A new client walks into my office and sits on the couch. Immediately her eyes tear up and she reaches for a Kleenex. “I’m sorry,” she sobs, “but my mom just died a few months ago and I am feeling so ungrounded. I don’t know who I am anymore without her in my life. Can you help me?”
Another client whom I’ve been working with for a few months is talking about his lack of motivation at his job. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he says to me, “my job used to give me such satisfaction but now I am so apathetic about it.” When I ask him what gets him up each day, he shakes his head. “I don’t know anymore,” he answers. “I just don’t know. I guess I’m depressed.”
These are both examples of what I call existential angst – that process of tussling with our values, our purpose, our reasons for being along with our beliefs about life and death. This process is usually a painful time of questioning and meaning making, a process which can be accompanied by anxiety or depression, a process which can make us curl up into metaphorical balls of despair as we grapple with our purpose, a process where previously held beliefs and values can lose their meaning and we are compelled to search anew. This is a difficult time, there are no two ways about it. It is difficult, and we often decide not to go down this road because of the pain. And yet it is a perfectly normal experience, an experience which everyone is faced with depending on their age and life events.
For example, it is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate for young adults to go through existential angst as they arrive at that age where they need to make decisions about future careers, future partnerhood, future independence. It is perfectly normal for them to question and even reject the values they were raised with and feel ovewhelmed as they search for their own meaning. And it is perfectly normal for them to feel depressed as they grapple with these life questions.
It is perfectly normal to go through existential angst when someone close to us dies. Death may have been abstract and far in the future before; suddenly, it is very much affecting us and we don’t know how to cope. It is perfectly normal to question any religious beliefs we hold and to grapple with the whole idea of death, the whole idea of this person gone from our lives. And it is perfectly normal to experience sadness and anxiety during this time.
It is perfectly normal to go through existential angst when we are faced with an illness, or as we age. Our finite bodies show their finitude clearly as they start to fail us. It is perfectly normal to question our identity without our previously healthy bodies and to be freaked out by the idea of dying. It is perfectly normal to face a reorganization of our values and belief structure – to ask ourselves, “What is the point of my life?” or “Who am I?” And it is perfectly normal to grieve as we go through this process, as we give up our former selves and oftentimes our former values for something as yet undefined.
The thing is, we aren’t really acculturated to ask ourselves these types of questions, and many of my clients don’t even know where to start and are overwhelmed with their feelings of what some call “free fall” and others “losing their center.” * If you were my client on this type of quest, besides supporting you with coping skills for any symptoms you might be having, I would encourage you to interview people you admire, people who seem grounded and have faced similar issues. I would help you come up with questions, such as,”What gives your life purpose and value?” or “What do you think happens after death?” These aren’t the normal questions asked on a normal sunny day, but I think you would learn a lot from these interviews. They would allow you to enter into someone else’s experiences and try them on to see if they fit. They would allow you to get curious about some of the answers.
I would encourage you to go to the self help or spirituality section of a bookstore and look for titles that catch your interest, and to read and explore new ideas or go deeper into established ones. Some of you would find great solace in deepening your religious or spiritual beliefs, while others of you would reject previously held beliefs and be on the search for new meaning. Some of you might become atheist. Some of you might find yourselves curious about spirituality for the first time. Some of you might want to learn more about philosophy or different world views. I would tell you that you can trust yourself in this process – that you will know when something resonates with you, when something makes you want to explore more.
I would also encourage you to look for what brings you joy in life, and to see how that fits with your belief system and journey. This can feel like a foreign quest for many: joy is often not on the list of things to keep an eye out for when grappling with one’s life purpose or one’s finitude. Yet it can serve to keep us in touch with our innermost desires and longings.
And then I would encourage you to journal about your musings, your questions, your angst, your discoveries. This helps not only with the processing of these important life issues, but also is helpful to read back through in the future. You would most likely be impressed with where your journey has taken you – I have witnessed clients being utterly transformed. You would most likely be impressed with your courage in taking the journey – because this journey does take courage. It can stir up the very fibers of our souls as we endeavor to be both true to our truest selves and discover who this might be.
I would inform you that this process takes time. There is no quick fix to this quest of making meaning, and one answer does not fit all. Be patient with yourself as you navigate these unknown waters. Take care of yourself. Be curious.
And finally, I would tell you to be heartened by the fact that this quest makes you human. Be heartened by the fact that everyone grapples with these issues, whether or not they talk about them. And perhaps most importantly, be heartened by your goal: a more grounded self.
*If this is the case for you, or if your symptoms of depression or anxiety are affecting your daily functioning, please enlist the support of a therapist or physician. In an emergency, call 911 or the crisis call center at 1-800-273-8255.