Pragmatic Existential Counseling and Psychotherapy: Intimacy, Intuition, and the Search for Meaning


Jerrold Lee Shapiro

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    To Viktor Frankl who lit a new path for my life

    And to Susan Bernadett-Shapiro who has walked with me down that winding road


    Existential philosopher Martin Buber profoundly declared that “life is meeting” (between an I and a thou). A Pragmatic Existential Approach to Counseling and Psychotherapy: Intimacy, Intuition, and the Search for Meaning is potentially our sole such meeting.

    The book is intended as an invitation for you to share with me both a personal journey and a still-evolving, professional memoir of my 5-decade career in the field of psychotherapy. I have been honored to be able to serve as a therapist, a mentor, a licensed clinical psychologist, and a professor in graduate programs training for practitioners since the late 1960s.

    Practical application of esoteric existential philosophy seems on the surface to be enigmatic: at times counterintuitive, at times illogical, at times anxiety provoking, yet also the essence of human connection to self, others, and the world. Therein lies the curious and exciting conundrum. How may this one encounter of words on a page even begin to convey the levels of intimacy, intuition, and connection that mark the true I-thou meeting? My hope is that by sharing my personal experiences, those of my clients, and my intellectual understanding of those great minds from whom I have learned, I will convey some sense of the magic, wonder, and impact existential approaches bring to healing.

    It may seem unusual to find the words pragmatic and existential in the same sentence. Yet from my experience, it is exactly that curious combination that makes the work effective. Existential therapy as a practice involves finding our clients where they are in their subjective worlds, joining them there and helping them develop courage and skills to face the inevitable anxieties of living.

    There are some core principles here that center the work. These include the overriding importance of an individual’s subjective experience, the manner in which meaning is created in our lives, and, most of all, the power of caring and emotional intimacy in healing and in living the best possible life.

    I have long believed that intimacy is the antidote to our necessary human fears of mortality, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom. This form of counseling and psychotherapy offers that possibility.

    Jerrold Lee ShapiroLos Altos, California, 2015


    There are many influences and perspectives that are inevitably reflected in any book. Because this work represents an entire career as a psychotherapist and professor in graduate programs training clinicians, there is no way to comfortably pay proper respect to all of the mentors, clients, and students from whom I have learned about psychotherapy and life.

    I have had the incredible professional good fortune to have been in the right places at the right times: Colby College, Hawaii State Hospital, and the University of Waterloo in the 1960s, the University of Hawaii and University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1970s, and the Santa Clara University Counseling Psychology program since 1982.

    It is impossible to estimate all the powerful personal influences that have shaped my thinking. I have been blessed with many terrific colleagues, mentors, and students. Specifically, for this manuscript, several colleagues have read and made important recommendations for drafts of the manuscript. My colleague and editor for all of my writing is my wife of over 30 years, Dr. Susan Bernadett-Shapiro. She challenged my thinking and my writing and offered many valuable suggestions that appear in the book. In addition, my son, Gabriel Bernadett-Shapiro, provided artwork and editing. In alphabetical order, Nancy Andersen, MFT, Art Bohart, PhD, Dave Feldman, PhD, Susan Light, PhD, Jasmine Llamas, PhD, Lawrence Peltz, PhD, Kate Viret, MFT, and Jeffrey Zorn, PhD, generously provided valuable editing, insights, and recommendations.

    I have had the great pleasure and honor of being able to disagree with and learn from colleagues whom I hold in high esteem. Among them are psychodynamically oriented clinicians Drs. Michael J. Diamond and Teri Quatman; Gestalt therapist Dr. Tom Glass; Humanistic therapists Art Bohart and Rene Tillich; the pragmatically oriented Drs. Dave Feldman and Larry Peltz; and my Jungian analyst, the late Dr. Louis Vuksinick. They have had a continuing influence on my life and work.

    My graduate students over the years have helped shape my thinking by their thoughtful questions and avid discussions. In particular, the Santa Clara University students in my existential psychotherapy seminar during the past several years have, in many ways, made this possible.

    As is evident in the text, several mentors have made a major difference in my thinking about existential psychotherapy and my practice. I mention many in the text, but the late Dr. Viktor Frankl, who both brought me to the field of psychology and introduced me to existential thinking, deserves special notice.

    I want to especially thank Kassie Graves, my editor at SAGE Publications, for her faith in the project and for her gentle guidance through the process.

    SAGE Publications also wishes to thank the following reviewers for their assistance:

    Kirk Schneider, Saybrook University and Teachers College; Columbia University

    Elaine Hatfield, University of Hawaii

    Arthur C. Bohart, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Dominguez Hills; Saybrook University

    About the Author

    Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, is professor in the graduate Department of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University, where he served three terms as department chair and a decade as director of the Center for Professional Development. He is managing partner of Family Business Solutions and was formerly president of PsyJourn Corporation, developers of self-help computer-assisted counseling software. Dr. Shapiro has been a licensed clinical psychologist in Hawaii and California, held a Diplomate from the American Board of Medical Psychotherapists and a Certified Clinical Consultantship with the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and was a Certified Group Therapist. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association. He has authored and edited 13 books, several book chapters, and over 200 professional papers, presentations, and symposia. Three of his books have won literary awards. Born and raised in Boston, he received an AB from Colby College, an MA from Northwestern University, and a PhD from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. From 1970 to 1982, he taught at the University of Hawaii, where he was awarded the Regents Medal for Outstanding Teaching Among Senior Faculty. A Professor at Santa Clara University since 1982, he received the Award for Sustained Excellence in Scholarship in 2006—the highest honor for scholarship awarded by Santa Clara University. He lives with his wife, Susan, a clinical psychologist. They have two children and two grandchildren. He has been a singer and performer of folk music for several decades.

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