Existential Crisis: Coming Home to Ourselves
Reclaim your true self as an intense person.
Posted June 9, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Some of us are naturally more intense and sensitive than others.
Being an intense person, you are most likely a deep thinker, an intuitive feeler, and an extraordinary observer. You are prone to existential depression and anxiety, but you also know beauty and rapture. When art or music moves you, you are flooded with waves of joy and ecstasy. As a natural empathizer, you have a gift; yet you are also overwhelmed by the constant waves of social nuances and others’ psychic energies.
Intensity is a brain difference—an innate trait that makes one different from the normative way of functioning. Without the right understanding and support, having an operating system that is "out of sync" can bring many early experiences of shame. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a family that understands and respects neurodiversity. If our parents, teachers, or peers were impatient or critical towards our idiosyncrasies, we naturally assumed that we were in the wrong. We believed that not fitting in meant there was something defective about us. So what did we do?
We learned, painstakingly, with all our life force, to drown our inner voice so that we could fit in.
When we were small, belonging meant pleasing our parents to avoid abandonment. Since we were dependent on them for survival, we were frightened of even the slightest risk of rejection. To not create conflicts, we learned to silence our anger, frustration, and minimize our needs.
When we were teenagers, belonging meant adapting ourselves to the environment. We did everything we could to be accepted, to not be bullied, teased, or rejected by the group. From a tender age, we learned the horror of being ostracized.
Entering adulthood, we search for a sense of belonging in the world and would go to great lengths to build a socially approved version of ourselves. We are not even aware of how many cultural "shoulds" we have taken in, and how much we might have invested on a path that is not ours: the corporate job, the seemingly glamorous relationship, a well-endorsed, "extraverted" personality, following what our siblings and peers do to be loved, winning through conventional success and recognition. A fish can’t see the water, because it’s in it. We cannot see the values we have internalized, because they so engulf us.
Our facade started as a means to survive in this world when we were young and vulnerable, but somehow it overstayed its time and became the only thing we know. While the conflict between the true self and false self is not exclusive to emotionally intense people, reclaiming authenticity is often a harder path for the natural misfits.
Being haunted by the threat of being ostracized, we spend our whole life constructing a facade that would allow us to "pass" normalcy.
We become hypervigilant and cautious, picking up the smallest negative social clues so that we can edit our behaviors accordingly.
Since our vibrancy and excitement were met with nothing but blind stares or puzzlement, we realized that sharing makes us lonelier than not sharing.
The minute our achievement sticks out, it gets chopped down; so we learn never to reach high.
Opportunities became threats, and we self-sabotage before anyone could destroy us.
We thought we could protect ourselves by playing small, but stifling our soul comes with huge costs.
We are depressed, because we have denied our soul’s truths.
We feel empty and numb, because our soul has gone into hiding.
We are like wild animals trying to domesticate ourselves, trading our natural exuberance for the crowd’s approval.
Leaving the familiar ground of the identity we have invested in is never an easy task, but a wake-up call will inevitably come. Sometimes life very "helpfully" sends us a crisis that forces us to face our truths. Then, we realize that it is not enough to exist as a function of someone else’s—spouse, parents, friends, society—projections and wishes, as life is too short for any more day of internal deadness. When a turning point comes, we first get plunged into an existential crisis.
The field of psychology has been dominated by quantitative science and psychiatry, and the experience of existential darkness has been medicalized, rather than examined, valued, and understood. The spiritual origin and meaning of depression are hardly talked about, yet well documented when we look closely at people’s experience across history.
True Self, False Self: Winnicott
The idea of a "true self" vs. a "false self" is first introduced by British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott (1960). Winnicott used "true self" to describe a sense of self that was based on authentic experience and a feeling of being alive—much like how we were as a child when we felt safe in the presence of a trusted other and were free to fully express ourselves. The "false self" is a defensive facade, something we develop to meet our parents’ societal or interpersonal demands.
The consequence of over-investing in our false self is that we become physically and psychologically sick. When our outside self is succumbing to conformity, our inner being might become deviant. If we do not address the issue, this underlying rebellion will push back and, eventually, erupt. That is why we "act out" with behaviors that are self-sabotaging or destructive, bypassing our rational mind and against our will.
Our soul is always aligned with our real, authentic, intense, and sensitive true self, and when we overwork in the suit of our armor, our soul will wake us up—sometimes violently, in surprising hours.
