Thursday, 06 April 2017 21:11

Existential Psychotherapy

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This paper points out that whereas biology and society play roles in the genesis of mental health issues the nature of existence itself is probably the key determiner of mental health or lack of it. It says that existence presents human beings with the sad information that they are not special and are essentially nothing; it says that how an individual deals with this assault on his self-esteem is critical to his mental health; it says that human beings would like to see themselves as having worth and see their lives as meaningful and purposeful so in the presence of the absence of those some persons construct false grandiose self-concepts and self-images and defend them and as a result become neurotic or psychotic; the paper ends by saying that people must look at their lives objectively and accept that they do not have existential worth and find a way to live with that reality while still being productive.  Existential psychotherapy is a means of getting people to live with their reality without escaping into delusions of what they want to be that they are not.


Ozodi Osuji

Existentialism (see further reading) has been defined in many ways. In this paper I will not quarrel with any of the definitions of existentialism out there but instead provide what it means to me. If what it means to me makes sense to you then work with it but if not reject it.

Existentialism deals with the human condition and issues of meaning and meaninglessness. It asks such questions as: is there meaning in life or is life meaningless, purposeless and pointless?

Clearly, how one answers those questions says more about one than life itself.  Why? It is because ultimately, we do not have complete information on life; therefore, to pronounce life meaningful or meaningless is an opinion based on incomplete information.

Any judgment made with incomplete information is not correct; any answer given with partial information on a subject is not the correct answer. Since we do not have complete information on the nature of life therefore whatever one says about it is not the whole answer, perhaps an opinion but not the whole truth.

What is the truth, anyway?  None of us knows what the truth is, assuming that there is such a thing as the truth. I do not know what the truth is. I do not know what life is.  All I have are opinions on life and the truth. Other people have their own opinions on the truth and life. We ought to hear each other's opinions on life and do with them whatever we want to do.

Since much of what is said in this paper is derived from my own experience I call my approach phenomenological existentialism.

My experience is that my life and by generalization human existence is meaningless, purposeless and pointless. I see me and all people as living a meaningless existence.

I believe that whereas this perception of life as meaningless is conscious in some of us that it is in all people albeit in unconscious state.

Conscious or unconscious the perception that life is meaningless makes people do what they do. Different people respond to it differently but they are responding to it in one way or another.

I believe that at the root of all mental disorders, psychoses and neurosis is perception of life as meaningless; mental disorders arise from futile efforts to deny the reality of meaninglessness and finding individual meaning and worth.

Each person deals with his perception that his life is meaningless in his own way; some deal with it as other persons in their world do and we call them normal persons; others try to find individual meaning and worth and often exaggerate what they do and we call them neurotic; still, others find meaning and worth in fantasy and we call them psychotic.


A little study of the physical sciences leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the human body is not different from animals' bodies and trees. All biological organisms are composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (and traces of other elements, such as iron, potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphor, sulfur, zinc, copper etc.)  These elements are in turn composed of the particles of electrons, protons and neutrons. Those sub-atomic particles (protons and neutrons) are composed of quarks and, ultimately, all of them are composed of photons.

Photons or particles of light came out of the heat of the big bang explosion that occurred 13.7 billion years ago and initiated our universe of matter, space and time.

When we die our bodies decompose to the elements that compose them and ultimately to particles and to the nothingness from whence the big bang came.

In other words, we came from nothing and are nothing and return to nothing; something important cannot come from nothing.

In the interval that we live in bodies, in our eyes we seem to be something important but in fact we are not important.  Our bodies are meat (food) for other animals to eat.

Look at your body; it is beautiful, isn't it? You labor like a slave to provide food, clothes and shelter for your body.  But what is the end of your body?  Perhaps, you live for a hundred years and die; your decaying body smells worse than feces! Your body is eaten by worms and those worms are in turn eaten by other animals and ultimately all of them decompose to the various elements and particles and nothing.

If your body is cremated it is reduced to one or two pounds of ashes; the monetary value of those ashes is zero!

You decorate your body with jewelry, wear fancy clothes, live in fancy houses and drive fancy cars but you are going to die and when you die you rot and smell like feces. This is the human condition, a condition we deny and struggle to change.

Human civilization is a struggle by human beings to make their bodies and lives seem to have worth. We know that our bodies have no worth and are nothing but we refuse to accept that reality. We even continue the futile efforts to make our bodies seem to have value when we die (at least those still alive do so for the bodies of their dead relatives).

