How to Weather an Existential Crisis

existential crisis concept

There comes a time in the lives of many when there is a pause to reflect on the meaning of life. When this moment of Zen turns out to be especially troubling, puzzling, or even discombobulating, we have a name for it — an existential crisis. The symptoms of an existential crisis range from mild wonderment to turning your world on its head and it can feel much more extreme than a prolonged state of confusion or mental health issue.

There are numerous introductions into the potential rabbit hole of an existential crisis, but all of them usually begin with the question “Why am I here?” or “What is the meaning of life?” If you’re going through this, you aren’t alone. 

Philosophers have contemplated the purpose of existence and existential anxiety all the way back through our collective past. Socrates had a prescription: “Know thyself.” The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi suggested asking, “Who am I?”

Why do we humans get caught up in this search for meaning, and why do we fear a meaningless life? Better yet, is there any meaning at all? Some people suggest there is a purpose to life that is bound to a sense of well-being, but the masters of enlightenment have long said that we are looking in the wrong direction — outward instead of inward.

Joseph Campbell taught that it’s better to stop searching for the meaning of life and to begin looking for the meaning in life. In other words, life deals us a certain hand of cards, and we need to find what makes us passionate about them. Campbell summed this up in three immortal words: “Follow your bliss” — and the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

What is an Existential Crisis?

Psychologists generally define an existential crisis as a moment when you question the foundations of your life — whether life has meaning, purpose, or value. This issue is the topic of the philosophical school of existentialism. Sometimes the crisis comes out of the blue, and other times it bubbles until it rises to the surface. There are a number of possible causes for its arising, including a feeling of loneliness or isolation that even family members cannot help.

The big questions about life that lead to existential angst may be provoked by an event that reminds you of the preciousness of life, a lifelong search for the meaning of life, an occurrence that alters or destroys your sense of reality, a pleasurable or painful experience that impresses itself upon your feeling about life and what it means to be a human being or the depths of meditative practice.

What Can You Do About It?

Searching for how to overcome an existential crisis can be as disturbing as the crisis itself. This is because of the way the sense of self, which Carl Jung called the persona, perceives a meaningful life. Pioneers in psychology and philosophy, as well as mystics such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, have taught that the mind is conditioned since early childhood to identify with the body and all of its relationships.

Thus, the mind as a tool for learning and problem-solving also becomes a mind that is fraught with fear, the unending search for pleasure and ways to avoid pain, and a life purpose.

Self-enquiry during existential crisis

Krishnamurti called this sense of self “the center,” and in line with other mystics, he too realized that in the bigger picture, this egoic mind is the source of psychological suffering.

It is the sense of self, or what you call “me” or “I” that is so troubled by the trials and tribulations of life. As a byproduct of existential concerns, it may reach an existential crisis then turn upon itself to ask why it exists and what is at its core. 

The prescription for an existential crisis is written at a fork in the proverbial road, with one way trying to soothe the troubled mind and get out of this upsetting stage, and the other way continuing down the path to find out who you are. For the latter path, Ramana Maharshi recommended a practice called self-inquiry.

He taught, “Of all the thoughts that arise in the mind, the ‘I’-thought is the first. It is only after the rise of this that the other thoughts arise. It is after the appearance of the first personal pronoun ‘I’ that the second and third personal pronouns [you, he, she, it] appear. Without the first personal pronoun, there will not be the second and third…By the inquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts and, like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself, in the end, get destroyed. Then there will arise Self-realization.”

But what if you don’t want to go down this road of self-searching because it’s too upsetting or scary, you’re too filled with negative thoughts, or the timing just isn’t right? In this case, you can tackle your crisis by psychological means.

Find a support group, review life events, look into your own life, seek out a qualified health professional (such as a psychotherapist), find a sense of purpose, read Jean-Paul Sartre, delve into the intricacies of human existence, and explore other avenues to develop a new perspective and to give life meaning.

The Psychological Remedy for an Existential Crisis

An existential crisis can often be accompanied by, or even confused for, depression, especially if accompanied by suicidal thoughts. It’s a blurry line because both represent a focusing inward upon an unsettled mind.

Australian psychologist Amanda White explained, “Angst, personal conflict, loneliness, hopelessness, and despair often make up the bleak and difficult emotional landscape of an existential crisis. Existential depression is a term sometimes used to describe major depressive episodes that stem from an existential crisis.”

She adds that no psychological or medical approach is comparably better able to address one’s crisis. This doesn’t mean that professional help isn’t useful, however, it just means that if you’re looking for a therapist, you have to find the right fit.

Psychological stages of development, wrote White, including existential crises, are about a person’s personal evolution. The mind may be moved to evolve when threatened. “When environmental and internal feedback indicates threat, in which ways of being and coping have become dysfunctional, then the system is challenged to revise its norms and to align with more meaningful goals, values, behaviors, and connections.

Understandably, to the mind, this process of adaptation can be very disorienting. Letting go of the known self may mean grief and loss; it can feel like dying.” 

This is commonly referred to as “ego death,” and depending on the degree of attachment and identification to the body and all of its worldly characteristics, experiences, and possessions, the event can be anywhere from stifling to liberating. Thus, when the question arises as to how long an existential crisis lasts, the answer is that it depends upon the individual and how attached he or she is to this life that’s being lived.

Suffering as a Motivator

Paradoxically, the cure for an existential crisis is the same as the cause — suffering. When we suffer, we are driven to change; it’s life’s great motivator. The Dalai Lama explained, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways — either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” Few psychologists would disagree with such Buddhist wisdom. And Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”

Among the more notable quotes on existential crisis are those that address the concept of a psychological wake-up call and the meaning of life. Joseph Campbell said, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” His prescription was: “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” 

Picasso said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, said, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone — we find it with another.”

