Existential Crisis: What Is It and How Can We Overcome It?

Do you ever feel you have no purpose in life or that your life is meaningless? If so, you might be going through an existential crisis.

Dec 21, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy
existential crisis what is it overcome

 

Many have heard the phrase “existential crisis.” But not everyone knows what it means, how to define it, and what to do with it. Initially, existentialism was not a separate trend of philosophy. It was considered within the framework of humanism and other directions. Gradually, the existential crisis acquired clear features and developed into a large direction with ultimate goals. So what is an existential crisis?

 

Existentialism as a Philosophical Direction

aleardo terzi summer morning painting
Summer Morning, Aleardo Terzi, 1913, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Although existentialism had a great influence on twentieth-century culture, it remained unidentifiable as a distinct philosophical movement.

 

Most of those involved with this ideology did not identify themselves publicly as such, except for the outstanding case of the French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre who famously proclaimed his existentialist beliefs in the act of exclamation, “Existentialism is Humanism.”

 

The greatest existential philosophers include Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Karl Jaspers, Albert Camus, Roland Barthes, José Ortega y Gasset, and Martin Heidegger. These thinkers concentrated on the study of human existence, which is a personal experience as opposed to just existence itself.

 

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Existentialism has its origin in the Latin word existential, which implies “existence,” though this is the mere beginning of what these philosophers sought to understand.

 

Of course, the term was coined by one of the main figures of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, existence meant being cognizant of oneself inwardly in relation to the world around one.

 

To live ‘’in truth, variety, and passion,’’ a person must focus on making a conscious choice that leads from an externally-concentrated passive kind of existence.

 

edvard munch scream painting
Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893, via Nasjonalmuseet Oslo

 

Existentialism is difficult to recognize as a form of “existence” because concerns about everyday life and brief magnified happiness can divert our attention from it.

 

Importantly, according to the existentialists, knowledge may only be gained in specific situations—when one is facing challenges of living, or someone goes through struggles, or guilt against fate.

 

The most striking feature of Shakespeare’s play’s character Hamlet is especially his famous question: “To be or not to be?” which was triggered by his father’s death.

 

These hard questions often overwhelm people when the world seems uncertain. One may find answers that are not always satisfactory, leaving one questioning whether their lives are really valuable.

 

When examined from an outside perspective, we sometimes have a shocking realization that human existence might have no inherent purpose or meaning. This can surprise us into periods of depression or even major realignments to our lives, such as quitting jobs and relationships overnight.

 

So What Is An Existential Crisis?

jørgen roed artist resting by roadside painting
An Artist Resting by the Roadside, Jørgen Roed, 1832, via Statens Museum for Kunst.

 

An existential crisis can leave you feeling like the rug has been pulled out from beneath your feet, leaving a void of confusion and uncertainty.

 

It’s that moment in life where everything you thought to be true about yourself and your place in this ever-changing world is put into question. As if all at once, you find yourself asking: “What am I doing here?” or “Where do I go from here?”

 

An existential crisis is far more than a passing thought of doubt. It can be likened to an immense wave crashing over you, leaving you breathless and grasping desperately at anything nearby for support.

 

Sometimes an existential crisis can be triggered by major life changes or events that force us to confront our mortality or the meaning of our lives.

 

Modern society has reached a point where our basic needs for food and security are taken care of—yet an existential crisis still looms over us like an ever-present cloud.

 

This is now arguably one of the most pressing problems that everyone around the globe must confront.

 

What Are the Signs of Existential Crisis?

vilhelm pedersen studies painting
Studies by Søren Kierkegaard, Vilhelm Pedersen, c. 1844-1850, via Meisterdrucke

 

So, what are some signs that indicate you’re struggling with an existential crisis? Well, let’s break it down. First off, if you find yourself questioning the meaning of life (and your place in the grand scheme of things), then chances are you’re in the middle of an existential crisis.

 

You might start seeing everything as meaningless and wonder what the point of it all is anyways.

 

You also may feel like time doesn’t really matter anymore—whether that means feeling like time is dragging on forever or thinking that everything is slipping away too quickly. It can even sometimes feel like life itself has become monotonous, waking up just to go through the motions.