Dead bodies are not just thrown away so that vultures and hyenas eat them as is the case with dead animals but are carefully prepared and buried. Rich folks even build mausoleums over their buried bodies (bodies eaten by bacteria and worms).

The point is that human beings struggle to make their bodies, make nothingness seem to have worth. Human civilization is a struggle to make nothingness seem to have worth. Albert Camus captured this reality in his seminal book, the Myth of Sisyphus.

Of course, we must respect human bodies; we must respect people's futile efforts to seem to have worth when, in fact, they do not have worth.

Please do not ever make the mistake of being cynical towards human beings and laugh at their seeming silly efforts to have worth based on their bodies. First, to do so is to laugh at your own struggle to have body based worth. One must respect other people to respect one's self.

Only a mind dead person like Adolf Hitler believed that he could disrespect other people and then respects his self. No, our human experience shows us that as you do unto other persons is how you do to you. If you respect and love other people you respect and love you; conversely, if you disrespect and do not love other people you do not respect and do not love you. You may hide from your awareness the correlation of love for other persons and love for you but such it is.

You may hate other people and appear to love yourself but that is only a mask for in your mind is self-hatred. The Nazis on the surface appeared to like themselves while hating other people but they had the deepest self-hatred ever found in human beings. When their empire based on delusion of superiority was shattered many of them committed suicide showing their already existing desire to annihilate their selves, the desire for death that they had hitherto denied and projected to other people hence went about killing other people; in fact, what they wanted to do is kill themselves and get out of a life they perceived as meaningless.

Simply stated, to love yourself you must love other people.  Therefore, despite the seeming nothingness of the human body one must respect one's body and other people's bodies and seek ways to provide for their comfort.

Existentialist philosophy arises from clear eyed understanding that life in body seems pointless and a resolve to make the most of it (see Jean Paul Sartre's writings, especially "Being and Nothingness"; also see Karl Jaspers and other existentialists in the further reading section).

Let people go about their seeming meaningless lives doing what gives them seeming meaning even though in the long run their activities seem futile.

See, astrophysics tells us that in a few trillion years all the stars and planets would have died and the universe would be a cold, empty place! We came from nothing and return to nothing and are nothing.

Given the reality of our nothingness the choice before one is either to commit suicide and get it over with or live fully, as one understands living fully is. If you must live then live fully doing what you like doing.

To me, living fully means figuring out what one enjoys doing, has aptitude for doing, training for it and doing it twenty-four-seven. In doing such work one forgets about the pointlessness of being and time flies away. As Erich Fromm pointed out in Man for Himself, as long as a man does what makes him feel productive and useful to society he is doing fine.

In the meantime, reality stares us in the face. Nature does not have respect for our bodies. Tsunamis, tornadoes, Volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, bacteria, virus and fungi destroy our bodies as they destroy animals and trees. Simply stated, our bodies have no existential worth; they are nothing.

We would like to feel special; indeed, we would like to believe that nature (religionists God) created us special and gave us lordship over nature. If we are the lords of nature how come nature treats us as it treats other animals and trees?

We may deny the reality of our lack of specialness all we want but the fact is that our bodies are white sepulcher.  I do not delude myself with fantasies about what we are; I accept who we are. We are nothing special.

As Arthur Schopenhauer said in World as Will and Idea, the universe appears to have made a mistake in producing people and it were better that people did not exist. We are born to age and die so what kind of life is that?

Yet some people give thanks to their God for creating them, for creating what would die, creating nothing? If God created people to suffer he ought to be crucified.

God did not create this world. God does not seem to exist apart from our imagination; we, human beings, appear to be the ones that created God in our image and turn around to say that he created us.

Clear eyed observation shows us that people are predatory animals and feed off each other's suffering and death; strong persons survive at the expense of weak persons and rationalize it with whatever religious and or philosophical bugaboo that they can convince themselves is true. The empirical reality is that in nature more powerful animals eat weaker ones; it is a dog eat dog world we live in.  Yet, there is something in us that suspects that we live in a moral universe and urges us to care for one another.

In the meantime, our awareness of our end in death and nothingness makes us feel like we are nothing. Thus, whereas Alfred Adler has some point in talking about our body feeling inadequate Vis a Vis the environment and that that makes us feel inferior and we react with pursuit of fictional superiority, what really makes us feel like we are nothing is the reality of existence itself.

