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How to become an Existential Therapist

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What is existential therapy?

Existential therapy incorporates philosophy as much as psychology into its practice, and focuses on the individual rather than their symptoms, and this approach makes it unique to the field.

Free will, self-determination, and the search for meaning and the individual’s place in it are the focus of the work a patient will do, and they’ll accomplish this by making rational choices and attempting to achieve their maximum potential as human beings. Many therapists believe existential therapy is not so much a psychology modality but aligned with the philosophical theories of Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Nietzsche (among others) with an emphasis on therapy.

People who experience anxiety and angst when their identity is under threat are prime examples of the type of patient who participates in existential therapy, and in fact “How do I deal with life in the face of uncertainty, suffering and death?” is one of the key questions that existential therapy strives to help patients answer so they may alleviate anxiety, loneliness and the perceived meaninglessness of their lives.

But as the value of existential therapy becomes more recognized, it has been implemented and practiced with patients undergoing not just existential crisis, but extreme anxiety due to terminal illness, aging, or life-altering changes that make them question their purpose and reason for existing.

Some of the core tenets of existential therapy include:

  • We are all capable of self-awareness
  • We have a unique identity defined by relationships with other people
  • You must recreate yourself constantly to adapt because life changes constantly
  • We should accept that anxiety is part of the human condition

Should I become an existential therapist?

As an existential therapist you will be a guide, a seeker and a “fellow traveler” on your patient’s journey, so if you are tied to traditional diagnosing and rapid symptom relief therapies, an existential therapist job may not be for you. These therapists are part of the movement away from structured psychological techniques and are concerned with building a relationship with their clients that can help them find meaning, reconciliation and answers without utilizing the more traditional or cognitive behavior therapies.

In the Atlantic Monthly, existential psychotherapist Dr. Jane Prelinger sums up the goal of existential therapy as, “Part of the existential is just acknowledging that a ship has sailed. A lot of it is mourning. You mourn these realities so that you can move toward relinquishing them.” As such, you will need to be patient, have empathy, be self-aware and involve yourself in the journey so that you can help guide patients to solutions that work uniquely for them. There is no standard answer, such as a prescribed medication or set diagnosis, in existential therapy because each patient is different.

Since existential therapy is a relatively new approach based upon old theories, there are not a lot of formal education programs available, but in recent years more specific training programs have been developed and degree programs from accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. are becoming more readily available.

Steps to become an existential therapist

Earn your degree—or two.

stack of books in front of wood wall

Many people who practice as existential therapists have a postgraduate master’s degree in mental health psychology or counseling and also hold a degree in philosophy. For example, if you earned your 4-year bachelor’s in philosophy you could then earn your master’s in psychology or counseling and practice as an existential therapist once you complete your fieldwork or internship. You can also go the more traditional route and earn a bachelor’s and master’s in psychology, but somewhere in your studies, you will need to complete coursework in philosophy.

Complete the required supervised fieldwork or a clinical internship.

male therapist showing patient a view outside window

Supervised fieldwork will be required for licensing, and candidates are usually required to complete between 1,500 and 2,000 hours of supervised fieldwork in mental health or behavioral facilities. Clinical internships may last from nine to 12 months.

Get licensed in your state.

smiling woman talks to therapist

Though existential therapists hold a different approach to practice than clinical and cognitive behaviorists, you’ll still need to get the credentials the more traditional modalities require and abide by the licensing laws of the state in which you want to practice. This includes completing specific fieldwork hours and having your master’s degree.

Consider professional certificates to advance.

woman on laptop filling out paperwork

There are several professional certificates to help you expand your knowledge and add to your resume and existing skill set. Universities and institutes worldwide offer programs to enhance your knowledge base and keep you abreast of developments in the field of humanistic and existential psychology. An example of a certificate you can apply for is Foundations in Existential and Humanistic Practice, which is offered by the Existential-Humanistic Institute, as well as universities, in the U.S.

Keep on top of continuing education.

woman leaning on desk holding patient files

You’ll need to keep your license valid to practice and continuing education is a must for all therapists and psychologists. Certificate programs such as the one above offer CE hours upon completion and submission to your state board, but there are other conferences, seminars, workshops and classes (though online classes may only be able to contribute a small percentage to the CE hour total) of industry-approved and recognized resources. The number of hours needed will vary by state and also depend upon how long your license is valid, but most states list between 30 and 40 credit hours as a standard.

