“Why am I even here?”
“What am I doing with my life?”
“Nothing makes sense anymore.”
Maybe you, too, have asked yourself these questions as you navigated through the enigmatic realm of an existential crisis. It turns out that these deeply philosophical moments are quite common in life, but you can come out on the other side stronger, wiser, and even with a smile on your face.
However, you don’t have to stress yourself out with such weighty moments on your own. So here’s what you should know:
- What Is an Existential Crisis?
- What Triggers an Existential Crisis?
- Types of Existential Crises
- Signs to Be Aware Of
- How to Deal With an Existential Crisis: Insights From Mindvalley Experts
And as Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Calm Mind: A Scientific Guide to Managing Anxiety and Depression Quest, says, “What your mind creates, only your mind can take away.”
So given the right tools, you’ll be equipped to face your existential puzzles with newfound vigor and even a touch of flair.
What Is an Existential Crisis?
An existential crisis isn’t your typical Monday blues or a fleeting moment of self-doubt. It’s more like the emotional equivalent of jumping off a cliff and realizing mid-air that you forgot your parachute. It’s a deep, profound questioning of life’s meaning, purpose, and value, leaving you feeling like a tiny, insignificant speck in the grand scheme of the universe.
Look at it this way: You’re at your favorite coffee shop, sipping on your go-to venti non-fat latte, when suddenly, the meaninglessness of life hits you like a ton of bricks.
You start asking questions like, “Who am I?”, “What’s my purpose?”, or “What should I do with my life?”
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud might have said it’s because you’re repressing a deep-seated desire to marry your mother (but let’s leave the Oedipal complex at the door). Instead, existential philosophy gave birth to the meaning of existential crisis.
Existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (who probably had more than their fair share of gloomy Parisian days) pondered questions about freedom, choice, and the absurdity of life.
Additionally, in modern psychology, an existential crisis is seen as a moment of intense doubt and despair. It’s a period when the things that used to give our lives a sense of structure and meaning no longer seem to cut it.
Existential crisis examples
An existential crisis might feel like you’re lost at sea, but it could also be the beginning of a journey toward finding your true purpose.
Take the example of Neo from The Matrix. Here’s a guy who’s living a perfectly ordinary (if somewhat dull) life, until he’s offered a choice between a red pill and a blue pill.
Suddenly, he’s plunged into a reality where everything he thought he knew about his existence is a lie. He grapples with the idea of free will, reality, and his purpose, reflecting the existentialist theme of authenticity.
Or remember Woody from Toy Story? The loyal cowboy doll who suddenly faced obsolescence with the arrival of Buzz Lightyear?
Woody’s spiraling self-doubt, his fear of being forgotten, and his struggle to find meaning and purpose in his toy life is a Pixar-perfect example of an existential crisis.
And here are a few other ways in which an existential crisis can show up in your day-to-day life:
- Desiring a career change
- Wanting to end a long-term relationship
- Not feeling fulfilled by small talk and superficial interactions
- Looking for a deeper meaning in your daily life
- Feeling like you don’t resonate with things, people, and activities that you used to enjoy
What ties all examples together is a profound sense of questioning and a quest for meaning. And to understand where this is all coming from, you may need to explore the reasons behind your existential thoughts.
What Triggers an Existential Crisis?
Existential crises, much like fingerprints, are uniquely individual experiences. However, just as we can classify fingerprints into loops, arches, and whorls, we can identify common triggers that frequently precede existential crises.
- Significant life transitions. Major life changes often propel us into the realm of existential questioning. Events such as starting a new job, going through a divorce, welcoming a child into the world, or retiring can all trigger a reassessment of personal identity and purpose.
- Encounters with mortality. Close encounters with mortality, whether through a near-death experience, a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one, can instigate deep existential crises.
- Experiences of isolation. Whether physical or emotional, isolation can foster an environment ripe for an existential crisis. Physical isolation might involve solitary confinement and feelings of alienation or disconnection from others.
- Midlife and quarter-life crisis. Each represents a pivotal juncture in life’s journey, where individuals commonly ponder, “Is this all there is?” Whether at the tender age of 25, questioning one’s chosen path, or at 45, scrutinizing life’s accomplishments, these milestones can spark a profound existential interrogation.
In essence, there’s no universal trigger for an existential crisis. It’s a deeply personal experience, tied intrinsically to our unique lives.
However, acknowledging these common triggers can help us understand and navigate these challenging periods. Indeed, even in the throes of existential turmoil, we might just find the key to a more authentic and meaningful existence.
Types of Existential Crises
Existential crises, as classified by psychologists, often arise from specific existential themes. These themes can be traced back to the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, often considered the first existential philosopher, and were later developed further by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger.
In the mid-20th century, these ideas found their way into psychology and psychotherapy, most notably through the work of Viktor Frankl, a famous psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who shares his experience in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Research done in the field of existential psychotherapy identified four types of existential issues, each of which is related to:
More recently, Dr. Irvin Yalom, an influential psychotherapist and professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, outlined these existential themes in his book Existential Psychotherapy. According to Dr. Yalom, confronting these fundamental realities can lead to anxiety and crisis, but it also offers the potential for personal growth and self-understanding.
Signs to Be Aware Of
Unmasking an existential crisis can be tough, but it’s not as challenging as figuring out the plot of an Agatha Christie crime novel. With a little bit of introspection and paying attention to the signs of your inner world, you may observe a few of these cues:
- Feelings of disorientation or disillusionment
- Intense negative emotions
- Negative thinking
- A fear of impending catastrophe
- Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Desiring more time to be alone
- Developing your existential intelligence
You may also notice yourself pondering some existential crisis questions, such as:
- What am I doing with my life?
- What’s my mission and purpose in life?
- Which values are most important to me?
- How come I haven’t been more aware before?
