If you ever find yourself sinking into the plush blue couch of Dr. Jane Prelinger, you should know that she doesn’t want you to call her Dr. Prelinger. In her office, even when you’re on the couch and she’s facing you from her chair, looking at you through heavy eyeliner and the frame of her white-blond bangs, she insists: You’re just two humans. “It’s Faith and Jane,” she told me when I was in that position. “Here, it’s human to human.”
Jane is an existential therapist. She sees a lot of different clients with a lot of different problems, but she thinks all of those problems can be reduced to the same four essential issues: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.
Existential therapy isn’t new. Its roots go back to the existential philosophers of the 20th century, and specifically to Jean-Paul Sartre, who summed up his philosophy in 1943 when he wrote that humans are “condemned to be free.” Unlike other animals, humans are conscious and aware of their own mortality—but that means they have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding in each moment what to do and how to be.
Existential philosophy evolved into a methodology in the postwar years, as therapists in different corners of the globe began using its principles to inform their practice: After being freed from a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946, and coined logotherapy as a method of creating meaning. Rollo May brought this European perspective to America in the 1950s, giving it a more optimistic flair focused on the vastness of human potential, and called it the “existential-humanistic” approach. And in 1980, Irvin Yalom defined the four “givens” of the human condition—death, meaning, isolation, and freedom—that have become the basis for the field. Today there remain several different branches of existential therapy, but they all help clients face existential givens head-on so that they can move toward a more “authentic” and free existence.