What will my courses be like?

Your coursework will be a rigorous blend of traditional counseling and psychology basics but will also contain a more non-traditional curriculum.

Classes in phenomenology and philosophy will be included and you may study such topics as these:

  • Clinical and philosophical texts
  • Narratives and case studies
  • Qualitative and phenomenological research
  • Psychotherapy and Existentialism
  • The human search for meaning
  • Phenomenology in psychology and psychiatry
  • From psychotherapy to logotherapy
  • Courses focusing on (among others) philosophers such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre and Hegel

How much does an existential therapist earn?

How much you can earn as an existential therapist depends upon several factors, such as where you work if you’re in private practice, where in the U.S. you work, and how long you’ve been in practice. If you’re in private practice, you can set your own schedule and consequently may earn more or less depending upon your office hours.

And while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track existential psychologists specifically, it does include them in the category of psychologists, all others. Take a look at the national median annual salary and what you can earn in your state:

Psychologists, All Other

National data

Median Salary: $106,420

Projected job growth: 5.1%

10th Percentile: $40,000

25th Percentile: $68,410

75th Percentile: $124,020

90th Percentile: $138,860

Projected job growth: 5.1%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $110,090 $27,480 $127,150
Arizona $111,220 $47,990 $127,570
Arkansas $99,900 $26,290 $122,680
California $122,970 $52,890 $173,850
Colorado $107,490 $61,200 $130,650
Connecticut $116,310 $37,710 $143,370
District of Columbia $106,810 $52,120 $138,860
Florida $105,760 $49,250 $126,900
Georgia $99,590 $46,320 $125,630
Hawaii $120,600 $51,080 $149,950
Idaho $97,510 $46,320 $116,380
Illinois $106,420 $51,380 $136,390
Indiana $103,790 $49,600 $123,800
Iowa $106,950 $42,200 $123,010
Kansas $103,790 $30,400 $133,830
Kentucky $110,090 $75,030 $122,680
Louisiana $39,310 $36,770 $122,680
Maine $80,010 $52,430 $135,110
Maryland $106,810 $35,360 $159,330
Massachusetts $116,210 $51,480 $137,340
Michigan $66,210 $36,850 $122,680
Minnesota $80,870 $40,730 $129,080
Mississippi $66,650 $26,290 $119,520
Missouri $106,950 $41,600 $124,950
Montana $79,350 $26,290 $122,680
Nebraska $104,690 $26,290 $122,680
Nevada $124,840 $47,430 $150,970
New Hampshire $123,260 $46,140 $142,770
New Jersey $120,640 $39,090 $135,260
New Mexico $106,430 $46,610 $135,610
New York $106,020 $39,260 $142,580
North Carolina $103,790 $45,380 $124,900
Ohio $111,070 $48,280 $140,110
Oklahoma $106,390 $26,290 $128,710
Oregon $112,440 $60,200 $160,920
Pennsylvania $97,930 $50,360 $130,580
Rhode Island $104,000 $30,410 $139,980
South Carolina $114,730 $46,320 $140,630
South Dakota $103,790 $26,730 $142,520
Texas $112,280 $48,820 $141,420
Utah $106,950 $47,650 $130,560
Vermont $83,690 $54,860 $120,990
Virginia $109,640 $78,680 $138,530
Washington $111,110 $53,500 $135,430
West Virginia $39,670 $26,400 $117,500
Wisconsin $106,500 $45,660 $142,620
Wyoming $104,730 $26,290 $167,380

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Pay compared to similar professions

If you’re interested in how existential therapist salaries compare to other psychology fields, here are median wages for some common psychotherapy practices:

Career Median Annual Salary
Psychologists, All Other $106,420
Clinical and Counseling Psychologists $90,130
Marriage and Family Therapists $56,570
Therapists, All Other $60,800
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $49,710

Where existential psychologists are most in demand?

