THE BIG PICTURE
HOW TO NAVIGATE AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS.
If you’re reading this, you have to believe it’s going to be fine even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. Trust me, I’ve been through a stack of these and things are not what they seem. If I can get through them, you can too. You will be alright.
Existential crises are sneaky. They start with a small innocent enough thought, or maybe a particular event pokes it awake. You didn’t get into the course you wanted, didn’t get that dreamy job, your story was rejected, your partner broke up with you. Whatever it is, a sense of boundless despair rolls in like a summer storm.
However you ended up in existential agony, take a moment right now for some self-care. Put the kettle on and have a cuppa, meditate, drink some water, do some exercise, go for a quick dip in the sea – do whatever helps you take some deep breaths, calm your mind and focus your attention. A short escape before you get to work making things better.
GO TO THE SOURCE
So you’re feeling shit and asking yourself what the fuck you’re doing with your life? Existential crises have haunted humanity ever since our primate ancestors first used a rock as a tool and started worrying about what it meant for their career path. Existential crises are like sharehouse mugs – some are similar but each one is unique, you don’t know where they come from, and you wonder if they’ll just keep coming. Spoiler: they do and the best thing you can do is use them. Identifying the catalyst for your existential crisis can help you short-circuit a full existential blow-out in the future, but what do you do to address this one now?
BE KIND, REWIND
Start by running it back – think back to what kicked off this whole train(wreck) of thought. Sometimes it’s something seemingly small and even predictable, like getting rejected from a job you kinda knew you weren’t going to get. But it’s what that thought stirs up that really electrifies the shit storm. Not getting what you want – failure and rejection – hurts your ego. It stirs up negative feelings and hurts your self-esteem. Unconsciously, you start creating a story around this rejection – you didn’t get it because you’re useless. You’ll never get another job again. Then you start comparing yourself to other people and in this emotionally raw state, your ego is irrational and starts creating doomsday scenarios about your future. You didn’t get that job, which would’ve been such a great opportunity, and your current job will realise you suck, you’ll get fired and your whole career is basically a joke. Instead, you’re stuck where you are, stagnant, not going anywhere because you’re useless and not getting that job proves it.
Except that’s not true. Missing out on one job isn’t a big deal. There are literally infinite jobs out there – people are starting new businesses every day, people quit jobs and new opportunities arise. Your brain just played a sinister trick on you called ‘confirmation bias’. Your subconscious created the story that you missed out on the job because you’re useless and then went searching for “evidence” to prove it. Challenge these proof points, see how quickly you can prove it’s wrong – there will be heaps of counterpoints, you just need to look.
FORGET BLAME, REMEMBER RESPONSIBILITY
When we face rejection, failure or a setback, there are three common reactions.
1: we internalise blame – this is my fault.
2: we externalise blame – this is their fault.
3: we accept things the way they are – well that sucks, nothing I can do about that now.
The third seems like a zen mirage. How could you possibly react like that? The answer is simple: a lot of practice.
It’s helpful to distinguish the difference between blame and responsibility. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your ability to navigate challenges is to avoid the blame game and instead look at responsibility. Your job application is rejected. Whose fault is it? Who is to blame? You for not being the best candidate? The employer for not choosing you? Can you see how that line of questioning doesn’t help you work out what to do next? Playing pin the blame on the donkey doesn’t help anyone, least of all you. Thinking about whose responsibility it is, does. Because guess what? If you didn’t get the job – no matter how badly you wanted it – it’s your responsibility to keep trying.
The same is true for an existential crisis – it’s up to you to work through this. It’s your responsibility to problem solve and work on a solution. And you can – you can do this. When you’re in the swirling depths of an existential crisis – or just feeling shit about anything for that matter – try to stop thinking about the future and focus instead on today. Concentrate on what you can do right now, to work through the messy noise in your head. Forget your career ambitions, your new goal is to get through to the end of the day. By the time you lay down tonight, you will be feeling calmer, you’ll be well-fed, and will have done one thing to directly address this existential crisis.
