The symptoms of depression and anxiety can have many causes, including genetic, personality, childhood, environmental, and circumstantial factors. Moreover, multiple contributing factors may be present in an individual’s life, increasing the risk of a depressive episode or chronic depression much more than one factor alone.
My interest in the link between philosophy and mental health, however, has drawn me to a more fundamental force that underlies many people’s experience of depression and anxiety: the human condition itself, the awareness of this condition, and the sense of being overwhelmed that follows. When awareness of the human predicament on the personal and collective level induces depressive or anxiety symptoms, this is known as existential depression and existential anxiety, respectively.
The purpose of this article is to describe how existential depression arises, how existential anxiety often accompanies it (as do mood and anxiety disorders, in general), and how one can overcome existential depression and existential anxiety (or at the very least, work with these experiences productively).
The Fundamentals of Existential Depression and Existential Anxiety
In his highly influential book Existential Psychotherapy (1980), the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom wrote that humans have four ultimate concerns in life: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. One’s relationship to such concerns can, in some cases, lead to depressive symptoms. Just as with other cases of depression, these symptoms can include:
- A feeling of helplessness
- A sense of futility
- Apathy and a lack of motivation and energy
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy (otherwise known as anhedonia)
- Irritability and anger
- Persistent sadness
- Low self-esteem or a feeling of worthlessness
- Strong feelings of guilt
- Feeling tired all the time
- Suicidal thoughts
Like in the case of existential depression, existential anxiety centres around some of the ultimate concerns underlined by Yalom – and many of the symptoms involved can be the same as those seen in non-existential anxiety, including:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Having a sense of impending doom or panic
- Out-of-control or excessive worries; being unable to concentrate on anything else except the present worry (in this case, the existential themes underlying the worry)
- Avoidance of people or situations which may provoke existential anxiety
- Tightness in the chest
Let’s explore each of Yalom’s four concerns in life in turn, as well as some other existential themes, and delineate how they can trigger and sustain existential depression and existential anxiety.
Overwhelmed by Mortality
If you hold an atheistic or physicalist worldview, then you would likely subscribe to the belief that physical death is the ultimate end; an immaterial self or consciousness does not survive physical death. When brain death occurs, the world ends for you.
Many atheists and physicalists might be untroubled by such a prospect, but for others, it can cause one to question the purpose of one’s brief, earthly incarnation. Without a clear endpoint or arrival in mind that follows from all one’s striving, the finality of death can make all such striving and effort seem futile. This – along with the sadness that accompanies the inevitability of death and the shortness of existence – can feed into existential depression.
Death is a source of existential anxiety, too. Death anxiety (or thanatophobia, from the ancient Greek personification of death, Thanatos) is a common type of anxiety that features feelings of dread or apprehension when one thinks about the process of dying or ceasing to be. In fact, Ernst Becker, in The Denial of Death (1973), posits that death anxiety is universal and that in order to defend ourselves against this core anxiety, we have tried to deny death through the creation of ‘immortality projects’: grand or heroic acts that will preserve a symbolic self, a personal legacy that will outlive our physical existence. Humans have also attempted to survive physical death through procreation and passing on one’s genes, as well as through religious beliefs in an afterlife or reincarnation.
Becker, however, notes that immortality projects are not the only way people manage death anxiety; others will attempt to do so through escapist drinking and substance use, while others will, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it, “tranquilize themselves with the trivial”. Such sedating, numbing behaviour encompasses many forms of distracting activity.
The Norwegian existentialist Peter Wessel Zapffe believed human consciousness was an evolutionary misstep – nature has left us with an overly evolved intellect that gives us the knowledge of our mortality, knowledge which we do not need to have and which serves as a great source of mental anguish. In his essay The Last Messiah, Zapffe – like Kierkegaard – proposed that humans have developed the strategy of distraction to repress disturbing thoughts, such as those relating to impending death. In Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom quotes the 20th century psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg, who had this to say about death anxiety:
If this fear were constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort.
