…and am I having one during a worldwide pandemic?
An existential crisis can arise any time we question whether our lives have meaning, purpose or value, and we are negatively impacted by our contemplation. Anyone can experience an existential crisis…at any age. Contemplating the meaning of our lives is not, necessarily, a negative experience. It can actually be a highly positive, joyous and/or spiritual experience for many.
However, when we struggle to find satisfactory answers to our questions, it can leave us feeling depressed and/or anxious. This type of crisis can often follow our experiencing deep despair or a significant life event such as a major trauma or loss. (Note: A worldwide pandemic may be experienced by some as a major trauma depending on circumstances that I will not get into here, but you can find in an earlier blog of mine entitled: How To Navigate The Collective Trauma Going On Right Now | Emery Counseling Apr 17, 2020)
To help us understand what can lead to an existential crisis, let’s look at some of these examples:
Crisis of freedom and responsibility
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.”
Many folks I meet want to make their own choices. They prefer freedom to choose what they study, freedom to choose whom they date and/or marry, freedom to choose their life’s work, and freedom to choose for whom they will vote. However, with this freedom comes responsibility. For some, this freedom can be overwhelming, and it can trigger existential anxiety.
Crisis of death and mortality
Some of us will begin to focus on mortality when we reach certain birthdays. Others will be plunged into the contemplation of death and mortality following the loss of a loved one. Additionally, we may be faced with our mortality via experiencing personal illness or a worldwide pandemic.
Crisis of isolation and connectedness
As an introvert, I often savor my alone time. However, when we are cut off from others for extended periods of time, we often experience feelings of isolation or disconnectedness. When we experience extended periods of loneliness, some find themselves feeling lost or that their life is pointless. (Note: Society often uses solitary confinement as a form of punishment. The punishment is to isolate and cut off all meaningful interaction.)
Crisis of meaning and meaninglessness
Most of us are meaning makers. Although this blog is much too short to go into the existential debate between nihilism and all other orders of meaning making in thought, I will state that many of us do not do well with the concept that “nothing means anything” and that “there is no order or meaning in the world.” Instead, many of us subscribe to religion, spirituality or thought orders to find meaning in on our journeys through life.
Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy in the 1940s, proposed in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning that the primary motivation of a person is to discover meaning in life. Frankl insisted that meaning can be discovered under all circumstances, even in the most miserable experiences of loss and tragedy. He said that people could discover meaning through doing a deed, experiencing a value, and experiencing suffering. At the heart of his theory is a conviction that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. (Although his book was written in 1946, it is still relevant today, and I would highly recommend it.)
Crisis of emotion, experiences, and embodiment
Not allowing oneself to feel negative emotions can sometimes lead to an existential crisis. Some people block out pain and suffering, thinking this will make them happy. But it can often lead to a false sense of happiness that struggles to hold up when pushed upon. Embodying emotions, and acknowledging feelings of pain, discontentment, and dissatisfaction can open the door to navigating personal growth and a different outlook on life. Additionally, meaning can be found in suffering if one is willing to look for it.
Aaaaaaahhhhh!!! What is going to help me feel better if I’m having an existential crisis?
- Value clarification. What is important to you? What are the MOST important things to you? By clarifying your values, you will find what holds, more or less, meaning for you. Additionally, when you align your behavior with your values, you will feel more at ease.
- Exercise the responsibility that comes with your freedom. Choose. Floating through life may leave you feeling like a ghost. Instead, determine the things that matter to you and choose them.
Take heart, dear ones. I believe we all have purpose in this world. If you are struggling to find yours, please consider coming to see one of us at Emery Counseling.