Existential Crisis—An existential crisis is a time of intense reflection in which a person questions the meaning and purpose of their life. This can be a frightening experience, as one can feel alone and lost in a seemingly random and meaningless universe. However, it can also be a time of great growth and self-discovery.
An existential crisis is, in a sense, a call from our soul. It is the moment when our deepest self tries to wake us up, or when we get a sense of the collective unconscious that goes beyond our egoic mind. Carl Jung believed that the first half of our lives is spent developing our ego, while the second half is spent integrating the unconscious and becoming who we are. It is not uncommon for the parentified, responsible, high-functioning person to reach a point in midlife where they become depressed and anxious.
An existential crisis can be a time of great fear and turmoil, but it is also a time of great opportunity for growth. If you can embrace the chaos and find meaning in it, you can use this crisis to become a stronger and more authentic version of yourself.
Existential Crisis and the Parentified Child
Due to their innate empathic tendencies and intuitive nature, many emotionally intense and highly sensitive people have been parentified in their families. If you have immature, vulnerable, or abusive parents, or if your sibling was a bully, you may have been pushed to grow up so quickly that you were robbed of a carefree childhood. It is not uncommon for a highly sensitive and empathic child to take on this parentified role in the family system. Instead of being a carefree child, you became the caretaker of the family.
The effects of parentification are so strong that you carry the unconscious responsibility of being the rock for everyone else into adulthood. A highly sensitive parentified child has been trained to worry about the family’s livelihood, well-being, and happiness at the expense of their joy and development. Even as a child, they are so busy worrying about their parents and siblings and trying to take care of them that they forget to be a child. They rarely throw a tantrum, they work hard in school, they are very responsible and rarely make mistakes. They are almost painfully ‘too good’. (More on Parentification Trauma here)
Unfortunately, when children are thrust into a parental role, they are deprived of the opportunity to explore their interests and develop their unique sense of self. They are not given the space – practical and emotional – to find their joy and develop their self-confidence. When other children are playing and exploring their passions and interests, the parentified child is thinking about what would make their family peaceful and happy. When other children are doing what they want, the parentified child is thinking about what they “should” be doing. This pattern usually works for the first half of their lives. They are usually rewarded greatly for being responsible, hardworking, reliable, and industrious.
But then it is not uncommon that when they reach a point in their lives, they become plagued with a deep sense of restlessness, this is when we may say they are having an existential crisis or a midlife crisis.
What worked in the first half of our lives may not work for us now. The first half of our lives was all about our survival. We had to adapt, accumulate means to survive, and make sure we were not outcasts from our tribe. In the second half of our lives, however, our task is quite different.
Your truth cannot be suppressed forever. After a long time, sometimes ten, or twenty years, your soul may suddenly knock on your conscience. It may take the form of a failed marriage, a serious illness, an affair, or a burnout at work, but something inside you feels the need to “break out.” You may be going through a spiritual crisis, where you feel constantly depressed or feel a sense of emptiness. Even if everything appears fine on the surface, you feel dissatisfaction that gnaws at you.
In an existential crisis, a part of us is finally tired of living for other people and wants to follow where our heart leads us. Ironically, it is a matter of discarding everything we have accumulated, shedding the persona, peeling away the facades we have piled up, and returning to our naked truth. The spiritually appropriate task at this stage of our lives is to embark on a journey of soul-searching and reclaim our birthrights to have joy and freedom.
Why We Stopped Celebrating The Mavericks and the Existential Crisis Pandemic
Our conventional wisdom leans towards professionalism and skill specialisation.
Often, we are encouraged to have to find one field, one set of skills and hone in on a single career trajectory. If we have multiple interests and want to invest our time and efforts into multiple paths, we are considered scattered and unintelligent. Our capitalist system rewards specialists and schools nudge us into streams of niches. People who are intellectually curious and are diverse thinkers may feel restless because of the idea that they need to pick a ‘path’, a career, a vocation, or have a calling, a passion, a ‘purpose’ in life. They may feel guilty for wanting things to be different.
