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How to Help Your Client Deal with an Existential Crisis

Five steps to bring meaning back into life

Treating happiness like a product or a right when in fact it's a natural result of certain attitudes and actions means the more we seek it, the less we find it.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

– William Blake

“I don’t know… there’s something missing in my life.”

Rebecca was self-reflective.

“I mean, I know, of course, I’m privileged. I don’t have to worry about food, water, and shelter. Just being able to worry about stuff like what it’s all for is a luxury.”

I nodded, perhaps with a touch too much emphasis, as she continued.

“But I guess that’s what we humans do, isn’t it? We meet basic needs so we’re freed up to seek bigger meaning in our lives.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree with her. Like many clients, Rebecca had reached a point in her life where, while she didn’t seem to have any major problems, she was left with a sense of What’s it all for?

Rebecca wasn’t depressed as such. She’d fulfilled many of the expectations of her life, had children, achieved in her career, established reasonable financial security, and married a “nice man”. And yet…

Rebecca felt like she was lacking direction.

Rebecca’s children had grown up and moved away (one had emigrated), and although she had a good relationship with her husband, he worked a lot. She had also become somewhat disconnected from her friends. But what seemed to irk her most was the feeling her life held little meaning any more.

“So much of what I’ve strived for has come to pass, and I really am grateful… but none of what I’ve achieved or attained seems to give me lasting happiness,” she told me glumly.

She’d hit upon something important here.

How the pursuit of happiness drives it away

Chasing happiness doesn’t make us happy. On the contrary, research shows that people who pursue happiness for its own sake often feel time pressured, which makes them feel unhappy.1

Happiness, it seems, is a byproduct of having meaning and purpose rather than a suitable end in itself. Treating happiness like a product or a right when in fact it’s a natural result of certain attitudes and actions means the more we seek it, the less we find it.

Simply satisfying our appetite doesn’t seem to help much either. Seeking thrills may seem to fulfil us for a while, but the buzz of the latest acquisition becomes stale, the thrill of a new relationship loses its shine, and the dopamine hit we get from our latest ‘Like’ on social media is only momentary. There has to be something more or we may end up simply sleepwalking through our lives.

All living matter relates, in some way, to other matter.2 We relate to our environment and it relates to us. It’s connections, interactions, and intimacy with other people that tend to bring life to our lives.

Research has found that our social connections make us altruistic, and helping others tends to feel meaningful.3,4 When we focus off the self, we are freed to engage in patterns of experience that are bigger than we are. It’s then that we find meaning, that existence feels purposeful. And that’s no small thing.

When we focus off the self, we are freed to engage in patterns of experience that are bigger than we are. It's then that we find meaning, that existence feels purposeful.Click To Tweet

We need meaning

We are hardwired to seek meaning. In fact, people who express a strong sense of purpose even appear to live longer, healthier, and more satisfying lives.5

But there is little meaning in simply having what you want all the time.

In some ways, we’ve never had it so good. We have freedoms our forebears couldn’t have conjured even in their wildest imaginings. But so often it’s times of struggle and challenge, of uncertainty and misadventure, that bring out a sense of connection to something new within us and the world. A sense of aliveness.

Of course, our search for meaning can be hijacked by malevolent influences, as can any of our emotional needs.

Many Nazi youth members in the 1930s, and indeed many cultists in other times and places, would have felt exquisitely suffused with meaning and purpose. Any existential angst that may have existed before signing up to the organisation would have been ecstatically extinguished for a while as they aligned with what must have felt like some kind of grand design.

But as the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi said, “Fool’s gold exists only because there is real gold.” The greatest meaning comes from aligning with causes that help humanity, not harm it.

So how was I to help Rebecca? Here are a few strategies I used, which you may find useful with the so-called ‘worried well’: those dealing with existential crisis.

