By Suzie Chick
In March this year, I, along with a few colleagues, were fortunate enough to attend a talk by Ernesto Spinelli, the renowned existential psychotherapist. Given I enjoyed his book “Tales of Un–Knowing” and my interest in all things existential, I was eager to hear what Spinelli had to say.
Spinelli’s talk focused upon the second edition of his book, “Practising existential therapy: The Relational World”, [which has been reviewed in this issue of Frontiers.]
His talk was divided into two parts, the first being more theory based and the second regarding practical application, which was followed by Q&A with the audience.
Spinelli started his talk by naming his concern regarding the over identification of Yalom’s four givens of existence (being death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness) with existential psychotherapy. Spinelli explains that these themes are universal and are not owned by existentialism. Spinelli explains that the way existential therapists talks about these concerns is what distinguishes them from other models of therapy.
Spinelli started his talk by naming his concern regarding the over identification of Yalom’s four givens of existence (being death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness) with existential psychotherapy
Spinelli named three key principles, which he considered, must be addressed in existential therapy, these being:
- Relatedness (as a primal condition of existence);
- Uncertainty (there’s always uncertainty, openness and possibility); and
- Anxiety (being the felt experience of relational uncertainty).
He also named one of the core underlying principles of existential therapy, in the words of Satre “existence precedes essence”. This view is in stark contrast with one of the fundamental beliefs of the Transpersonal; this being that essence or spirit is present before existence and comes up through the personality and is not determine by our experiences in the world.
For the second half of his talk, Spinelli turned to practical application, first focusing on reasons suggested by research as to why therapy is effective. From this research he stated that 10% is attributed to the techniques used in therapy, 15% relates to the clients expectation that the therapy will work and 30% relates to the therapeutic alliance.
Spinelli explained that he believed that there can be a positive impact just by entering therapy as it is a different space unknown previously to the client. For me I found this a great relief as ultimately it means at least some of battles facing our clients are won by merely attending the sessions, let alone accounting for the positive impact regarding the therapeutic alliance which is created.
there can be a positive impact just by entering therapy as it is a different space unknown previously to the client.
Spinelli also provided us with what he called “little mantras” to take away with us for our work, these being:
- To describe something is to change it; and
- The client is always right (by understanding what the client means through description, you earn the right to talk about it)
I really liked these little mantras (thought I wish he’d given us more) especially the first one as it emphasizes the effortless way therapy can precede.
Spinelli described what he believed to be the 3 stages or movement of therapy, these being:
- Stage 1: For the client to hear their voice more honestly and accurately;
- Stage 2: For the client to be accepted in the presence of another (how the client can acknowledge the ‘I’ which they experience in the room is different from the ‘I’ which they experience in the outside world; and
- Stage 3: When the client takes the experience of therapy into the outside world.
I have certainly witnessed clients experiencing these stages, particularly stage 2. Clients often comment how they feel a different sense of themselves in our sessions compared to what they experience outside of the room. The next challenge for these clients, as Spinelli suggests, is to carry this new way of being into their lives (something which is easier said than done in my own personal experience).
In the Q&A part of his talk, one woman recounted how tough it has been for her to extol the values of existential therapy to her current paradigm. I felt a genuine sense of frustration and emotion from this woman as to her predicament. Spinelli told her how envious he was of her, as she has a reason to fight for her beliefs. His response to her had a kind of magical quality, which I felt, created a beautiful kind of energy in the room and it was a wonderfully positive way to conclude his lecture.
Overall I found Spinelli’s talk very engaging, especially the second half regarding practical application. For me, I struggle with some of the existential theoretical ideas as one of their core notions directly conflicts with the Transpersonal (this being “existence precedes essence”). Spinelli came across as a likeable, charismatic and highly intelligent individual with a larger than life physical appearance. I felt engaged throughout his talk and the experience has consolidated my interest in the existential.