An "Existential Crisis”: What It Is and What To Do About It
How to navigate times when The Big Questions become urgent
“He who has never envied the vegetable
has missed the human drama.”
- E. M. Cioran
What is an “existential crisis”?
All of us have experienced them.
Since we’re being honest here, some of us have been through a few dozen of them. OK, maybe a few hundred. Maybe some of us are even going through one right now.
There’s no getting through life without a good existential crisis.
And maybe – just maybe – that’s a good thing.
A few phrases can capture a taste of what it feels like.
“I’m rethinking my entire life.”
“Life seems fundamentally meaningless. We’re born, stuff happens, then we die, and that’s it. It’s much ado about nothing.”
“You suddenly start seeing how pointless and terrifying everything is.”
“Suddenly, the familiar seems strange, the ordinary seem alien, the mundane seems uncanny.”
“I’m questioning everything. Everything.”
“In almost every event and conversation, you want to ask: What’s the point? Does it really matter? And ‘So what?’ And the answer is: ‘There is no point, it doesn’t really matter, and there is no good ‘what.’’”
“Everything seems utterly irrelevant, inconsequential, going nowhere, resulting in nothing. Nothing matters.”
“Everything feels like a distraction from the inevitable.”
“Eventually we’re all going to die, and everyone we all know is going to die, and everything we do will eventually be forgotten. So…nothing matters.
“It feels like panic, even though there’s nothing I can really point to that I should panic about.”
“If this is part of being human, it makes me want to be a cow instead.”
We could keep going here. (We won’t.)
But what’s going on with all this?
What’s behind all this?
Anyone with a pulse and who is even mildly aware of what’s actually going on in life has probably entertained questions roughly like these, at least briefly, at some point or another.
(Many pretend they haven’t, of course. Lots of folks walk around pretending they have it all figured out. Or worse, they walk around believing they actually do have it all figured out.)
So what’s causing all this? Can we unearth some underlying mechanics of all this? Can we turn on some nice big lights here, and develop some new understanding that help us make sense of these situations?
Seriously: what’s going on here? What’s driving all this?
What is an existential crisis?
Here’s what we’re going to do in this article.
This is a big topic, of course. It’s not something we can explore exhaustively in one article. The tendrils of this problem reach into every corner of our experience and the universe itself.
But we can cover some basics.
First we’re going to offer a definition of “existential crisis.” Or two, actually, because right now, the term largely gets used in two different ways. We’ll offer clear definitions for both.
Then we’re going to offer a few concrete examples.
Initially, we wanted to stop there in order to keep things short.
But then we realized – well, that felt kind of uncool. It kept things short, but it just left too much hanging. “OK, so we’ve defined an existential crisis. Now what?”
So then we decided to offer some very basic First-Aid suggestions just in case anyone is in the middle of something hairy right now.
But then offering only First-Aid didn’t seem like enough. So we then added our humble suggestions that for longer-term relief. And that’s where we finally left it – longer than we’d hoped, but at least now we can sleep peacefully.
We aren’t, by the way, pretending to be psychologists, therapists or counselors here. Treat all this as if you were talking it out, over coffee and cake, with a friend who won’t shut up about it. Look it over, take what you like, and leave the rest. That friend might be a genius or an idiot. But either way, the insights are only relevant to the degree that they help shed light on your own understanding. And maybe, hopefully, point toward some relief.
Great. (I’ll assume you just said “sure” there.)
Let’s dive in.
So, what’s the definition of an “existential crisis”?
Folks use the term “existential crisis” in two different ways.
The first is fairly obvious and straightforward.
The second definition gets into the more juicy stuff.
Definition #1: “An existential crisis is a threat to someone’s or something’s existence.”
If you’re being chased by a bear, that’s one kind of “existential crisis.” The bear is an existential threat to your life, or your physical existence.
But more often, the term “existential crisis” is used to refer to a threat to some kind of bigger thing’s existence: a career, a movement, a business or institution, etc. It’s some kind of greater system.
For example, let’s imagine a political race. Politician #1 is running against Politician #2.
Now let’s say that Politician #2, compared to Politician #1, is more popular, honest, intelligent, hard-working, virtuous, honorable, articulate, cares more about people, gives better speeches, is more competent, cool, and better looking, and has way better hair.
In this example, politician #2 is an “existential threat” to the political career of Politician #1. Which means that Politician #2 has the potential to create an “existential crisis” for #1.
This kind of thing can happen with companies (Netflix was an “existential threat” to Blockbuster), institutions (Amazon is an “existential threat” to bookstores everywhere), movements (a dictator is an existential threat to democracy), even objects (cds were an existential threat to cassette tapes.)
That’s Definition #1. But Definition #2 gets more interesting.
"The collapse of a belief system
can be like the end of the world."
- Walter Truett Anderson
Definition #2: “An existential crisis is an inconsistency in your core life narrative.”
An existential crisis is a plot hole in your life story.
It’s a contradiction in your life philosophy.
This is the kind of existential crisis that has to do with angst, meaninglessness, ennui, purpose in life and lack thereof, nihilism, the meaning of life, the answer to the questions “what are you doing with your life?” and “what should I do with my life?” and “what’s the point of life itself?” and so on.
To unpack this definition, we have to back up a few steps and lay down some groundwork.
Everyone, right now, is trying to make sense of life.
We can’t not do this.
At every moment, on some level, we’re all taking in the world and trying to make sense of it.
From the first moment we’re born (or even sooner,) life is putting existential riddles to us. And we have no choice but to try to answer those riddles as well as we can, consciously or unconsciously, at the time. We don’t usually answer them with words. We answer them with our decisions, behavior, life choices.
This process keeps going until the moment we die.
This happens even on the sensory level. Meaning, your eyes work to filter an infinite array of visual stimuli into something that at least halfway makes sense. Your ears work to screen out an infinite array of sounds in order to focus on the ones that are important, and ignore the rest. And so on.
