What is an existential crisis?

Existential crisis is a crisis of meaning and identity. It is felt as an overall psychological decline caused by the inability to find answers to the important questions: Why I exist? What is the meaning of my life? What is life for? People experience it as disgust with their current lifestyle, disappointment with the world, meaninglessness of their life, or the perception that their previous choices and priorities were wrong. 

In therapy, we don’t often see clients who self-diagnose as having an existential crisis. More often clients with an existential crisis complain of boredom, apathy, anxiety or depression. 

Philosophers and psychologists generally agree that existential crisis arises because of our society's extreme focus on the “externals” rather than the “internals”. We tend to value action over reflection, achievement over contemplation, material wellbeing over inner clarity and calm. We are a society of “having” and “doing” rather than “being”. 

This works well for some people, most people, in fact. Many people are successful in escaping the existential dread by living on an autopilot: compulsively working through their to-do lists, taking planned excursions to freedom (aka vacations) and cherishing the illusion of their security bubble. For these people, the existential crisis usually is the result of a sudden calamity that changes their lives, e.g. divorce, cancer diagnosis, losing a job. This wakes them up to the futility of their lives, makes them want to revise and reconsider previous choices and start anew in the years they have left. When our worlds implodes on us, it makes us realise that we have been living a complacent and inauthentic life. 

Other people don’t need a major crisis to start experiencing existential dread. Usually these are are acutely self-aware and sensitive people that seem to need more from life than others. We often see very successful people experiencing an existential depression, those who achieved everything they wanted to achieve but remained unfulfilled and empty.

There is no unique recipe to overcome an existential crisis, no X-steps process, or miracle technique. One good rule of thumb is to view the crisis as a stepping stone towards a more authentic and meaningful way of living. Some people manage to get through this crisis alone - not everyone needs a psychologist. If you would like to try on your own, consider taking these steps: 

  • Spend some time reflecting on your life and how authentic it feels. Are your goals and dreams truly yours or were you pre-conditioned by your environment? What feels off?
  • It is helpful to clarify your core values, sources of purpose in life and assumptions about the world. Do you truly know yourself and what matters to you? 
  • Go back to the fundamentals and read the existential philosophers, e.g. Dostoyevski, Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche. The following books are my personal (and subjective) selection: 
  1. The courage to be - Paul Thillich
  2. Siddartha - Herman Hesse 
  3. Veronica decides to die - Paulo Coelho 
  4. The denial of death - Ernest Becker 
  5. Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche  

As much as an existential crisis feels like you got broken, like your life is shuttered, and you don’t even know who you are, something new will arise out of that. To discover the kernel, you must break the shell, as Meister Eckhart wrote. This crisis is an opportunity to find your own capacity and courage to live an authentic live.