A Summary of Logotherapy

I received my BS from the University of Montevallo in 1981, and my major professor was Dr. Sanford Colley. He introduced me to most of the major theories of counseling and psychotherapy, and I found Existential Analysis (or logotherapy) to be the most intriguing. Upon recently rediscovering the writings of Dr. Viktor Frankl, I wish I had paid more attention in school!

This information is a compilation of my recent reading of three books:

Logotherapy was developed by neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It is considered the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” along with Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology.

The theory is based on an existential analysis focusing on Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning” as opposed to Adler’s emphasis of “will to power” or Freud’s focusing on man’s “will to pleasure.” Logotherapy is based on the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in life that is the primary, most powerful motivating factor in life.

The name “logotherapy” was created based on the Greek word logos (biblically, this means “word” but Frankl emphasizes the word referring to “meaning”). Frankl’s concept is based on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. These statements are the basic principles of logotherapy:

  1. Freedom of Will: Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Will to Meaning: Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  3. Meaning of Life: We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

In Frankl’s view, the spirit is the will of the human being. The emphasis is on the search for meaning, which is not necessarily the search for God.

Frankl wrote that it may be psychologically damaging when a person’s search for meaning is blocked. Positive life purpose and meaning was associated with strong religious beliefs, membership in groups, dedication to a cause, life values, and clear goals.

According to logotherapy, meaning is experienced on two levels: ultimate meaning and meaning of the moment.

  1. Ultimate Meaning, is found through participation in a universal order of being in which every person has a place. This type of meaning deals with questions, such as, “Who am I?” Ultimate meaning can never be comprehended in its entirety, only pursued to the best of one’s ability.
  2. Meaning of the Moment, is much easier to grasp. In most situations it is nothing spectacular, just the daily tasks awaiting us. Some moments offer bigger choices than others; some moments are subtler than others; none are repeatable.

According to Frankl, people discover meaning in life in three different ways:

  1. Work: by creating a work or accomplishing a task.
  2. Love: by experiencing something in life or encountering someone, through the quality of love.
  3. Attitude: by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.

On the meaning of suffering, Frankl gives the following example:

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive without you?:” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.

Frankl emphasized that realizing the value of suffering is meaningful only when the first two creative possibilities are not available (for example, in a concentration camp) and only when such suffering is unavoidable – he was not proposing that people suffer unnecessarily.

Frankl developed a unique view of determinism to coexist with the three basic pillars of Logotherapy. Though Frankl admitted that man can never be free from every condition, such as, biological, sociological, or psychological determinants, based on his experience during his life in the Nazi concentration camps, he believed that man is “capable of resisting and braving even the worst conditions.” In doing such, man can detach from situations, himself, choose an attitude about himself, determine his own determinants, therefore, shaping his own character and becoming responsible for himself.

Within the domain which belongs such human sufferings, these conditions are in effect:

  • Despondency: Expressed in pain, guilt, and death, which comprises the tragic triad.
  • Despair: Giving rise to depression, aggression, and addiction, which constitutes the the neurotic triad.
  • Doubt and Confusion: Often caused by an inner emptiness when access to one’s spiritual core is blocked, is experienced as existential vacuum.

This existential vacuum is a general sense of meaninglessness and emptiness, an “inner void,” an “abyss-experience.” It manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do: soon he will not know what he wants to do. More and more he will be governed by what others want him to do, thus increasingly falling prey to conformism.

There are various tools the counselor may use in helping people using logotherapy. The major established techniques for intervention described in logotherapy are:

Self-distancing or Self-detachment – When clients present us with their problems or symptoms, the first step—after hearing their story—is to help them gain some distance from the burden they carry, and through which they often identify themselves. This distancing will provide a clearer vision for courses of action open to them or reveal areas of freedom still available to take a stand toward their conditions. Man is capable of detaching himself not only from a situation but also from himself. He is capable of choosing his attitude toward himself. Self-distancing is the capacity to step away from ourselves and to look at ourselves from the “outside,” possibly with humor.

Paradoxical Intention – The means that the patient is encouraged to do, or wish to happen, the very things he fears. It lends itself to the short-term treatment of obsessive-compulsive and phobic clients. Paradoxical Intention is a wish turned upside down. Patients are guided to wish exactly what as phobics and obsessives they have so frantically feared and so desperately tried to avoid. What we flee from tends to catch up with us, and the more we fight a fear the more we become its victims. On the other hand, if we wish to have happen what we fear and support our paradoxical wish with humoristically exaggerated formulations, the fear dissolves.

Socratic Dialogue – This technique is used to help persons use questioning to discover for themselves the meanings of life. Frankl believes it is the task of the logotherapist, not to tell clients what the meaning in their life is, but to elicit the wisdom that is hidden within the spirit of each person. One of the basic assumptions of logotherapy is that, in the depth of our spiritual dimension, we know what kind of person we are, what our potentials are, and what is important and meaningful to us. He states that ultimate questions of human existence are on the lips of every man.

Dereflection – Focusing attention away from the situation. It rests on two essential qualities of human existence, namely, man’s capacities of self-transcendence and self-detachment. The essence of dereflection is substituting something positive for something negative. When turning toward a new interest is successful or is rewarded, turning from intense self-observation is more likely to succeed. Dereflection is intended to counteract compulsive inclination to self-observation. Through paradoxical intention the person tries to ridicule his symptoms, while he learns to “ignore” them through dereflection.

I challenge the reader to find the above referenced books, which bring much clarity to the task of pastoral counseling and guidance.

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About Scott Chafee

Scott serves on staff at King’s Grant Baptist Church in Virginia Beach.

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