To accomplish all this successfully, we weave all of these perceptions into something we can make sense of. And as time moves on, we weave those answers into a narrative (or usually, multiple strands of multiple narratives.)
Which is to say, we tell a story.
It’s a story where we’re the hero or heroine. Our current situation is the setting. The source of our current challenge, whatever that might be, is the antagonist. Our struggle to overcome that challenge is the “plot” of our life at the moment.
It can be a simple story: “When I’m hungry, I eat, and that makes the hunger go away.” (The setting is a baby in a crib, the antagonist is hunger, the struggle involves crying for Mom to save the day with some awesome grub.)
Or it can be complex: “Many folks in the world don’t seem to get along, but if we’d figure out how to love each other properly, we’d all be better off.” (Setting = world. Antagonist = friction, conflict and hatred. Plot = struggling to convert friction, conflict and hatred to love, peace, harmony, etc.)
Like sand through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives.
As we go through life, our stories stack up. They add up, combine, merge and disconnect with one another, re-combine, and so on. It’s a dynamic, ongoing activity.
All of these stories eventually congeal into one big heap. That, essentially, is our “meta-story.”
We could call this meta-story our “life philosophy,” our “life story, or dozens of other names. Here, we’ll just call it our “core life narrative.”
So, what is your “core life narrative”?
This process of “making sense of life” isn’t as simple as it might seem.
Let’s imagine you want to make a simple trip to the grocery store to get some butter. Just to do this, you need to answer a few very basic questions:
- Who are you
- Where are you going
- When are you going
- How will you get there (overcome the challenges involved, etc.)
- Why are you going there
Of course, this seems simple. We chose a simple example deliberately.
Because the point, here, is this: even our most simple, everyday decisions are stacked on top of a pile of answers (answers we’ve figured out earlier) to a pile of questions (questions we’ve asked earlier).
This means that means even simple, everyday tasks are the end-result of a long and somewhat difficult process. Especially when we try to do it deliberately and consciously.
Which means that simply making a simple trip to the grocery store is actually much more complicated than it might seem.
It’s the same when it comes to navigating through life.
Then sometimes, we hit a “plot hole.”
We’ve likely had the experience of watching a movie or reading a book, and coming across a “plot hole.”
It’s something that just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit. It contradicts or calls into question everything else within the story.
It’s a moment that “pops you out” of the story. When you’re watching a movie and the narrative suddenly hits a plot hole, suddenly it becomes unbelievable, the spell is broken, and you’re no longer immersed in or identified with the story. You’re suddenly snapped back into remembering that you aren’t actually running from dinosaurs or battling with lightsabers. You’re actually just sitting in a theater.
An existential crisis means hitting a plot hole in the story of your life.
A narrative follows a certain logic.
Stories have to happen in a certain order.
This is part of what separates “stories” from “chains of random events.” A story has a definite sequence. It starts with a premise (or core axiom or assumption or First Principle, etc), and then proceeds, step-by-step, from there. It doesn’t have to be literally linear in time – Pulp Fiction and Momento still worked as stories – but it does have to start somewhere and build from there. It can’t just hop around randomly. (That’s a European art film/insomnia cure, not a real story.)
Let’s imagine a skyscraper.
To build a skyscraper, you don’t start building the 20th floor first, then move on to the then 37th, then the 1st, then the roof, etc.
It has to happen in order. It has to start with laying the foundation, and proceed from there. There’s a linear flow from point A to point B to point C, and so on.
The “plot hole” or “contradiction” or “inconsistency” we’re talking about happens when the skyscraper is 50 stories tall, and we suddenly realize that there’s a problem with the 20th floor.
Maybe we realize that a key structural beam is made of plastic instead of concrete. Or a ceiling is made of candle wax instead of plaster.
If it’s a more serious case, maybe there’s a problem on the 4th or 5th floor.
In this case, some of the fundamental axioms that we’ve built our lives on suddenly get called into question.
And we realize that everything that’s based on that axiom from that point forward – everything from the 4th floor on up – suddenly starts feeling shaky, like it’s on an unstable foundation.
The first floor is made up of “The Big Questions.” The answers to those form the foundation for everything else.
This happens as part of building our lives.
That, in a nutshell, is a sketch of the underlying mechanics of an existential crisis.
Let’s look at a few examples.
(Seven examples, actually.)
Existential Crisis #1: Why do I go to work?
Let’s imagine that one day, a young worker is driving to a job she’s not particularly fond of. And she asks herself a question: “Why am I working?”
“To earn money” she answers. “And why do I want to earn money?” she asks herself in response. “To buy stuff.” “OK, so, what stuff do I want to buy?” “Well, aside from the basics I need to survive (which isn’t really much), some nice clothes and a decent car.” “And where do I usually wear those clothes, and drive that car?” “To work.” “So then, why do I go to work?”
She sees that her answers have become a kind of circular argument. Her reasons all lean on each other, and the whole group is planted firmly in mid-air.
Existential Crisis #2: The professional success
Let’s imagine that a bright and ambitious young worker graduates from school and spends several decades working feverishly toward professional success. A corner office, perhaps. Partnership in a law firm. A medical degree. A million dollars. A billion Instagram followers. Etc.
Eventually, he or she achieves it.
At that point, he or she suddenly realizes, in so many words: “This isn’t ‘IT’. This isn’t what I was hoping it would be. Is this what I’ve been working so hard for all these years? This wasn’t worth it. But I’ve been working in the direction for so long, I don’t know what else to do. And what comes after this? Just more of the same? If this isn’t ‘IT’ now, it won’t be ‘IT’ later either, right?”
Existential Crisis #3: The smartest kid in class
Let’s imagine a guy who sees himself as “the smartest kid in class.” Then he graduates to college, or transfers to a different school, and suddenly, there are tons of smart kids there. And some of them are smarter than he is. Existential crisis ensues.
