Existential angst not only derives from the human inability to think, feel, and act in the world or experience a love for life but also from the fear of the possibility of nonexistence and/or death. It can be a lonely and isolating place and outright terrifying if one’s very existence is in question. Psychologist Carl Jung and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had similar thoughts about existential angst in that both focused on achieving meaningful existence through development of inner resources, creative exercise of freedom, and overcoming self-deception. In essence, those who experience existential angst feel lost, think they have a purposeless existence, and believe they have been abandoned by life.
Have you ever wondered what life is really all about? Why you are here? What your purpose is? Does your life have meaning? Do you ever ask “Who am I?” These questions have been asked throughout the ages by philosophers, theologians, psychologists, spiritualists, gurus, and by others who try to answer these deep questions of life.
Life is full of unanswered questions, especially having lived through the global coronavirus pandemic. And just as with those who fear the “unknown,” not knowing the answers to life’s most difficult questions can be quite unsettling. Our brain likes complete images and thoughts and will fill in the “gap” if something seems incomplete. If it doesn’t have an answer, it will make one up. For people with anxiety, not having a clear and confident answer to life’s questions can cause them unpleasant thoughts that are “catastrophizing” in nature. If they don’t know what’s around the corner, they will “invent” a catastrophic event, which will in all likelihood heighten their anxiety.
Mindfulness teaches us to be present in the moment—not in the past, and not the in future. If we can stay focused on the present and an unpleasant event happens, we can do something about it. Many people lament about the past and what they should or shouldn’t have done, while others worry about the future and live in a "what-if..." world. Some fear the unknown and bring great anxiety upon themselves when they reflect on how little control they believe they have in their lives. And some people feel helpless and have an absurd idea that others should guide them through their lives and answer the tough questions for them.
I always thought it was interesting how, as humans, we cannot know where we came from and where we will be going, but we have the ability to ask these questions. Other species seem content on just “being,” but as humans we are able to ask “Why?” This is where the “angst” comes in for people who feel their lives have no clear meaning and no justified purpose.
In chapter 1 of my book, When to Call a Therapist - Expanded Edition, I talked about my own search for meaning and how I felt alone in the process. I knew there had to be more to life than just going through the motions and waiting for something to happen. I have learned that we can wait a long time for significant change to occur. In order for me to create a purposeful existence, I had to face my fears and venture out into the world for meaningful experiences to happen. I remember all those years ago how my therapist explained that "when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the change itself", we are able to take a step forward. I have never forgotten those words, for they proved to be true. And I share this often in my private practice.
What Therapy Can Do
Therapy is viewed differently by different people. Some come in to “vent” about problems at work or at home or to talk about their less-than-satisfactory marriages and problems with their kids. Some seek help with their anxiety, depression, and other disorders. They also come in to talk about their own or a loved one’s addiction, to discuss elderly parent or sibling problems, and many other concrete issues that can bring about quantifiable results. And then there are the issues of feeling lost, confused, lacking meaning or purpose in life, and wondering who the person in the mirror is. Not all therapists are qualified or want to even work in this area. Others, like me, feel deep satisfaction in knowing that a client would like to explore the deeper, more spiritual side of life. It’s not fun being directionless or feeling that there is no purpose in life, and many opt to immerse themselves in alcohol and drugs to quell the pain or to fill the void in their soul.
Discovering Our Purpose
Whether life has meaning or purpose and whether we can even get to fully “know” ourselves can be looked at in different ways. In the macro, or larger, sense, the questions we have been exploring comes from age-old thinking on a massive “everything” scale. “Why are we here?” and “What is my purpose in life?” The great existential theorist Victor Frankl once said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with any ‘how.’”
For many, these questions are just too incomprehensible to even attempt to answer. However, some try to think of purpose in a micro, or more compact, sense and break the answers into bite-sized pieces. People will report that their purpose in life is to take care of their children. Others find meaning in being a loving wife or husband and maybe a good son or daughter. Some find their purpose through their religion or faith. Teachers find purpose in educating their students. And health-care professionals, such as doctors, social workers, nurses, and others feel they have a calling to help people in need. I know I do. As with other tasks, I believe it is up to each and every one of us to take the responsibility to find a purpose in life. And we need to be introspective enough to look deeply inside ourselves to see who’s there.
Someone once asked me what I thought the meaning of life was. I’m not sure why they thought I would have the answer, but after some thought, I came up with, “The meaning of life is to seek out the meaning of life on our individual journeys.” Perhaps that doesn’t feel satisfying, but I believe it puts a necessary burden on everyone individually, which, in some cases, can make some folks feel alone in this process.
How Not Knowing Your Purpose Can Cause Anxiety
Taking responsibility for our thinking, behavior, and feelings can raise anxiety for anyone. Not only that, but if we extrapolate our anxieties to the nth degree, we come to most people’s greatest fear—death. Let’s examine this in a series of questions and answers:
Question: “Who are you?”
Answer: “I don’t know”
Question: “What do you fear most about not knowing who you are?”
Answer: “I fear not knowing the person inside me.”
Question: “So what if you don’t get to know the person inside you?”
Answer: “If I don’t know who I am, I may not know what I want in life.”
Question: “If you don’t know what you want in life, how is that a problem?”
Answer: “If I don’t know what I want, how am I supposed to live my life?”
Question: “If you don’t know how to live your life, what makes that an issue?”
Answer: “If I don’t know how to live my life, I may as well be holed up in my room every day and night doing nothing.”
Question: “If you isolated yourself in your room every day and night and did nothing, what would that mean?”
Answer: “I would not be living life and I would die.”
So the not knowing, if taken as far as it can go, can mean the fear of death for some. In this case, a person’s thoughts and emotions are way out in front of the original question, and it takes some chipping away from question to question to get to how the person really feels. Whether it’s unanswered questions about our existence, purpose, or meaning, anxiety and the fear of death can continuously play in the background of someone’s mind. This is no way to go through life. Many people struggle with the questions outlined in this paper, while others are too distracted to even give them much thought. Actually, reality, fear of the unknown, and not knowing our ultimate purpose can get in the way of someone not living up to their potential in life. A therapist can help those with existential angst look at all the value they have that makes life worth living even without having all the answers. Someone may feel that the chocolate ice cream cone they are eating brings meaning and purpose in that moment. Maybe it didn’t answer the big mysteries of life, but it was good enough at that time.
I’ve struggled to find an appropriate place to share my thoughts on how I see the way our lives unfold. I believe this is a good place to share an analogy I’ve developed about life. Life is like a pinball machine. Like a pinball, we come hurtling into life, not knowing where we’re going or what challenges lie ahead. As our pinball selves, we come in contact with a bumper, which can symbolize a person or event, and go flying in another direction only to hit another bumper-like person or event and go off in yet another direction. Since we cannot predict the future of our pinball selves, every interaction has the potential to send us in a new and exciting direction. The point here is we never know who or what will change us, make us switch gears, or push us on a new path, but we should be ready to embrace those changes along the way and recognize that each “bumper” can significantly impact our lives forever.