Dr. Viktor Frankl summarizes the therapeutic approach of logotherapy, both in terms of counseling and philosophy, in his seminal work Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to Logotherapy when he asserts, “Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (1992, p. 113-114). The linguistic etiology of the word “logotherapy” reveals the essence of this influential therapeutic approach. The Latin word logos literally means “word” and in seeking to facilitate psychological transformation Frankl calls for therapists to help their clients in discerning meaning in their lives and the circumstances they are confronted with.
Frankl’s psychotherapeutic interventions and philosophy were born directly out of his own extraordinary life experiences. He spent three years during World War II in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. Frankl’s father, mother, brother and wife were all killed; he and his sister were the only survivors in his family. As a result of this immense suffering Frankl wondered why some prisoners in the concentration camps not only survived but also grew psychologically stronger while others languished away in despair and anger. Frankl concluded that if people had a meaning that sustained them they could endure even the deepest forms of suffering and emerge strengthened and transformed. From this psychological insight logotherapy and its therapeutic techniques arose.
Frankl described logotherapy as “meaning-centered psychotherapy” and believed it was superior to other forms of treatment (p. 104). Interestingly, he openly championed his style of therapy as being superior to psychodynamic (Freudian-based) approaches, which were extremely popular when logotherapy developed, arguing, “logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses” (p. 104). Frankly believed that psychodynamic approaches actually entrenched and exacerbated clients’ suffering.
Clinically, Frankl urged therapists to focus on meaning making, and not rely on Freudian assumptions which posited that human existence was centered on satisfying pleasure urges—such was Frankl’s interpretation of psychodynamic theory. While Frankl acknowledged that his depiction of psychodynamic theory was at times “an oversimplification” he also suggested that the Freudian approach of unearthing hidden conflicts could therapeutically devolve, resulting in the sincere beliefs and intentions of the client being debased and devalued (p. 104).
Frankl further openly contrasted his therapeutic style with Freudian approaches by arguing that people’s primary need in life was to fulfill their highest meaning, as opposed to merely seeking the gratification of hidden drives and instincts or reconciling the conflicting pulls of the id, ego and superego. For Frankl, suffering could be extremely therapeutically beneficial. He postulated, “suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration” (p. 108).
Thematically, Frankl advocated a client-centered approach echoed in the work of Carl Rogers. In logotherapy responsibility for therapeutic transformation rests ultimately with the client—not the therapist. Frankl notes, “A logotherapist is the least tempted of all psychotherapists to impose value judgments on his patients, for he will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging” (p. 114). Frankl simultaneously resists the interpretation-based approach utilized by psychodynamic approaches and the guided, structured approach of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT; arguably the most popular form of therapy today). I think it could further be argued that Frankl’s championing of a client discovering his or her own individual meaning is particularly skillful in cross-cultural counseling sessions as it is open and supportive of the role of individual diversity in therapy.
Significantly Frankl’s therapeutic philosophy and techniques do share some clinical methodologies with contemporary interventions that are derived from other psychological paradigms. In contrasting logotherapy to Freudian-derived methods, Frankl asserts that his style of treatment focuses on the “future” and is “less retrospective and less introspective” (1992, p. 104). He also believes that thoughts shape one’s experience of reality and by altering thought patterns one can dramatically change his or her reality. These foundational characteristics of logotherapy are also hallmarks of Cognitive Therapy. Though similar to Cognitive Therapy in some important ways, Frankl differs in his relentless focus on ascertaining existential meaning making. I remember talking with a psychologist once who defined his therapeutic approach as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). When I asked him how he dealt with the question of meaning for clients who were suffering he said simply, “I don’t do meaning.” Dr. Frankl would certainly not agree with that psychologist’s therapeutic approach, and neither would I!
Frankl’s philosophy and treatment goals are shared by some emerging and innovative theorists. Summarizing the chief treatment objective in logotherapy, Frankl suggests “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself….In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence” (p. 115). Frankl’s sentiments echo the research, treatment techniques and philosophical underpinnings of leading contemporary positive psychologists who call on people to find happiness in stepping outside themselves through the immersion in rewarding, enriching activities and relationships (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Though a subject for another blog post, I also believe Frankl’s idea of “self-transcendence” is very close to the Buddhist idea of no-self.
Frankl would likely also be at variance with the modern predominance of psychopharmacology and the emergence of the contemporary biological paradigm and some of its assumptions and treatment methodologies, declaring “I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis,’ i.e. a tensionless state” (p. 110). For example, an oft-cited recent study found that antidepressant use among people in the United States has almost doubled from 1996 to 2005, along with a concurrent rise in the use of other psychotropic medications (Olfson & Marcus, 2009). This increase seemed to span virtually all demographic groups; over 10% of people over the age of 6 are now receiving anti-depression medication (2009). Significantly, these researchers further noted that clients who were treated with antidepressants became more likely to also receive treatment with antipsychotic medications and less likely to undergo talk therapy. Frankl’s lamentation that medical caregivers fail to recognize the therapeutic value in suffering emerges as strikingly prescient, “It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs” (p. 108).
To be sure, psychiatric medications do help many people. But I also believe we are meaning-making beings. Frankl’s enduring and transforming of his experience in the concentration camps points to something essential to human nature. And I believe Dr. Frankl is correct when he describes a process of forgetting ourselves to transform ourselves. It’s worth noting too that Freudian-based approaches have evolved a lot since Freud first proposed them over a 100 years ago. Though a topic for a future blog post, Freud was a pioneer and not wrong about everything. And some recent research has affirmed the value of psychodynamic approaches. Philosophies that undergird therapy do not have to be mutually exclusive. And I also believe Dr. Frankl had a lot of wisdom in his approach to therapy.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.
Frankl, V. (1992). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to Logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.
Olfson, M., & Marcus, S. (2009). National patterns in antidepressant medication treatment. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 848-856.