Existential Crisis #4: The glamorous actress
Let’s imagine a glamorous young Hollywood actress. She’s beautiful, rich, famous, and everybody, everywhere, is falling all over themselves to treat her like a celebrity-queen-goddess. And she loves it.
Now, let’s fast-forward thirty years.
Let’s imagine that her fame faded. Some roles she took for the money (Vegan Shark Vampires From Space Part 19) didn’t exactly thrill her fans. But let’s also imagine that the fame and wealth went straight to her head. We’ll say that she decided that all that made her superior to pretty much everyone around her, and so she treated almost everyone around her poorly. And eventually, time, karma and gravity do what they do. The result of all this being, she’s no longer the hot young thing in town. And there are thousands of brand-new pretty young things arriving in town every week. Existential crisis ensues.
Existential Crisis #5: The major life event
Someone goes through a major life event that rattles them. They move, lose a job, go through a divorce, lose a person close to them, suddenly realize that they themselves aren’t immortal – any number of things.
Existential Crisis #6: Life philosophy shift #1
Let’s imagine a young person being raised in a particular religion. We’ll imagine that, for example, Christianity is a core axiom of their life. Then one day, that person starts questioning whether the Bible is truly “the word of God” in the way that they thought it was. Existential crisis ensues.
Existential Crisis #7: Life philosophy shift #2
Let’s imagine that a person spends much of their life as an atheist. His or her friendship and career are based on this atheism. Then one day, they have what they can only describe as some kind of spiritual experience. They can’t make sense of it, yet they can’t deny it either. Existential crisis ensues.
So, what’s happening in each of these cases?
What triggers an existential crisis? What does it mean to hit a “plot hole” in your core life narrative?
It comes down to this:
What we’re calling your “core life narrative” is your “mental map” of life. And at some point, some event or experience comes along that contradicts that map. It exposes new information that threatens to undermine some of the core, foundational ideas that your day-to-day experience is based on.
It might happen suddenly: a new kid joins the class, a promotion at work, a spiritual experience, an intellectually undermining experience. Or it might happen gradually: maybe it’s a slow, creeping, dawning realization that life is short for us all, or that the next promotion or million or big rush isn’t going to be the huge, transformative event that we’ve been expecting and looking forward to.
Either way, at that point, the situation can become pretty uncomfortable.
Because there are two incompatible realities present: 1) your narrative, and 2) the contradictory experience or evidence.
They both seem true.
Yet they can’t both be true.
If one is true, it seems to mean that the other has to be false. Or if the other one is true, then it seems to meant that the other one has to be false.
Yet, somehow, they both seem true.
Yet they can’t be. They’re incompatible.
That is what it feels like. At this point, we’re trapped in the funhouse, with mirrors all around. It’s a very real, non-theoretical, real-life koan.
Now let’s apply our definition to the examples mentioned above:
• I’m supposed to be the smartest kid in the room (premise #1) , yet there seem to be other kids in this room that are smarter than me. (premise #2)
• I’m used to being a young, beautiful goddess that everyone falls all over (#1), yet I don’t seem to be that anymore. (#2)
• I’ve spent decades working for a certain goal (#1), yet that goal no longer seems to be worth working for (#2).
…and so on.
Since these two parts - #1 and #2 – don’t fit together, this sets a person on the horns of an unresolved dilemma. It submerges a person into a state of cognitive dissonance. It’s a highly uncomfortable state where things just don’t fit together. The world seems out of joint.
Things just don’t make sense.
This is how seemingly simple, non-threatening, insignificant events – a new student joining class, or a promotion at work, or a perfectly natural and inevitable process of life such as aging – can create a profoundly painful – even terrifying – experience for us.
Longer-term situations work along the same lines.
For example, there’s a sense that everything is pointless, that we’re all going to die and eventually everything is coming down to the heat death of the universe, so what’s the point (#1), yet and there’s also the sense that this situation I’ve described above seems very bad, and there’s something very wrong with this situation. (#2) Which is to say, we have a strong intuition, from somewhere, that things shouldn’t be this way.
That – the inconsistency in your life story – is the primary engine behind an existential crisis.
But there are more elements involved as well.
1) Destination: There’s a realization that the path a person is on seems to be leading either “nowhere,” or “somewhere not all that great.” This is an unsatisfying answer to the existential riddle “Where am I going?”
2) Identity: Some of the above examples illustrate a challenge to a person’s identity. They think of themselves as “the smartest person in the room” (or most beautiful, handsome, etc). This is an idea which becomes an identity. (An answer to the existential riddle “Who am I?”) When that identity becomes threatened, it triggers a crisis. One can go from having a sense of being special and unique – in Ernest Becker’s words, of being “THE ONE” in existence, to appearing not special, not unique, and nobody all that important. (To be clear: that is what the experience can seem like. But remember, appearances can be deceiving.)
3) Significance: There’s a sense that “what I do either matters.” Or there’s the opposite: “nothing I do matters.” The latter leads to a kind of existential learned helplessness. After all, if nothing I do really matters, why do anything? Why not do anything? Why live by any kind of code at all?
4) Life disruption: This happens when tragic and unexpected events happen. Loss of a job, the death of a loved one. The life one has become accustomed to gets disrupted, old habits get upset and scrambled, and suddenly an orderly world is thrown into a more complex disarray.
These four elements are often interconnected, but can also lead to different sub-types of existential crises.
They can, and should, be resolved in different ways. Some can heal naturally, at least to some degree, over time. Others, without corrective action – especially the “destination” element – can get worse over time.
Each of these share the same basic engine, and each of these can be overcome. But understanding the differences between them can play a vital role.
Obviously, this can all be an unsettling, painful experience.
Existential crises aren’t famous for being pleasant.
