When You Find Yourself in an Existential Crisis

The most clarifying question you can ask yourself.

Posted Nov 20, 2020

Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren, personal photo taken on an iPhone 6s
Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, Piopiotahi, New Zealand
Source: Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren, personal photo taken on an iPhone 6s

As I was driving this morning to get routine bloodwork at my doctor's office, I was struck by the scene. It was 8 a.m. and I saw a woman perfectly manicured, hair done, makeup on, wearing on-point fashion, walking into a hair salon. People were rushing around—going to school, heading into work, filling up their cars with gas, in line to get a carwash and coffee. If I did not know it prior, I would not have been able to guess that we were in the middle of a pandemic—one in which we are currently dying and getting infected at a record pace.1 And we are looking damn good doing it.

We live under capitalism, and for some, that is taking its toll. I am guessing that woman does not have the ability to work from home—she may be deemed an essential worker by our governor. She needs to pay her bills, to live, to provide. There is nothing wrong with that—in fact, she might be a victim of the current situation and system. Work is not the enemy, it can be the means. I do not pretend to know her situation. I just acknowledge that she is risking her life to provide, and that may be the larger problem—a system that does not care for its people and that is set up to sell meaning.

Before the pandemic, I too bought into this system. I did it under the guise of capitalism providing meaning, or so I thought. I was well-traveled (New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, England, Hong Kong, and an upcoming trip scheduled for Brazil all within a period of two years, let alone numerous state-side trips). Meals at new and up-and-coming restaurants. In fact, it was one of my hobbies I would connect with others over. I enjoyed sharing the spoils of my finds and bringing people to these places to share a cocktail and a meal. I worked endless hours at work, often not coming home before 8 or 9 p.m.

I thought this was who I was, and in fact, I wrote about it in one of my Psychology Today blog posts at the beginning of this pandemic. Capitalism indirectly provided me a sense of identity — a sense of who I was, giving me relief from one of my core existential fears.2 Today, while driving, I was faced with the profound and disorienting question: What is the point of ALL of this?

When we can buy, schedule, and arrange our lives — we do not have to ask that question. It is simply and easily purchased. That question often does not present itself, because we have answered it. Capitalism has commodified meaning.   

I find that in my work with clients this question of "what is the point?" is coming up more frequently than it had in the past. I find myself asking it, as I did this morning. I resist giving my clients the answer, because frankly, I do not know it. 

I think when we are asking that question, as when we ask any kind of existential questions, we are actually asking, what is the meaning of this life? Many systems can answer that for us — capitalism, religion, psychology, naturopathy, academia, science, etc. But I want you to answer it — to dig deep into the depth of your soul and ask yourself courageously: What is the point of it all? What is the meaning of this life? What is all this for? And maybe, just maybe, we might discover something about ourselves along the way. If you are lucky, you might just find yourself in the middle of an existential crisis — one that clarifies systems from meaning, not entwines it. 

Please consider posting a picture that represents this for you and tag @theexistentialtherapist and @psych_today on InstagramWe would love to see what brings you meaning, and what you learn about yourself along the way. 


1. Ducharme, J. (2020, November 19). COVID Is Worse Than Ever in the US. We Aren't Acting Like It. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://time.com/5913620/covid-third-wave/

2. Van Tongeren, D. R. & Van Tongeren, S. A. S. (2020). The Courage To Suffer: a new clinical framework for life's greatest crises. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.