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Last Updated on June 2, 2020

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It

“Life today is not what it used to be.”

How many times have you heard this from your parents or grandparents? Life, few years ago—before the Internet, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram—was so much less stressful.

Everything was simpler, people socialized more face to face, there was less pressure to wear many hats and pull yourself in multiple directions.

Today, though, life is supposedly more advanced—we have more things to make it all more convenient, but we have so much information thrown at us that, at times, it’s hard to keep on top of everything.

Bottom line—the “better” life comes as a cost—it’s more taxing and strenuous to try and keep all in balance.

In addition to these global forces, on a personal level, we all go through our own metamorphoses. We all have our own battles to fight, monsters to stand up against, ups and downs we need to overcome.

Eventually, we all reach a point in our lives when we are faced with some distressing event—quite often outside of our control too—such as losing a loved one, going through sickness, divorce, or any other difficulty. These unfavorable experiences make it very challenging and impossible at times to keep it all together.

Simply put, we fall apart.

Psychologists call such states “existential anxiety and depression,” or simply “existential crisis.”

As one can gather, these are not the highlight moments of our lives, but nonetheless are very important times of discovery and reinvention.

The American singer Tori Amos beautifully captured this notion:

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“Some people are afraid of what they might find if they try to analyze themselves too much, but you have to crawl into your wounds to discover where your fears are. Once the bleeding starts, the cleansing can begin.”

What Is an Existential Crisis?

As the name implies, existential crisis has something to do with our existence. More specifically, it’s a period of re-examining our lives’ meaning, purpose, or values.

These “big” questions are usually triggered by a traumatic event we’ve been through, which has shattered our current beliefs about our worlds.

Faced with the fleeting nature of life, we realize that we don’t have control over many things that happen to us—which, admittedly, is not a comforting thought. Anxiety builds up and we end up spiralling further down and down the rabbit hole.

It’s important to note that not every turning point in life leads to an existential crisis. Stress is often a normal part of the everyday and in many cases, it’s temporary and it passes. But when it lingers longer and makes us feel as everything is hollowed out of meaning, and when we start questioning our place in life and the reason for being, we can certainly say that we have fallen under the dark spell of the mental and physical distress, known as existential crisis.

Symptoms of Having an Existential Crisis

Existential crisis is a dark period and can take a serious toll on both our mental and physical state.

Someone who is deep down the depression road can have a heightened sense of:[1]

  • An intense or obsessive interest in the bigger meaning of life and death. The interest in exploring this may override a person’s enjoyment and engagement with other day-to-day activities.
  • Extreme distress, anxiety, and sadness about the society they live in, or the overall state of the world.
  • A belief that changes in anything are both impossible and futile.
  • Increasingly becoming, and feeling, disconnected, isolated, and separate from other people.
  • Cutting ties with other people because they feel like connections with others are meaningless or shallow and they are on a completely different level.
  • Low motivation and energy levels to do anything they would normally do.
  • Questioning the purpose, point or meaning of anything, and everything, in life.
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings.

So, it’s quite serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. You can’t just “sit it out” and wait for the storm to pass. Frequently, it may not go away on its own.

What Causes an Existential Crisis?

As I already mentioned, existential crisis is not triggered by ordinary events which may lead to more-or-less “normal” levels of stress and anxiety—such as starting a new job, marriage, having kids, giving presentations at work or studying for a test in college.

Distress becomes deeper and darker when we undergo a major trauma, loss or an ordeal. According to a piece in Healthline, possible causes of existential crisis can be any of the following:[2]

  • Guilt about something
  • Losing a loved one in death, or facing the reality of one’s own death
  • Feeling socially unfulfilled
  • Dissatisfaction with self
  • History of bottled up emotions

Dr. Irvin Yalom, a prominent American existential psychiatrist and a professor at Stanford University, in his book Existential Psychotherapy, has identified four primary reasons of why people may undergo existential depression — death, freedom, isolation and meaningless.[3]

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Fear of death and the inability to have control over it can be, undeniably, a source of anxiety. Freedom, as surprising as it may sound, can also create a sense of uneasiness. Because when we have the ultimate freedom to act, think, speak as we want, this means that we also must take full responsibility of our actions and decisions. Everything that happens to us will be more of a direct consequence of our choices, which, of course, can be rather terrifying to some.

Furthermore, although we are social creatures, the realization that we can never fully know someone or respectively—others may never fully understand is, can make us feel alone and isolated from the world, which leads to isolation existential crisis.

Finally, perhaps the most wide-spread reasoning behind why some go through existential depression is because they suffer from the constant drizzles of disappointment with their lives and a sense of meaningless—that have lost their sense of belonging or of purpose and don’t see any path forward.

As one can gather, it’s not a great place to dwell in. And what’s more—there is no easy fix.

How to Cope with an Existential Crisis

Feelings of constant distress can be daunting, to state the least — a true happiness-thief.

So, how do you save yourself from the gloominess and the greyness you feel inside?

Luckily, we are far from choice-less, psychologists tell us. In fact, there are many things that we can do to help ourselves when we start questioning the purpose of our existence and the meaning of it all.

One thing that’s worth mentioning as well is that existentialists prescribe that we should learn to live and cope with the anxiety vs. eliminating it. They view even this deep distress as a normal part of life. Therefore, their strategies aim at acknowledging and managing the sunless thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to force them into positive ones.

Here are some additional ways in which we can help ourselves through such distressing periods.

1. Inject Some Meaning Back into Your Life

The search for meaning is a universal one—we all want our lives to matter and leave something behind after we are gone.

