Interview with Emmy van Deurzen

Professor Emmy van Deurzen is one of the foremost figures in the field of existential therapy. Weaving philosophy into her work, she is a practicing counselling psychologist who runs a London-based private practice called Dilemma Consultancy.

She is heavily involved in education too, acting as the Principal of the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling at the Existential Academy, also based in London, whilst also directing several doctoral and masters programmes at Middlesex University.

She is most well known for her work in entwining existential philosophy into psychology, developing the theory of existential therapy and establishing its use across the UK and Europe. Her workshop on 22nd June 2019, Existential Therapy and the Art of Living, will provide an introduction to this discipline of psychotherapy, and demonstrate its use with a wide range of clients. Existential therapy is able to reach clients of all backgrounds, touching upon anything from unique and personal trauma to the overbearing nature of an individual’s political backdrop and the social phenomena that surround them.

Speaking to Emmy van Deurzen

Hi Emmy, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us how did you start out in counselling & psychotherapy?

I studied philosophy in France in the early seventies and with my Masters degree was able to get a full-time job in a psychiatric hospital to talk with patients and organize social activities. The job involved in service training in psychotherapy. After this I went back to University to take a degree in psychology, followed by training in clinical psychology and psychotherapy.

As a therapist and teacher you have been instrumental in facilitating the growth of existential therapy in the UK. If I had to limit you to three key existential ideas that you believe invaluable to all therapists (whether existentially trained or not), what would these three key ideas be and why?

Three key existential ideas are…

  1. Our problems and much of what we call ‘mental illness’ are based in problems in living and the first port of call should always be to try to get clarity on what we are doing wrong and how we can set this right.
  2. Each of us needs to discover in our own way how we can take responsibility for our lives and that we can only exercise freedom if we face up to the limits and possibilities of human existence.
  3. Most of human existence is full of tensions, conflicts and contradictions. When we learn to see the paradoxes involved in these we can move beyond dilemmas and transcend the troubles that are holding us back.
I once heard you say that existential psychotherapists offer interventions to their clients based on ‘philosophy rather than on psychology’. Can you tell us a little bit about the importance of this statement to the existential way of working?

Psychology is all about what is inside of people’s minds. Though it also looks at familial and societal effects on people it often doesn’t set people’s problems in the full context of their culture, current politics, religion, ideology and their personal values. Existential therapists focus much more on the way in which we are in the world and how our world view determines everything we do and see. It helps people get a wider perspective, which can lift us above our current situation and give us back our purpose and meaning.

Existentialism has a reputation as being a bit dark, with a focus on the meaning and purpose of life, and with questions such as ‘why am I here?’. Yet I’m sure you would say the opposite is the case, that existential philosophy is offering a stepping stone out of the dark places that people find themselves. I am particularly thinking about the current emphasis on the problem of loneliness in society. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with existential therapy could you say a bit more about how existential therapy ‘illuminates’ the life of your patients and clients?

Illumination is exactly the right word. Light shines most strongly in the darkness and the fact that most people come for therapy when they feel forlorn or forsaken in a dark place, helps us to explore the contrasts of what is positive and negative in a person’s life. By not avoiding the difficult and dark places, but exploring them patiently and bravely, it becomes much more easy for a person to discover their inner strength and their capacity for going beyond darkness, back into the light.

Existential therapy has a powerful ability to ‘illuminate’ the life of patients and clients, allowing them to explore happiness as well as difficulties at their own pace.

I love Soren Kierkegaard’s idea that we should learn to be anxious in “the right way”. This will be a revolutionary idea for many clients and patients, and indeed for many therapists. What can we learn from existentialism about how to work with our clients and patients who come to us with anxiety issues?

Existential therapists, following Kierkegaard and Heidegger, take the view that anxiety is the energy of life and is not a symptom of mental illness. Of course anxiety can get out of control and so a person does need to learn how to befriend and value their anxiety instead of allowing it to spin out of control into panic.

For someone who founded a psychotherapy teaching school, the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling (NSPC), it may seem a bit odd for me to ask you what got you interested in delivering training and teaching therapists, but I guess there must have been a starting point somewhere? So what was the motivation to be a teacher and trainer?

I started teaching undergraduate psychology students when I was finishing my clinical psychology training in France. When I came to the UK to work with the anti-psychiatrists in London in 1977 I was asked to teach existential therapy to the trainees of the Arbours Association, because of my expertise in bringing philosophy and psychology together. This led to me being appointed to teach and train people on a Masters programme in Humanistic Psychology in 1978. By that time I knew I had found my career. I continued to work in private practice throughout that time, as I knew my teaching had to remain rooted in reality.

If you weren’t a therapist, what would you be and why?

That’s a very nice question which makes me think about what I wanted to be once upon a time, i.e. a singer songwriter. I have written many songs in Dutch, French and English and used to earn my living playing in cafes and restaurants when I was a student. However with age my voice has gone a bit and I would now much rather be an artist. I have painted in oils since I was 15 years old.

Where can people hear more from you? (eg, your own Blog, Website, Twitter, Email?)

I have a website, and am very active on social media. I do blog posts on my Facebook profile almost on a daily basis, and tweet frequently, often about human rights. My Twitter handles are @emmyzen for my political work and @emmyvandeurzen for my more psychotherapeutic tweets. You can find some of my speeches and talks on YouTube.

We have a blog post containing further information on existential psychotherapy. Beyond that, we hope to see you on 22nd June in Brighton for Professor Emmy van Deurzen’s workshop.

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