But our world did not use to be like that.
Back in the day, generalists, people who have multiple interests, multiple careers, and multiple tracks, were celebrated. Leonardo Da Vinci did not become who he was by specialising.
Our current value system is a result of the Industrial Revolution. In a factory system, production is maximised when one person focuses on one thing— glueing an eye onto a doll, for example. But what does that do to the human souls?
How much does that limit our expansive playfulness, and how much does that suppress our intellectual curiosity and limit our ability to integrate multiple intelligences?
Whilst many have comfortably settled into the division of labour, some people continue to feel restless in life. They are not pathological, immature, or necessarily have ‘ADHD’. They are feeling restless in life because they are intellectually excitable, existentially anxious, and have an insatiable drive to better the world. They have a niggling sense that they need to solve the world’s problems, optimise themselves, to reach the potential they know they have, even when they try to deny their existential angst to themselves. Since they were young, they have always seen problems in systems, and always see the potential in situations. Even when others do not understand their restlessness, they can’t help but look at the big picture and see injustice, global issues and loopholes they want to fill. Asking them to focus only on one subject and not expand their mind is mind-numbing and soul-quenching. Because their interests are often wide-ranged and varied, they may need to have multiple tracks, multiple careers, and a few cycles of renewal to feel fulfilled. (Also see the article on Existential Depression)
Unfortunately, these innate mavericks are born in a time where only specialising is celebrated, and their natural gifts are pathologised. To fit in and to survive, many of them have found a way to be in a world that is not entirely congruent to their souls. But their feeling of restlessness prevails. Eventually, they are hit with a painful existential crisis, in which they lose all sense of meaning in their lives and chosen vocations.
And that is why, excitable and curious people must reclaim their right to ceaselessly learn and explore, especially in realms outside of their first chosen vocations.
“My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me. I attend to everything, dreaming all the while.”
― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Carrot and Stick Build Up to an Existential Crisis
In our culture today, we talk mostly of motivation, and discipline, as if we could mould ourselves into doing anything. It is as though if we are productive enough, successful enough, the feeling of restlessness will stop haunting us. That is, however, blatantly untrue.
A doctrine seen in many self-help and business books is that to be successful we must be ‘desperate.’ We must leave ourselves with no other options, no Plan B, so we can be pushed against the wall. ‘Failure is not an option, they say. But can any human thrive under extreme stress? Sure, our survival instinct is a powerful engine. But do we want to switch it on chronically and for a long period to the point where our bodies give up on us?
Many believe if we push our back against the wall, we will be able to write that song, finish that novel, and complete that painting. But do we produce our best work when we are in a fight-or-flight mode, fighting for our safety and worrying about our survival? Or do we travel into the depth of our psyche and channel our true voices when we feel safe enough, and loved enough?
Carrot and Stick may work for mass productions, but it is not how the creative genius is channelled. Carrot and stick do not help you create your legacy, do not help you find your soul’s calling, do not bring unity with your deepest self, and certainly do not undo your feeling of restlessness. The formula for doing work that matters is completely different to when you are a cog in the machine. The path is not linear, step-by-step, and cannot be controlled like a manufacturing funnel.
Carrot and stick do not work because work created out of fear and pressure looks contrived, desperate, and uninspiring. Things created out of love, rather than fear, be it artwork, a piece of writing, a project or a business, is always more compelling. Conscious or not, those who receive your work can sense the energy behind its creation.
Perhaps the story of the Wind and the Sun, an Aesop’s Fable, will convince you:
The Wind and the Sun were arguing amongst them about which one is the stronger force. Suddenly they saw a curious traveller coming down the road, and it was decided that whoever could make the man takes off his coat would be the stronger one of the two.