Step one: Remind your client that meaning is a byproduct

Rebecca and I discussed the nature of meaning and happiness. I suggested, as I have above, that meaning and wellbeing are hard to pursue directly but, paradoxically, we are more likely to feel meaning when we focus away from our own needs.

Rebecca thought about this and said she sort of knew that, but it was good to see more clearly that life is about what you give as much as what you take.

But of course, this wasn’t enough. I needed to see life through Rebecca’s eyes.

Step two: What are your client’s values?

Family was important to Rebecca, as was helping others and “making the world a better place.” She valued hard work and achievement, and I suggested she could work hard and the achievement would take care of itself.

Ask your clients about what’s important to them. What they care about. Values matter to people, especially when they are reminded of them. And affirmations can be a great way to hammer those values home. There’s an important caveat to bear in mind here, which is that positive affirmations can actually make people feel worse if they have low self-esteem.6 But affirmations have been found to be useful for impulse control.7

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People about to eat a cream cake or smoke a cigarette might affirm to themselves, “I’m the kind of person who values health and discipline!” Repeating a value-connected affirmation like this in times of temptation can give you greater distance from your impulses, it seems.

Of course, the aspects of life your client values most will partly depend on what they are like, what kind of person they are. You can ask your client about what matters most to them, what they feel they might be here for, and what they can give to the world.

And, as a further clue as to how to help them, you can also ask what has mattered most.

Step three: When has your client felt a sense of meaning?

Often when clients tell you life has lost its meaning, they use just these words: that it’s lost its meaning. So what was life like before meaning got lost?

Rebecca had a lot to say about this. She focused particularly on a time in her life when she’d been working really hard to raise funds and find a venue to put on a play she’d written with her friends.

“It was a play I was really passionate about. People had said it spoke to them, so we wanted it to get to a wider audience. We struggled and worked together, and some nights we barely slept – but we did it!” She smiled as she said this. “Some people who saw it said it changed their lives!”

I asked Rebecca to close her eyes and take herself back to those times. Hypnotically we revoked this period of her life, and slowly a smile illuminated her face.

I then asked her to “take those feelings” into the future, and perhaps her unconscious mind would show her what she needed to do to find her meaning again.

Later she reported that all kinds of mysterious ideas had presented themselves to her, although she didn’t tell me what they were at the time.

It was clear that this past period of work, of bringing something into being and fruition, hadn’t been just about her. It had been the collective sense of effort and challenge that had brought extra juice to those times.

“My God!” she said. “That’s exactly what I’ve been missing!”

Which brings us to something quite profound.

Step four: Where has our sense of oneness and awe gone?

In his incredible book The Master and His Emissary, Dr Iain McGilchrist suggests a new way to look at how the brain’s hemispheres differ.8 He explains that the left and right don’t do different things, as pop psychology might have you believe. Rather, they do the same things in really different ways. They have different priorities and agendas.

The left hemisphere grasps and takes, and sees the world as a series of tools to be manipulated and utilized. It is literal, and any metaphors it uses tend to be well-worn clichés. It is prone to anger, linearity, and intolerance. It is procedural and bureaucratic, never properly appreciating the bigger context.

The left hemisphere, to paraphrase McGilchrist, knows the how but has forgotten the why. It prefers narrow rules and objectives, straight lines, and mechanical objects.

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is more interested in connection and can see multiple perspectives, intuitions, and implications. It feels meaning and can appreciate and understand paradox and apparent contradictions. The left hemisphere may be clever, but the right is wise.

McGilchrist suggests we are increasingly living in a left-hemispheric world, where many people feel disconnected from nature and mired in red tape, industrial landscapes, and digital versions of social connection, which afford us only a fraction of the meaning of genuine connection. Ah, the angst of modern life!

But our sense of meaning comes from life as perceived by the right hemisphere, which is perhaps harder to articulate than the more concrete left-hemispheric version of life.