Pondering the mortality of oneself, loved ones, and all beings can be highly dispiriting, sowing the seeds of existential depression, yet it can also – especially in the case of personal mortality – leave one feeling panicked. Such panic may hinge on the irremediable loss of time, the thought of being in pain while dying, or the eventual snuffing out of one’s consciousness.
Overwhelmed by Freedom
Innate freedom is another aspect of the human condition that can factor into existential depression and existential anxiety. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive since the concept of freedom usually has positive connotations, such as in the case of political freedom, which include – according to the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin – positive liberty (the freedom to control oneself) and negative liberty (the freedom from outside interference).
Yet for the existentialists, human freedom on the fundamental level, to be presented with the power to make any number of choices at all, can be burdensome, a problem to be solved. As the French existentialist Jean Paul-Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness (1943): “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” This ultimate, unavoidable freedom and responsibility can stir up strong feelings of anguish, whether one is generally pondering such freedom or when specifically faced with decisions, with thoughts and impulses about acting a certain way.
In his work The Concept of Anxiety (1844), Kierkegaard famously defined anxiety as the “dizziness of freedom”. To exemplify this, he asks us to imagine a man standing at the edge of a precipice or very tall building. When this man peers over the edge, he experiences a fear of falling, which is expected, as the fall would result in certain death; but alongside such a fear is another sort of terror, the terrifying thought that he could intentionally throw himself over the edge. Such a person has total freedom to make the decision.
There may be competing and powerful impulses that would (and always do) derail such a decision, such as the preservation of life, but the man cannot escape the realisation that he is endowed with the option of meeting his demise and all he has to do is make a split-second decision to hurl himself over the edge. The will-to-live might be strong, but it is not strong enough, it seems, to erode the anxiety and dread that accompanies the realisation that one is free to do or not do something, including the most bone-chilling possibilities. Of course, such disturbing possibilities exist in degrees and can affect others too; to echo Sartre’s point, we have responsibility for every decision, action, inaction, and way of being we choose – every nasty and judgemental remark we want to make, every odious and harmful action we fantasise about in our fevered imaginations can be actualised by ourselves, and for Sartre at least, the responsibility lies squarely with us. Yalom called responsibility a “deeply frightening insight” and in line with Kierkegaard’s conception of anxiety, he states:
To experience existence in this manner is a dizzying sensation. Nothing is as it seemed. The very ground beneath one seems to open up. Indeed, groundlessness is a commonly used term for a subjective experience of responsibility awareness. Many existential philosophers have described the anxiety of groundlessness as ″ur-anxiety″— the most fundamental anxiety, an anxiety that cuts deeper even than the anxiety associated with death.
Here we can see how the uniqueness of the human condition – the piercing awareness of our freedom to act or not and be or not be a certain way – is conducive to existential anxiety. The German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote: “Nobody before Kierkegaard had seen so clearly that the freedom to make a fateful decision that may change our character and future breeds anxiety.” And just as Becker and other thinkers have suggested ways in which we try to evade death anxiety, so too does Yalom propose techniques that we commonly adopt to protect ourselves from the full awareness of our freedom and responsibility. Such techniques include compulsive behaviour (existing under the influence of an irresistible ego, such as in cases of addiction) displacing responsibility onto others (e.g. placing the locus of control on a partner, parents, an institution, or a deity), denying one’s responsibility (e.g. saying “it wasn’t me” or “I can’t help it”), and the employment of defensive mechanisms (e.g. adopting a fatalistic worldview).
Awareness of one’s freedom can additionally be a source of existential depression; our freedom is not only dizzying in its implications, but it can also depress us – emotionally, physically, and spiritually – when we could act in a fruitful and self-actualising way but consistently choose not to. This conflict between actualising what we fully are and could be (if we utilised our freedom accordingly) and leaving the self unexpressed is a driver of depression in many theorists eyes.
