Existential-Humanistic NorthWest

Existential Meaning Making: The Heart of Therapeutic Change Presented by: Orah T. Krug, Ph.D.

Workshop Summary

This presentation combines lecture, case examples and experiential exercises to:
  • Identify and describe the process of existential meaning making
  • Explore how meaning making—the act of “making sense” of an experience is central to therapeutic change. 
Recent research has identified “contextual factors”—and not specific techniques or treatments—as overwhelming responsible for effective therapy in general. Several prominent researchers have suggested that meaning making in particular, a contextual factor fundamental to existential-humanistic therapy, may be at the heart of transformational healing and change. Singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt got it right when she wrote: “With our glasses on or off we see the world we make.” Existential theory challenges the notion of a world made up objects, and subjects who perceive those objects. Instead we understand that individuals in fact participate in constituting their realities by making meanings of their perceptions and experiences—then often make sense of new experiences, using meanings made in the past.

We use a phenomenological method to grasp our clients lived experiences, which means we must find ways to enter into and exist in our clients’ experiential worlds—not merely project onto them some theoretical notions of human functioning. By cultivating a presence to process more than content, E-H therapists illuminate clients’ meanings and ways of being that are actual but often out of awareness. Clients experientially learn how their meanings, made from past experiences, find expression in ways of being, which may limit their present living. Consciousness, personal freedom and responsibility take root in this reflective process, often resulting in the creation of new meanings and new ways of being with self, others and the world.

Dr. Krug will first explain how existential meaning making is a foundational process of human behavior, fundamentally related to identity formation. She will support this perspective by referencing the works of existential theorist, Rollo May and process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. Using a case study, Dr. Krug will then illustrate her work with the meaning making process. The remainder (and majority) of the presentation will be experiential so that participants may learn about the meaning making process both personally and professionally. There will be exercises, live demonstrations, participant case presentations and dyad work, allowing participants to practice the cultivation of presence to process, with a focus on the meaning making process.


Recommended Readings:

 May, R., Angel, E., & Ellenberger, H. (Eds.). (1958).  Existence: A new dimension in psychiatry and psychology.  New York:  Basic Books.

May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York: Norton

Schneider, K. J., & May, R. (Eds.). (1995).  The psychology of existence:  An integrative, clinical perspective. New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Schneider, K. J. & Krug, O. T. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Tillich, P. (1952).  The courage to be.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.

Yalom, I. (1980).  Existential psychotherapy.  New York: Basic Books.



Workshop Outline

I. Definition and description of the existential meaning making process.

A.    Individuals do more than simply perceive reality; they create their realities by making meanings of their perceptions and experiences as they relate to the external world.

B.     The process of meaning making results in the creation of self and world constructs (a sense of self and of one’s personal world).

C.     One’s context (sense of self and of personal world) acts as a lens from which one sees and makes sense of present experiences. As Bonnie Raitt said: “We see the world we make.”


II. Attention to the existential meaning making is necessary to effect healing and change.

A.  A key to therapeutic change lies in the fact that although personal context may influence how one makes sense of an experience, a new and different experience may also influence one’s context. Thus Bonnie Raitt’s words can be amended to say: “We see the world we make, but the external world (i.e., the therapist) can influence how we re-make our personal world.”

B.  Our past is alive in the present moment: our self and world constructs (meanings made) manifest concretely in behaviors, voice, and body language.


III. The cultivation of presence (the phenomenological method) is a way to enter the individual’s experiential world.

A.    Illumination of and reflection upon protective self and world constructs, created as a result of meanings made from painful experiences, is the life-changing work of E-H therapy.

B.     The goal is the reclamation of disowned feelings, hidden behind the protective self and world constructs. The deepest roots of pain or trauma cannot be talked about or explained away; they must be discovered, felt and lived through.

C.     Change is evidenced when new meanings about self and world are made.


IV. Case presentation illustrating how attention to the existential meaning making process and the cultivation of presence effects therapeutic change.

V. Experiential exercises which illustrate the meaning making process.

VI. Working with the meaning making process in a live demonstration and a case consultation.

VII. Practice in dyads, cultivating presence and illuminating self and world constructs (the concrete manifestations of the meaning making process).