engaging in the narrative of their life, where the client learns through collaboration ways in which he or she may view and interact with their problem differently.  When a client chooses to engage a counselor in this particular kind of relationship, it is a privilege for the counselor to be the recipient of the client’s story, or a part of their story as it relates to their problem.

As a future counselor, the author of this blog post, desires to participate in this kind of counseling relationship for three reasons: Firstly, there is joy in experiencing freedom from personal narratives or problems that hinder, suppress, or entangle our humanity—as the author of this blog post has experienced from the perspective of a client.  Secondly, a counselor has the opportunity to offer hope through the collaborative framework of counseling that is a form of communicative-action.  The counselor by being actively engaged with the client through the form of asking questions, identifying themes, areas of growth or change, and by offering the client encouragement, the counselor is participating in actions that communicate hope for freedom and change to the client.  Thirdly, the counselor participates in the collaborative relationship with a client as a selfless agent working to demonstrate and provide a safe environment for the client to explore their story or problem without fear of being judged.  As someone who cares deeply for people, the author of this paper, also finds joy in being able to create such a context for those who are wounded and struggling—in need of a respite.

Human Nature: An Existential Dilemma  

Human beings live in the context of a personal narrative (individual) within a greater narrative (corporate) such as a cultural or religious narrative.  Yet, confusion and anxiety ebb and flow throughout individual narratives because of changes (external or internal) introduced into an individual’s narrative—resulting in a constant examination of the individual’s structure for their narrative, which consists of the following seven aspects: beliefs, desires, values, actions, lifestyle, identity, and purpose.  However, human nature is broken, struggling to align its nature with a greater corporate narrative in which an individual is living.  Psychological anxiety, therefore, is a natural result of this misalignment, but not a psychological state of wellbeing—as it is merely an indicator that misalignment exists within an individual.  This misalignment may include both internal and external factors, which need exploration in the counseling process.

Therefore, some reasons for entering counseling may be (1) the need to process the interruption to one’s individual narrative (i.e. divorce or a death in the family); (2) think through alternative approaches to one’s personal narrative; (3) find emotional stability; (4) re-create a personal narrative by exploring one’s options and choices for different courses of action; (5) digest the emotions and desires from events that have shaped one’s personal narrative.

The constant examination of an individual’s narrative structure is perplexed by conflicting emotions and desires, which is a result of human nature resisting itself.  Exhaustion, anxiety, apathy, dread, lostness, and confusion are natural experiences flowing from an existential misalignment created by disjointed personal and corporate narratives or a disjointed narrative structure.  This state of existential misalignment invites questions regarding one’s purpose and identity (two of the seven aspects of narrative structure).  For example, the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once wrote in his journal the following:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. (Dru & Kierkegaard, 2003, p. 44)

Aside from Kierkegaard’s quest for a particular kind of truth, he is trying to align his personal narrative within a corporate one, which in this case is religious.  This truth, if he can find it, is something he hopes will give direction to his life (purpose) and at the same time is something that illuminates his passions (identity), or to put it another way—something that gives him life and understanding.  Later in the journal entry, Kierkegaard concludes, “One must know oneself before knowing anything else (γνθι σεαυτον).  It is only after a man has thus understood himself inwardly, and thus has seen his way, that life acquires peace and significance….” (Dru & Kierkegaard, 2003, p. 46).  The ancient greek phrase Kierkegaard attached to his conclusion is the aphorism, “know thyself”.

Understanding one’s personal narrative and the seven structural aspects listed above, creates a context for the collaborative nature of counseling whether the immediate concern is a crises, an addiction, a significant life change, or some king life struggle.  The counselor and client enter the journey together—setting goals together—seeking understanding of the client’s personal narrative for the betterment of the client’s well-being.

Counseling Models Applied 

Though the problem a client brings to the counseling process may be existential in nature the counseling model applied to the situation may be chosen according to the client’s needs and preferences.  Two models that are easily applied to existential problems having to do with a person’s personal narrative and its seven structural aspects are existential counseling and narrative counseling.  However, just as diamonds are multi-faceted things, so are problems, in which case other counseling models may be needed, such as cognitive behavior therapy or rational emotive behavior therapy.

For the sake of brevity, the remainder of this paper will be devoted to exploring how the goals of narrative therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy may be applied to the existential view of human nature outlined above.

