Are You Even Being?

Existentialists believe non-being is an illness of our time.

Posted May 21, 2017

Photo Credit Alexi Berry / William Berry
Source: Photo Credit Alexi Berry / William Berry

In existential philosophy, and therapy, there is the idea of being, as opposed to non-being. Some existentialists (Rollo May, in particular) believed people were often detached from themselves as well as the world around them, and this resulted in non-being. This post will not only discuss being detached, but also how the way we treat others can lead to this feeling of non-being.

There are three ways people can become alienated from themselves or the world: “separation from nature, lack of meaningful interpersonal relations, and alienation from one’s authentic self.” (Fiest, Feist and Roberts, p.323). Many may feel they are not disconnected in any of these ways, but existentialists believe, “alienation is the illness of our time.” (Fiest, Feist, and Roberts, p.323).

Beyond this form of alienation, there is also non-being which one inflicts upon him or her self, by not contemplating death. These include compulsive behaviors, addiction, or promiscuous sex. Many people today are detached from themselves and their lives. Many are existing but not really living their lives. Throughout my career as a therapist I’ve encountered many who are existing in their lives. They almost robotically go from task to task, seek escape, and do not really embrace life. Many accept this existence as the nature of life.

In one way, it is. The human brain acclimates quickly. Humans quickly adjust to how amazing anything is. As I’ve written before, (see “Changing for a Change”) the brain’s goal is to conserve energy. As such, it acclimates to novelty in a relatively short period of time. Though this is beneficial in many ways, it can result in the sense of detachment discussed earlier. One’s mind, acclimated to surroundings, goes within and mindlessly exercises itself with unnecessary thought. When this occurs regularly, one becomes detached from nature, important relationships, and oneself.

This can lead to interacting with others in rote and unhealthy ways. Recently I’ve had several clients and friends discussing how they felt dehumanized by the treatment of others. One used the words that she “is a non-being” to her family. Rather than experiencing her as an individual, her family viewed her as a role. She felt she existed simply to meet their needs as mother or wife. She felt subservient. Dialogue, other than communication related to her role, was not accepted.

In another example, a friend was doing behavioral therapy with an autistic child. The grandfather of the child was often the one present. According to my colleague, rather than being focused on his grandson’s improvement, he fixated on sexually harassing her, to the point she left the job. This incident, combined with others in her personal life, led to her feeling like she was an object, a non-being.

it is tempting to believe this happens to women more than men. However, there are no statistics regarding those that spend much of their lives as a “non-being”. This is partly a result of existentialists believing it dehumanizes individuals to study them and try to categorize them. However, women are viewed in society as subservient. It is human nature to categorize people, to see them one dimensionally, to see them as objects. Although this doesn’t just go for women, it is more common for them to be objectified.

Too often in our culture we objectify people. This is human nature to an extent. Object Relations theory posits that we objectify everyone. To each individual, people are part who they are, and part who we think they are. But often individuals take that even further, and another person becomes an object for use. Anything that doesn’t fit into our idea of them is fought against. That part of them is either ignored, or an attempt is made to change it.

While writing this Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson posted a challenge in his “Just One Thing” free newsletter. The challenge was to, “See Beings, Not Just Bodies”. He discusses how the “labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful.” The labeling process serves a purpose. However, it is overused and becomes dysfunctional in human relations. As I hope I’ve suggested, it can lead to others feeling like non-beings.  

Again, this is human nature. As conscious beings, however, we can overcome our nature to an extent. We can become more mindful in life, remain in touch with nature, and nurture our relationships. We can reflect on our thoughts and feelings. We can fight past our ideas of who the other is, and experience the individual. This is all possible with a conscious effort. Once again, mindfulness, attentiveness, to others and one’s life, is the answer.

Copyright, William Berry, 2017


Feist, J; Feist, G; Roberts, T.A; 2013; Theories of Personality; McGraw Hill Publishing; New York, N.Y.

Hanson, R; 2017; Just One Thing Newsletter; See Beings, Not Bodies; retrieved from:

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