So the Sun retired behind the clouds, and the wind blew as strong as it could on the traveller. But the harder the Wind blew, the more tightly the traveller wrapped his cloak around him until the Wind finally gave in to exhaustion.
Then the Sun shined in its splendour upon the traveller. He tried to walk using his coat, but the warm temperature caused him to change his mind. And so he took it off.
( Source: Joseph Jacobs, 1894. The Fables of Æsop)
This story poignantly portrays how gentleness, kindness, and love work more effectively than force.
You can make room for your spirit, help them feel safe, loved, in abundance, so they can thrive. It is about nurturing the magical child within you who still dares to dream and play.
With practice, you can learn to invest in activities that align with your soul, rather than constantly be swamped by what you ‘should’ do. This is the beginning of coming out of an existential crisis.
How To Deal with an Existential Crisis
To transform through an existential crisis and not collapse in it, we must learn to listen to ourselves and then invest in activities that align with our deeper desires, rather than chasing immediate results as though we are on hamster wheels.
This can be a frightening process.
Conscious sacrifice (Feather, 2013) is a Jungian psychology term for the psychological process of making a conscious decision to give up something of value for the sake of soul transformation.
For many, the thought of giving up something they want or need conjures up feelings of reluctance and even anger. This is especially true if the sacrifice feels like it’s going against our ego. But what if making a conscious sacrifice was actually the key to living a more authentic and meaningful life?
For you, this ’sacrifice’ may mean loosening the grasp on the path you know and courageously marching into the unknown. You may have to give up some external reward, a feeling of control and the illusion of certainty.
Our ego will always protest any type of sacrifice. This is because the ego wants something that it is familiar with, low-risk, comfortable, and offers immediate rewards. These goals do not always align with what’s best for us as spiritual beings. In order to make a conscious sacrifice, we need to be aware of this inner conflict and be willing to let go of our need for approval or recognition.
The ego’s protests are often loud and persistent, but if we can push through them, we will find that making a conscious sacrifice is one of the most rewarding things that we can do.
Practically, what can you do to get through an existential crisis? Here are a few steps.
Learning How To Play Again May Help You Through an Existential Crisis
One of the most important turning points in overcoming an existential crisis is in reclaiming the birthright to play— unapologetically, and without guilt.
What does it mean, to stop working and not feel guilty, and to play and explore?
What does it mean, to follow your heart?
It means doing something even when the yield is not apparent. Yet.
Playing is the way we can explore the hidden chambers of our minds.
Playing is the way we let our souls travel, despite where our bodies are trapped.
Playing is the way we liberate our inner children and satisfy our inner explorers.
Playing is how we can quench our existential angst for not maximising our potential.
Playing is how we honour our existential crisis and lean into what it is trying to tell us.
But playing is also difficult for high-functioning, responsible adults.
How many of us grown-ups have lost the ability to play?
How many of us feel guilty when we daydream, idle or doodle?
How many of us feel ashamed for wandering aimlessly in life, without being able to offer a concrete answer to ‘what’s your five-year plan?’
Whatever is not rewarded by external rewards or measured by explicit metrics, we hardly do.
When we invest in what is traditionally considered ‘work’, we are applauded. But when we use our time to do something fun and comes with no immediate reward, a part of us criticises ourselves for being indulgent. Under social conditioning, we feel guilty when not working, and our restlessness inevitably builds up to an existential crisis.
Many of us have been trained by our parents, schools and society to not do anything that does not generate measurable values. This is especially true when we have been parentified, forced to grow up too soon, or been given excessive responsibilities at an age too young.
Playing should be apparently ‘purposeless’. Sure, it may somehow serve a purpose in the end, but we must not do it for the sake of being ‘productive,’ recognised, making money, fitting in, or serving our ego.
Playing is the portal to creativity that propels us forward as a species. Creativity is when we are creating something that has never been done before, or that we do something that has been done but in a different way, with a different voice.