NAME IT TO MAIM IT
Naming the fear that fuels our existential crisis makes it less scary. Subconsciously, we fear that we’ll never discover the source of our stress and anxiety. Our brain whispers an insidious question just outside our consciousness: ‘what if we feel like this forever?’ and it stokes our anxiety. Until you name it. It can be confronting putting it into words. And sometimes, it makes you realise how carried away your mind got and your fear can feel a bit ridiculous. That doesn’t mean your existential crisis isn’t real – it’s real, baby! It’s actually a good thing. It means it’ll be easier to work through. A huge part of the challenge of solving a problem is working out what the problem is. Now, you can start working out what you can do to change things for the better.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Sharehouse mugs come in so many different shapes, colours, and degrees of anxiety. But all existential crises are underpinned by a yearning for clarity around purpose, meaning, and direction. And these things combine to create the foundation for happiness in our lives. It’s no wonder existential crises are so intense. We feel like our lives lack purpose, meaning and/or direction and we ask ourselves what the hell we’re doing, why, and how the hell it came to this. We call into question the meaning of our existence – the point of our lives. It’s a question so loaded and challenging, our ego wants to avoid it at all costs. The last time most of us considered it was when we were trying to decide what to do after school – as if anyone knew.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Often when we’re questioning our existence, we’re focusing on the things we don’t have. The things we want – even the things we think we should have by now. One way to short-circuit an existential crisis is to recognise this and use it as a cue to practice gratitude. Take a moment to list some of the things you do have. Create some perspective by thinking about the things you’re grateful you have in your life. Remember the things that bring you happiness, things that make you feel lucky, things you have achieved, things that give your life meaning.
Do you have a place to stay, food to eat, someone to talk to, friends, family, or a dog you can talk to? Keep it simple and remember that these things deserve your gratitude. Anxiety is suffocated by gratitude. It doesn’t happen immediately – more like suffocating a candle. Shifting your focus from stressing about the future to listing the things you currently have that you’re grateful for, forces some perspective and helps you remember how lucky you are. It helps you realise that your current struggle is only one aspect of your life.
WHERE TO NOW?
Now that you know what you’re feeling hopeless about, it’s time to start working out what you can do to change it. But how do you know you’re moving in the right direction if you don’t know where you’re going? Doing something is better than nothing at all, or saying you’ll do something tomorrow (lol, c’mon), but doing something you know will move you towards your goal is better.
Start by defining success. If there were no barriers to you achieving what you want, what would that success look like? Define your goal and make it S.M.A.R.T. So you can actually achieve it, write your goal so it is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Before we jump into an example, it’s also important to make your goal about the action rather than the outcome. You can’t always control the outcome but you can control what action you take to try and achieve your goal.
If thinking about and hopefully defining success is as far as you get today, that’s huge. That’s something really positive you’ve done to help solve this existential crisis. If that’s all you can manage today, make sure you eat something healthy and get some rest. If you can keep going, do it. Don’t put off for tomorrow something you can do today.
You want a better job – who doesn’t? But how do you make this a SMART goal that will help quiet your existential angst? Be specific and remember to keep it realistic.
You don’t just want a new job, you want a job that pays well, or a job with a particular company, or a part-time job so you have some time to grow your side hustle. Think about what you want in a job and it will help you focus your search to give yourself the best chance at finding your dream job. Doing this process led me to quit my job and throw myself into freelance writing at the start of 2021.
WORKING SMARTER, NOT HARDER
My goal was to find a remote/work-from-home job, ideally 4-days a week, that covered my living costs and gave me the flexibility to work on my personal writing. Make sure your goal focuses on the effort, not the outcome. The effort here is applying for jobs.
Specific: Apply for five jobs a week that are remote/work-from-home, ideally 4-days a week (apply for full-time jobs and ask to do 4 days if interviewed), and cover my living costs.
Measurable: Yes, how many jobs did I apply for this week? And end goal – find this dream job.
Achievable: Yes, based on my experience and skill-set, this was a realistic goal.
Relevant: This is about making sure your goal is relevant to what you want. This goal is relevant because I defined what success looked like for me. If I wanted to earn as much money as possible from my work, this goal wouldn’t be super relevant.
Time-bound: Whoops, didn’t make it time-bound. Give yourself a deadline to create some urgency and help you prioritise it. And then stick to it. Remember, this is your responsibility, no one else is going to do this for you. You can do it but not if you keep putting it off.
Once you have a clear goal in mind, break it down into small, achievable tasks – individual things you can do to move towards your goal. Write down everything you need to do to achieve your goal. This is the way forward, this is the path out of hopelessness toward what you want.
CONTROL AND CHANGE
If the only thing you get done today, is writing down what success looks like – that’s a good win. You’ve taken action to change things for the better. If you made it into a SMART goal and broke it down into tasks – that’s huge. You can’t control the future but you can control what you do today. You can control what habits you start building, you can control how you work, how you approach challenges, how you deal with setbacks. Make sure you feel your feelings, but remember to do at least one thing today that helps you move towards your goal.