It can feel like suddenly, nothing makes sense anymore. Things that once made sense no longer do. It can call into question everything you’re doing with your life. It can make you wonder if you’ve wasted your life up to that point, or if you’re going to be wasting your life from that point forward. And so on.
And of course, practically all of this might be completely invisible to everyone but you.
From the outside, you might be experiencing all of this, and nobody around you even suspects a thing.
And even worse: you might try to explain what’s happening to someone around you, and they look at you as if you just sprouted five heads and started levitating.
Or they try to sell you a Magic Happy Pill that that they imply, with lawyerlike precision, might “fix it.”
Or they say something like “You think too much. Anyway, let’s change the subject. Have you heard about (insert celebrity gossip/latest outrage/bizarre event)?”
Anxiety, depression, dread, confusion, chronic boredom and so on can easily follow in the wake of all this. Sometimes, they’re even par for the course.
Many folks have never been shown how to deal with these.
It’s no mystery why most of us try to avoid them.
But avoiding an existential crisis isn’t a good solution.
Lots of us, of course, do it, for obvious reasons. We often try to avoid thinking about a crisis any way we can. (Some “professionals” even encourage it.)
We might shop. Or drink. Or pop pills. Or lose ourselves in a barrage of hectic, frenzied, meaningless busyness. Or watch loads of television. Any number of thousands of things.
Sometimes it’s to avoid an existential crisis we can sense coming on.
That’s the key ingredient.
To be clear: we aren’t saying there’s anything wrong with innocent shopping, sleeping, drinking, being busy, watching tv, working, and so on, in itself.
The difference is when these activities are used to avoid an existential crisis that someone senses coming on. That’s when the essential nature of these activities transform into something else: distractions, diversions, compensations.
That’s the difference between innocent shopping and shopping-as-coping-strategy. And that’s the difference between being a shopper and a shopaholic, sex and a “sexaholic,” a beer drinker and an alcoholic. (Although some pharmaceuticalists might not tell you that, because they might want to sell you a pill that might relieve the symptoms of shopaholicism sometimes and with minimal side effects sometimes. Even if it doesn’t work, hey, it’s easy money.)
Again, it’s completely understandable. Existential crises can be difficult, painful experiences. We tend to avoid those kinds of things, whenever we can.
But of course, avoiding them can backfire, and make things worse.
But this brings us to another side to all this, and a famous story that’s been told for thousands of years.
One guy used to go around creating existential crises in folks.
How did he do that? And why? Was he just an existential ransacker, a sadist of the soul?
Just the opposite.
A few thousand years ago, as the story goes, this guy – Socrates – used to go around and just talk to folks. He’d mainly ask them simple questions about their life philosophy. Their answers would stir up more questions. And he’d keep asking.
More often than not, these conversations would eventually reveal that, for example, that certain folks couldn’t actually define what courage was, or what piety was, or what virtue was. And these were folks who pretended – often quite publicly – that they did understand these things, thoroughly.
Contradiction -> existential crisis.
Eventually, as you probably know, they killed him for it. (Some folks, as it turns out, don’t really enjoy other people finding contradictions in their life philosophies and the existential crises that follow in the wake of it all that much.)
But there a lot more to the story.
Socrates probably knew exactly what he was doing.
And he was doing it deliberately.
He was defiant to the end. “I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy,” he said at his trial. And he wished that his children would do the same thing (presumably without running across the kinds of folks who want to kill you for asking questions.)
Apparently, he saw something profoundly valuable in that process.
Valuable enough, as he saw it, to give your life for. (And this came from someone who wasn’t inclined to give his life for something easily - as when he said that some kinds of lives weren't “worth living.” (Referring to "unexamined" ones.))
And he wasn’t alone.
A few other folks appreciated him, and also saw value in what he was doing. One of them – Plato – picked up where Socrates left off, went on to tutor Aristotle, found the Academy, and – oh, just lay the intellectual foundations of the Western world.
All to say: yes, an existential crisis can be a harrowing experience. But it can also be something extremely valuable.
An existential crisis can be an opportunity.
This might sound bizarre.
But it’s a critical point.
It’s not intuitive. When you’re in the thick of it, it sure doesn’t feel like an “opportunity.” For someone actually in the midst of an existential crisis, it probably sounds downright crazy.
But let’s say it anyway.
An existential crisis doesn’t have to be something to merely survive.
It’s also a period of transition that can result in us becoming deeper, stronger, wiser, happier, more satisfied, more fulfilled, better people.
How would this work, exactly?
Thomas Merton said this:
"Soul power comes from living close to the heart and not at odds with it. Therefore, paradoxically, soul power may emerge from failure, depression, and loss. The general rule is the soul appears in the gaps and holes of experience."
(What Merton describes above as “gaps and holes” above, we’re calling “contradictions,” “inconsistencies” and “plot holes.” We can’t interview Merton to be sure, but we seem to be talking about the same thing.)
Zen teacher Richard Rose expressed something similar when he said, roughly, that "man lives between the synapses" – that is, between thoughts, or outside of our usual life narrative instead of comfortably within it.
Briefly, because sometimes the hard truth is that we’ve built our lives and our identities on shaky foundations. Logically speaking, sometimes we can realize that we’ve built our intellectual (and existential) edifice on bad axioms or assumptions.
And if that’s the case, an existential crisis can be an opportunity to rebuild on a stronger foundation.
This seems to happen to pretty much all of us, sooner or later. We realize that things truly aren’t what they seem. And when we adopted a certain axiom/life philosophy/core life narrative, we weren’t aware of a much bigger and more complex picture. Which is to say, sometimes our initial assessments about life are often wrong. And everything subsequent based on those initial assessments, then, becomes wrong, too.
And that’s OK.