That means there might not be a ‘proof of concept’, a guarantee that our work or idea will be accepted, celebrated, revered or earn us any material gains.
So in a way, if because we feel guilty when not working in a conventionally defined way, we only allow ourselves to do things that come with a linear path of progression and the promise of rewards, we are never giving ourselves a chance to travel in unchartered territories. We are depriving ourselves of the opportunities to discover something new, make something new, and enjoy the rapture that comes from birthing something fresh and meaningful into the world.
When you play and explore new things, a part of you may say you are being indulgent and even wasteful. That part of you feels incredibly guilty when not working. But the healthiest part of you, the wisest part of you, will tell you that in some years’ time, you will see that these activities are the paths to true wealth.
Following your heart, developing hobbies, and engaging in leisure are not indulgences. They are the necessary ingredients for true abundance.
Trust that your body and your mind are effective funnels, that would digest, make good use of resources and turn them into something useful, beautiful and meaningful.
Like an untainted child, we must relearn how to wander off into the unknown forests, find treasures that would inform our next steps, and relinquish the need to control everything. Only then, our perpetual feeling that something is missing will have a chance to be cured.
Learning how to play again is how we can champion the multipotentialites and mavericks amongst us and in us.
When we are in a creative flow, our existential crisis becomes our friends, a divine messenger, rather than our enemy.
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. “
― Anne Frank
Making Room in your Nervous System
Our hypervigilant nervous system is the biggest contributor to our panic in an existential crisis.
If you have been fighting all your life for survival, the idea of slowing down and exploring your soul may be an alienating concept to you. You may feel guilty when you are not doing what you have always done, that is, being ‘productive’, and ‘disciplined’. If you are tied up by fears and always floundering to secure money, recognition and love, you may not have the capacity to sit down and play, explore or create. We have to consciously make room in our minds for playing by calming it down. And one way to rewire our nervous system is to practise gratitude.
A gratitude journal maybe a self-help cliche but it is a cliche for a reason. It works. It truly helps to rewire our brains. It trains us to count our blessings, and remember our abundance. A gratitude practice is a great way to start your day or end it. You can be grateful for something as simple as the sun shining, your bed being comfortable, or your dog wagging his tail when he sees you. It can be anything that made you smile that day. You don’t have to have a physical journal per se, if you can find a way to re-focus your mind on love and thankfulness, rather than ‘what might go wrong.’
The message we are sending to ourselves is: You are safe, and you are good enough. You can, therefore, afford to serve others to the best of your ability.
On a deeper level, we are saying to ourselves: “You do not need to desperately get other people’s recognition, your parents’ or your friends’ approval. Because you are already good enough, and things in your world are good enough.’
Ultimately, we are sending a strong message to our psyche: Act in Love, Not Fear.
Gratitude helps us get through an existential crisis because by flooding out our fears with the remembrance of love, we can limit how much energy we invest into worrying about what we cannot control. When we feel safe and in abundance, creativity flows, and we forget about our small, egoic self and lose ourselves as a wave in the ocean — free, safe, and contributing to humanity effortlessly.
Identifying Your Values In an Existential Crisis
Our panic, depression and restlessness in an existential crisis are amplified when, on some level, you know you are not acting by your values.
You may have heard of the saying that some people have spent their entire lives climbing a ladder to the top, and then realised it was the wrong ladder. The sense that we are, on some level, betraying ourselves and acting out of congruence contributes to us feeling restless in life, and this subtle sense of unease often gets stored in our bodies, causing stress and sometimes ailments.
Therefore, it is important to realise your values; that is, things that are important to you and what you believe in. Indeed, people change and your values can also change. But they also tend to remain relatively stable. And as long as you take actions that are congruent to what aligns with your values now, there is no reason for regret in the future. As we can only always, at any given moment, do what we can at the best we can with the information we do have. Your existential crisis is also telling you something valuable about values and alignment: What is your depression, sadness and resentment telling you about your values? Is what you are doing serving what you believe in?