Narrative Therapy 

Corey (2017) describes the therapists of narrative therapy as facilitators, whose aim is to invite clients to share and describe their experience in new and fresh language.

In doing this, they open new vistas of what is possible. This new language enables clients to develop new meanings for problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Freedman & Combs, 1996). Narrative therapy almost always includes and awareness of the impact of various aspects of dominant culture on human life (Corey, 2017, p. 384).

One of several practical applications of this goal is the process of externalization whereby the client examines the problem as something that is separate from his or her self.  Practically, this may be done through writing exercises or artistic expression.  A study conducted by Keeling and Bermudez (2006) indicates that when 17 participates over the course of 4 weeks practiced externalization-intervention by journaling and sculpture, the intervention helped participants express emotions, increased their awareness of personal resources and agency, helped separate problems from self, decreased symptoms and problem behaviors, and fostered a sense of empowerment (Keeling and Bermudez, 2006, p. 405).

In the magazine Psychology Today, Sherry Hamby wrote an article exploring the health benefits of emotional autobiographical storytelling.  Hamby makes the following observation in her article:

Emotional, autobiographical storytelling means writing about events and people that have mattered to you in your own life–not just describing the facts of your lives [sic]. Research shows that even brief autobiographical storytelling exercises can have substantial impacts on psychological and physical health even months after the storytelling (Hamby, 2013).

Within narrative therapy, practical exercises such as journaling and personal storytelling have a natural context for the client to explore and digest.  These self-reflecting opportunities give the client an option for examining his or her assumptions and expectations for how he or she perceives how life ought to function.  Existentially, the client through exploring their personal narrative is guided by thoughtful and engaging questions from the counselor, which helps the client consider different ways of viewing their problem.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

“REBT is based on the assumption that cognitions, emotions, and behaviors interact significantly and have a reciprocal cause-and-effect relationship” (Corey, 2017, p. 271).  This assumption fits well within the existential view described above, especially when one’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviors are recognized as fundamental elements of a person’s personal narrative.  Though one’s personal narrative is less emphasized, parts of its structure are being brought to the surface for further inspection.  The the primary hypothesis of REBT is that our emotions are mainly created from our beliefs, which influence the evaluations and interpretations we make and fuel the reactions we have to life situations. Through the therapeutic process, clients are taught skills that give them tools to identify and dispute irrational beliefs that have been acquired and self-constructed and are now maintained by self-indoctrination (Corey, 2017, p. 272).

As noted above misalignment occurs because human nature is broken, struggling to align its personal narrative with the greater corporate narrative in which an individual is living.  This is an important principle of the existential dilemma for REBT because it is within REBT that a person is challenged to let go of faulty beliefs contributing to his or her narrative misalignment.  REBT, though still within the collaborative nature of the counseling process, like narrative therapy, however REBT differs in approach.  It is more direct.  “REBT relies heavily on thinking, disputing, debating, challenging, interpreting, explaining, and teaching.  The most efficient way to bring about lasting emotional and behavior change is for clients to change their way of thinking” (Corey, 2017, p. 276).

Though REBT is not for everyone, it is an option for exploring one’s personal narrative in such a way that it brings to light beliefs that hinder living in a healthy way.  For example, a person who believes they must achieve every activity with perfection may be challenged to evaluate how and why they approach life with such a belief.  Within the context of a personal narrative, this same person may be able to identify former relationships that contributed to their believing that perfection in activities is the only option.  Additionally, a personal narrative would also bring to attention situations in this persons life where their beliefs had impacted their expectations and assumptions of others.

Conclusion

In conclusion, an existential view of human nature that is both broken and personally misaligned from a greater corporate narrative has many variational counseling approaches at its disposal for working through emotional and cognitive problems.  Of the models available to the counselor, the best option is the one that fits the client and not the other way around.  Yet, narrative therapy and REBT offer methods that are comfortably integrated within the existential view of human nature presented in this blog post.

References

Corey, G. (2017). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Dru, A., & Kierkegaard, S. (2003). The soul of Kierkegaard: selections from his Journal. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications.

Hamby, S. (2013, September 03). Resilience and … 4 Benefits For Sharing Your Story. Psychology Today.

Keeling, M. L., & Bermudez, M. (2006). EXTERNALIZING PROBLEMS THROUGH ART AND WRITING: EXPERIENCES OF PROCESS AND HELPFULNESS. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 32(4), 405-19.

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A visual representation of the existential view of human nature described in this paper.