Identifying & Dealing With An Existential Crisis

Lifestyle September 12, 2017 By Vincent

The shock of just being in this world can be debilitating. The unerring sense of dissatisfaction of just 'being' is an ominous black hole that swallows all thoughts and prays on your every movement in this life. Just what is the point of all this anyway? I can't answer that question and I doubt anyone can (although there will, undoubtedly, be some who say they can but cynicism might suggest they are saying so for personal or financial gain and...maybe that is the point) but whilst most can just get on with their lives without this constant sense of pointlessness plaguing them, some of us get yanked from a sense of complacency and hurled into an unsettled state of deep questioning that can never really be resolved. It's horrifying in a sort of mundane way but without being tangible it can be hard to reach out to others about it but there are ways of dealing with this.

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Recognizing you are having an existential crisis can be harder than it sounds. You'd think that the overwhelming feelings of being helplessly directionless would be a massive sign that maybe the foundations of your life have become transient and unstable but, these feelings have a tendency to sneak up on you and it is usually only after some time of wallowing in the murky pools of your own self-doubt that you may consider yourself in the throes of a chaotic questioning of the toing and froing of the universe and your place within it. By identifying that you are in an existential crisis you can then start to approach the matter in a step by step manner and just by giving these feelings a solid name you can start to collate these thoughts and feelings under that umbrella and move forward with it. So ask yourself, do you feel:

- A sense of alienation within the world, an undefined figure in the seething mass of the wider world.

- A constant sense of your own mortality. A preoccupation with time's arrow marching on and your feelings of inadequacy that you are not doing enough with your own allotted period on this Earth.

- The belief that you have no purpose and that, ultimately, all of this is pointless.

- A continual searching for meaning after an experience (of either great pleasure or pain) that has left you wanting more from this life.

If so, guess what're in the crisis zone.


There are, typically speaking, two ways such a crisis can manifest itself and it usually depends on the situation of the sufferer and how these feelings arose in the first place. The first of these is existential anxiety which is a constant reoccurrence of terrifying questions that most of us manage to keep at bay during day to day life. These tend to be questions pertaining to our own existence such as "why live our lives fully if we're just going to die anyway? What will remain in this world of me, when I die? Will I be remembered? How?" etc. 

Another way in which you can be struck by such issues is through ontological guilt, or the feeling of guilt that you are not fulfilling your potential or living your life to the full and this can actually tie in with existential angst when the guilt then leads to a sense of angst about one's perceived failures of achievements. Existential angst and a search for meaning are inextricably linked so defining them may be harder than a simple diagnosis but if you can do this, you may have greater success in the approaches you take toward the issue.

The Last Messiah Method

The Last Messiah was an essay written by Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in which he contends that the human self-conscious is actively engaged in the "repression of its damaging surplus of consciousness," or, in short, that we have an overly evolved intellect that means we have an excessive consciousness of our own existence. As such, he suggests that we artificially limit this consciousness in order to suppress these feelings of panic and Zappfe posits that there are four prominent ways of doing so.

1. Isolation. Zappfe defines this as "a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling" but in more accessible terms it is the dismissal of all negative thoughts and actively denying them. This may not seem like the most healthy way to deal with your issues but by denying yourself the thought itself, it can not linger and thus bring with it questions. In short,  "One should not think, it is just confusing."

2. Anchoring. Zappfe says that "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness" helps with questions of the existential as it roots you to fixed ideals rather than being in a sort of mental drift. God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future are all ways in which society anchors itself whether it be in support of these ideals or contesting them. However, Zappfe does admit there are flaws in this method such as what should happen should one discover their anchoring mechanism was false. This, in turn, can provoke a destructive nihilism that can make crises far worse.

3. Distraction. Get a hobby. It may sound simplistic but when "one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions," distraction focusses efforts on another outlet thus there is no time or energy in which to allow your thoughts to wander to the meaning of life.

4. Sublimation.  Turn those negative thoughts into a source of inspiration and use them to create positive things i.e. express yourself, your doubts and your fears through something you take joy in such as music, art or literature. As such, the association with the negative becomes positive thus creating a sort of surrogate purpose. As Zappfe says in his essay "The author does not suffer, he is filling pages and is going to be published in a journal."

Existential Psychotherapy

A practice that is a way of treating someone with great anxieties about their place in the universe of things. It predominantly revolves around the sufferer being asked to face their fear of doing something risky and difficult, but to accept that their life would have taken a different path had they made this change earlier in life. This in itself, usually alters the held perceptions of the sufferer and lessens anxiety whilst they work toward being aware of their own fears, accepting their losses, and increasing their capacity to embrace new possibilities. By asking you to understand where your problems came from the thoughts and the language you express them in can all reveal how you have been conditioned into such thinking, you can then start to question everything from social, political, spiritual and personal conditioning and falsehoods and ask about your own place within it.

This is a common problem experienced throughout the history of humanity. The very fact that we refer to the 'rat race' within our language suggests that this feeling of continual despair over a repeated set of actions has long pre-dated our own age and so by understanding this we can take a look at how it is perpetuated through all of us. At the same time, there is no use in comparing yourself to others regardless of whether they have seemingly succeeded through ignorance or have a sense of themselves. You are unique in your thinking even if the issue is a recurrent one through humanity. Take the time to realize that life, at least in some form or another, is very well orchestrated and so there must be a sense of control somewhere even if you can not identify it.

You are not alone in this god forsaken pit and if you need someone to reach in and pull you out, you need to reach out first. It's not easy and you may never find answers but knowing you're not the only one can provide some solace in the fact that perhaps not everyone knows what they're doing and perhaps this sense of confidence about where life is going is all just a facade. However, discovering a sense of purpose to getting up and engaging in life every day is hugely important so don't give up, you just have to keep on searching. Who knows, maybe the search in itself is the purpose. 


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