According to the learned helplessness theory of depression, developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman, people experience depression because of a phenomenon known as learned helplessness – this is when both humans and non-human animals are conditioned to expect pain and suffering without a way to escape it and then, after sufficient conditioning, will stop trying to avoid the pain, even if there is, in reality, a way to avoid it. When you believe that you have no control over what happens to you, you think, feel, and act in a helpless way. And moreover, this sense of helplessness is not in-built. You learn it through exposure to a certain amount of situations that are either out of control or you perceive are out of your control, with the result being that helplessness becomes entrenched in your view of your self and the world at large.
Seligman and fellow psychologist Steven Maier observed the phenomenon of learned helplessness in (what we would now regard as cruel) experiments on dogs, whereby dogs were initially given electric shocks they could not escape from but in later experiments, when they could escape the shocks, would not even attempt to do so. Seligman and other psychologists also drew connections between learned helplessness and depression, noting that two types of helplessness can contribute to the condition: universal helplessness, which is when an individual believes no one can do anything about the unpleasant situation they’re in, and personal helplessness, which is when an individual believes other people could find a solution the predicament or avoid the pain but that he is personally incapable of doing so. It is easy to see how universal helplessness could fill one with despair (a common symptom of depression) and how personal helplessness can lead to low self-esteem and worthlessness (another key aspect of depression).
We can also differentiate learned helplessness in terms of global vs. specific and chronic vs. transient. When you suffer from global helplessness, many areas of your life are negatively impacted (and you are more likely to experience severe depression), whereas specific helplessness affects just the relevant area (e.g. romantic relationships). Chronic helplessness, as the name suggests, takes place over a long period of time and, like global helplessness, is more likely to result in depressive symptoms, whereas transient helplessness is short-lived, non-recurrent, and less disruptive to one’s life.
Elaborating on learned helplessness is important in the context of existential depression because it brings into focus how one’s capacity for freedom and, in turn, human fulfilment, can become frustrated. The existential nature of depression, in this case, centres on the conflict between the deep-seated desire and ability to choose not to feel helpless and the difficult-to-leave rut of helplessness that one has been conditioned into.
So many of us sacrifice our authenticity and ignore the call of self-actualisation every day, on more than one occasion, and in innumerable ways. This regular mode of being can play into existential depression due to the strong feelings of guilt that it engenders. Yalom terms this existential guilt, a guilt where “one is guilty not only through transgressions against another or against some moral or social code, but one may be guilty of transgression against oneself.” Yalom believes each person feels they have made such a transgression when he or she “fails to live as one fully can”, which involves ignoring the “innate set of capacities and potentials”. We all have “primordial knowledge” of the latent capacities in us, an intuitive and clear sense of what we could do and who we could be, but too often, we think, talk, and behave in ways that belie such knowledge. Such a conflict underpins existential guilt. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow similarly stated in Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971):
It is certainly true that many of us evade our constitutionally suggested vocations (call, destiny, task in life, mission). So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate.
Sartre called it ‘bad faith’ when we disown our freedom of choice – our inherent freedom to choose one way over another – because of external social forces and out of fear of the imagined consequences that would follow if we choose our own value systems. It is a form of self-deception in which we convince ourselves we aren’t free when in fact we are – and this leads to anguish, the sort of anguish characteristic of existential depression. But for Sartre, when we make any choice, including ones that are the default, expected, and pressured, this is still an ultimately free choice; it’s furthermore us choosing to pretend we have no choice. As much as we may deceive ourselves about our freedom, existential angst and guilt will still haunt every inauthentic choice we make, whether we like it or not. The weightiness of depression is often the result of the façades and incongruent social roles and values we adopt. When such inauthenticity is the norm, the associated existential depression may persist as a somewhat vague, unidentifiable feeling of unease and dissatisfaction, or it may vividly pierce our awareness, leading to a crisis of identity.