Given that we only have one life, and one faculty to make meaning in the world, it is really important to invest time in doing things that are true to our souls. Quoting Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Finding Your Flow in an Existential Crisis
Another clue we can get from an existential crisis when we are trying to grow is to find what puts us in a ‘flow’ state. Ask yourself: When is the last time you were in ‘flow,’, where you became completely immersed in a story, a drama, … something? Flow is the sensation of complete absorption in an activity. It is a state in which time seems to disappear and all that matters is the present moment. Flow is often described as being “in the zone.” It is a highly pleasurable experience that can be accompanied by a sense of euphoria.
As a child we often had flow. But as adults, we need to consciously find and cherish these moments of flow, and allow them to inform what our life purpose ought to be. A lot of us in the modern world believe that we must ‘work hard’ and ‘discipline’ ourselves to be successful. But pushing ourselves to do what doesn’t make our hearts sing can only go so far. Saying what brings us joy would also bring us abundance may sound controversial but has been proven again and again in history.
Make a list of some of the ‘highest points’ in your life in which you experienced ‘flow’. Review them and see if they offer you clues for where you can start when you re-enter the realm of playing. (“Playing” can be anything. For grown-ups, it can go from socialising to travelling to learning a new skill, to having sex, or meeting new people. There is no rule and as long as you are not hurting yourself or others, there is no limit).
Redefining Success in an Existential Crisis
Many of us had the formula of success upside down, outside in. When we aim for success, we tend to think about external things, like the amount of money we would like to earn, the people we would like to be with, the places we want to live in, etc. But we forget to ask how we would like to feel and who we want to be at the end of it all. This is natural, for as discussed, the first halves of our lives are all about surviving and fitting in. But when an existential crisis hit, we need to evaluate if what has been working is going to continue to work.
Our existential crisis is telling us that when we invest in seemingly obvious conventional ‘success paths’ that are not true to our souls— like the degree that we didn’t want to get, investing in things we didn’t understand, ‘networking’ for the sake of it even we resented the process…, with perseverance and the fear of losing the sunk cost, we can get very far climbing the wrong ladder. But if they do not ultimately align with our deeper values and interests, the feeling of restlessness will follow us wherever we go.
What if you make joy and fulfilment your metric of success? If you can, see success as not a destination, but rather a journey. Success is not about acquiring possessions or accolades, but about becoming a more fully realized human being.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “purpose in life.” It is the idea that everyone has a reason for being and a unique contribution to make to the world. It is not simply a job or a career, but rather a sense of purpose that goes beyond what you do for a living. Finding your Ikigai is said to be the key to a happy and fulfilling life.
To find your ikigai, you need to think about 3 things: 1. what you’re passionate about, 2. what you’re good at, 3. what the world needs. Many of us become obsessed with the economic values of our activities when actually, money is nothing but the natural outcome of value generated. If you can focus on serving the world the best way you can, meeting other people’s needs in whatever creative way you can think of, money will follow. As for passion and skills, these two things form a mutual loop. Some people say that passion is overrated and that it is something you cultivate, not ‘find.’ When you invest in one pursuit and get good at it, your interest will grow and your passion will follow.
At the same time, we do come to the world with a certain temperament. You give yourself an ‘unfair advantage’ if you can harness your desires and start with something you are naturally curious about, and make a career that fits your personality and desired lifestyle.
And finding your Ikigai starts with playing, as discussed above. By playing in a stress-free environment, you get to explore what holds your attention and brings you joy. Although it sounds counter-intuitive to say one must learn to play when they are in an existential crisis, experimenting with a different mode of being– something that is not constant striving and fighting– is a great way of moving our psyche toward deep changes.
