Existential angst has been the realm of philosophers and deep thinkers for millennia … A result of the current state of the world is that many of us are coming face to face with our own existential angst.
Imagine swimming in a lake enjoying yourself, perhaps feeling a little excitement or anxiety as you swim out further from the shore. Suddenly, something touches your foot. That thing which you cannot see, but feels incredibly real against your foot, is like the experience of becoming aware of your existential anxiety. What is your response?
It is the anxiety of our existence because we are mortal and vulnerable. Between Covid, climate change, profound violent and systemic racism, and the divisiveness of our current policies and politics, many of us are growing ever more aware of these existential threats. The toll is increased general anxiety, social anxiety, depression, suicide, substance misuse and overdose (Clemente-Suarez et al., 2020; Benjamin, E., 2020).
Philosophy and Psychology Meet
Existential anxiety can leave us suspended between our helplessness and our resilience. For many, the increased helplessness results in an increased desire to control, to avoid falling into despair (Yalom, 1980). We each have our own patterns, defenses and strategies that help us to cope with our lives. The trouble can be that suddenly the old methods are no longer sufficient to blunt our anxiety, or to protect us from the consequences. And so, we ramp them up, eat a little more, drink a little more, sleep a little more, control a little more, deny a little more, avoid a little more, all in the service of numbing ourselves to our anxiety rumbling just under the surface.
Existential philosophers identify four primary sources of existential angst. Often the first two are the most commonly used to define ourselves: belonging versus isolation, and freedom versus structure.
As children we define ourselves within the context of our family system. Many people leave their family of origin with distorted ideas of their value to themselves or their family, and their relationship with freedom/structure and belonging/isolation. This can look like learned helplessness, rebelliousness, co-dependence,
enmeshment, or oppositional behaviours to name just a few examples (Yalom, 1980).
Embrace Life’s Challenges
As we become independent adults, we get the opportunity
for a do-over. This time, the opportunity to define
ourselves occurs as we attempt to meet the various
challenges of adult life; education, career, relationship, finances, parenthood (Yalom, 1980).
Some people find the voices in their head,
echoes from the past,
ringing louder than their current,
independent voice of the Self.
This inner critic can be characterized as
an internalized version of the conditions
of our worthiness, from others, which has
mutated and coalesced into an internal
authority (which is no longer current) and can
interfere with our psychological development,
and corrode our self-esteem, confidence, and identity
(Rogers, 1951; Stinckens et al., 2013).
Who is there for you? Are you there for you?
Attachment theory usefully explains the level of trust in others we have internalized. To be securely attached means to have faith that the people we care about in our lives will be there to support us, should we need them (Bianchi, E. C., 2020; Francesetti et al., 2020; Heaven, P. C. L., 1999; Sorrentino et al., 2007). Secure attachment
can go a long way to helping us cope with our existential angst
when it flares up and is a key factor in
developing resilience (Hart et al., 2005).
Meaning and Values
Our values can define us, giving meaning, direction, and purpose to our lives. We begin life learning values from our caregivers, our families, our peers, and our communities. Sometimes, a point comes when one realizes some of those values may no longer fit. As we grow in ourselves, we begin to ask questions that can disturb the very foundations of our existence. This questioning can occur gently over time and with awareness.
Other times, it can happen dramatically and without warning; a relationship ends, a loved one dies, a job disappears, a diagnosis arrives, or one’s trust is deeply or violently betrayed. Grief, loss, and confusion can jumpstart a process of re-examination of our beliefs and values, our understanding of who we thought we were, who we think we are, or perhaps a reminder of who we want to be (Yalom, 1980).
The term ‘mid-life crisis’ has been overused to the point of becoming cliché, but it is a natural occurrence in the unfolding development of our lives to stop, to question, to seek and to choose with reflection and consciousness. This is the process of examining the third of the existential questions,
meaning versus meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980).
What’s it all for? Why bother? These are the questions of meaning.
What matters to me? How do I choose? These are the questions of values.
Calibrating True North is a 2 1/2 day workshop offered here in Courtenay BC to support you in gaining clarity about your values and meaning in life.
Life and Death
The final polarity
The final polarity, life versus death, is often the most challenging to examine, especially without strong faith.
God’s will or my will; each set of beliefs comes with its challenges and benefits. What does it mean to die well?
Wisdom* declares that it is easier to die well if one has lived well. Whether you resonate with Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge or Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, facing regrets (actual and potential) head-on is to receive a message from one’s soul (Yalom, 1980).
What is your response when you hear the call of your soul?
*By wisdom, I mean the classic (as well as current) writings of the world's various faiths, philosophies
and artists, i.e. St. Robert Bellarmine's 'The Art of Dying Well', 'The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying',
Dante's 'Divine Comedy' and the poetry of W. H. Auden.
If you are interested in learning more
Benjamin, E. (2020). Progressive politics and humanistic psychology in the Trump/Coronavirus era. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 60(6), 778-791. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167820934226
Bianchi, E. C. (2016). American individualism rises and falls with the economy: Cross-temporal evidence that individualism declines when the economy falters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(4), 567–584. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000114.supp
Clemente-Suarez, V. J. , Dalamitros, A. A., Beltran-Velasco, A. I., Mielgo-Ayuso, J., & Tornero-Aguilera, J.F. (2020, December 16). Social and psychophysiological consequences of the Covid-19 Pandemic: An extensive literature review. Frontiers in Psycology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.580225/full
Francesetti, G., Alcaro, A., & Settanni, M. (2020). Panic disorder: attack of fear or acute attack of solitude? Research in Psychotherapy (Milano), 23(1), 421. https://doi.org/10.4081/ripppo.2020.421
Hart, J., Shaver, P.R., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). Attachment, self-esteem, worldviews, and terror management: Evidence for a Tripartite Security System. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88(6), 999-1013. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2069
Heaven, P. C. L. (1999). Group identities and human values. Journal of Social Psychology, 139(5),590-595 https://doi.org/10.1080/00224549909598419
Rogers, C. R. (Ed.). (1951). A theory of personality and behavior. In Client-centered therapy (pp. 481–534). Houghton-Mifflin.
Sorrentino, R., Seligman, C., & Battista, M. (2007). Optimal distinctiveness, values, and uncertainty orientation: Individual differences on perceptions of self and group identity. Self & Identity, 6(4), 322–339. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860601008937
Stinckens, N., Lietaer, G., & Leijssen, M. (2013). Working with the inner critic: Process features and pathways to change. Person-Centered and Experimental Psychotherapies 12(1), 59-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/14779757.2013.767747
Yalom, I.D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapies. Basic Books.