I am acutely aware that my body has no value and am nothing and that I would die. Since I do not have the delusion of religion and its god to mask my existential awareness of my nothingness I have what I call existential depression.

(In clinical depression folks feel like life is not worth living, lose interest in the activities of daily living, such as not wanting to go to school, work, socialize, participate in sports, groom their bodies; they see life as pointless and generally want to die, as in suicide. Anti-depression medications such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft tend to cheer up the depressed; they stimulate the accumulation of the neurotransmitter, serotonin in the brain and that happy making pill makes people feel good about their lives. It is as if their bodies are given high dose coffee or cocaine and that stimulates them out of their doldrums. Take medications if you are depressed but if you are the thinking type try existentialist philosophy. I deliberately appended lots of materials on existentialist psychotherapy in the reading section.)

I am philosophical by nature and appreciate man as he is and have no illusions about him. I have no need to seek refuge in religious fantasy although I am fascinated by Gnosticism and see it as a possible antidote to our meaningless and purposeless existence.

The point I am making is that the human condition tends to give people the impression that they have no worth and value and that life is pointless and meaningless. Some folks may obtain fictional meaning from spurious religions that tell them that God created and protects them and give them life after death. The fact is that I have not seen God and do not know that there is life after death and therefore must be honest and accept that I do not know whether God exists or not.


I believe that psychotics such as the manic, schizophrenic and even neurotics are so because they are trying to give themselves worth and meaning when they perceive that those do not exist in their lives.

The schizophrenic tries to give himself false worth by seeing himself as god hence seeming to live powerfully and forever. However, his pretending to be god is no solution for he is going die and rot and return to the nothingness from whence we all came.  His pretense of power and importance changes nothing.

The excited and euphoric manic person pretending that he is wealthy and famous is not so and even if he is so he is still going to die and rot. He is best served if he accepted his existential nothingness and did not desire to be something important, for he and all people are not important and are never going to become important.

As long as we live in bodies we are nothing; that is the truth that most people do not want to accept (see Ernest Becker, the Denial of Death).

People have to accept their existential nothingness and live with that reality and stop creating fantasies to give them solace.

Boethius talked about the consolation of philosophy; as long as philosophy is rational its solace is useful. Greek and Roman Stoicism and Epicureanism gave those ancients solace. Today's existentialism gives thoughtful persons solace. Try reading such Romans as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and the Greek Zeno and you would think that you are reading todays existentialists.  Seize the day, Carpe Diem, for tomorrow you die, Horace advocated. That is, given the nothingness of being, enjoy as much of your life as you could before you die and other animals enjoy eating your body.

Life in body is a macabre and absurd dance; enjoy it. Why cry over spilled milk? Have fun and then buzz off from the world. William Shakespeare put it lovely in Macbeth when he said that life is a stage where all of us are like actors playing our parts and then exiting the stage only to be heard from no more. Our lives are full of sound and fury but in the end signify nothing.

We need not be pessimistic for there may be life after death! However, the nature of that life is probably not as extant religions make it out to be. Quantum mechanics, especially Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Hugh Everett's many worlds  hypothesis and John Bell's non-locality theorem suggest that there may be a conscious mind that produced the universe to experience it and that there are infinite universes.

It may well be the case that a multi layered mind invented infinite universes and experiences itself in those universes and chose to forget itself but occasionally a part of that mind awakens to its nature, as folks who have had what they called  spiritual enlightenment tell us.

The point that I have so far made is that the reality of our existential nothingness does not sit well with us and folks seek to deny it with futile and chimeric pursuit of worth in neurosis and psychosis. Even the normal person masquerades around as if he has worth when he has absolutely no worth. A bullet into his head and he is dead, so where is his worth?  All worth is fantasy. This is depressing but such is reality.

Nevertheless, if the individual discovers what he likes doing and devote his life to doing it, twenty four-seven it tends to give him a feeling of being productive and being fully alive.  This is all we can hope for, I think.


Our bodies have no intrinsic worth; they are food for worms. But we labor to give them protection, existence and worth. Culture, society and civilization can be defined as efforts aimed at giving our bodies and egos respect and worth even as we know that they have none of those.

You can deliberately choose to remove respect and worth from people; if you do you can treat people as nothing and no God would prevent you from doing so; only other people can stop you. Adolf Hitler and

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176