In my previous post, What’s the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Help You Live with Purpose, I wrote about how each one of us can create their own meaning in life. It’s through compassion and care for our wellbeing, connecting with the world and making ourselves useful.

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2. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Although not ground-breaking, this idea has many proven benefits.

Reminding ourselves of what we are lucky enough to have achieved, can do wonders for our mental health and will quell our anxieties.

3. Don’t Expect of Yourself to Have All the Answers

Quite often, when we mull over the big questions of our existence and purpose, we put pressure on ourselves to find the answers right away. We feel angst and disappointment with ourselves and possibly pangs of envy with those who have it all figured out.

But remember, you don’t have to find a solution to everything. Just re-discover the things that are meaningful to you and make you happy. That’s all.

4. Touching and Feeling Connected

One of the prescribed ways to overcome feelings of existential isolation is through touch.[4] For instance, practicing daily hugs can help alleviate anxiety and create a sense of belonging. The idea comes from research on mother-infant bonding and how youngsters thrive when they the physical warmth of their mothers.

So, when you feel down, hug away.

There are many other ways to cope with the severe distress and depression which often accompany an existential crisis. Keeping yourself busy, getting involved in helping others, learning to let go, living in the present moment are all excellent tactics to help you get out of the darkness you may feel enveloped in.

The main idea behind all these techniques is to find your own reasons again for being and to re-affirm your worth.

The Bright Side of an Existential Crisis

The influential Polish psychiatrist Kazinierez Dabrowski developed a theory he called Positive disintegration (in the mid-1960s).[5] It’s based on the notion that anxiety and distress are necessary for growth and development.

Another aspect of the theory relates to gifted individuals. They are different and special, Dabrowski believed, as they are sensitive, highly emotional, intellectual, imaginational, curious, and prone to anxiety. Therefore, they are also the ones who are more likely to go through an existential crisis and depression.

These people also have greater “developmental potential,” he asserted. What this means is that they look at the world through a different lens—they have better awareness of themselves and others, they try to understand and make sense of everything around them.

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But they are also often the lonely outcasts and the restless souls (Many great writers as Earnest Hemingway, Virginia Wolfe, Charles Dickens to name a few, have been known to have gone through an existential upheaval).

So, there is, clearly, a bright side to the dark feelings that accompany an existential crisis.

For one thing, it means that if you are going through one, you are likely a very gifted, intellectual and sensitive individual.

More importantly, though, such condition is highly treatable. There are many paths you can take to emerge from the bleakness you feel inside.

Final Thoughts

Finding meaning in everything we do, day in and out, is not an easy undertaking. It’s normal to feel distressed when you lose your ways or when you go through a major trauma and loss.

And it’s not uncommon, when faced with such deep and joyless emotions, that you take a step back and re-evaluate your life.

Because it is often through pain that we emerge stronger and more resilient.

No matter the challenges that fate throws our way, there is always a reason to keep going forward. You just must find it.

It’s as Albert Einstein told us:

“Curiosity has its own reason for existence.”

You never really know what exciting things may wait for you around the corner; and that is the beauty of it all.

More About Meaning of Life

Featured photo credit: qi bin via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It? Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It) What’s the Purpose of Life? A Guide to Live with Meaning

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

Do you say yes so often that you realize you aren’t really happy about this, wondering how to say no to people?

For years, I was a serial people pleaser. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

It took a long while but I learned the art of saying no. Saying ‘no’ meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. I started to manage my time more around my own needs and interests. When that happened, I became a lot happier. And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

The Importance of Saying No

When you learn the art of saying ‘no,’ you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey considered one of the most successful women in the world confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything. It was only when she realized that after years of struggling with saying no, I finally got to this question: “What do I want?”

Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

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Warren Buffett views no as essential to his success. He said,

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

When I made ‘no’ a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say ‘no.’

From an early age, we are conditioned to say ‘yes.’ We said yes probably hundreds of time in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work. We said yes get a promotion. We said yes to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

We say yes because it feels better to help someone. We say yes because it can seem like the right thing to do. We say yes because we think that is key to success. And we say yes because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist like the boss.

And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we feel guilty we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

The message no matter where we turn is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

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How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Deciding to add the word ‘no’ to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say ‘no’ but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of ‘no’ that you could finally create more time for things you care about. But let’s be honest, using the word ‘no’ doesn’t come easily for many people.

The 3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time especially you haven’t done it much in the past will feel awkward.

2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

Remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it, who else knows about all of the demands on your time? No one. Only you are at the center of all of these requests. are the only one that understands what time you really have.

3. Saying ‘No’ Means Saying ‘Yes’ to Something That Matters

When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

6 Ways to Start Saying No

Incorporating that little word ‘no’ into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

One of the biggest challenges to saying ‘no’ is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no reflect poorly on you?

Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because FOMO even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

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Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better.

3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say ‘No’

Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say ‘yes’ because we worry about how others will respond or the consequences of saying no or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose respect from others. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

Keep in mind that saying ‘no’ can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way. You might disappoint someone initially but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to.

4. When the Request Comes In, Sit on It

Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time, or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say ‘no.’ There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

5. Communicate Your ‘No’ with Transparency and Kindness

When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

A clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

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6. Consider How to Use a Modified ‘No’

If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” giving you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

Final Thoughts

Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

Use the request as a fresh request to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself. If you are the one placing the demand on yourself, try to evaluate the demand as if it were coming from somewhere else.

Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project but not by working all weekend. Or, tell someone in your family you can’t loan them money again because they never paid you back the last time. You’ll find yourself much happier.

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Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

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