If there’s just one key point we could make here, it’s that going through an existential crisis is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, someone having the courage to actually hunker down and go through it typically winds up being much better off than someone who doesn’t. By an order of magnitude.
The trick lies in having the strength to face it.
Here’s how an existential crisis can make you stronger.
Let’s imagine a weird scenario.
Let’s imagine a young man – let’s call him Butters – was raised from birth by a deranged aspiring cult leader named Cartman.
Cartman raised Butters to believe that a meteor was about to hit earth at any moment, and Butters would only survive by living in a bomb shelter. So, in this little scenario, we’ll imagine that Butters lives for many years in that bomb shelter.
(If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s loosely inspired (very loosely) by “Casa Bonita,” the classic episode of South Park.)
Then let’s imagine that one day, when Butters is a young man, Cartman’s diabolical scheme finally falls apart. Butters realizes the truth, and finds himself thrust out into the “normal” world.
Butters would experience one heck of an existential crisis.
At least at first.
The world would stop making sense for a while. It would be a shock to his system. Almost all of his answers to The Big Questions would be overhauled almost completely. He would probably feel overwhelmed at times by a radical and complex new reality that he’s suddenly immersed in.
But all of that would eventually reveal itself to be a good thing.
Eventually, Butters would experience life outside the bomb shelter. A much bigger life.
Once he got through the “crisis” phase and readjusted, his new life, from that point forward, would be immensely richer and fuller.
He would experience, for the first time, ice cream and skyscrapers and football games and movies and getting married and raising kids and so on, she would meet all kinds of new and interesting folks. His overall experience and understanding of the world would widen immensely.
It’s a silly story, sure. But the point is to illustrate in a vivid way that sometimes rethinking your entire life can be a good thing.
Even without an existential crisis: it might be the case that sometimes our life philosophy is already holding us back from a richer, stronger, fuller life. Maybe, in some ways, we’re all hunkered down in bomb shelters in our own heads, hiding from imaginary meteors that will never come.
Maybe Socrates and the boys were really on to something.
Maybe there’s an argument to be made that even deliberately seeking out existential crises can be a good thing.
But before we go there, let’s pump the brakes a little. First things first: let’s focus on surviving whatever we’re experiencing right now. Let’s apply some some First Aid.
10 “First Aid” tips for existential crisis relief.
If you’re in the midst of an existential crisis right now, here are a few very friendly, very basic suggestions.
First of all, take a breath.
If you’re freaking out in any way, it’s fine to freak out. Lots of folks have freaked out before, and lots of folks will again, and lots of folks have come through it all perfectly fine, and even greatly improved. Freaking out is part of life. (And part of why we sometimes envy vegetables and cows.)
Second: having an existential crisis doesn’t mean you’re going crazy.
Part of going through a standard, run-of-the-mill existential crisis involves feeling like you’re going crazy.
That doesn’t mean you actually are.
Sometimes, it’s just that: a feeling.
It can be your mind and heart – which are complex systems – reorganizing. Admittedly, moving the furniture around on a mental and emotional level can feel pretty weird. But that said, eventually things settle, and you get used to it. Sometimes, you just feel it for a while, and then that feeling will likely fade away, if you just observe it, on its own.
Third, don’t do anything drastic.
There are good times to make major life decisions. And there good times to avoid making major life decisions. If you’re in the midst of an existential crisis, to whatever degree it’s possible, you’ll want the latter.
If you can help it, you want periods of calm and clarity, when you’re thinking clearly, to make major life decisions. When it’s possible, avoid making them when you’re in some storm of emotion. Wait until the storm has passed.
Fourth, know this: that you can get through this, and come out the other side just fine.
Or even stronger.
Lots of folks have been through existential crises and have come out stronger.
Fifth, understand that there’s a lot of terrible advice out there.
There’s some truly awful advice out there being given by “experts” who seem to have no idea what they’re doing or talking about. Sometimes, maybe, they mean well and just don’t know better. We won’t belabor this point. But if someone’s advice seems utterly disheartening, demoralizing, and just sweeps your legs out from under you, remember: they might not have any idea what they’re actually talking about, and maybe you’re better off ignoring them and trusting yourself.
Especially if they’re saying it with a lot of confidence.
Sixth, maybe take a vacation from the phone, Facebook, Twitter, and nearly all media.
This can help immensely.
A break and a rest from the relentless social media circus, however brief – if you’re able to break the addiction – can provide a powerful burst of clarity and a sanity-inducing refuge of un-accosted peace. Even if it’s just for even a few hours.
Seventh, try to articulate what’s on your mind.
Sometimes, being able to put the problem into words is half the battle. Especially with this stuff.
Simple writing can help. Putting thoughts to paper (or fingers to pixels) takes the subjective and makes it objective. Even the simple act of spitting it out, so it’s “out there” instead of only in your head can transform your entire perspective on it, and make things much clearer.
Eighth, this will stir up questions.
Questions are good things. Asking questions is a sign of life.
Children are very alive, and they’re full of questions.
Children often don’t necessarily find answers as much as they either outgrow them or just stop asking. Then life has a way of waking us up – sometimes quite rudely – and reminding us that there are good questions – Big Questions – that we haven’t completely found the answers to yet.
One of the positives of the age of information overload: you won’t be the first one to have worked on whatever problem you’re having. In fact, chances are, some of the greatest minds of history have done the same thing.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. See what they’ve already figured out. And go from there.
Ninth: take a break from thinking. Sometimes.
There’s a fine line to walk here.
Good, hard thinking can be a good thing. Nonstop rumination – worrying – can be counterproductive.
Immersive activities that engage you so fully – basketball, dancing, etc – can serve as a relief valve. They can reset your system, and allow you to come back refreshed and with a new perspective. They can be like a short vacation.
But eventually, vacations end. An extended or never-ending vacation isn’t a long-term solution. It’s ducking the problem.
Tenth: there’s a critical choice here.
