Ah, the existential crisis. Just saying the phrase makes me want to curl up in a ball and question my existence. But who among us hasn't experienced that overwhelming confusion and uncertainty about our purpose in life?
It's like a big ol' cloud of "what's the point?" hovering over our heads. And once that cloud starts forming, it's hard to shake it off.
So, if you're feeling lost, anxious, overwhelmed, or generally freaking out about life, know you're not alone. We've all been there at some point. So, let's take a deep breath, grab some ice cream, and work through this thing together. Because while it may seem overwhelming at first, understanding what an existential crisis is, if you're facing one, can help you get to a place of acceptance.
In this post, we'll explore what an existential crisis is, why one can occur, and how therapy can help you work through this experience, so your life feels whole again.
What is an Existential Crisis?
We often see the terms "existential crisis," “quarter-life crisis,” or “midlife crisis” used to describe the unease a person experiences during periods of reflection over the meaning of their life and life as a whole. But an existential crisis doesn't have to happen after a deep or philosophical reflection; it's a common experience that often arises from life changes, such as entering a new milestone or experiencing trauma or loss. Sometimes it can be brought on by seemingly mundane things like boredom or routine or reflecting on your views, beliefs, or purpose.
For some people, an existential crisis is an important part of life's journey. It's like a wake-up call that reminds them that their time on earth is limited, so they must make the most of it.
At the same time, periods of self-reflection and contemplation almost inevitably lead to anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty about one's identity, beliefs, and values. Understandably, this can leave us grappling with more questions and unease over our life journey as we struggle to find a sense of identity, direction, or fulfillment.
The Roots of an Existential Crisis - Understanding Its Causes and Types
If you're experiencing an existential crisis, you might find yourself trying to make sense of some pretty big, tough-to-answer questions like, Does my life have a purpose? Or Is there meaning to any of this?
However, the questions and doubts that can arise when facing an existential crisis aren't always so broad. In other words, an existential crisis doesn't always pertain to big questions about the meaning of life. Instead, it's an umbrella term that also encompasses anxieties about what kind of person you want to be, what beliefs you maintain, and what is most important to you.
The following section explores a few examples of some common "types" of existential crises people face.
Meaning of Life
At the core of an existential crisis lies a fundamental question: does life have any inherent meaning, or are we simply left to wander aimlessly? A life without meaning doesn't sound very enticing, so many of us try to create purpose and meaning in things like our religion, loved ones, careers, or passions.
However, if we embark on this quest and still are unable to generate the answers to our questions - to create a sense of purpose - we may be left with an unsettling sense of existential anxiety, which can lead to emotional paralysis, disconnection, and pointlessness.
Authenticity & Values
Often, what goes hand-in-hand with questioning our meaning, is questioning our authenticity – Are we living a life that is genuine? Or Are we living a life that is in line with our values? Values are one common theme that can really make us question how we live our lives and what matters most. You might ask yourself things like, How do I spend my money, time, and energy? And does this align with what I believe in?
These are some powerful things to ponder — on the one hand, confronting them can be a catalyst for transformation and growth, as your values shape how you live your life, and you want to make sure they're aligned with what you truly care about.
On the other hand, existential questions like these can trigger major anxiety. When you ask yourself if any of it will matter in the end - your career, finances, possessions - the answer may be a resounding, heck no.
While It can make you feel uneasy as you question the transient nature of your existence or even realize how "small" your daily problems are, your values are worth reflecting on. And if you can get to a place of embracing the idea that life is fleeting and uncertain, you may find that it gives you the courage to live more fully and authentically and to prioritize the things that truly matter.
The dreadful experience of loneliness. My undergraduate philosophy professor once told me, “you come into this world alone, and you leave this world alone” (thanks, Dr. Wagner….).
Loneliness can be an incredibly difficult experience and can often feel like an all-encompassing form of existential crisis. Feeling disconnected or isolated from others, ourselves, and our larger world context can be distressing, causing us to question our place in the world and whether we have established meaningful connections.
Loneliness is a natural part of the human experience we all go through at different points in our lives, so know that you aren't alone in feeling lonely (Ha! If it were only that easy).
Sometimes, loneliness can even be an opportunity for reflection and self-discovery as you learn to find comfort and companionship within yourself.
It's only natural to want to live a long and healthy life. Still, as humans, we are all susceptible to the challenges associated with aging, illness, and death.
Whether it's due to an illness or simply the aging process, it can be quite a shock when we suddenly find ourselves faced with our own limitations or mortality.
For some, this may mean coming to terms with the fact that they won't be able to do everything they want. They may have to accept that their time is limited and start prioritizing their fleeting aspirations. Others may struggle with the idea that their body can no longer do what it once could. They may mourn the loss of their physicality and feel like they are losing a part of themselves.
No matter how we respond to our human limitations, it's important to come to terms with our mortality and the inevitability of aging and facing illness. And while it can be a difficult and painful journey, acknowledging and accepting our limitations can help us to appreciate our abilities and learn to make the most of it while we have it. Moreover, it can help us identify what matters to us and encourage us to live our lives with intention.
Responsibility & Choices
Existentialism is a philosophy that highlights our freedom to make choices in life and the responsibility that comes with it. When faced with the weighty responsibility of creating our own meaning in life, it can cause us to stress and dwell over making the "wrong" choices and want to avoid the existential anxiety of confronting life's big uncertainties.
For example, an existential crisis can look like a scary and confusing time of questioning your career path. You may feel stuck in a job that doesn't fulfill you. You may struggle with thoughts about whether you're "good enough" to ever make it to (let alone discover) where you want to be.
It's normal to feel so overwhelmed by these anxiety-triggering realizations and thoughts that we want to avoid them altogether. Remember that cloud of "what's the point" that hovers above us? Well, the thing about existential anxiety and crises is that once you start thinking this way, these become tough matters and topics to avoid. Scary as it all may be, existential crises can beg the question, do I want to give up on creating purpose or living an authentic life?
If the answer is "no", and you're willing to face the emotional discomfort that may stem from questions about your life's meaning, choices, and freedoms, an existential crisis can be a very positive experience — one that provides direction and leads to greater fulfillment.
Coping with an Existential Crisis - Seek Support for Moving Forward
Working with a therapist can be a significant source of support to navigate the overwhelming experience of an existential crisis.
As an existential therapist, I can help you focus on identifying such fears that contribute to your crisis and empowering you to process and work through them. Together, we can explore your current situation and aspirations to help you cultivate a sense of meaning and purpose.
Remember, an existential crisis is an opportunity for growth and understanding. It takes courage to seek support and work through these challenges, but with the assistance of a skilled therapist, you can emerge with greater self-understanding, intentional living, and a sense of connectedness and empowerment.