There are events that turn our world upside down, making us question everything from our deepest-rooted values to our vital decisions and even the meaning of our own existence. On other occasions, that life crisis simmers, causing things to lose their meaning and appeal, plunging us into a period of introspection that can sometimes generate real anguish.
How to overcome an existential crisis step by step?
Carl Jung believed that we spend the first half of our lives developing our ego and the second half integrating the unconscious to become the person we really are. In fact, the answers to the questions we often ask ourselves during an existential crisis often lead us down a path of personal discovery.
The existential crisis is an opportunity to deepen and align some important concepts in our lives, precisely those that may be most undermined, such as the sense of life, authenticity, and transcendence. It is also an occasion to recognize, accept and reconnect with our feelings, those that we have probably left parked for too long.
1. An opportunity for introspection and change
Despite the fact that an existential crisis plunges us into a state of extreme emotional vulnerability, alters our sense of integrity and questions our meaning and purpose in life, it is no less true that it is an opportunity to be reborn and find other deeper meanings with which we feel more identified.
People get caught up in the existential crisis due to their cognitive schemas. In other words, they are not capable of transcending the belief system in crisis that gives meaning to their world and identity. However, in the midst of a crisis, the schemes that used to guide us effectively are no longer adaptive, so we need to rethink and change them.
This means restructuring our expectations to design a more realistic and motivating life project, but it can also mean rethinking our values, thinking about those who really give us something or with whom we most identify in this new stage of life.
2. Giving time to time
The existential crisis is not exactly a pleasant experience, so it is normal that we want to leave it behind as soon as possible. However, there is a message in that situation, so it is important that we take time to understand what is happening, restructure our world, and only then share.
We must put our ideas in order and reflect very carefully on what we want to do in the future since, after all, it is our life. If we don’t give ourselves time and run forward, we run the risk of sinking further into that existential crisis falling into the arms of depression.
For this reason, it is important not to rush and give ourselves the time necessary to rediscover the meanings and senses that have escaped us. We must be very patient with ourselves and not violate our inner healing rhythm.
3. Overcome an existential crisis by finding Ikigai
Ikigai is a Japanese philosophy of life that can be translated as “reason for being” or “purpose in life.” It is not about seeking happiness but about finding what we do well and are passionate about. And that implies a journey of inner discovery.
First we must think about what we like to do: What are your hobbies? What activities excite you? Then we must think about what we are good at: What are your talents and strengths? Could you live off any of those talents? Third, we must think about what the world needs: What can you contribute that no one else can?
This concept is deeply linked to the state of flow, that which absorbs us and we enjoy. These are the activities that make us lose track of time and we undertake with enthusiasm. Focusing on those things will help us rediscover the meaning of our lives and overcome the existential crisis.
4. Let go of the need to have absolute certainties
When we get too attached to our need for certainty and control, we become rigid and inflexible. We are unable to adapt to change and not willing to take risks. We miss out on opportunities and experiences that could otherwise enrich our lives. When that happens in the middle of a vital crisis, it is like a sentence to live it in a loop.
Learning to let go of our need for certainty does not mean giving up or becoming passive, but rather stopping fighting against what is happening. We give in to what happens in order to take advantage of it. It means accepting that life is full of uncertainty and embracing the unknown, not with fear but with curiosity.
In this way we will learn to look to the future in a more relaxed way and the dark clouds of the existential crisis will begin to dissipate – or at least they won’t be so scary anymore. What should be, will be in due time.
5. Rediscover the magic of little moments
Sometimes, the questions posed by the existential crisis give us the vertigo of someone standing on the edge of the abyss, making us think that the meaning of life is a complex and enlightened experience, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Kierkegaard himself suggested that the first step in overcoming the existential crisis is to enjoy beauty.
The philosopher was referring to the sensual satisfaction of the senses, facing life with the same wonder, interest and curiosity of a small child. The aesthetic sphere and all the small details it contains is an exciting, fun and motivating world full of possibilities that can tear us from the arms of anhedonia.
It can be a walk in the woods, sharing a bottle of wine or a delicious dinner, enjoying a live concert or experiencing the exhilaration of skinny dipping in the sea. These experiences can be engaging, extraordinarily interesting, and make us feel more alive. In short, it is about exploring our most hedonistic facet to make our lives more interesting and pleasant.
The problem, according to Søren Kierkegaard, was that living without passion is equivalent to not existing. The philosopher was convinced that the deepest roots of the existential crisis must be sought in society. He believed that too many people feel alienated by a society that overemphasizes objectivity, success, and results in terms of profit, productivity, and efficiency at the expense of personal, passionate, and subjective human experiences.
Therefore, to overcome an existential crisis we must not limit ourselves to facing life’s big questions with a frown, we can also allow ourselves to be more impulsive, live more in the moment, begin to plant the seeds for new projects, leave room for arbitrariness and uncertainty, enjoying experiences in a disruptive and different way… It is about lighting the candle of life without regrets because, finally, we can and want to do it.
Books to overcome the existential crisis
Finally, there are some particularly valuable books to overcome the existential crisis that are worth reading. Such is the case of “Yes to life”, a work in which the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl refers to the will to meaning and to times full of existential frustration and a great feeling of emptiness.
From the same author, it is worth reading “Man’s Search for Meaning“, a book that leaves no one indifferent and provides concrete guidelines for finding vital meaning in the most adverse circumstances, when we believe that there is no longer hope and everything it turns grey.
Fonseca, J. (2011) Ageing-towards death: phenomenology of finitude during old-age. Existential Analysis: 22(2): 325-343.
Pinquart, M. (2002) Creating and maintaining purpose in life in old age: A metaanalysis. Ageing International; 27: 90–114.
Debats, D. L. et. Al. (1995) Experiences of meaning in life: A combined qualitative and quantitative approach. British Journal of Psychology; 86(3): 359–375.