If an existential crisis is a plot hole in your core personal narrative, there are generally two directions from this point: either 1) embracing paradox or 2) backing away from it.
In our humble opinion, as a general rule, when it’s possible:
Embrace the paradox.
This is part of the longer-term plan.
So, what’s a longer-term plan for relief from an existential crisis?
The points mentioned above are geared to put a floor under an immediate crisis and prevent it from going further south. It’s short-term First Aid.
But what about long-term relief?
Here’s our basic strategy for the long haul:
Work to resolve the contradiction at the core of the crisis.
That might sound simple, but it’s not easy.
The basic idea here is to face the crisis, head-on.
If it’s correct that a crisis is caused by a “plot hole” in our core life narrative, a contradiction in our life philosophy, then from this point we can generally move in two basic directions:
1) Dodge, deny, and avoid the problem.
2) Embrace the paradox (contradiction, inconsistency, plot hole), and do the messy and difficult work needed to sort it out.
Option #1 is easier in the short-run and harder in the long-run.
Option #2 is the reverse: harder now, but easier later.
We recommend Option #2.
So, what does it mean to “embrace the paradox”?
Let’s do a brief recap:
According to our definition, an existential crisis is cause by a contradiction underneath the surface, similar to the way tectonic plates cause an earthquake on the surface. We feel an earthquake without necessarily knowing about the tectonic plates causing them, and we feel an existential crisis without necessarily knowing about the dilemma causing it.
The contradiction that causes the crisis happens between your core personal narrative on one side and some new fact or experience on the other. This creates what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” where essentially, you become “one of whack” with yourself.
It can feel pretty unpleasant. But the strain is a normal, healthy reaction to a difficult situation.
If the contradiction is between your core personal narrative and “new data” about life (in the form of some new fact or experience), “embracing the paradox” would mean working to expand your core personal narrative. It means working to evolve your map of the world so it incorporates this new data.
From one of the examples above: it means growing from “I’m the smartest person in the room” to “Maybe I’m not always the smartest person in the room, and that’s OK.
It’s a change in worldview, or sometimes an identity or self-concept.
This isn’t easy in the short run.
But it’s much easier in the long run.
The way “backward,” as we describe it, is rejecting, ignoring, or rationalizing the new data away. In this example, it would mean the person desperately trying to prove that he or she really is smarter than the other kid in the room. (This is the premise for a lot of sitcom episodes.)
Shrinking from the underlying contradiction preserves your core personal narrative and leaves it intact.
But the cost is that, well, now you’re ignoring part of life.
Some folks, of course, choose to shrink back from paradox.
Thomas Kuhn wrote a book (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) about scientists and their “paradigms.”
He defined “paradigm” as a framework of basic assumptions, methods and belief systems. (He offers the old Copernican model of planetary motion verses the later models of Kepler, Galileo and Newton.) As we see it, “paradigm” is similar to we’re calling as the “core personal narrative,” except that it works on a personal level.
So, your “core personal narrative” could also be described as “your (personal) paradigm of life.”
But Kuhn also mentioned something interesting about what happens when scientists encounter evidence that contradicts their current paradigm. (Aka, what happens when someone’s core personal narrative hits a “plot hole,” or when they encounter something that could trigger an existential crisis of the intellect.)
As Max Planck remarked, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 151).
In other words, even professional scientists sometimes reject or ignore the data, or shrink back from paradox.
They preserve their core personal narrative (or “paradigm”) and choose to cling to familiar maps of life rather than instead of doing the work necessary to rethink and incorporate the new data.
It means “resolving the contradiction at the heart of the crisis.”
When good writers discover plot holes in their stories, they don’t shrink back from them and hide, deny, rationalize them away.
They fix them.
They go to work.
They research, brainstorm, rethink, reinvent. They dig into potential answers, investigate them, compare them, get up-close-and-intimate with them.
This approach is to face the problem head-on. Ask hard questions. Face hard truths. Admit unflattering realizations. Confess mistakes. They deliberately seek out weak spots in their own writing, and attack them. They rip out bad ideas and non-essentials. They expose corroded, soggy, flimsy words and replace them with ones that are solid, reinforced, dead-on-target.
Sometimes this means throwing away phrases, ideas, chapters they love. Sometimes it means tossing something they’ve spent months, years on – in the trash.
That’s the kind of work involved in creating a masterpiece.
They become like detectives on the trail of a killer. They’re hunting for perfection, and refusing to settle for anything but the effort to get as close to that perfection as possible.
In other words, they become Seekers.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence
is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time
and still retain the ability to function.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Being a Seeker isn’t easy.
Seeking means embracing a new level of complexity.
Many folks do the opposite.
When some folks encounter an idea, experience or evidence that contradicts their core life narrative, they shrink back and hide, deny, rationalize it away. They assume that their original narrative is correct, and this new evidence is invalid, and they make up whatever elaborate spin they need to explain it away. They might search for the Magic Happy Pill that can make all the bad feelings go away without having to do any work. They duck the challenge, and close their minds to the rest, however they can.
That route is easier in the short-term.
They also often get affirmed in taking this route. They dig their heels in, assume a false certainty, and call it sticking to “the courage of their convictions.” (Other folks call it “denying the truth.”) They ignore or explain away the fact that many other intelligent individuals hold completely different perspectives on the matter.
Humans have a nearly infinite capacity to rationalize nearly anything. And some folks take full advantage of it.
By doing this, they keep their core life narrative intact.
But it comes at a steep cost.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Retreating from the contradiction means backing away from life.
Life is difficult and demanding. It seems to relentlessly prod us to grow, expand, reach, however much we might want to flop down, burrow into some well-insulated comfort zone, and play it safe.
When we embrace contradiction, it’s not safe.
It takes courage.
It’s the opposite direction of “sticking to the courage of your convictions.”
