What Is Existential Coaching and How Can It Help Us?


A most excellent method for engaging issues of meaning, authenticity, responsibility, anxiety, and more


I’m fine with reaching goals slowly these days. And one of those eventually places I inch towards is moving from small business and publishing coaching to what I conceive of as “Ethics, Existence, and Conflict” coaching. It has long struck me that we often struggle with life for not having the thinking to balance out the feeling; for not having a framework for good judgment and decision-making; for not creating our own infrastructure of awareness and values; and for not knowing about and engaging with the wisdom of the ages. This is all material for the growing field of coaching and its powerful conversations.

As I move on this path, I’m heartened by signs of everyday philosophy, as in The Apeiron Blog online and The Good Place on TV. I follow practical philosopher-coach Dr. Danielle LaSusa, who specializes in the meaning of motherhood. And I’m gripped by the work of Yannick Jacob, thinker, advocate, coach, and author of An Introduction to Existential Coaching: How Philosophy Can Help Your Clients Live with Greater Awareness, Courage and Ownership* (Routledge, 2019).

 

What Is Existential Coaching? Existential coaching is an emerging type of coaching that helps individuals address their everyday lives, goals, and challenges through the lens of existential philosophy’s themes — human givens (particularly death), and making choices, accepting responsibilities, creating meaning, and seeking to live authentically — in the face of anxiety, uncertainties, and others who are having their own, separate experiences and relationships with the world.

 

What Is Coaching? Coaching is a growing helping-through-talking field less than 50 years old, popularly recognized in such contexts as life coaching, executive coaching, relationship coaching, and business coaching. In his Introduction to Coaching Skills: A Practical Guide* (SAGE Publications, 2017), Christian Van Nieuwerburgh finds a growing consensus that coaching is “(a) a managed conversation between two people; (b) aims to support sustainable change to behaviours or ways of thinking; and (c) focuses on learning and development.” He further conceptualizes coaching as the intersection of a process, a set of skills, and a way of being.

Coaching is distinct from therapeutic methods like counseling and psychotherapy in that clients are presumed to be healthy, functioning individuals not seeking to fix or heal something from the past or working through a recent trauma. They seek the assistance of a coach, for example, to work on specific goals and/or establish better ways of acting and thinking for self-development and personal satisfaction.

 

What Is Existentialism? Existentialism is a philosophical tradition developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by primarily Western European philosophers, including the recognizable giants of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Sartre, concerned with the experience of existence for the human individual. This body of thought associates human existence with very specific, recurring, and intertwined themes:

  • Freedom, choice, responsibility

  • Authenticity

  • Facticity, human givens

  • Absurdity, meaning, creation of meaning

  • Isolation, the other

  • Angst, dread, anxiety

To elaborate on and connect these themes, we get such insights as:

  • As human beings we are born as very specific individuals, with very real constraints, into very real situations (the facts of our lives, biology, culture), facing the ultimate fact of life for all of us: death.

  • Despite these facts, they are not our essence and they do not define us, because the world is absurd, or inherently without meaning. The meaning of our lives, therefore, is ours to determine.

  • Existence basically “condemns us to be free” (Sartre, 1946), and it is our responsibility to choose our paths, create ourselves, and be responsible for those things, knowing that, ultimately, we will die.

  • All of this, naturally, stirs up feelings of anxiety and dread, including when dealing with other individuals, who are in the same boat as us facing their own choices and explorations of meaning.

  • Authenticity (its avoidance is bad faith) becomes an ongoing quest referring to whether and how we confront and deal with these formidable components of human existence.

 

Back to Existential Coaching and Positive Psychology 2.0 No more than 20 years old, existential coaching is just as it sounds, an existentialist approach to coaching. It dovetails nicely with a development in psychology termed Existential Positive Psychology or Positive Psychology 2.0 by Dr. Paul Wong.

Positive psychology is a newer branch of psychology concerned with what’s right with people — the traits, habits, emotions, etc. that go along with happiness, resilience, and thriving. Wong’s PP2.0 refers to a development in positive psychology that acknowledges and examines the darker and more challenging sides of human psychology and how they relate to human well-being. As Lightning McQueen learns from Doc Hudson, “Turn right to go left,” we learn from Dr. Wong, Turn dark to go light.

Given the typically positive, forward-moving, goal-centric orientation of coaching and the characteristically dark and challenging nature of existentialism, Yannick Jacob finds a combination of the two can be understood through the lens of PP2.0. That is, existential coaching allows healthy, functioning individuals to learn and develop new behaviors and ways of thinking through managed conversations that address the themes of existentialism within the context of one’s life and current concerns, allowing greater functioning, well-being, and even thriving.

 

Real-World Applications So, that’s the dry bones of this stuff. What does that look like in real life? What things could you work on with an existential coach?

  • Anxiety. What if some of your anxiety was not all about you but inherent in the human condition? Would that change your relationship to it? You might choose to work with a coach on distinguishing between these types of anxiety and effective responses and ways of coping with each.

  • The meaning of life. What if there is no meaning of life other than what you decide it is? That sounds like an overwhelming responsibility and even a dark reality, but it can also be seen as an exciting responsibility and a liberating reality. Even if you don’t buy the initial premise, you might still benefit greatly from discussing with a coach what life means to you and how to make choices that align with and support that recognition.

  • The inevitability of death. An unexpected diagnosis, a tragic accident, the loss of a loved one, random musings, aging…all may have us contemplating where we’re heading. We can process this hard fact of life and what we might want to change, how we want to live in the time we have, with the facilitated conversations of coaching.

  • Alone. Together. Alone Together. Being a solitary being can be isolating. We long to connect with others, but there’s always some distance. The other can’t always fully know us or be who we want or need them to be. We are individuals seeking and making meaning, and so are they. The practical, goal-oriented, personal satisfaction focus of coaching can help us chill out and cultivate and enjoy the best of this dual situation. We get to have our individual experience and relationships.

  • Responsibility. As individuals creating our lives in the context of various constraints, it’s up to us to make the best of it. No one is coming to save us, to do it for us. We can work with a coach, however, in accepting this responsibility and using it to our advantage.

  • Authenticity. We’re individuals. We’re creating meaning. We’re taking responsibility for our lives. We acknowledge death. We’re putting anxiety in its proper context. How do we remain authentic? True to ourselves and the realities of existence? Through coaching, we can sort these things out, evaluate where we’re at and our options, and have an accountability partner in keeping it real.

 

A Parting Word There’s no need for everyone to run out and get an existential coach (though that would be very cool), but I hope you take a few things away from this:

  • Coaching is not a fluffy accessory or therapy-light. It is its own distinct field and yields robust outcomes.

  • The existentialist themes of freedom, choice, responsibility, authenticity, creation of meaning, self and other, and anxiety are rich places for philosophical reflection, for beginning to construct your own infrastructure of understanding and values.

  • Turn dark to go light. Exploring the darker themes of existence and the darker outputs of our minds and emotions can be a path to greater wellness. To go deeper on this, check out Dr. Paul Wong’s “What Is PP2.0? Why Is It Necessary for Mental Health During the Pandemic?”



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