Overwhelmed by Isolation
The third ultimate concern of life that Yalom identifies is isolation, of which there are three types: interpersonal isolation (when you are isolated from other individuals), intrapersonal isolation (in which aspects of yourself are separated from each other, rather than integrated), and existential isolation (which Yalom refers to as the “unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being”). While interpersonal isolation and intrapersonal isolation have ostensible solutions (connecting with others and integrating partitioned parts of oneself, respectively), existential isolation seems immutable.
As Yalom himself states, this gulf between oneself and others is unbridgeable – no matter the degree of empathic connection you have with another, there is no way to close the chasm between you – as a being, right here – and another being, over there. When I’m with another person, as much as I try to understand the internal experience of that person, I can never truly know their thoughts or feelings. I am forever shut off from other beings’ point of view and subjectivity. As the German psychotherapist Hellmuth Kaiser put it: “Becoming an individual entails a complete, a fundamental, an eternal and insurmountable isolation.” Since becoming an individual entails existential isolation, which can feel terribly claustrophobic, many people will avoid becoming individuals for this reason, instead preferring to conform to the masses. But this involves a monumental sacrifice, according to Erich Fromm, who in Escape from Freedom (1941) writes:
…he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness…The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious anymore. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self.
On the other hand, you may be able to avoid the threat of existential isolation by positing that consciousness is not localised. Instead, consciousness might be a kind of field in which there are different manifestations, such as separate beings, but fundamentally, we are all connected based on this field of consciousness, which is at the base level of reality, making us all one. However, you may only be able to avoid the stark implications of existential isolation by assuming this metaphysical belief about consciousness and the fundamental nature of reality. If you conversely subscribe to physicalism or the view that consciousness is local (confined to specific points in space and time, such as brains existing in the present) rather than non-local (with consciousness existing everywhere and at all times), then existential isolation seems unavoidable.
In any case, it’s one thing to believe in non-local consciousness and fundamental unity and another thing to experience it. Yet on this point, we do find that a common feature of the mystical experience is the feeling of ‘oneness’ and ‘unity’ with other beings or with the universe in its totality. And this experience can feel as real as the experience of existential isolation and perhaps even more real, with connection rather than separation appearing to be fundamental. Nevertheless, it is not clear that this experience of unity can be maintained after the mystical experience, for the ego always returns. This is not something to feel despondent about, necessarily, as we do need the ego and separateness in order to function properly in the world.
Thus, while it may be possible to have an experience that bridges the so-called ‘unbridgeable chasm’ that Yalom underscores, but do we know if this experience is veridical? In the mystical experience, can I truly be one with another being, multiple beings, or all beings, or is this only so in imagination (say, as a result of the brain becoming hyperconnected)? And if the experience is veridical, what is the mechanism that allows the consciousness trapped in my brain connects with the consciousness of actual beings in the world? To even begin to answer these questions, you might have to introduce some quite radical views of consciousness; but then again, the nature of consciousness is still very much shrouded in mystery, so it remains to be seen whether existential isolation is, indeed, fundamental as Yalom and Fromm claim it is, or whether we may be able to genuinely bridge the gap between us that we experience in ordinary consciousness, even at least temporarily.
Regardless of which metaphysical view of consciousness turns out to be true, existential isolation is a feeling we can all experience and when we experience it, it can be felt as overwhelming and inescapable. If in everyday interactions you realise there is simply no way for another individual to truly and fully understand you, this can leave you feeling trapped in your own head. The most empathetic person can be fully attentive towards your experiences and you may feel relief and connection on this relationship, but if you have a need for complete understanding, which can’t be met, then existential isolation may arise. Isolation tends to characterise depression, both in terms of contributing towards the symptoms and being a symptom itself (in the case of the former, feeling cut off from others can encourage extreme sadness, pointlessness, and hopelessness, and in the case of the latter, the experience of depression itself can be incredibly isolating since it is an experience even further removed from what people can relate to).