As Nietzsche said: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”
Strength training – building stronger muscles – doesn’t happen by avoiding heavy weights. We get stronger by deliberately seeking out challenges – in the form of heavy weights – and working to master or overcome them.
In regards to a life philosophy, that means testing out our life philosophy.
It means deliberately working to challenge ourselves existentially, to find our weaknesses – in ourselves and in our understanding of life – and overcome them. It can mean finding folks that disagree with us and considering the possibility that we might be able to learn something from them. Because it might be the case that we’re both "touching two different parts of the elephant."
It means embracing the unknown and stepping into uncertainty. Which can be terrifying.
“The sign of intelligence is that you are constantly wondering.
Idiots are always dead sure about every damn thing they are doing in their life.”
- Jaggi Vasudev
“The problem with the world is that
the intelligent people are full of doubts,
while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
- Charles Bukowski
"the best lack all conviction,
while the worst are filled with passionate intensity"
- William Butler Yeats
The work here lies is widening our view.
If our current map doesn’t account for new data, the answer isn’t to reject the data. It’s to widen the map.
When you’re on the horns of a paradox, or caught in what seems to be an existential contradiction, there seem to be two incompatible realities that are somehow both true.
But the problem isn’t with reality. It’s with our map of reality.
Which is to say, according to our map of reality, two different truths seem to be incompatible.
But there is a way that both realities might actually be true. The trick is to evolve our map, or understanding, to the point that both make sense.
With a higher understanding that can accommodate these two seemingly incompatible realities seamlessly, things might start looking different. Two apparently opposing viewpoints might be seen, instead, as fully compatible on a higher level.
It might be like the two poles of a battery, the positive and negative poles. They might appear to be working against each other. But on the level of a kid wanting a working flashlight, the “contradiction” between the two might actually work together to generate power and light.
D. T. Suzuki says it pretty well.
“If we feel dissatisfied somehow with this life, if there is something in our ordinary way of living that deprives us of freedom in its most sanctified sense, we must endeavor to find a way somewhere which gives us a sense of finality and contentment. Zen proposes to do this for us and assures us of the acquirement of a new point of view in which life assumes a fresher, deeper, and more satisfying aspect. This acquirement, however, is really and naturally the greatest mental cataclysm one can go through with in life. It is no easy task, it is a kind of fiery baptism, and one has to go through the storm, the earthquake, the overthrowing of the mountains, and the breaking in pieces of the rocks.”
(Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki. William Barrett ed., 1996)
He says shortly after:
“Unless once you have been thoroughly drenched in a perspiration you cannot expect to see the revelation of a palace of pearls on a blade of grass.”
He’s referring to Zen, of course. But sometimes the line between Zen and “regular” life is a blurry one. If there is one at all.
So, to revisit a few of our examples:
Maybe there are other kids that are smarter than me.
Maybe I won’t be the hot-young-actress-in-Hollywood forever. That’s OK, too.
Maybe the success that I thought would bring me fulfillment, didn’t. And so on.
Maybe life is meaningless when viewed in a particular way. But maybe there’s a different – and valid, and possibly even more truthful – way of viewing life that reveals that it isn’t meaningless.
And so on.
Of course, in each of these examples, there are still things that need to be worked out. (Meaning, there’s more to be done than simply saying “that’s OK” to everything.)
But that’s the challenge to take on: the task of deliberately integrating this new awareness, or consciously searching for a newer, more superior understanding of life.
This can mean that a person embarks on a quest.
In every good story, the hero or heroine gets challenged far beyond what they think they are capable of handling. In order to master that challenge, they’re forced to grow.
It’s not growth of a physical body. It’s growth of something invisible. To call it merely “an expansion of your core life narrative” sounds way too clinical and cold.
Because what we’re really talking about here is growing as a person. It’s expanding your soul.
And we'll really go out on a limb here and say that expanding your soul...well, that's a good thing.
Most of us want to “grow” as a person.
Many of us, in fact, see it as our entire purpose in life. We pull it out when we need it to explain our mistakes, mishaps and bad decisions. “Well, it might have been a disaster, but at least I learned something. At least I grew.”
Yet we also often want growth to be easy, comfortable, and effortless. Most of us resist challenging ourselves until we’re forced to. We postpone it until we’re confronted by some kind of crisis. And once the crisis fades, and we’re back to being comfortable again, we relax our efforts, get nice and comfy, and go back to sleep.
We often grow through suffering. Yet we often avoid suffering as much as possible, and then wonder why we aren’t growing.
That’s why an existential crisis, when faced in the right way, can be a tremendous opportunity for growth.
And that’s why it can be a good thing.
So what does “embracing the paradox” actually look like, in everyday life?
To revisit our building metaphor, sometimes we need to go back down to the first few floors.
Sometimes we need to rewind back, retrace our steps and ask some extremely basic questions. And do some inspections of our inner skyscraper. Is this pillar made of concrete, or strawberry jam? Is this belief I’ve assumed really true, or is it just something I want to be true?
Sometimes it might mean someone admitting that they’ve been wrong.
For example, that might look like rethinking ideas someone once defended furiously.
There’s often a stigma in someone admitting that they were wrong. And sometimes, real prices to pay.
Again, it takes strength and courage to face new truth. Especially when it contradicts much of our earlier identity. It can feel like a form of death.
But there’s also plenty of room here where we can cut ourselves some slack.
We often formed certain beliefs years ago, before we had all the information and insight we have now.
In fact, that’s par for the course.
Maybe we started down a certain intellectual course as a teenager, and now we’re an adult. There’s no requirement for the “adult self” to continue along course decided on by the “teenage self.” Sometimes, the “adult” self has become much wiser than the teenager they once were. Otherwise, it becomes an older, wiser, more insightful adult deferring major life decisions to a younger, less knowledgeable youngster. Which doesn’t really make sense.
