Existential Crisis

What is an existential crisis?

In short, when we speak of an existential crisis we are talking about an experience in which we are made to question whether our lives have meaning and purpose.  

Though we can think of our identity as being forever fixed, in fact identity is subject to change.  Sudden events can have such a powerful effect on us that they cause us to question the identity that we took for granted.

And you may find yourself 

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house

With a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself, well

How did I get here?

Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

How did I get here? Why am I having an existential crisis?

Suddenly we are drawn to question key elements of our selves.  We may suddenly feel we have lost the sense of who we are, of all the things we took for granted, and this can be very distressing.  This is an existential crisis.  

An existential crisis is often linked with depression, but, it can also be a gateway to a new kind of life and way of living based on a more satisfying sense of purpose, values and meaning.

An existential crisis is the point at which you find yourself questioning  your purpose and the meaning of your life.  You want to find the answers quickly, but can’t.

An existential crisis might be brought on following:

  • A betrayal, a sudden break up of a relationship
  • A bereavement
  • Traumatic experience
  • Career change
  • Lifestyle change – university, schools etc.

Existential Philosophy – an authentic life

Existentialism is a branch of philosophy which is particularly focused upon the degree to which we live in a way that is true to who we are; how authentic our lives are.  By authentic existentialists mean that we live and follow a set of values that are personally true and meaningful to us.  

An existential crisis can happen in many different ways, it will be personal to each of us. 

An existential crisis is likely to be experienced as a moment in which we find ourselves confronted with the difference between the values we choose to follow and uphold, and the world we are suddenly confronted with.  If, for example you suddenly discover your partner, who you felt you could trust, has been having an affair.

  • You realise that you don’t fit into your world and life with the certainty that you thought you did.

Sartre, a key figure in the existential movement describes the way certain people can become caught up in roles and in manners that come to dominate them without leaving any room for the individual to follow their personal truths.  For Sartre they become inauthentic or show bad faith.

Sartre’s waiter – an example of bad faith

One example Sartre gives of bad faith is of a waiter in a restaurant.  For Sartre the waiter can become so closely identified with the role of being a waiter that they can lose all sense of their individual identity. 

Sartre’s waiter can appear to effortlessly work the restaurant’s tables, but this effortlessness is misleading and is in fact a product of the way the waiter has identified themselves with their role.  It is easier to deal with a difficult customers’ demands when it is falling on the waiters’ ears, much harder if the waiter reveals their true identity and takes things personally.

If the waiter was to step out of the role of being a waiter things would probably become much more difficult for them.

It may be all right to choose to operate like this while you are working as a waiter, but if your work or life requires you to offer opinions that reflect sincere values, then you will need to be more authentic and step out of the role.

This is what happens to a lot of us in ordinary life 

We become so identified with the roles that we have, that they take us over without our realising.  The upside is that we don’t have to think very much about how we live.  The downside is that we lose sight of our personal values and truths.  We become like an actor in our own lives rather than a real person.

And you may ask yourself, well

How did I get here?

Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

A certain amount of psychotherapy involves helping people who find themselves going through an existential crisis.

For whatever reason someone has had an experience which has given them such a shock that it has caused them to question all of the things that they formerly took for granted. 

Where yesterday or last week a person might feel very settled and at home in the marriage, their relationships and their work, now they have lost that sense of predictable identity.  This can be a very distressing and disorienting experience.

An existential crisis and depression

A certain amount of depression results from living a life that is false, a life that doesn’t reflect your authentic choices. 

Existential crisis and sexuality 

Someone may be struggling with whether they are heterosexual or gay?  You may have been trying to ignore these kind of intensely difficult questions, but ignoring them doesn’t help, it takes effort and the questions keep coming back.

An existential approach to psychotherapy

An existential approach to psychotherapy is concerned with the way we develop a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. 

We can grow up thinking that meaning is given to us.  Our parents may have steered us into so many choices, the choices we made at school, the food we eat, the careers we choose, the partners we pick, that it can feel to us that they are our choices.  Then one day the apparent security of our world may be shaken, and we find ourselves feeling lost, confused and wondering how we got here.  This is a moment of existential crisis.  

An existential crisis can be a very frightening experience.  But it is also a point at which we can start to examine the choices we make.  Instead of being rather unconscious of the things we do, we now have the chance to make more authentic choices. 

  • An existential crisis can also be the beginning of developing a more satisfying and authentic way of living.

An existential crisis marks the point at which we have to start to become clearer about the values and things that are truly meaningful to us. 

Has Brexit created an existential crisis?

You could say that Brexit has provoked a kind of existential crisis.  Beyond the referendum we are now responsible for making decisions about the way we want to relate to Europe.  We can see how difficult that is proving to be.

Contact me

I have twenty years experience of helping people to think about and work through their existential crises.

Giving yourself the chance to speak in a confidential setting may prove helpful, it may be the beginning of starting to develop insight into your situation.  It may provide you with the chance to find a more constructive and authentic way of living.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my work might help you.