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Existential Psychotherapy's View of Conflict

Unlike the majority of current psychotherapeutic approaches, existential psychotherapy argues that the experience of conflict is neither the consequence of insufficiently met instinctual demands, nor  the product of  opposing instinctual demands, nor the outcome of inadequately established infantile relations, nor the  distillation of misunderstood, incomplete or improper learning experiences. Rather, it proposes that conflict is best  viewed as an inevitable condition of human existence and that the conflicts presented by clients arise from, and are expressions of, the overall worldview of the client. From this perspective, the client’s problematic presenting symptoms or disturbances cannot be isolated, or considered on their own, as separate and distinct from or "alien to" that presenting worldview.  From an existential perspective,  the particular expression of conflict presented by the client may be expressive of quite differing forms of tension within the current worldview.

In one instance, the client's experience of conflict reflects a gap or dissonance between sedimentations in the worldview and  actual experiences of being that challenge or contradict the sedimented stance. For example: the conflict that arises when the dominant view I hold about my self as being a bad and unlovable person is confronted with the felt genuineness of an other's statements regarding how good I am and the strength of positive feelings towards me this provokes for that other. Alternatively, conflict can emerge as a direct consequence and expression of the currently maintained worldview.  For example, the  conflict that arises when the dominant view I hold about my self as being a bad and unlovable person leads to experiences of  unwanted loneliness or seemingly uncontrollable self-harm.

The first type of conflict can only be resolved through the re-constitution of one's divided or dissonant worldview – which may be expressed as change in one's relations with self and/or others or the world in general. For example, my resolution of the conflict that arises when  the dominant view I hold about my self as being a bad and unlovable person is confronted with the felt genuineness of an other's statements regarding how good I am and the strength of positive feelings towards me this provokes for that other may require my re-evaluation of my self as always and only a bad and unlovable person.  The second type of conflict is an expression of the possible consequences of an undivided and coherent, if still sedimented, stance. It is that conflict which arises because we are capable of choice. The possible resolution of this type of conflict has less to do with issues of overt change and is more focused upon the embracing and acceptance of the presenting worldview from a more adequate or "truthful" standpoint such that the uneasy or unwanted consequences of that worldview are as fully embraced as are those that deemed to be desirable and acceptable.

This distinction of differing expressions of conflict is of central import to the kinds of beneficial therapeutic outcomes that might be both possible for and desirable to the client. If the expressed conflict is not adequately understood in its relatedness to the client's worldview,  the consequences may create far greater distress and unease in living than did the presenting problem.  

Existential psychotherapy's approach to a conflict is neither solely about nor predominantly concerned with its alteration, reduction or removal.  Instead, it suggests that the therapist's task is to assist the client in focusing upon, and connecting more accurately with, the worldview that shapes and defines that conflict.  In this way, the possibilities, limits and consequences  of any attempt at conflict resolution are more likely to be beneficial than disruptive shifts in the worldview and, indeed, may emerge simply as a consequence of the client's willingness to focus upon the worldview and its relatedness to the presenting conflict. The existential view of conflict makes it clear that existential psychotherapy's concerns rest precisely upon the exploration of the client's possibilities of living with conflict rather than seeking its eradication.

This argument has several significant implications for the therapeutic relationship. First, it makes clear that the therapeutic relationship, like all others, remains grounded in worldview-derived conflict and competing strategies.  What might distinguish this relationship from others, then, would not be the lack of such conflict, but rather its active and unstinting recognition of this given and the willingness – at first on the part of the psychotherapist, and subsequently, via reflection, by the client as well.  Second, this argument urges the investigation of conflict as lived and as expressed in the immediacy of the therapeutic relationship so that its relatedness to the presenting worldview can be examined and, through such examination, permit the experience of a novel possibility toward existence. And third, this argument makes plain that the means toward this transformative possibility is through the willingness of the therapist and client to meet and engage one another as beings-in-conflict who, nonetheless remain willing to be both revealed by the other and to be the means to the other's revelation.


Contact information - email esa@plexworld.com / telephone 0207 771 0123 / Fax 0207 771 0123