Existential theory is rooted in the belief that we are responsible and have the freedom to create our own meaning.

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What is my purpose in life? If you have ever asked yourself this question, it may have required a lot of thought. Yet, how we attach meaning to our lives can influence our choices in how we behave and interact with others.

You may feel overwhelmed by choices and experience anxiety. But, on the other hand, you may make choices that feel purposeful and good to you. Existential theory explains how we attach meaning and apply that meaning to our lives.

Existential theory is rooted in the philosophical idea that humans have free choice, and because of that free choice, we can create purpose and meaning in our lives. Existential theory suggests that we have a choice in who we desire to be.

The roots of existential theory date back to the early 1800s, and the first philosopher to explore the idea of existentialism was Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He’s often known as the father of existentialism.

Other key influences on existentialist theory include:

Critical concepts in existentialist theory are about creating your identity and how you attribute meaning to your life.

Existentialism focuses on personal choice and the question: What does it mean to exist?

There are many key ideas of existentialism.

Existence precedes essence

This is one of the most crucial concepts in understanding existentialist theory. This explores the idea that we exist and find meaning later. We have free choice to create our meaning and develop our values. The concept explains that this is our purpose in life: To create meaning.

Existential philosophers believe that when we’re born, we’re “nothing.” Instead, through developing meaning, we become what we make of ourselves.


Existentialism emphasizes the importance of unrestricted freedom for individuals to make their own choices. These choices, due to the freedom that individuals have, allow them to:

  • create goals
  • make something out of yourself
  • create meaningful experiences in your life


Existential philosophers connect the concept of the absurdity of life to the creation of meaning. Absurdity refers to the idea that there are a lot of unknown circumstances in life, and anything can happen to you at any time.

The idea explains events that could happen to you follow no specific pattern. Existential theorists believe that life is “absurd” and has no meaning until we attach importance to it.


Anxiety often occurs when you become aware of the absurdity of life. Existentialists suggest that the awareness of your freedom and responsibility can often lead to a sense of overwhelming dread.

Yet, free choice allows us to make either healthy or destructive choices due to this awareness. To quote Kierkegaard, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”


Authenticity is another crucial element of existentialist theory. Authenticity is about being genuine and making choices in a way that is fundamental to who you are regardless of external pressures.

Individuality is an essential aspect of existential theory — related to authenticity.

Existential theorists believe that there is no inherent state of “human nature,” so humans must define what values or purposes to give attention to.


This concept within existential theory comes from the idea that humans are their only source of value. The premise theorizes that this knowledge creates feelings of loneliness and isolation.

It theorizes that individuals’ freedom can cause them to feel trapped.

Existentialism has the benefit of helping people create meaning in their lives. By becoming aware of freedom and choice, individuals can mitigate their anxiety about the unknown.

Living meaningful lives may reduce the dread of unexpected events and can help us cope with overwhelming emotions such as fear.

One of the significant limitations of existentialism is the idea of responsibility. Existentialists assert the concept of personal freedom and responsibility.

But, as some researchers suggest, societal pressures limit our freedoms or we have individual responsibilities necessary for survival that impose on freedom.

For example, you may be balancing being financially secure with raising a family. These two things may compete for your needs and impose on the concept of freedom.

Existential therapy helps the individual accept and come to terms with specific givens in life, such as facing awareness of their death.

There are four ultimate anxiety concerns, that existential therapy addresses:

  1. freedom and responsibility
  2. isolation
  3. death
  4. meaninglessness

Existential therapies address questions about the nature of our existence. The belief is that by overcoming distress related to existential topics, mental health challenges such as anxiety will be reduced or prevented.

Techniques used in existential therapy

If you’re wondering what to expect if you see an existential therapist, there are a few standard techniques used.

The first technique commonly used in existential therapy is what Frankl termed logotherapy.

Logotherapy looks at fears that cause symptoms of anxiety or other mental health symptoms. In logotherapy, the basic premise is that there is anticipatory anxiety when a person encounters or thinks about a fearful situation.

In logotherapy, the focus is on the precipitating event that causes symptoms. Sometimes sessions are even geared to replicate and confront symptoms at a more targeted level than ever before.

The goal is to help separate yourself from the symptoms, so they lose their grip on you.

Another technique commonly used in existential therapy is Socratic questioning. Socratic questioning is a technique that existential therapists use to help you gain a new perspective.

Socratic questions are a series of graded questions that help facilitate behaviors and thoughts toward therapeutic goals.

Existential theory focuses on life’s big questions. What’s my purpose? How do I create meaning? How do I cope with my own mortality? Existentialism is centuries old and is still used today to address profound questions.

Existentialism’s central ideas are derived from the creation of meaning and the individual choice you have. Anxiety or fear may often arise from the realization of freedom and responsibility.

In existential therapy, the goal is to create a meaningful and purposeful life. The therapist does this through reflective listening and Socratic questioning. Existential therapy can help folks work toward more intentional living.