Having an Existential Crisis? How to Know, What to Do

We all go through periods when we feel adrift in our lives; time to explore.

Posted Aug 29, 2020

Image by Jplenio on Pixabay
Source: Image by Jplenio on Pixabay

Anne is a bit at loose ends emotionally. She recently had a relationship breakup, which left her with both relief and regret. And her job is becoming less and less satisfying — she’s bored, there is little challenge or a career path to look forward to. When she looks ahead to the next several years, her future feels unclear. What does she want? She’s not sure.

Anne is in a classic existential funk — a who-am-I-what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life funk. She has options — that’s a good thing, she’s not trapped in some awful marriage, she isn’t held back by the responsibility of children — but still, she feels at a loss, a sense that her life is not working but not sure what direction and decisions she needs to make it work.

This can happen to us all, even when our lives seem to be going well. This psychological struggle may be about our current reality, but also at another level about human development, namely that we change over time and that our lives move in chapters. There are two types of developmental change: One is normal (albeit still painful) developmental passages, the seven years of relative stability and then two to three years of transition: You struggle through your 20s to build a career, a relationship, and then enter your 30s and hit a plateau; seven years into a relationship and it begins to fall apart: Is that all there is, this is not working, my life is too boring — and you begin to get restless. 

The other source is when you go through a major change triggered by outside events — you have a horrible car accident and fortunately survive, you get divorced or fired from your job, it’s your 40th birthday but in the same week a close friend suddenly dies; whatever it is, it understandably hits you like a ton of bricks, shakes your view of yourself and the world.  

The end result is that you feel adrift, restless, lack a sense of purpose, or direction, lack real goals. It’s okay, it’s normal, but also an opportunity to step back and evaluate.

What to do?

Realize that it’s okay to feel at loose ends

Don’t overreact, don’t panic. You’re not falling apart; you’re going through a time of transition.

Resist going on autopilot and slow down

Anne needs to slow down and not just automatically apply for a similar job or immediately get back on online dating sites. This is an opportunity to push aside that momentary what-to-do panic mode, and ride it out a bit and reflect on longer-term goals.

Explore

This is time to explore options — about relationships, about jobs, but more importantly about long-range goals and sense of purpose. This is the time to think big, go wild and crazy, whatever brainstorm, whim, vision you have, don't let it slip by. Check it out. This is where Anne may consider switching careers, or moving to another part of the country, or reigniting some old hobby that has withered over time. This is time to see what is possible, and find what grabs your attention, your passion, even if it seems impractical. It’s gathering information about what your life is telling you about what you need most. Go for the ideal and then move towards the more practical and concrete.

Take action

Continue your search by taking action. If you find something that grabs you — that job outside your comfort zone, going back to school, even small changes in your everyday routine — go for it and see what happens next.

It’s about learning by exploring, deciding by acting, finding out about you by embracing new ideas and challenges.

To quote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado on the path of life: Wanderer there is no road, the road is made by walking.