Learn to Let go of the Grip on Certainty in an Existential Crisis
If we can make use of our existential crisis wisely, and listen to what it has to tell us, we will experience a new level of well-being, creativity, and ultimately, material reward. But the path to these things is not always apparent at the beginning. Therefore, when we are in an existential crisis, we ought to remind ourselves constantly that we ‘do not truly know.’ What looks meaningless now may be the source of great abundance in the future. Steve Jobs famously said in his speech that you cannot join the dots forward, only backwards. He meant that you can’t look forward and try to predict what will happen and devalue the futility of what you are doing, because you can’t see the future. He took typography classes without knowing it would be fundamental to Apple’s success one day in the future. Therefore, however much your ego is fighting against it now, you must be open to the possibility that your future self will thank you deeply for ‘wandering’, as that lays the fertile ground for your creative abundance.
If you can loosen your need to know, and the need to be correct, you may be more able to invest in activities that yield long term benefits, rather than desperately jumping from one thing to another that give only short term ‘fixes’. When you can loosen your grip on the past, and relax into exploring a new future, your existential crisis will lift and you will be rewarded with a new and expanded horizon.
“We believe that great creators are born with a biological immunity to risk. They’re wired to embrace uncertainty
and ignore social approval; they simply don’t worry about the costs of non-conformity the way the rest of us do. “
― Adam Grant, Originals
Liberates Your Inner Maverick
One way to shake things up may be to allow yourself to have multiple interests and projects. The conventional wisdom is that we ought to focus on one thing and one thing only to optimise our output. If that suits your nature, by all means, go for it. But many curious and gifted people do become haunted by the feeling of restlessness when they are made to do only one thing. Even logically they know they ‘should ‘prioritise and complete their projects sequentially, but they struggle to do so. If that is you, you may want to experiment with unconventional methods. For example, you may do a ‘seemingly ridiculously small’ amount of work on each project each day. You may try multi-tasking, you can experiment with everything even they are not in conventional wisdom.
If it feels too risky to follow the calling of the maverick in you, try nothing more than just five minutes a day. Do 5 minutes of writing on the book you have in mind, and take 5 minutes a day to learn a language. You may ask’ What is the point if it is only for five minutes”?’, but try not to underestimate the power of compound interest. For many, these ‘few minutes’ are the perfect foundation for long-term habit stacking. The magic of these ‘mini sprints’ deserve its own essay, but some advantages include helping you get through perfectionism and procrastination, building consistency, and increasing a sense of self-agency. You do not have to be perfect to start taking action. But you need to start taking action to become perfect. Try it, you may be surprised
If you are an intellectually curious, emotionally excitable, deep thinking, unconventional person, see if you can
Love your inner creative child.
Let them play, forage, and roam free like an animal.
Then, they will no doubt be your genie.
Then, you may be surprised by how playing ultimately rewards you ten-fold, in ways you have never thought of.
Balance Your Future Aspirations with Your Present
A way to make sure we will live a more fulfilling life during and after an existential crisis is to make sure you are not doing what you are doing today solely for a potential future picture.
In our world, it is almost inevitable that we are doing something ‘for the future’. We work hard at a job so we can have a secure future. We learn a skill so that we can earn money in the future. We learn a language so that one day we can travel to another country in the future. We exercise so that we will be healthy when we are old, in the future. We study a subject we don’t care for so we can have a qualification that would be useful for the future. We hold off on leisure time so we can buy a house for the future.
Most of these activities are actually meaningful, if not necessary.
However, if we constantly use our days to build a future, we may be haunted by unspoken, nagging anxiety. Chronically, this kind of latent guilt is what builds up into our existential crisis.
By living exclusively for our future, we deny one truth, which is that of uncertainty.
We pretend, as always, that we are in control of our destiny.
We childishly believe if we work hard, we must be rewarded.
If we invest in a future, that future must come.
This is the basis of many ‘self-help’ — we focus excessively on human agency and refuse to surrender to realities outside of our control.
There are many benefits to believing we can create the future we want to create, and there is much value in enhancing our sense of self-agency.