- Is this all there is?
- What kind of people do I truly connect with?
- Are my needs fulfilled in my current relationships?
If you’ve found yourself in any of the examples above, you should know that your current life situation is not going to last forever. And you may feel like you’re sailing through rough seas at the moment, but even the darkest storms come to an end.
How to Deal With an Existential Crisis: Insights from Mindvalley Experts
Now that you’ve got an overall understanding of the existential crisis definition, you should know that you may find some support along the way.
Here are a few tips from Mindvalley experts that may help you through this time of your life:
1. Manage your intrusive thoughts
There’s nothing more frustrating than a racing mind just when you’re going through the midst of chaos.
“Intrusive thoughts can often feel like a volcano,” explains Dr. Leaf in her Calm Mind: A Scientific Guide to Managing Anxiety and Depression Quest. “And if you think of a volcano, it’s dormant for a period, builds and builds, and then erupts.”
However, what you can do to prevent going down that never-ending spiral of thoughts is to deconstruct them before the explosion. And a helpful practice to deconstruct an intrusive thought and remold it into a brighter one is to create a thought diagram.
You can start by writing down the following:
- Give your intrusive thought a name, and describe it.
- How is this playing out in your life now?
- How did it affect you in the past?
- How could it affect your future?
- Where is this coming from?
The point of the exercise is to release some pressure from your mind’s busy activity, which may help you have more mental clarity to reorganize your life.
2. Trust in the power of “I am enough”
The common denominator of most of our problems is that we don’t believe we’re enough, explains Marisa Peer, renowned hypnotherapist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest. This can take many shapes and forms, such as not feeling smart enough, pretty enough, or capable enough.
And when you’re going through the questioning of your life foundation, not having a fundamental belief in your true essence may shake things up even further.
The more you connect to your enoughness, the more you’ll be able to embody it. And it’s going to shine through all the blockages and limiting beliefs that were holding you back.
“You must say ‘I am enough’ constantly,” encourages Marisa. “Say it out loud, say it with feeling, say it like you mean it, and say it over and over again, and do so for weeks until it sinks in and replaces the feeling that you are not enough, which may be holding you back.”
3. Embrace the struggle
Practicing welcoming our difficult feelings and struggles as a valuable part of our lives will help us tremendously on our development journey, explains Monty Moran, former co-CEO of Chipotle and trainer of Minvalley’s The Transformational Leader Quest.
Find a moment where you are mentally complaining about something because it’s difficult or you can’t make sense of it. Then, make the conscious decision to embrace it. It’s crucial to remember that we only make the things we don’t like stronger by trying to avoid them.
But once you’ve made that decision, says Monty, watch how your day unfolds with more positivity, effectiveness, and power. “If we succumb to our desire to insulate ourselves from discomfort to remain comfortable, we deprive ourselves and the world of our brilliance.”
4. Learn the power of Kensho and Satori moments
The founder of Mindvalley, Vishen highlights the importance of understanding kensho and satori moments in his Be Extraordinary Quest. These terms were first coined by Dr. Michael Beckwith, a worldwide spiritual teacher and trainer of Mindvalley’s Life Visioning Mastery Quest.
- Kensho moments. These are the times when the Universe makes you grow through pain. In Japanese, the word Kensho means “slow burn”, and Vishen explains it as the illness, the heartbreak, the failure, or the existential moment when life seems like it’s falling apart. You grow through these times of struggle with discipline and faith.
- Satori moments. These are those moments of epiphany when things just click with an unexpected “aha.” “Satori is when the Universe moves you beautifully to where you need to be,” says Vishen. And most importantly, after a time of kensho, there’s usually a moment of satori relief.
To better understand the power of these concepts, Vishen recommends mapping out your lifeline graph. Chronologically, go through the years of your life when you felt those highs and lows. Notice if you see any patterns in your evolution.
5. Plan your MTF (Massively Transformative Fears)
When going through an existential crisis, shattering fears start creeping up. Fear of taking action or fear of going out there and making those tough decisions.
To ease your way into this elevated chapter of your life, Steven Kotler, trainer of Mindvalley’s The Habit of Ferocity Quest, has an exercise for you, and it goes as follows:
- Write down three to five things that scare you most and might be your biggest obstacles in achieving your dreams.
- Break them down into the smallest steps you can think of.
- Do one step at a time, once a week.
For example, if your existential search is about discovering your life purpose and changing careers, you don’t have to jump headfirst into the water and quit your current job. However, a first step would be to read more about subjects that may interest you, join a course, or contact someone else who’s done it before.
Here Comes the Sun
As The Beatles sang a long time ago, it may have been a long, cold, lonely winter, but here comes the sun. And it goes the same for your existential crisis.
Sometimes these moments of struggle seem daunting and never-ending, but the truth is, they may be an opportunity to rewrite your life storyline. A new chance to bring your dreams to life.
If you need a little guidance to navigate the stormy waters of your existential turmoil, Mindvalley is the place for you. You can turn your life upside down in the best possible way with transformational quests, such as:
- Be Extraordinary with Vishen
- Calm Mind: A Scientific Guide to Managing Anxiety and Depression with Dr. Caroline Leaf
- Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance with Marisa Peer
- The Habit of Ferocity with Steven Kotler
- The Transformational Leader with Monty Moran
Here’s what Mindvalley students’ success stories sound like:
Before this program, I was in a state of chaos, felt helpless, and didn’t know what to do to solve my issues. Thanks to this program, I now have more clarity on what I need to do to solve my problems and get the abundance that I aspire to in my life.— Khaled Fallata on the Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest
By claiming your free access, you can sample classes from these programs and many others and see how this wisdom may impact your life, too. Remember that your next existential doubt may be the key to the life you truly desire to live.
Don’t be afraid to embrace it.