Existential crisis

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Existential crisis

The term existential crisis was derived from Erikson’s (1970) theory of psychosocial development, which describes eight stages of life that involve a conflict or crisis to be resolved (Akre, 2020). An existential crisis is a period of inner conflict during which a person questions the purpose or value of his or her life and hopes to find meaning by contemplating the mystery of their existence (Britannica, n.d.).

Some examples of individuals facing existential crises are:

A middle-aged man who feels dissatisfied with his career and wonders if he has wasted his potential and talents. He may ask himself, “Is this all there is to life? What have I accomplished? What is the point of working so hard?” He may experience boredom, depression, anxiety, or resentment towards his job and family (Yalom, 1980).

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A young woman who suffers a miscarriage and struggles to cope with the grief and the loss of her unborn child. She may question her identity as a mother, her faith in God, and her hope for the future. She may ask herself, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? How can I move on from this tragedy?” She may experience anger, guilt, sadness, or numbness (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2014).

An elderly man who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and faces the prospect of death. He may reflect on his life and wonder if he has lived well and fulfilled his goals and dreams. He may ask himself, “What have I done with my life? How will I be remembered? What happens after I die?” He may experience fear, regret, loneliness, or peace (Frankl, 2006).

These are just some of the possible scenarios of individuals facing existential crises. They illustrate the common themes of questioning one’s existence, searching for meaning, and coping with mortality. existential crises can be challenging and painful, but they can also be opportunities for growth and transformation. As Viktor Frankl (2006), a survivor of the Holocaust and a pioneer of existential therapy, wrote: “What is to give light must endure burning” (p. 67).

The dark night of the soul

The terms dark night of the soul and existential crisis both refer to periods of intense psychological distress that challenge one’s sense of identity, meaning and purpose in life. However, they differ in their origins, duration and outcomes. According to mystics, the dark night of the soul is a spiritual phenomenon that occurs when one undergoes a profound transformation of the self, shedding the ego-based false-self and embracing the true-self (Psychology Today, 2019). It is often triggered by a loss or a change that disrupts one’s previous attachments and beliefs. The dark night of the soul can last for months or years, and it is characterized by feelings of emptiness, despair and alienation from God or the divine. As St. John of the Cross, who coined the term, wrote: “In this dark night of the spirit, the soul knows only how to go astray and how to be undone” (as cited in CLT, 2021).

On the other hand, an existential crisis is a more general term that describes a state of anxiety and uncertainty that arises from questioning one’s existence and mortality. It can be caused by various factors, such as facing a life-threatening illness, experiencing a trauma, witnessing injustice or suffering, or confronting one’s own limitations and mortality. An existential crisis can be brief or prolonged, depending on how one copes with it. It is marked by feelings of confusion, doubt, fear and meaninglessness. As HeroRise (n.d.) explained: “It can feel like an existential crisis —forcing you to question the meaning of life.”

Both the dark night of the soul and the existential crisis can be seen as opportunities for growth and transformation, if one can overcome them with courage, resilience and faith. They can lead to a more profound understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world, as well as a greater appreciation of life and its mysteries. However, they can also pose serious risks to one’s mental health and wellbeing, if one is unable to find support, guidance and hope during these difficult times. Therefore, it is important to seek professional help if one is experiencing severe symptoms of depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts as a result of these crises.

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Relationship with existentialism

One can trace the roots of the existentialist movement to the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the “father of existentialism”, who emphasized the individual’s subjective experience and freedom of choice in the face of an absurd and irrational world (Wikipedia, n.d.-a).

Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence. Existentialist philosophers explore questions related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence. Common concepts in existentialist thought include existential crisis, dread, and anxiety in the face of an absurd world (see: human free will), as well as authenticity, courage, and virtue (Wikipedia, n.d.-a). The term existentialism was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s. When Marcel first applied the term to Jean-Paul Sartre, at a colloquium in 1945, Sartre rejected it. However, he later adopted it and became one of the most influential existentialist thinkers, along with Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger (Wikipedia, n.d.-a).

Existentialism is related to existential crisis because both deal with the question of what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. Existentialists argue that there is no objective or universal answer to this question, but rather each individual must create his or her own meaning through authentic choices and actions. However, this also implies that each individual is responsible for his or her own fate and must face the consequences of his or her decisions. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, despair, or nihilism, especially when confronted with the absurdity or meaninglessness of existence. Therefore, existentialists also emphasize the importance of finding joy, passion, and solidarity in one’s life, despite its inherent difficulties and uncertainties (Britannica, n.d.).

Some examples of existentialism in literature are The Stranger by Albert Camus, which depicts a man who is indifferent to his own life and kills another person without any apparent motive; The Trial by Franz Kafka, which portrays a man who is arrested and prosecuted by a mysterious authority for an unknown crime; and Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, which describes a man who experiences a profound sense of disgust and alienation from his own existence.