The feeling of awe is universal

Regularly feeling a sense of awe at the majesty, the enormity, of life makes people happier and even more altruistic.9 This finding, based on a study of 75,000 people, was found to hold true across all age groups. Another study found that awe of nature could even help traumatized war veterans to heal.10

So how can we get a sense of awe?

We can feel more awe by really listening to music (as opposed to just having it on in the background), being in nature, or simply reflecting on how incredible reality is. Learning can give us awe, too. But in fact, anything can. I refer you back to Blake’s quote from the beginning of this piece.

I helped Rebecca rediscover a sense of awe partly by evoking the feeling through memory, but also by encouraging activities that were likely to provide it.

Related to awe, and perhaps a part of it, is the feeling of connectedness. Research from the University of Mannheim suggests that people who believe in ‘oneness’ – “the notion of being at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other persons, or even activities” – are more satisfied with life than those who don’t.11 This result seems to hold good over time and across people of all ages and backgrounds.

Almost 75,000 participants were asked to respond to statements relating to a sense of oneness, including aspects such as empathy, social connectivity, and a feeling of unity with nature. These statements included, for example, “I believe that everything in the world is based on a common principle” and “Everything in the world is interdependent and influenced by each other.”

When I spoke to Rebecca about her beliefs around the oneness of things she said that she could sometimes sense that, and wanted to reflect on those feelings more often.

But there was something else I wanted to know.

Step five: What were you expecting?

We all have certain expectations as to what life should be like, and these expectations are shaped by our relationships with others and the culture we live in. So many people have a kind of roadmap in their heads of where they feel they should be at any given point in their lives. “At 30 I thought I’d be settled down. At 40 I thought I’d be financially secure and have kids” and so on.

If your client wonders what the point is or where their life is going, ask them what they were expecting. Does their existential crisis come from a sense of disappointment dashed, or some sense of failure – either on life’s part, for not providing them with what they thought they were supposed to have, or on their own part, for not creating the kind of life they assumed they should and would have.

But while failing to meet expectations can cause us angst, meeting those expectations is not without its own struggles.

“I’ll get a good job that pays really well.” What then?

“I’ll meet the perfect partner, get married and have kids.” What then?

“I’ll get my business off the ground and make a success of it.” What then?

And so on. As each fulfilled expectation fails to create the desired sense of meaning, life becomes an endless cycle of continually pursuing the next goal, hoping for a result that never seems to eventuate.

Meaning comes from connection and from purpose, which in turn often comes from challenge and learning. People sometimes become disappointed when they achieve goals because they had subconsciously assumed that meeting that goal would fulfil them forever. But as we’ve seen, this is simply not how happiness works.

So we can help clients both form the right kind of goals and also be more realistic about how to make their lives be and feel meaningful.

Rebecca began to take on new challenges again. She connected up with old friends and created new goals for herself and her community.

We are meaning-seeking creatures

Is your client living as a square peg in a round hole? Are they surrounded by people who hold vacuous and narrow aspirations? Are they too self-absorbed? Meaning comes from connection and a sense of us rather than simply me.

Perhaps in a sense the whole Western world is undergoing an existential crisis. What do we stand for? If we don’t strive for a universal truth, be it ‘God’ or some wider reality than our own lives, then why are we here?

Are we here just to seek sensation and thrills? A kind of self-deceptive hedonism that may seem to attach to the sentimentality or buzzy excitement of ‘spiritual’ systems, but is ultimately just about the next fix? So that our potential self-realisation simply rattles around like a house fly in a hall of mirrors?

Ultimately we can help our clients embrace their existential anxiety as necessary ‘growing pains’ that may simply signal their developing potential. Life isn’t and cannot be without risk.

As the poet Saddi of Shiraz wrote:

“Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare. But if you seek safety, it is on the shore.”

Engage your client’s whole brain

To step out of their current reality and see the wider picture requires a change in consciousness. We recommend hypnosis. Read more about our online hypnotherapy course here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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