If you’re planning a move to a city that has a larger therapist population, the BLS reports the following metro areas with the highest number of psychologists:

Metropolitan Areas Employment
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 750
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 610
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 440
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 430
Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH 330
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 310
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 310
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 300
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 250
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD 250

Highest-paying metro areas

Finally, these are the highest-paying metro areas in the country, according to the BLS, along with the median annual salary of each:

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $150,970
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $139,860
Rochester, MN $137,820
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $134,660
Eugene, OR $133,290
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV $125,840
Charleston-North Charleston, SC $122,140
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT $121,520
El Paso, TX $120,740
Urban Honolulu, HI $120,600

Skills and traits

As an existential therapist, you will be a participant on the journey with your patients and four key concerns will drive your interactions and work together. According to existential therapist Irvin Yalom, those concerns are:

  • Isolation
  • Freedom
  • Emptiness
  • Death

Yalom calls these the “givens of existence” and an “inescapable part of being human,” and that every person must come to terms with these concerns through active choices to realize their individual potential. As the therapist helping a patient reconcile with these concerns and providing the strategies and tools for them to make the choices that will help them succeed you should have the following existential therapy techniques:

Active listening:
Probably the most important skill you can have as an existential therapist.
You’ll need to encourage individual thought and help alleviate anxiety in people in crisis over their key concerns.
Excellent communication skills:
You’re a guide as well as a traveler on the patient journey and you must be able to communicate effectively with them.
Trust and confidentiality:
As in all forms of therapy, you must be trustworthy, have good boundaries, and keep the confidence.
Problem-solving skills:
You will be helping patients find unique solutions that work for them.

Tools and knowledge for existential therapists

Since existential therapy is based on philosophic principles, you need to know theories and how to apply them
You should have knowledge of statistics because you will need to perform research and analyze and interpret data.
You may need to research a patient’s particular medical or psychological symptoms, even though your therapy will not be symptom-driven.
Holistic approach:
Rather than a pharmaceutical approach to a patient’s anxiety, you will pursue a more holistic solution that combines the mind, body, and spirit.
Computer skills:
Even if you take notes by hand, you’ll still need to keep patient records and do billing. That means you’ll likely use a computer and some form of medical billing and patient records software.

Where existential therapists work

Existential therapists work in many of the same environments that other therapists and psychologists do. According to the BLS, psychologists work mostly in mental health clinics, hospitals, substance abuse facilities, continuing care and assisted living facilities, schools, and private practice. They may also work in hospice care or the correctional system if their patients are dealing with imminent death or incarceration.

Professional resources

No matter if you are just beginning to do your research to begin your existential therapist education or you are a long-time practitioner in the field, here are some helpful resources to read, listen to and ponder:

The Existentialists Podcast: Four existential psychologists discuss an array of topics that incorporate existential tenets into the outcome of having a more fulfilled life.

Association of Humanistic Psychology: A website for the association located in California that features a blog, member resources, engagement opportunities, and events for students, professionals, and anyone interested in humanistic psychology.

The Existential-Humanistic Institute: Based in San Francisco, the Institute offers professional enrichment programs, training, and events for licensed professionals and graduate students.

Existential-Humanistic Northwest: EHNW, which is in Portland, OR, serves the healing professions, clients, and the public by encouraging dialogue, education, training, and advocacy.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Can I work as an existential therapist part-time or on a flexible schedule?

Yes. You can conduct sessions as a private practice therapist and work as much or little as you choose or designate certain days for office hours. If you decide working for a hospital, at a university or other structured mental health facility is better for you, you may be required to work a more traditional 5-day work week.

That said, if you have a private practice, you may be on call in case of a patient emergency or need to arrange for someone to cover your caseload for you in case of a patient emergency if you go on vacation.

Can existential therapy be used alongside other therapies?

Yes. Existential therapy may be combined with other, more traditional therapies if the therapist believes it will work the best for the patient. As an example, you could combine existential therapy with a more traditional but related therapy modality like behavioral therapy for maximum benefit.

Some patients appreciate a therapist who will approach therapy from more than one point of view so they can examine their issues from different perspectives and insights.

What is the difference between existential and humanistic psychology?

While both therapies focus on understanding the human experience through the patient rather than the symptoms, humanistic therapy takes a more altruistic stance than existential therapy. Humanistic therapy views human nature as basically good and making choices that are in the best interest of the self and other people. 

Existentialist therapy is more concerned with the patient finding the philosophical origin of their anxiety by helping them act with self-awareness and responsibility. Since problems people face are caused by their anxiety over loneliness, isolation and the inevitably of death, using authenticity and free will are the potential paths to finding meaning and enabling people to live worthwhile lives.

Getting started

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Written and reported by:

All Psychology Schools Staff