 

But here’s where things can get really tricky: An existential crisis often includes a sort of identity crisis where one begins asking questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I want from life?” This could lead to thoughts about significant changes, like switching careers or leaving relationships just to find something different.

 

And lastly—perhaps most strangely-many people undergoing an existential crisis will begin looking for meaning within strange places and otherworldly places…like space travel being their only escape from their mind’s turmoil!

 

How To Overcome An Existential Crisis?

edvard munch melancholy painting
Melancholy, Edvard Munch, 1894-96, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Operating alone and facing an existential crisis is not easy. Some people choose to avoid looking for their personal truth and turn instead to pre-existing beliefs such as religion or tradition for comfort.

 

Using these perspectives may provide temporary comfort, but they may also slow down the person’s progress in finding one’s own truths.

 

As we call this crisis “existential,” one possibility on how to solve this problem could be that a person should apply existentialist philosophy to their life. However, using this solution does not give somebody preconceived answers but rather tells one to focus on their own inner experiences and knowledge.

 

The message suggests that the words “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves,” (words spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator). We must go along with the idea of destiny as our own deeds and decisions determine whether it will be peaceful or stormy.

 

Here, existentialism is about not being bound to an idea of “meaning” in one’s life. It is about having ultimate freedom. The challenge for the individual comes from the fact that they’re responsible not only to themselves but also to their fellow human beings on Earth, whose lives are vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

 

The difficulty in facing one’s inner truth without relying on outside direction or guidance is great; thus, existentialism is often called the “philosophy of despair.”

 

However, taking this approach can open up the opportunity to view life in different ways. Existential psychology helps individuals in claiming responsibility for their life by helping them to find themselves.

 

aertgen van leyden st jerome painting
St Jerome in his Study by Candlelight, Aertgen Claesz van Leyden, c. 1520-1530 via Rijks Museum

 

Viktor Frankl is a notable advocate of this movement. He was an Austrian psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and neurologist. For three years, he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.

 

Emotionally, he remained intact through the hardships he endured from his incarceration in the camps. His writings talk about what he christened an “existential vacuum.”

 

He saw this as a form of affliction—which, historically speaking, emerged in the 20th century—a time filled with upheavals and destruction. At that time, man’s emotional connection to cherished values seemed broken, and their compass pointed, instead, toward new explorations in freedom and modernity.

 

Frankl developed a form of psychotherapy referred to as logotherapy that enables individuals to discover the meaning in their lives. He believed it could be attained through creative activities, valuing life, and accepting one’s circumstances even when one couldn’t control them.

 

Sometimes, a quick change of viewpoint will get you out of your existential trap. Look at yourself and the current situation from a different angle.

 

For instance, think about something that is uniquely yours about which others can’t possibly have an opinion. You might stumble upon some answer to challenge you to reach your full potential as well in order to lead a more rewarding life.

 

Does Your Existential Crisis Have a Bright Side?

henri matisse le bonheur de vivre painting
Le Bonheur de vivre, Henri Matisse, 1905-06, via The Barnes Foundation

 

During the mid-1960s, a Polish psychiatrist called Kazimierz Dąbrowski developed the idea of “positive decay.” This theory suggests that growth and development involve experiencing anxiety and stress.

 

Part of the overall positive decay theory involves gifted people, who, according to Dąbrowski, were unique because they were more sensitive, emotional, intelligent, imaginative, curious, and anxious. Therefore, among other things, they could also be vulnerable to existential crisis and depression.

 

For him, it implies that these people have greater potential for development. They see the world differently, are more self-aware, and want to know things about themselves as well as others. However, their lives often remain empty unless they analyze other issues which generally appear in their lives.

 

It’s a tall order to make sense of our daily actions and find purpose. When times are tough, it can be hard not to get disheartened—whether you’re struggling with personal issues or have faced something truly devastating.

 

In these moments we often take a step back from the chaos, allowing ourselves some space for reflection on where life has taken us thus far.

 

Today, life has become more convenient, but such a stream of information pours out on us that it is difficult not only to understand but even to perceive. The bottom line is that a “better” life is a cost. In our time, maintaining inner balance and succumbing to temptations is much more difficult.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.