When existential isolation characterises depression, the depression can be existential in nature. One becomes weighed down by the isolation that results from having human needs that cannot be fulfilled. This creates an intense emotional pain and emptiness that is typical of existential depression. Those who are acutely aware of the inherent ‘unbridgeable gap’ between themselves and others may lose motivation and energy and want to withdraw from others, given the feelings of existential isolation that follow. These depressive symptoms, then, almost become like a coping strategy, helping an individual to avoid painful feelings, but of course, this retreat into oneself and away from others can just end up exacerbating the isolation, as well as the other depressive symptoms.
Existential isolation may contribute towards existential anxiety if the thoughts are forward-looking in an anxiety-provoking kind of way; for instance, after experiencing existential isolation, you may be filled with dread, fear, and worry about further occurrences of this isolation and the effects it will have on you.
Overwhelmed by Meaninglessness
The previous ultimate concerns just described often lead to the fourth: the sense of meaninglessness. This especially applies in the case of mortality and isolation. If all your striving in life is to come to an abrupt and inconclusive end, then what meaning was there to anything you did? We experience so many difficulties in life just to die at the end of it all. Where’s the purpose in that? If you decide for yourself that meaning in life comes from connection, then you may also feel your existence was meaningless since you were never able to find the kind of connection you were craving.
Many of us would like to believe that our life – or the life of humanity, as a whole, at least – has some ultimate meaning or purpose. Certain belief structures, especially of a religious nature, can provide this kind of meaning. If you believe humanity was created with a purpose by a purposeful being and physical existence is merely prologue to a grander spiritual existence in another realm, then there is a meaningful narrative to your life, and a state of unending peace and restfulness to look forward to. Actions in the physical plane translate into consequences in the afterlife – or, in the case of Hinduism, consequences in one’s reincarnation on Earth – and this means there is a point to one’s constant striving and struggle. This undoubtedly provides a source of motivation in life for many people.
Without this framework, however, you become open to the possibility that there is no ultimate purpose to your individual life or to humanity as a whole. Existence becomes something contingent, insignificant, and valueless, from the point of view of the universe, anyway. Whether you or the species exists or doesn’t exist makes no difference to any plan, because there is no plan. What remains, at least, is the wild ride of one’s relatively short life, which is still highly prized – but the problem here is that the inevitability of death and isolation can still make all actions and interactions appear meaninglessness.
When this sense of meaninglessness becomes overwhelming and intrusive, existential depression can often be the result. If nothing one does contains meaning – or ultimately serves meaning – in the way one wants it to, then it can feel like there is no reason to get out of bed in the morning, to work, to be around others, to engage in anything. It’s hard to say how much of the pervasive depression we see in society is existential in nature, but according to the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, the reason depression and addiction are so widespread and on the rise is due to an “existential vacuum”, which stands for this feeling that one’s life and work is meaninglessness. Frankl maintained that this existential vacuum was a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century. But it remains with us too in the 21st century. Indeed, a great many people experience the various symptoms of depression – the lack of motivation, interest, and energy, the hopelessness, the sadness, the suicidal ideation – due to this concern with meaninglessness.
The psychologist Carl Jung stated: “Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.” Without meaning, our suffering can become unendurable, and so the danger of existential depression lies in the fact that a lack of meaning can result in the burden of such depression, but because one has no sense of meaning, and may feel it even more acutely in depression, the depression becomes truly unbearable. The depression itself becomes the proof of meaninglessness that the sufferer can hold up to herself and the world: all this suffering, and to what end? Without meaning to keep oneself anchored in the miserable throes of depression, one understandably looks for whatever pain relief is available, whether that’s in the form of an addiction or escape – and unfortunately, this sometimes entails the desire and plan to cut one’s life short.
Meaninglessness can also be tied up with existential anxiety. Paul Tillich, a German-American Christian existential philosopher, talked about the “anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness” in his book The Courage to Be (1952). He describes this kind of anxiety as “the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings.” Tillich thought the present age as an “age of anxiety” (he was writing then in the 50s, but this diagnosis equally applies now). The anxiety is also existential because it relates to existence. It is not an abnormal state of mind. It is not the type of the anxiety you might see in someone with neurotic tendencies.