Which means, sometimes, the “adult” self should just take charge.
Which means, realizing: the situation has changed. New information and insight might have revealed a new game, a new set of rules, maybe even an entirely new reality. And it makes sense to explore what may be a new reality, and to leave old ideas behind, like a snake shedding its skin.
All of this might mean asking questions, and searching for answers. Even when the questions are uncomfortable and the answers aren’t flattering. It can require a degree of courage, grit, and fortitude.
So, what kinds of questions are we talking about asking here?
To name a few:
Maybe at some point, you were surrounded by folks that made all religion and spirituality seem completely bogus, and you dismissed the entire lot as total nonsense.
But maybe, if you take a fresh look, you can discover that there might be approaches to genuine, legitimate spirituality that actually isn’t nonsense.
Maybe, at some point, you decided that life was meaningless because we age and die and because life is full of suffering for no apparent reason. But maybe there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
These are examples, but what we’re pointing to is the process of searching. Maybe we need to become our own existential detectives, and investigate what that might be.
This might take a form as simple as reading some new books that we might not otherwise read, or listening to some philosophers we might have dismissed a lot time ago, or genuinely listening to folks we disagree with to see if they have anything to say that we might have overlooked.
And so on. Of course, chances are, if you’re reading this article, you already do all this already. And your investigation into all this is already well underway. (In which case, you’re in the right place.) Which is to say, in all likelihood, you’re already a Seeker.
But if not, it might be time to geek out on some existential investigations.
Which, by the way, can be a heck of an adventure.
And an immensely rewarding one.
This has been, believe it or not, a brief overview.
It probably doesn’t seem all that brief, of course.
But there are still deeper dynamics at work here that we haven’t touched on yet. We’ve briefly mentioned some major issues and questions, and there are plenty of others we haven’t explored. Really making the move from a perspective of meaninglessness to legitimate meaning, for example - well, there's still a lot more to say about that.
And we're planning to continue exploring all this.
The goal of this article was to get clear on a definition of existential crisis, and to sketch out a basic plan for what to do about one when it hits.
Now that we’ve done this, we’ve laid the groundwork for going deeper – for really understanding more about how, on a very realistic, practical level, we can know ourselves more, how we can become stronger, happier, better people, with more clarity about life and how we can make some of the most attractive possibilities real.
There’s plenty more to do.
But hopefully, at this point, we’re off to a good start.
So, what to do from here?
Now that have a short-term and long-term strategy, there’s one other element we should mention.
If you’re going through some kind of existential crisis right now, whether it’s acute or ongoing…well, you aren’t alone.
There’s not a ton of scientific data on this (and there might never be). But well, a lot of signs point to the fact that lots of folks right now are struggling with this stuff.
Well, there’s an argument to be made that the entire Western world itself is going through a bit of an existential crisis right now, and sometimes it trickles down to the individual.
Which is to say, perhaps we’re actually living through “The Death of God,” and that’s part of Why Soft Nihilism Is So Popular These Days. There have been more than a few seismic shifts in the subterranean landscape of many different territories (religion, philosophy, ethics, even mathematics) that has aggravated the situation.
“We still do not comprehend what a stunning
– and still incomplete – upheaval of thought
that has occurred in the recent historical past.”
- Walter Truett Anderson
So, it might be the case that right now, at the time of this writing, (2019) we’re all going through a culture-wide existential crisis that doesn’t really look like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon.
But the burden of fixing the entire culture doesn’t rest entirely on your shoulders alone.
We each face our own personal tasks. Finding happiness, for example – even antifragile happiness. Confronting other existential riddles, like understanding suffering, for example, or something as simple as how not to avoid a life of regrets. Which can sometimes mean asking who we are, and why we’re here, and whether we should “follow our hearts” or not, or find good answers to “meaning ” in life and avoid bad ones.
Yes, we can all work to help other folks and save the world and so on. But before doing that, we should get clear on what exactly the world is, what we are, what the point of all this is, and what exactly we should do about it so we don’t make things worse.
Which means doing some basic groundwork of really figuring yourself out before embarking on a crusade to make the world over in your own image and likeness.
One final thought. (Seriously.)
“Crisis” can be a word that contains both “danger” and “opportunity.”
The “opportunity” side here, which we’ve touched on, is handling a crisis properly. Like we’ve said, this is not an easy road. (Neither road is easy.) It can become an all-out battle at certain times, and requires an ongoing effort on our part. On one side of the effort, there’s a lot of questioning, thinking, experimenting, and exploring. On the other side of the effort, there’s an ongoing series of short-term fixes that make the long-term situation worse.
It’s not an either-or choice, of course. Life is messy. And going through an existential crisis probably isn’t top of the list for many folks of how to spend an afternoon.
But hopefully we’ve conveyed the sense here that an existential crisis doesn’t have to be an entirely unpleasant experience.
Because if what we’re getting at here is correct, on the other side of these crises, if we go through them properly…are potential treasures.
Maybe potential existential crisis are all around us.
Maybe they’re lying all around us, like relics from past wars, half-buried and full of priceless treasures, just waiting to be rediscovered and resolved.
Maybe each of us can become an existential Indiana Jones, an inner archeologist, hunting priceless old existential artifacts inside us, solving their riddles, and putting them all back in their proper places. (“It belongs in a museum!”)
Perhaps each of us can embark a treasure-hunting expedition to seek out those life-draining contradictions and plot-holes within us that hold us back and weigh us down, whether we realize it or not.
Maybe that’s what Socrates understood when he spent his life going around trying to create existential crises in the folks he would talk with.
Maybe an existential crisis can be a door.
Maybe on the other side of that door is priceless treasure.
Rubies and gold and diamonds and all of it. Vast wealth. But of course, we’re talking about inner treasure and inner wealth. Just waiting, perhaps, on the other side of that door.
Want to walk through it?
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