What can therapists learn from Kierkegaard?
Why should therapists read Søren Kierkegaard? In our largely secular age, in which the latest generation of religion’s “cultured despisers” often seem to speak for the cultural mainstream, what has psychotherapy to learn from an unorthodox nineteenth century Lutheran with an uncompromising view of the importance of a proper “God-relationship”? There can be no denying the influence of Kierkegaard on important psychotherapeutic figures as diverse as Ludwig Binswanger, Rollo May, Carl Rogers and Ernest Becker. His insightful diagnoses of anxiety and despair have been a significant influence on existential psychotherapy. As one therapist recently told me, Kierkegaard is a source of great insight provided we “ignore the religious stuff”. Yet therapists who insist on taking their Kierkegaard safely secularised are missing a trick. In this article, I shall argue that it is in some of his less well-known, explicitly “religious” writings, that Kierkegaard offers some of his most important insights for therapeutic practice. I have argued elsewhere (in my Kierkegaard and the Problem of Self-Love) that Kierkegaard offers a rich conception of “proper self-love” that I believe has important implications for therapy. Central to this account is the application to ourselves of the trust, hope and forgiveness that are central to his accounts of love of God and neighbour. But here I shall concentrate primarily on a perhaps surprising theme from this famous diagnostician of anxiety and despair: what the reflections on “the lilies and the birds” in Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses can teach us about contentment and self-acceptance and their relation to gratitude and patience.