If you spend any time at all analyzing yourself, your behaviors, and your life, an existential crisis is practically inevitable. If you are wondering how to survive an existential crisis, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve been there, and hopefully I can help you. But more importantly, you need to understand that surviving your existential crisis isn’t enough; this is an opportunity to evolve. Read on to learn how to survive an existential crisis and how to use your existential crisis to fuel personal growth.
A messy divorce strips away your day-to-day routine. A faith crisis transforms your certainties into doubts. A coveted goal just doesn’t taste as sweet as you expected.
Whatever the trigger for your existential crisis may be, it’s important to recognize that it is a natural part of your development as a human being.
Crisis is an opportunity for growth — a chance to become an evolved version of your truest self; survival simply isn’t enough.
What is an existential crisis?
According to the American Psychology Association, an existential crisis is defined as:
1. in existentialism, a crucial stage or turning point at which an individual is faced with finding meaning and purpose in life and taking responsibility for his or her choices.
2. more generally, any psychological or moral crisis that causes an individual to ask fundamental questions about human existence.
An existential crisis is fundamentally internal and external. Yes, it places our identity in chaos, but it also derails our ability to make sense of the world, other people, and the meaning of existence. An existential crisis asks the biggest questions humanity encounters in life:
Who am I?
and perhaps more importantly…
Why am I?
A Practical Example of an Existential Crisis
My existential crisis crashed into my life when I was 16 years old. My parents, who in my eyes had always had the perfect marriage, were actually less happy and compatible than they had been letting on.
Turns out that our Brady-Bunch-minus-a-bunch-of-kids existence was nothing more than a mirage I’d crafted in my own Nick at Nite-colored glasses.
On a random school night, I learned that my Dad was gay, my parents had been hiding it from everyone, and they were getting divorced.
I felt deceived. My entire worldview and the basis for my understanding of relationships was fundamentally altered. As a hopeless romantic whose primary goal in life had always been to replicate the “wonderful marriage” my parents had, this transformation shook a lot more than my outside environment.
How NOT to Survive an Existential Crisis
The first time around, I had no idea how to handle the internal earthquake of an existential crisis. I grew depressed and developed physical symptoms of the mental distress I was feeling.
With the center of my life, identity, and worldview shaken, I was desperate for something to latch onto. I jumped into the first place of respite I discovered — the Mormon church.
Rather than taking the time to process events and reshape my life, identity, and worldview, I replaced the pedestal of my parents’ marriage with a new pedestal — equally outside of myself and inconsistent with reality as I understood it.
First, I built my identity on my parents. And then I built my identity on the church — and my own marriage when it came.
Any time the nexus of your identity rests outside of yourself, you are setting yourself up for problems.
But I hurled myself forward, feeling safe in the comfort and security of a community.
An Existential Crisis Isn’t Over Until You’ve Actually Grown
I spent a decade in the Mormon church, four years of which I was married. I thought I had healed and moved on from my parents’ divorce. I didn’t realize that the existential crisis of my youth still lurked in the depths of my unconscious mind.
But an existential crisis isn’t over until you’ve actually grown, and it wasn’t long before another crisis (the arrest of my now ex-husband and discovery of his secret life) once again stripped me of my identity and called my worldview into question.
Although the external situation was definitely a new crisis, the internal chaos I felt wasn’t a second existential crisis; it was the unresolved existential crisis of my youth brought back to the surface. Painful outside events reminded me of the feelings I had been neglecting for a decade. I may have managed to “move on”, but I had failed to integrate the experience into my existence and identity — instead, choosing to ignore it.
It’s Hard to Survive an Existential Crisis
I’ve spent almost half my life surviving an existential crisis. It’s a strange limbo where you continue living even though you are uncertain of who you are, why you exist, and what you should make of the world.
At some point, all of us experience an existential crisis. After all, what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to think about our own thoughts — to examine and question them.
But questions can’t always be answered easily. And facing an insurmountable (often unexpected) existential crisis really is like running into a wall. When your whole existence is called into question, how are you supposed to go on living?
Suicidal thoughts are common in the midst of an existential crisis. The pain of lost identity and fear of the unknown are enough to cripple even the strongest individuals. Hamlet spoke for all of us in his age-old monologue.
In the play, Hamlet is supposedly insane as he contemplates suicide, but most people encounter the despair he expresses at some point.
Should I keep on going?
And if so, how?
Why Surviving an Existential Crisis Isn’t Enough
When you are in the pit of despair, it’s easy to seek whatever respite you can find. Anything to quell the pain and chaos in your own heart and mind. Anything to stop the barrage of questions spinning in your head.
Some people survive through alcohol, drugs, and sex. Some people survive through religion and routine.
Most people survive by simply forgetting — ignoring the big questions and going on with life as though they don’t exist — as though they aren’t bubbling up from the depths of your soul begging to be dealt with.
You take it one day at a time.
You find something else to trust and believe in.
You find another outside nexus for your identity.
But surviving an existential crisis isn’t enough. Pretending you aren’t in crisis and failing to integrate your experiences into a new version of your life, identity, and worldview will only lead to wasted years.
