Probably the earliest psychology book written from an existential viewpoint was Search for Authenticity by J.F.T. Bugental.
He considers authenticity to be the central concern of psychotherapy. What is the meaning of authenticity according to Bugental? First it must be stated that we live in a world of contingency. I can never predict anything with complete assurance. The condition of life is like being on a tiny island of the known midst a big sea of the unknown where there may be an infinite number of variables and influences that effect what will happen, despite my best plans.
Take today, for example. I thought that I would do a routine blood test, do my morning jog and go to work. Instead the printer at the lab wasn’t working so we had a long wait to get the little stickers to put on the test tubes. Then they lost my vein in the middle and had to take from my other arm, and finally after I finished a car was blocking my parking space. So much for my morning run. Having to live with contingency causes anxiety.
Authenticity means living in a world of contingency (uncertainty) and accepting it, while finding a more open relationship to all such things. This entails awareness, choice and responsibility.
Fear makes us try to gain certainty at the price of distorting the picture of reality and thus reduce existential anxiety in order to forestall the possibility of tragedy – even though tragedy is in fact part of life and can’t be avoided.
Interestingly enough, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) picks up on this fear when he comments (Genesis 29:1) on the need to guard ourselves against divination, and he says that we are liable to succumb to divination because of our tendency to want to know what will be in the future. If we insert Bugental’s language we can say that divination is the refusal to live with contingency.
Why do we want to know the future? We are afraid of what will happen and we want to be in control. However, being in control does not engender a sense of control. Ironically the attempt to avoid uncertainty and evade anxiety leads to a loss of authentic being and renewed neurotic anxiety.
In therapy the client is helped to re-confront contingency situations and learn to welcome the responsibility of choice.
Generally speaking Logotherapy belongs to the existential school of thought (the point of entry of the book I’ve been reviewing) but it parts ways on a significant point: The existentialist position is that life is meaningless; therefore we must fabricate some kind of meaningful way to live. Logotherapy posits that life is unconditionally meaningful; therefore we must discover what that meaning is.
If I were to define logotherapy in four words I would say logotherapy is about “finding the hidden value.”
For this reason logotherapy is not “similar” to other approaches despite certain techniques they have in common. It entails a radically different view of reality.
In order to face uncertainty in an uncertain world and given the uncertainty about our ability to know all we need to know in order to make the right decisions in life requires trust. Trust only has meaning when you don’t know what will be and you trust anyway. The religious person will call it trust in God. The person who doesn’t want to talk about God will call it trust in life. It comes to the same thing.