Tillich’s solution to this existential anxiety was what he called “absolute faith” in “the God above God”. He defines absolute faith as “a faith which has been deprived by doubt of any concrete content, which nevertheless is faith.” It is acceptance when In essence, it involves believing in something despite the doubt you have about it. Tillich also defines absolute faith as “the accepting of the acceptance without somebody or something that accepts”. It is being on the brink of despair – when we worry about the loss of an ultimate concern or goal – and we decide it is better to be than not to be. Tillich emphasises that this is not a rational act. But he argued absolute faith results in a certain degree of meaningfulness and believed this was enough to validate it. Kierkegaard was a major influence on Tillich. The Danish philosopher similarly proposed – in Fear and Trembling (1843) – that there is no reason in religious faith. To believe in God, we must make a ‘leap of faith’. In doing so, we embrace the absurd, accepting something to be true even when an alternative belief or doubt is easier and makes more sense.
The God above God that one has absolute faith in is something that transcends the theistic conception of God, which Tillich asserted was too human, constructed, and symbolised. For him, classical theistic notions of God are far too limiting. Tillich also refers to the God above God that gives us the courage to be as the “Ground of Being”; it is the ultimate mystery of existence. But when we find the courage to be, this God becomes as real as anything else in our lives. The Ground of Being is beyond essence and existence, and infinite in nature. It is the source of – and what grounds – all being. The God above God is being-itself. It is not a being like finite beings are.
But again, not everyone feels convinced about the existence of God or a transcendent reality, let alone the idea of God that Tillich has in mind. Adopting a position of absolute faith – or any sort of faith – is unlikely to sit well with rationalists, sceptics, and the irreligious. And if one rejects the sort of religious perspective that provides ultimate meaning, then one may be overcome by the fear and worry of there being no ultimate meaning at all. This is known as existential anxiety. It involves the symptoms of anxiety – such as overwhelming and uncontrollable worry – following from concerns about the lack of meaning in the world and in one’s life.
Growing Through an Existential Crisis
While the four ultimate concerns just outlined can be taken as the basic facts of human existence, this does not mean that existential depression and existential anxiety are inevitable consequences. It is certainly possible (and necessary) to grow through an existential crisis, to confront these ultimate concerns with a certain orientation, in order to not only bear their burden but also to achieve psychological maturity and health.
There are both general and specific approaches to dealing with these ultimate concerns. One of the most important general approaches is acceptance. Part of what makes death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness so overwhelming is a lack of acceptance towards them. When you instead fear, reject, avoid, deny, or cover up these aspects of life, they fester, they grow ugly, they become uncontained. Accepting these ultimate concerns means you recognise your human condition without protest or an attempt to change it to something more palatable. This attitude is essential for releasing yourself from the vice grip of existential depression and existential anxiety. Acceptance of these ultimate concerns doesn’t mean they no longer have the power to cause suffering, but it does put you in a more resilient position to handle that suffering and to suffer no more than you need to.
There are also specific ways to deal with each ultimate concern. In Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom recommends overcoming death anxiety through an exercise called ‘disidentification’. In this exercise, you first think of the question “Who am I?” and write down every answer you can come up with; then, take one answer at a time and meditate on giving up this aspect of yourself; repeat this process until you have gone through all your answers; at the end of this exercise you will have disidentified yourself from all aspects of your personal identity. Many people find this helpful in feeling at ease with the idea of mortality. Getting closer to the idea of death in this way also allows us to live more fully. As Yalom writes:
A denial of death at any level is a denial of one’s basic nature and begets an increasingly pervasive restriction of awareness and experience. The integration of the idea of death saves us; rather than sentence us to existences of terror or bleak pessimism, it acts as a catalyst to plunge us into more authentic life modes, and it enhances our pleasure in the living of life.