Before the renewal of our true self, however, comes the painful "death" of our ego-based false self. Mystics call this period the "Dark Night of the Soul." We often experience a period of low after significant life changes, such as changing jobs, moving countries, divorcing, losing a loved one, or coming to terms with a severe illness. Although the Dark Night of the Soul may appear to be a curse, it is a blessing in disguise. This period of our lives helps us to descend into the depths of our psyches so that we can find our true selves, discover our calling, and reconnect to our spirit.
Individualization: Carl Jung
Authenticity was a big part of Carl Jung’s life’s work. Jung defined a mature personality as "the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being" (CG Jung, The Development of Personality, 1954).
The first half of our lives is about building an ego identity. To survive in the world, we adopt a persona at the cost of our inner reality. We repressed our anger, our opinion, our voice, as well as our joy and creative energy to fit in. Then, at some point, it no longer works, and we realized we could no longer live a lie to make those around us feel comfortable. When the emotionally sensitive person is "sick of normalization" (The Aims of Psychotherapy, Jung, 1954), and no longer feels able to hide their truths, Jung saw this as a sign of health. Jung found that people often suffer from anxiety or depression at the midpoint of life (which for the old souls can mean anything from mid-20s to late 50s), because they had strayed too far from their true nature.
At the critical juncture, we enter a chaotic "liminal space"— a space where we anxiously float in an "in-between" zone. As Richard Rohr puts it:
“ … It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run ... anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
Internal chaos is a rite of passage as we go through a transformation. Many great artists and thinkers have to go through this to find their voice and to eventually put their unique stamps into the world. Jung developed his theory of individualization out of a painful personal experience: Being the son of a pastor in the Swiss Reformed church, he discovered early in his life that he could not subscribe to the orthodox Protestant faith in which he had been brought up in and forged his own path. He did this again in his later life when he openly disagreed with his long-term friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud. Given Freud's prominence in the 1920s, Jung’s action required tremendous strength. Without his tenacity to break free, we would not have the Jung we know.
Although the first step of transformation is not easy and can evoke a myriad of complex feelings, from fear to guilt and a compulsion to please those we care about, it is a worthwhile endeavor and will eventually lead to deeper intimacy with those we love. As Mark Nepo poignantly puts it:
"When we cease to shed what is dead in us to soothe the fears of others, we remain partial. When we cease to surface our most sensitive skin simply to avoid conflicts with others, we remove ourselves from all that is true. When we maintain ways we’ve already discarded just to placate the ignorance of those we love, we lose access to what is eternal." (2011, P. 106)
Authenticity: Existential Philosophies
Outside of psychology, existential philosophers are among the most aware of the value of nonconformity. Many existentialists use terms such as "crowd," "horde" (Scheler), the "masses" (José Ortega y Gasset), or "herd moralities’ (Nietzche) to describe the way of living in which one simply "does what others do." Kierkegaard considered that angst and existential despair would appear when an inherited or borrowed worldview (often of a collective nature) proved unfit and untrue. Nietzsche suggested that the so-called "Death of God"—the loss of common faith in religion and traditional morality—created a more widespread existential crisis for the philosophically aware.
Walking away from the crowd comes with a price; the philosophers hold that anxiety is the first experience of our freedom. Being the outsider, the isolated person now who sees through the phonies, and not being able to define oneself with an external definition (a wife, a son, a church-goer, a company man) challenges one to become their own person (Heidegger). Inevitably, we feel the weight of our existential decision—having the freedom to choose where (and how) we stand also means we are responsible for the results of our actions.
However difficult, standing on our own two feet despite the absence of social proof is the only "true solution" to becoming free. As Søren Kierkegaard affirmed, reliance on social roles and doctrine prevents the person from "real action." The only true freedom comes with being able to bear the heavy responsibility of choosing our own beliefs, values, and decisions.
Honor the Existential Darkness
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of theories and philosophies that see internal chaos as a necessary rite of passage for the unyielding misfits. There are many other examples in the world within art and literature.
I want to end this post with an invitation for you to see your emotional crisis in a different light, and to learn to honor your existential darkness. Despite it being a precarious journey, it is ultimately worthwhile. At the end of your existential darkness, you will come to a new level of intimacy with life, with yourself, and with people in your life. By knowing that you are committed to not only one facet, but everything that your life has to offer, you become a fuller human.
Nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is more than an individual pursuit. It is also a form of public service. If you take the path less traveled by, you are championing not just your right to be different, but you are also setting a solid example for all the misfit souls who come after you. It is an honorable act because you do it not to be liked, you are not just feeding your neurotic need to be liked, or your neurotic fear of being disliked. It is when you can free yourself from these fears that you become a true channel of your gifts.
In his essay “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being," Utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill summed this up well: “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained.” Being unapologetically honest about who you are is not only personally, but also transpersonally meaningful.