An existential crisis isn’t over until you’ve grown, and it will keep nagging at you subtly — and occasionally reemerging in all its vile glory — until you have dealt with it fully.
How to Evolve Through an Existential Crisis
If you are experiencing an existential crisis, your life, identity, and worldview are not in line with your true self and/or reality. This is an opportunity for growth, so it’s time to stop hiding and start working through the crisis.
The following exercise will help you evolve through an existential crisis to become your truest self. Yes, it requires writing. No, it won’t be graded.
Like all of life, this is a working document. Don’t feel like it has to be perfect.
1. Get grounded in the things you know.
If you are in existential crisis, you have a lot of unresolved questions. There are so many things up in the air that it can be difficult to hold onto anything. The best way to deal with this is to get grounded in the things you know. Sit down somewhere quiet and answer the following questions. Some of them are big questions, and you may not have answers to all of them. But taking the time to consider the things you know and believe gives you a reference point for integrating your existential crisis with your true self.
· What are your strongest beliefs?
· How do you determine right from wrong?
· What do you believe is the purpose of life?
· What are the most important life lessons you’ve learned?
· If you had a year to live, what would you do to make the most of it?
· How do you hope people remember you when you die?
· What are you ashamed of? What are you proud of?
2. Figure out what triggered the existential crisis in the first place.
A lot of times, we assume that our most recent traumatic event, life shake-up, or chaos is the cause of our distress. But often, the real center of our existential crisis lies further back in the past. The things that are triggering you now are important and need to be dealt with, but before you start doing the hard work, you need to understand what you’re dealing with.
Take some time to evaluate your life. Have you ever felt the same way you feel now? You might be surprised to see how long you’ve been dealing with the same existential crisis.
It’s been almost 15 years since I initially encountered the deep-rooted questions that are propelling my current self-discovery; I just wasn’t ready to deal with them back then (and didn’t recognize them for the opportunity they were).
3. Determine what parts of your life, identity, and worldview are in crisis.
Although an existential crisis feels all-consuming, once you know the triggers, you can usually see that certain aspects of your life, identity, and worldview are at the center of your crisis.
For instance, my existential crisis centered on the fact that I had not noticed there were issues in my parents’ marriage. It wasn’t just that I didn’t notice them or that I was wrong; it was that I built a large portion of my identity and life goals on the foundation of what I ardently believed was their excellent marriage. I felt betrayed by them and stupid for not seeing the writing on the wall — especially when my best friend’s response when I told her was, “hmmm… I could see that.”
I wondered why they would lie to me, and I learned to distrust others. But more importantly, I wondered why I was so naïve and learned to distrust myself.
Of course, this is only one portion of the crisis that shook me. Take the time to evaluate how your life, identity, and worldview have been threatened by the triggers of your existential crisis. Make a list of the specific parts of your life, identity, and worldview that are in flux.
4. Evaluate your experiences and how they impact your life, identity, and worldview.
Now that you know what is being affected by your existential crisis, you need to evaluate your experiences and how they impact your life, identity, and worldview. You are miserable because these things are no longer in line with what you have learned. On a subconscious level, you recognize that you aren’t being true to what you know, but you haven’t brought this recognition to a conscious place where you can act on it.
Now is the time.
Look at the parts of your life, identity, and worldview that are in crisis and compare them with your answers to the first question. Think. Let your mind wander.
What is the problem? Why do you feel at odds with yourself?
For instance, one of the parts of my identity in flux was my tendency to lie to myself when I encounter uncomfortable things. I didn’t even realize this was something I did, but by evaluating why I felt so stupid for being “duped” — first by my parents’ seemingly happy marriage and then by my own — I realized that there was part of me that blamed myself for not noticing.
I knew they had been lying to me, but deep down I wondered — had I been lying to myself?
Note: This is just one of MANY things I discovered by evaluating my experiences. There likely won’t be a magical answer that clears things up for you all at once. This is a process for discovering what you need to work on, and the list is likely to be longer than you want it to be. Come back and add to the list as you continue to work through your existential crisis.
5. Integrate your learnings. Reshape your life, identity, and worldview.
It wouldn’t be an existential crisis if it wasn’t complicated. Knowing there’s a problem is just the first step in fixing it. Now, you have to integrate the things you’ve learned and reshape your life, identity, and worldview to be in line with the things you know and believe. This is certainly a process and can take months or years to complete.
Many of the things you discover through evaluating your existential crisis will be deep-rooted habits and beliefs you developed as a child. Reshaping them is hard work, and you have to be patient with yourself as you work through them. But any step in the right direction is going to help you through the pain of the crisis and bring you closer to your truest self.
Evolving Through an Existential Crisis Takes Time — and Patience
Learning to stop lying to myself is something I’ve been working on for over a year, and the bad news is that I’m still working on it. Most of the time, I don’t even realize I’m doing it because it’s been an unconscious habit for so long. And that’s just one tiny piece of the evolution my existential crisis has brought on.
Evolving is hard.
I guess that’s why most of us ignore our existential crises rather than taking the time to work through them.
But if you take the time to do it, you’ll be more fulfilled — living in accordance with who you truly are and the things you know and believe.
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