But the truth is that we never know what the future holds.
Our lives could end before we have thought they would.
We could lose people, health and wealth when we least expect it.
As much as we try to be in control, we are not.
In other words, all the effort we put into building our future may end up being in vain.
This possibility is always there. It constantly haunts us in the unconscious, but we rarely allow it to enter our conscious minds.
The result is a subtle current of fear that is there when we are not living congruently. That’s why, even if we feel guilty when not working, we also wake up in an existential crisis to know that working tirelessly is not what we are meant to do.
When we are not doing what we genuinely love, when we are torturing ourselves today for an imaginaery future, we become burnout. What burns us out may not be the workload itself, but the silent existential guilt that says we are not living our lives fully, today.
On the surface, we are spending time on meaningful endeavours.
We are productively generating income and resources for ourselves and our families.
But when pushed to an extreme, we stop to smell the roses, listen to music that makes us cry, and see art that makes our hearts flutter.
What is the solution? How do we find a balancing act— to not sacrifice all our days for an imaginary future but also realistically plan for a future.
Of course, this does not mean we start acting recklessly and ignore the reality of money and prospect.
But as we are busy building our ‘future’, we should also pause to make sure we are serving our ‘present’. Because that ‘future’ may never come, but our ‘present’ is here.
We make sure that we are doing enough things that nourish us now and bring us joy now.
We may be doing work that earns us money for the future, but perhaps we can find ways to make that work more meaningful and bring us more joy now. Even if we cannot buy the future we are chasing with the money we earn, at least we will have joy from our work starting today.
We may learn a skill for a future vocation but ought not to do what is ‘popular’ or ‘logical’ just for the sake of an imaginary job, career, or role. This is why we should find something we are at least a little excited about. Find ways to use the skills as you develop them, and try to give them meaning now.
If there is nothing you can do to change certain predicaments, then at least make sure you are giving an equal number of hours to what brings your life meaning now.
After 7 hours of working in a soul-deadening drudgery, you may want to find another 7 hours where you do what is meaningful to you and what makes your heart sings.
Ensuring there is a balance between the number of hours we invest for the future and into our souls now is the only way to defend against existential anxiety.
If we’re always worried about tomorrow, We’ll miss out on all of today.
Do something because you want to,
Do something because it’s right,
Do something because it feels good,
Do something because it’s what you believe in.
Because there is a reward for you as of today.
The irony is when you do that— live congruently and fully today— The future will take care of itself.
“My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me. I attend to everything, dreaming all the while.”
― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Honouring Your Instinct
Sometimes we feel the urge to do something that, at first glance, makes no sense.
By logical and reasonable standards, what you want to do may seem wasteful, indulgent, pointless, or unproductive.
You may feel the urge to drop everything and go somewhere, even if you are “supposed to be working.”
Maybe you want to make time for a new endeavour, even if you are “too old for it.”
Maybe you want to give it your all in a competition, even if there’s “no way you can win.”
Maybe you want to pursue a new idea, even if there is no proof of its success.
Maybe you want to visit places as you please, regardless of the time or day. You may want to pick up a pencil to write and draw, even though all the adults in your life have told you that you have no talent.
Maybe you want to sing and dance out loud as if everyone is watching, even if no one is.
Maybe you want to take up a new hobby, skill, or project, even if it costs money and time and no one understands why.
No matter how strange, eccentric, unusual, or misunderstood your urges maybe, before you dismiss them as illegitimate, stop and pay attention to these inner messages, especially when you are in midst of an existential crisis. Could there be a deeper spiritual meaning in them? What might your body, senses, and feelings be telling you?
Maybe you do not need to keep your parents, friends and family updated on your comings and goings. Maybe they do not have to understand or agree with you. Maybe you do not need to explain to anyone why you do what you do.
However “irrational” it may seem to you, if you have a nameless compulsion to do something, see if you can take a pause and honour it. Even if you do not act on them, you can investigate the deeper message in them.
