February 17, 2015

How to Be an Existentialist: Some Practical Advice

Existentialism urges us to live according to our own personal values, not the values we learned from our parents, culture, etc. Existentialism, in other words, asks us to develop our essences and be ourselves (Martin, Campbell, and Henry, 2004, p. 433).

Martin, Campbell, and Henry (2005) write that having a close brush with death generally emboldens people to be themselves, to live according to their own values. They write, “Compared to individuals who have not had a close brush with death, those who have (1) Feel more able to refuse doing things they do not want to do, (2) Report less concern with social rejection and the opinions of others while also reporting more concern for the welfare of others, (3) Are less easily intimidated and display a greater willingness to take risks” (p. 223). These authors note that “[b]eing self-directed is not the same as being self-centered,” as “the kind of intrinsic orientation often adopted by close brush survivors is inversely related to narcissistic self-interest” (p. 223).

How can we explain this growth? The authors consider a couple of different explanations.

1) The posttraumatic growth model holds that trauma can spur psychological growth by, first of all, shattering people’s basic assumptions about life.As an example they imagine someone whose belief that they are too young to get a certain disease is shattered one day when they're diagnosed. According to this model, once someone's basic assumptions are shattered, they often adopt beliefs that are more closely aligned with reality. Moreover, individuals faced with trauma might “be provided with opportunities they did not see before (e.g., new careers, new relationships), gain insights that allow them to function better than before (e.g., increased self-efficacy), and experience greater social support” (p. 224).

2) Research shows that clients often benefit by relinquishing control over some areas of their lives. One study found that relinquishing control, often to a spiritual power, can help clients cope, increasing “feelings of relief, the ability to think more clearly, and the ability to work more productively toward a goal” (p. 226). Another study found that “the more individuals were able to let go of their unattained goals,” the less they felt nervous and distressed (p. 226).

When someone has a brush with death, they often “wake-up to the conclusion that at least some of their pursuits are misguided” (p. 227). “To the extent that they were guiding their life on the basis of generic cultural theories, individuals may look away from such theories toward more personally valid experiences” (p. 227).

There are ways, aside from having a near-death experience, to bring about these changes in individuals. “We have found, for example, that merely asking individuals to write about their death can decrease their reliance on scripts and stereotypes and increase their reliance on bottom-up evaluation guided by self-reflection” (p. 228). They also recommend mindfulness practice, as well as Rogerian therapy, where “therapists attempt to create a setting of unconditional positive regard to help clients explore the use of their personal feelings as a guide to their behavior in place of inauthentic guides they may have adopted under conditions of worth (i.e., I’ll only love you if you act the way I want you to act)” (p. 228)

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Martin, L.L., Campbell, W.K., & Henry, C.D. (2004). The roar of awakening: Mortality acknowledgement as a call to authentic living. In. J. Greenberg, S.L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), The Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (pp. 431-448). New York: The Guilford Press.

Martin, L.L, & Kleiber, D.A. (2005). Letting go of the negative: Psychological growth from a close brush with death. Traumatology, 11(4), 221-232.

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