Some quotes that illustrate existentialist ideas are:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

“The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” – Albert Camus

“To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – Albert Camus

Relationship with self-transcendence

According to Reed’s Transcendence Theory, self-transcendence is a human capacity to expand personal boundaries in many ways, such as inwardly, outwardly, temporally and transpersonally, to connect with oneself, others, nature and dimensions beyond the self (Reed, 2012). This capacity can help people cope with difficult life situations, such as vulnerability, existential crises and loss, by finding meaning and purpose in their experiences.

Reed (1991) defines vulnerability as “the degree to which one perceives oneself as susceptible to harm or loss” (p. 238) and existential crises as “situations that challenge one’s sense of meaning and purpose in life” (p. 239). self-transcendence can facilitate wellbeing in these situations by enabling people to “move beyond their immediate situation and see it from a broader perspective” (Reed, 2012, p. 16). For example, a person facing a terminal illness may transcend their physical limitations and suffering by engaging in introspection, spirituality, altruism or creativity.

Reed (1991) quotes Frankl (1963), who said that “self-transcendence is the essence of existence” (p. 239) and that “the more one forgets himself … the more human he is” (p. 240). Reed’s Transcendence Theory provides a framework for nursing practice and research to promote wellbeing in people facing vulnerability and existential crises by fostering self-transcendence.

From crisis to transcendence

During an existential crisis, a person may feel vulnerable, confused, and alienated from themselves and others. They may also experience a conflict between their true-self and their false-self, which is the persona they have adopted to fit in with society’s expectations and norms. The false-self can be seen as a form of ego defence that protects the person from facing their existential fears and doubts (Psychology Today, 2019). However, an existential crisis can also be an opportunity for personal growth and self-transcendence (Psychology Today, 2021).

According to Frankl (1963), a pioneer of existential psychology and the founder of logotherapy, self-transcendence is the essence of human existence and the ultimate source of meaning in life. He wrote: “By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person, and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true” (p. 111).

Often, individuals who feel themselves unworthy may often create an ego-based mask to hide their unworthiness from others. This mask is a false representation of their true-self, which they may believe is unacceptable or unlovable. Sometimes, they may effectively become the mask, creating a persona that is a false-self. As Thomas Merton (1961) wrote, “We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which appears to be real…and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists” (p. 295). This false-self can prevent them from developing authentic relationships and expressing their genuine feelings and needs. It can also lead to self-alienation and loss of identity. As Patrick Rothfuss (2007) said, “We understand how dangerous a mask can be. They all become what they pretend to be” (p. 28).

Often, it is the failure of relationships, due to this false self lacking the ability to maintain or establish true loving connections, that causes an individual to have an existential crisis: They get to a point where they realise that the mask they created to protect themselves, is the very thing which prevents any depth to their personal relationship. If the individual can realise this, then they can decide to discard the mask, and to come to terms with, and accept their true-self.

One possible way to remove the mask of self is to practice ego pruning, which is the process of identifying and eliminating the false beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that create and sustain the false self. ego pruning helps to reduce the attachment to the ego and its defences, and to cultivate a more authentic and compassionate sense of self. ego pruning can be done through various methods, such as mindfulness, meditation, self-inquiry, journaling, therapy, or coaching. The goal is to become more aware of the thoughts and emotions that arise from the ego, and to question their validity and usefulness. ego pruning can also involve challenging the ego by exposing oneself to new experiences, perspectives, and feedback that may contradict or expand one’s self-image.

ego pruning can help an individual to remove the mask of self by allowing them to see themselves more clearly and honestly, and to accept themselves as they are, with their strengths and weaknesses, without judgment or denial. This can also help an individual to develop more empathy and understanding for others, as they realise that everyone has their own masks and struggles, and that everyone is worthy of respect and compassion. ego pruning can foster a deeper connection with oneself and others, as well as with a higher purpose or meaning in life.

As Eckhart Tolle (2005) wrote, “The ego is a false self born out of fear and resistance. To free yourself from it, you must become aware of it” (p. 27). By becoming aware of the ego and its manifestations, one can start to detach from it and to embrace one’s true self. As Wayne Dyer (2009) said, “The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body” (p. 12). By changing one’s perception of oneself and others, one can rewrite one’s story and create a new reality. As Brené Brown (2010) stated, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do” (p. 23). By owning one’s story and loving oneself through it, one can remove the mask of self and live authentically and courageously.

Therefore, it’s possible for an existential crisis to be a trigger for profound and positive change, which can put the individual on the path towards self-transcendence. By rejecting the false-self that is based on ego and constructed based on a need for social conformity, and embracing the true-self that is based on authenticity and personal values.

By doing so, one can discover their unique role and contribution in the world, and find meaning and fulfilment in their relationships with others. As Maslow (1971), another influential existential psychologist and the founder of humanistic psychology, stated: “The fully human person transcends himself; he transcends his own nation; he transcends his own culture; he transcends his own immediate time-space context; he becomes a citizen of the world” (p. 269).


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