Many of us live with an “inner council” in our head that constantly asks us about our intention, productivity, and the value of the outcome of every decision we make.
But If we force ourselves to only do things that are rational, we may be suppressing the part of us that is guided by intuition and emotions. This part of us likely lives the closest to our souls, and it is the part that is waking up in an existential crisis.
Our souls have a mysterious way of speaking to us. The message is not always apparent at first glance. It may show itself as a nameless feeling of resentment, a compulsion, a random desire, a sudden strong emotion… We may feel compelled to do something that makes no sense. And if we were to pursue them, we fear the judgment of our friends and family. We also have an inner critic who says we are wasteful, unreasonable and indulgent. But we must learn to realise that our critic is not our whole identity. It is simply a part of us that houses all the values we have internalized from the outside. This part of us is a fierce protector that wants to keep us from losing our livelihood and our belonging.
When hit with an existential crisis, you are at a crossroads, and there are two paths ahead of you. Simply following your heart, trying new things, and viewing all actions as an experiment may be the best thing you can do to move forward in this second half of your life. You do not always need to tell people ‘what you can get from it’, you may need to take a leap of faith. The reward will come later and you cannot always control it.
The truth is that what comes from deep within us that is not always logical at first. Learning to follow our hearts is one of the hardest things for a mature adult. This is especially true if you were parentified as a child, forced to grow up too early, or were made to compensate for your immature parents and siblings by being ultra-mature and strong. If all your life you were under immense pressure to appear high-functioning and be independent, it might be difficult for you to listen to your inner voice and follow your path.
Because we are not practised in how we act in our natural state, many of us struggle and wobble. We may have to vacillate between guilt, shame, and a longing to find ourselves again.
Holding too tightly to what you have now, and not being willing to release your grasps, means you cannot make room for something new to come in.
Your life is long and can be varied. For the intellectually curious and excitable minds, it is entirely plausible that one would have multiple careers, projects, and endeavours.
Marrying your identity with something you own is often an unconscious but risky act. Be it your career, your job, your body, your youth, your physical strengths, your special skills, your partner, even your expired dreams.
But you are not any of these things.
You came into the world with nothing, and you will leave the world with no baggage or burden on you.
Even the definition of ‘you’ is flexible and mouldable.
How silly it is that we fix our identity in some ways, and limit the infinite possibilities ahead of us?
What do you say when people ask ‘who are you?’ or ‘what do you do?’ can you experiment with a different definition of yourself, one that is more independent of whatever is happening externally, but one that is congruent entirely to your soul?
Many of us have been coerced by the world into believing that we must work hard, try-hard, and always push ourselves to our limits to get what we want. But little is said about the value of play, following our instinct, and following our joy.
What bring you excitement? What makes you come alive?
Can you experiment with following your joy, being carried by the river that is your emotions, and listening to what your soul speaks to you?
If you look back at your life’s timeline and cannot find the answer, it could be that the answer lies not in your past but the future.
Now, see if you can allocate some time and resources to follow your ‘irrational urges.’
As long as they do not hurt yourself or others, pursue what brings you excitement, even when it is mixed with some anxiety. Experimenting with a different mode of being might be the best thing you can do for your life now.
When we first peel away the layers of external recognition and the conventional definition of success, we panic. We feel raw, exposed, and vulnerable. We feel lost and temporarily do not know who we are. But these storms are only temporary, and they are a worthy challenge to one of the most important tasks of our lives: finding ourselves and returning to what we truly love.
It’s not easy to relearn how to hone your intuition and listen to the flow of your feelings, but once you take the first step, the joy, peace, and excitement you feel will carry you forward.
To transform in and through an existential crisis,
No force is required, only willingness.
No pushing is required, only yielding.
No aggression will arise, only love.
“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
― William Faulkner
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This essay is written by Imi Lo.