So what do you do about an existential crisis? You work through it one way or another. You can look past your ego to find what has been present all along, you can give service to others, you can disappear into your work or hobby, you can plunge deeply into religious or contemplative life, or you can meditate your way out of it. The insight revealed through meditation shows that thought, life, and action are beyond your control. 

Meditators, especially in the vipassana tradition, have found that life and how you perceive it can be met with awareness. This worldview enlightens you to the nature of all things that lie in the balance. If you can realize that you are a part of this balance and in sync with the universe then you’ll also realize that nothing has happened except for the evolution of thought, while you at your core, apart from the troubling the mind, remain the same.

7 Ways to Protect Yourself from Negativity

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At some point in your life, you’ve encountered a negative person. It may be that you have a negative person in your life at this very moment, whether it be a spouse, family member, co-worker, friend or even a stranger. An encounter with a negative person can be emotionally taxing. These people can imprint their negativity onto you in such a way that may leave you feeling sad, angry, afraid, or completely drained of energy. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

As there are many reasons behind a person’s negativity, there are also many ways to protect yourself from that negativity.

There is a well-known idea that our thoughts are responsible for creating our reality. The more I thought about this, the more I saw the actions of negative people in a much different light. I started to think that it isn’t the negativity of the people that are bringing me down and draining my energy, but rather how I allow their negativity to affect my life. What I found is, by not allowing the negativity of others to impact me, the less I experienced, because I no longer attracted it.

Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions. It’s the negative person’s choice to be negative, just as it’s your choice of how you respond to the negative person. If someone says something negative to you, whether it be discouraging you on your goals and dreams, saying something disrespectful, or even making you feel less than what you really are, your first impulse may be to feel hurt, angry, or perhaps a sudden hatred toward that person. All of those are negative reactions, which subliminally enhances the negative person even more. Our bodies are reactors that radiate and transfer energy onto others. Even if we don’t verbally respond to the negative person, we still absorb their negativity into our psyche. Here are seven ways we can deflect the negativity and protect our own emotional well-being:

Use the Power of Affirmations

During a negative encounter, say to yourself, “I choose not to allow this person to impact me in a negative way.” Imagine a beautiful white light surrounding you as it creates a barrier to prevent the negativity from seeping through.

Know That You Are Not At Fault

If the negative person is making you feel discouraged or not worthy, know it’s no fault of your own. Usually, when one attacks our dreams, desires, goals, and ambitions, it’s a sign that they’re not where they want to be in their own lives. Instead of allowing them to transfer negativity onto you, try talking to them about why you want to pursue what you’re doing and even encourage them to reach for the stars, too.

Send a Loving Thought

We may have a random encounter with a stranger who has an unpleasant attitude or could’ve had a bad day and is taking it out on anyone they can. (Unfortunately, that person happens to be you.) Before engaging the person, imagine the beautiful white light barrier and silently use the affirmation, “I choose not to allow this person to impact me in a negative way.” This prevents absorbing the negativity the person is emitting.

Smile, be friendly, and stay calm. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed to stabilize their mood. When the person is no longer in contact with you, silently send a loving thought to them hoping that their day will become better.

Think Something Positive

Often, an encounter with a negative person will leave lasting effects long after the initial encounter. Perhaps something happened with a person at the start of the day that really made you angry. As your day goes on, you keep thinking about it over and over again. You’re upset, and you can’t shake it from your mind. It’s these particular types of encounters that leave one feeling the most depleted of energy because the situation is on instant replay.

I’ve found the best solution is to shift the mind. If you keep dwelling on that negative moment, immediately think of something positive: something or someone that brings you joy, like a loved one, a pet, nature, a favorite movie or a hobby.

Trigger the Brain

Shift your train of thought by thinking about what happened in the last chapter of a book that you’re currently reading, or by mentally reciting the lines to a favorite song. This causes the brain to divert its attention and keeps the negative thoughts at bay.

Silence the Ego

You may feel the urge to fight or argue with the negative person. Perhaps you think that you’re right and they’re wrong, or you’ll feel better by standing your ground. It’s actually combat of the ego-mind: in most circumstances it only makes you feel worse, as all it does is fuels the fire for the other person. When they sense your anger, they feed off it by taking your energy. This gives them more power and leaves you feeling drained.

Withdrawing from an argument doesn’t make you weak, and you don’t need to prove you’re right. Ask yourself, “Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?”

Remove Yourself

Simply say “I’m sorry you feel this way.” If possible, either walk away or leave the room. Once out of sight, silently send loving thoughts to the person. You don’t have to absorb their anger. Dismiss it and let it go. Usually, the argument will naturally dissipate.

If these practices sound too easy, it’s because they are! The human mind thinks that every solution needs to be complex in order for it to work. Far too much time is spent thinking and searching for the correct way to solve negativity (or anything in the world, for that matter), when in fact each of us is made up of the very ingredients of a solution.

That solution is love. Radiate love. Be love. Love is what ultimately heals us all.

There will always be negativity in the world. It’s the Yin and Yang of life. If someone doesn’t like or agree with something that you did or would like to do, then that’s their conflict, not yours. What they think is right may not be right for you, and everyone’s entitled to their own choice. No matter how negative the opinions of others are or how you may be perceived by them, know this: you’re a beautiful, magnificent being and you’re so loved – and that’s the absolute truth.

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