As a counsellor I am frequently asked, “What kind of counselling do you do?” I find that a challenging question to answer succinctly. Throughout my training, I have been taught a variety of theoretical frameworks and how they apply to the various challenges we human beings face. I often say that I am an existentialist as I believe that existential thinking is particularly useful at transition points in our lives. In response to this reply, I once got the comment, “Isn’t that a little passe?”
Google will tell you that the search terms for existential crisis, existential angst and existentialism are peaking to a level not seen since World War 2. Yes, I know that Google didn’t exist back then, but that was the last time our collective existential angst was worked into a frenzy at this level as the world was deteriorating into the chaos of war. Well, here we are again; pandemic, war, financial uncertainty, social discord and divisiveness.
I find having regular existential angst is extremely helpful. For starters, if you do it often, it isn’t nearly as distressing as if you save up 30 or 50 years of angst. The second, and far more imperative reason to dive in early and frequently in life, is because you still have the capacity to do something about it. The farther along in life you are can make it a heck of lot harder to muster the energy and enthusiasm for a do-over.
At its essence, an existential crisis is facing (or not) the questions of meaning, purpose,
choice, and freedom to will in your life. If we are able to conveniently schedule regular existential crises, the first often occurs as a teenager, when one gets to independently define oneself in relationship to family and peers. The burning question in this iteration is “Who am I?” Teenage rebellion and acting out can be signs of an internal conflict in response to this question, just as anxiety, confusion, apathy, and boredom can be.
The next scheduled run in with existential angst is the sophomore crisis. Future and forward looking, this is when our decisions about education, career, achievement, sexuality, religion, and relationships can come to a head. For someone who is feeling overwhelm or panic induced by impending independence (financial, emotional, social) the achievement or failure to address these questions can be significant. Disorientation, depression, lack of confidence, and confusion can take out any one of us.
Next round, somewhere in midlife, is the one we tend to hear the most about. Often triggered by the recognition that the dreams and goals determined from the previous round are somehow no longer cutting it, compounded by the recognition that in some respects, our peak has been crested and time is running out. The midlife crisis can result in significantly satisfying life changes when resolved effectively. We compare the fantasies of what we thought our life would be, with the reality of what it is, and from this point forward, in crises we are most often looking back, questioning paths taken and decisions made. Regrets and dissatisfaction can easily come home to rest leading to apathy, cynicism, and despair as we recognize that somehow, suddenly, we have less left than lived.
What are the antidotes? Pick a meaning and run with it. In a meaningless and often indifferent world, the absurdity of our very common human need to seek meaning leaves us with the task of determining meaning for ourselves. What are some of the best ones? Altruism often tops the list. Embrace a cause: political, religious, environmental, social equity. Make someone or something’s life better because you existed. Creativity is also good: make art, invent something, create a community garden, start a business. Regardless of the scale, create a legacy, build a monument, be a mentor. Hedonism is also good, not the over-the-top-drown-yourself-in-indulgence-till-you-destroy-your-body kind but indulging in the simple pleasures of experience: a good bed, a good book, a good meal, a good friend, delicious sex, a walk in the forest, a massage, stargazing, skinny dipping. Self-actualization is also a good strategy. Increasing your self-awareness and self-responsibility will have enormous impact on the quality of your intimate relationships and friendships. Those are just a few of the more common ones, you get to choose. Or not…a choice as well.
The final existential crisis often comes as we near our expiry date. The trouble with this one, if we haven’t fully engaged with the previous existential questions, is that this one can kick us in the ass. Not because we don’t know what we secretly long for or value, but because it’s a hell of a lot tougher to do anything about it at this late date. And yet, people do it all the time: a 65 year old woman enrolls in university for the first time, a father heals his relationship with his estranged adult son, the book gets written, the art classes finally get started. In this crisis we are looking back solidly at our lives and asking, "Was my life valuable and meaningful? Have I left a positive legacy?” The challenge with this late life introspection is that if our assessment is negative, it is much tougher to resolve. The best strategy to avoiding this doozy? Tackle your earlier ones with energy and enthusiasm. Be willing to ask the hard questions, clarify what you value, and act. When the final call comes, you will know that you tried.
What are the costs of avoiding our existential queries? Loss of engagement, joy, enthusiasm, wonder and excitement. Often followed by numbing, anxiety, burnout, stress and depression, the deep don’t-even-want-to-get-out-of-bed-today (-this-week, -this-month) kind. As Gabor Mate states, the body says no even when we ourselves won’t. Left unattended, illness, addiction, substance mis-use, and deep psychological distress can follow. Our relationships can start to show the toll of our discontent.
Cognitively, we know. We know on some level that something is wrong. Often, it’s because something we previously valued no longer holds the same importance for us. Maybe it was gratifying to have or do ____. Things change, we change, life and the world around us changes. We need to update the inside to make sure it matches the outside, being authentic or congruent. Our values are often the answer, and sometimes we need new values.
Perhaps an existential crisis is triggered by a significant transition or loss; separation, divorce, a death, a diagnosis. Don’t waste this opportunity. Losing someone you love can be an important step in committing to valuing the ones you love. Losing your job can give you the courage to find a better one, more suited to expressing your talents and values.
Paradoxically, contemplation of one’s death is often exactly the thing to do to resolve the crisis. Why is this so? Recognizing that there is a finite amount of time left, makes the time left more valuable. It also will help lift your perspective from the everyday habitual numbing mindlessness in front of you, to the perspective of the bigger picture of your whole life. Just ask anyone who has had a heart attack or cancer diagnosis. They likely got very clear, very fast, about exactly what was left undone in their lives.
You can wait for a crisis, but why? There is another option; to pre-emptively do the work of each of the crises in turn. Much more enjoyable, and often much less destructive to our selves and our lives. The best part is that instead of crashing and fighting to survive, you can get clear and thoughtfully make the incremental adjustments without a full-blown crisis. It’s actually an enjoyable and inspiring way to say yes! to valuing yourself, your life, and spending time with others asking the same questions.
We were never meant to figure this stuff out alone.
Calibrating True North, January 6-8, 2023 in Courtenay, BC. Join me, bring a friend, or your partner, and plan a meaningful getaway for yourselves!