Faith Christine Bergevin MA, RCC

by Faith Christine Bergevin MA, RCC


What do you mean by existentialism?

Someone asked me that recently and I realized I use the term freely as it grounds how I live my life and how I work with clients. It is simply about realizing that many of people’s problems, such as relationship issues, job/career concerns and questions about life purpose, are rooted in the idea of problems of existence. Existential therapists emphasize the core concepts of living. In fact, master existential therapist Irvin Yalom grouped these concepts into four main ideas: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. As we go about life, wherever we are and whoever we are, we all grapple with these life issues.


One client I worked with was unhappily married. She had one child who was five years old and really wanted another child but at 40 years old she was running out of time biologically to have another child. Does she leave her husband and hope she meets someone else so she can have another baby before it’s too late? Or does she recommit to her marriage and attempt to have another child while she is still young enough? These are existential questions at the core of her dissatisfaction with her life and trying to live her purpose – in this case, being a mother of two children, something important to her. This existential decision is connected to the idea of death because she is coming to the end of her fertile years, a kind of death. As a result, her decision of whether to stay or go is not simple as there is an acknowledgment of the reality of time, that she is subject to the limits of life and death, and in this case, the end of fertility.


The concept of freedom can get a bad rap. Yes, we all seek freedom but how free can we be with bills to pay, very real limits on our bodies (we cannot just decide to be an Olympic level skier at the age of 70 no matter how much we want to), and limits of circumstances? I will never be a professional dancer, no matter how much I love dancing and longed for a professional career while watching So you think you can dance, imagining what it would be like to dance like those lyrical dancers. The fathers of existentialism said we are free, but it is irresponsible to claim we are completely free. There are real limits in our lives, such as the natural limits stated above with regard to age, where you’re born and financial realities. The second type of limit is cultural and lifestyle, based on how we were raised and what we believe we require for ourselves. The third type of limit not often discussed is due to trauma. It is difficult to feel free when a person has suffered trauma. Those who pressure you to “let go” and “move on” are lucky in that they have not experienced debilitating trauma, but their comments do not help people move on. There are real constraints when one is in recovery from trauma. While we must acknowledge the difficulty in living the existential concept of freedom when there is unresolved trauma, because frankly, trauma changes a person, you can take steps to exercise your freedom by choosing to heal trauma. When we acknowledge the limits that exist in life, we can then begin to see where we can actually exercise our freedom.


The idea of isolation has many different facets. The most obvious one is feeling isolated from others. This is a real troubling factor during the COVID-19 pandemic when public health needs require us to socially distance from others. But there is another isolation – there’s isolation from oneself. As self-aware as one can be, there are always new facets you can discover about yourself. In fact, people often enter therapy because of a lack of awareness in themselves and it is in talking to a therapist that a person can obtain clarity and increased awareness so that they have less self-isolation. James Bugental was another master existential therapist who focused much of his work on reducing self-isolation and helping people be more in tune with themselves. Existential isolation is a third type of isolation that addresses the idea that all of us enter the world alone and exit alone. Between birth and death, throughout our lives, we make decisions that are ours alone to make. It is this existential isolation that can motivate a person to seek therapy so they can get an outside perspective by having someone help clarify their thoughts, also helping alleviate some of the isolation.


Finally, there’s the idea of meaning. What is a meaningful existence for you? These are questions that can crop up from time to time. This often happens in times of transition, such as when the last of one’s children goes off to college (so-called “empty-nest”), through middle age when one questions how satisfying their career or marriage is, to retirement when one needs to find a new meaning after work no longer provides it.

As you can no doubt see, existentialism infuses one’s life even as we go about it day-by-day. Sometimes it is in a crisis or trauma that one is forced to re-evaluate what is truly a valuable existence. Experiencing trauma can shake a person’s world that they re-evaluate their lives. When this happens, the person may begin living more in an ontological mode, as they become more in tune with why and how things are, instead of living in reality mode all the time, living according to our never-ending do-lists. Whether it is exposure to a traumatic event or a time of transition in a person’s life, a person may begin to question what is a meaningful existence for themselves.

Therapy helps us take a step back and address deeper existential issues so that we can live more in tune with who we are at our core.

In the end, we only have one life. And it is limited. Can we give ourselves the freedom to explore what is most meaningful for our own existence since there is a limit to our lives, for each and every one of us, as we all must face death one day? For me, part of that means taking dance lessons and prioritizing dance as it brings me in connection with myself and with others. And when I can’t go out dancing, there is always, putting music on and twirling alone in my kitchen.

This is existentialism in a nutshell. It can be scary and dark. But on the other side is a more meaningful existence because it is making choices that fit who you truly are.

Isn’t that worth it?


Bugental, J. F. T. (1987). The art of the psychotherapist. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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


Disclaimer: The blog on this site is for information only. It is not therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. It is meant to be helpful and provide other perspectives. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local emergency number or your local crisis line listed on your government’s mental health services pages.

About the author

Faith Christine Bergevin MA, RCC has a Master of Arts degree in counselling psychology from the University of Victoria. She works with individuals who are struggling with life issues, such as depression, anxiety, and life transitions, as well as those who are looking to find more meaning and purpose in life.

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