There is a clear (although not necessarily easy) way to resolve the existential anxiety and existential depression that can follow from one’s freedom. Anxiety comes from the choices you could make, whereas depression grows from the uncomfortable choices you did or didn’t make. Accepting your innate freedom and your inauthentic actions and inactions is often a useful component of growing through an existential crisis, but so is making sure you use your freedom in a way that serves personal meaning and authenticity. When you strive to act in a way that is true to yourself, you can shake off the psychological burdens of both anxiety (the feeling of being overwhelmed by all possible choices) and guilt (the feeling that comes when you act according to outside influences, pressures, and expectations). Aligning your actions and inactions with your personal values is a crucial part of growing through an existential crisis. Just as inauthenticity leads to troubling, negative emotions, authenticity can foster rejuvenating, positive emotions, such as self-confidence, ease, and peacefulness.
When it comes to isolation, it seems there is no way to avoid existential isolation; it can only be accepted. However, much progress can be made in overcoming both interpersonal and intrapersonal isolation. In the case of interpersonal relationships, for example, Yalom underscores that the best relationships are based on need-free love, which involves loving someone for their own sake and wanting the best for them, without demanding that they meet your needs. This contrasts with deficiency-love: a selfish kind of love where we only love another person because we think they will be useful to us. Need-free love is similar to the I-Thou relationship expounded by Martin Buber – this is a relationship characterised by mutuality and reciprocity. Buber also describes an I-It relationship, which is like deficiency-love; it’s when you approach another being as an object to be manipulated in your favour. When we can meet others and be met by them in a genuine, open, and loving way, without any selfish agendas, we can have our essential needs for connection met. True, the unbridgeable gap of existential isolation is still there, but this does not mean we have to be utterly alone and anxious and depressed as a result.
In Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom makes an important distinction between ‘cosmic’ and ‘terrestrial’ meaning. Cosmic meaning would refer to the kind of ultimate meaning discussed earlier, whereas terrestrial meaning includes personal meaning, the kind that we obtain through our actions and interactions in the world. Many existentialists maintain that cosmic or ultimate meaning is unattainable. On the cosmic level, we are meaningless. However, this does not mean our lives have to be meaningless on the terrestrial level. To return momentarily to the theme of relationships, we can all experience the kind of meaning that comes from need-free love or I-Thou relationships. These are encounters that have a deep, intimate, and transcendent quality to them. Yet there are many possible sources of meaning. One such source is in our confrontation with inevitable suffering. In cases of situations that one has genuinely no control over, Yalom states:
When […] adversity is formidable, still one is responsible for the attitude one adopts toward the adversity—whether to live a life of bitter regret or to find a way to transcend the handicap and to fashion a meaningful life despite it.
When Yalom treated clients struggling with “pure meaninglessness”, he believed the desire to engage in life is “always there within the patient”, which includes the wish to engage in fulfilling relationships, creative endeavours, dedication to a cause, meaningful work, and self-transcendent experiences. Yalom’s method for dealing with such patients was to help him or her remove obstacles that thwart such engagement. Self-actualisation, touched upon in the discussion on freedom, is another way in which to construct one’s own meaning. Without external direction, the direction one can choose for oneself is the project of becoming as fully as possible the person one could be. This is the realisation of latent and positive potentialities within oneself. Self-actualisation is not a process that may ever truly end. According to Maslow, only a small number of people, unfortunately, reach a point of “full humanness”. Nevertheless, this rare state does not detract from the meaning to be found in the process and results of self-actualisation.
These are just some brief examples of how you might grow through an existential crisis. The point is that while existential depression and existential anxiety can feel overwhelming at times and like a permanent problem looming over you, they are still normal, human experiences that contain the possibility for growth. You can extricate yourself from an existential crisis through a process of courageous acceptance, as well as specific attitudes relating to the ultimate concerns of life. This will take you out of the mire, out of your stuckness and feeling of being trapped, and into a world in which death, freedom, isolation, and meaningless are as real as ever but manageable. Growing through existential crisis means learning how to bear the unbearable, and coming out the other side with a renewed, self-constructed sense of direction.