by Tessa Hall

Of the many reasons clients are referred for psychological therapy, anxiety in some form is by far the most common. While treatments like CBT are very effective in helping clients understand and manage their symptoms at a very functional and practical level, sometimes a reflection on the broader story, the deeper meaning and genesis of their anxiety may also be warranted and much more transformative, such as when the client may be suffering through an existential crisis. This is when skills in the Existential, Depth or Psychoanalytic therapies may come to the fore.

The existential crisis: What to look for:

  • The person is struggling with questions about who they are, their purpose, their life choices, why they chose what they did.
  • They are often expressing concurrent feelings of grief, loss, confusion, anger and fear they have made the wrong choices or are on the wrong path/in the wrong relationship, or a fear they are going crazy or off the deep end.
  • They may feel totally disoriented to their own life or identity and want to go back to ‘how things used to be’.
  • Asking what is the point of life, and fear there is no point to it at all.

The ‘Midlife’ or ‘Quarter life’ crises: What does it look like?

The classic points of quarter and midlife reflect common times when people often assess whether life is what they thought it would turn out to be, and what they had thought they were working towards, because in some form or another reality has not met their expectations, either about their own sense of self or identity, or about life itself, or both, and thus far they have failed to rewrite their narrative themselves in a way they could move on and cope well with.

The more recently coined ‘quarter life crisis’ often coincides with mid or just-post University or other training, when young people are entering the workforce and/or adulthood after being on their preparatory conveyor belt for an extended period. They have invested sometimes decades into an education and worked and waited to finally enter the career or life that all this work was for.  There is a sense of finally looking up and around and not seeing or feeling what they had expected to.

The classic midlife crisis is similar but in a later life stage, it may be brought on after having ticked the socially conditioned boxes of adult success such as acquiring a career, car, house, marriage and kids, and when the realization of continued struggle rather than some expected plateau hits, there may be a sense of ‘is this all there is?’. This may be accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame at feeling that way, and self judgement along the lines of  ‘I should be happy by now’. Others may feel resentment or anger that they did not get what they bargained for, that the unconscious transaction they invested in with life, or a partner, or a family or career feels like a dud deal or failure. They may be deeply unsatisfied and confused as to why, and what to do about it.

What is it like to experience?

In truth, many circumstances can bring forth an existential crisis, including a death, separation, redundancy or even a sense of stagnation, clients may also be referred for treatment of an adjustment disorder or depression, rather than anxiety. Whatever the disrupting force, their life is now viewed through a new lens, and old assumptions have failed in the new outlook in some way, which can feel very disturbing and disorienting to some.

This crisis characteristically comes with a very high level of anxiety, the paradigms, formulas and structures they thought were holding them and providing a sense of certainty are, or have already disintegrated, and there is no clear path left.

Clients in this space have usually already been trying to construct new solid ground to stand on where the old ground fell away, and they often present to therapy hoping to have the therapist provide new ground for them. Anxious people seek certainty, sometimes even if it is negative, and when they try and fail to create new certainty, anxiety can compound and spiral. The existential crisis is a place of old certainties crumbling, questioning everything that was assumed/believed before, and uncertainty flooding in.

One way of seeing the transition that lies before them is that the simpler and more naïve way of seeing or hoping that the world is somehow transactional, fair, certain or concrete has been broken, and the person is now grappling with a much messier view of life, one that feels like more of a scary void that has more freedom, but also much more personal responsibility. Grief and loss and fear abound in this place. It is a realization that no one will be coming to rescue them or make things right, one where they must fully step up for themselves and let go of their prior expectations and any sense of indebtedness or being due something.  It is the stark reality of full adulthood, and of having no authority to protect, make right, or give instructions, besides themselves.

Reframing the existential crisis as a phase of adult maturation growth:

Rather than pathologising the client’s experience of existential breakdown and resultant terror, framing it as an opportunity for deeper growth and learning, and as a normal stage of adult development, maturation and individuation gives some meaning to their experience, as well as some hope, reassurance and empowerment.

James Hollis, a Jungian analyst who specializes in the midlife crisis describes it as a difficult period of transition into becoming more authentically oneself. He frames this period of life as one of individuating as an adult from society’s rules and formulas, so one may discover who they really are, and take full personal responsibility for themselves and for their choices.

In his book ‘The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife’ Hollis writes:

The middle passage is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a right of passage between the extended adolescence of the first adulthood, and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality.

Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningful, those who do not, remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life. The middle passage represents a wonderful though often painful opportunity to revision our sense of self.

Depth psychologists know that the capacity for growth depends on one’s ability to internalize and to take personal responsibility. If we forever see our life as a problem caused by others, a problem to be solved, then no change will occur.”

The role of the therapist:

The therapist’s role aside from helping them reconceptualise the meaning of the crisis itself, can be seen as walking beside the client through the dark woods of this transition, being present to their experience and reflecting back why their experience makes sense to them, and mediating their new relationship with uncertainty and self responsibility as one that can bear freedom, and be accepted and integrated rather than feared. Helping the client make links between their past experiences and their choices if they have regrets, so they can work towards accepting and forgiving their current situation. They are also available as a model of calm and curiosity in the face of uncertainty, and an example of acceptance for whatever arises. This is sometimes the biggest challenge for the therapist too, as we of course also like to feel confident and in a place of ‘knowing’ or familiarity with our clients, and can unconsciously tend to drift back to comfortable ground for our own sakes.

The material that arises in this passage/crisis is often the contents of their deepest fears and rejected parts of self, which if confronted and accepted can lead to a deeper sense of acceptance of themselves and what is, and an increased ability to work with both. In other words, it is a realistic and empowering approach, albeit often very painful for the client. Normalising pain as a part of life and growth is key, as psychological pain has been very pathologised in our culture, thus clients often begin therapy with the assumption that if they are experiencing pain then they have failed or done something wrong in some way, and that the prerogative is to ‘get rid of it’. By adjusting their expectations and understanding of the purpose of painful emotions, they may be more able to approach difficult emotions with compassion and curiosity so that they may learn about themselves, rather than respond with more self blame, shame or a rush to ‘fix themselves’.

What a post (and fruitful) existential crisis can look like:

  • Increased sense of freedom from socially conditioned expectations and norms, the true ability to let go of what others or society thinks in order to truly make choices best for oneself.
  • Increased sense of self-understanding and acceptance, especially of ones flaws, quirks, failures and vulnerabilities.
  • Increased sense of clarity, groundedness and flexibility
  • Less judgement of self and others, a more mature and forgiving outlook on life
  • Increased sense of compassion for self and others
  • Increased confidence in one’s ability to cope, and make their own choices
  • Increased awareness and connection to what they want, their values, and how to create a more fulfilling and meaningful life for themselves
  • Increased sense of humour about oneself, and humanity, the beautiful and the dreadful.

When navigated well, the existential crisis can bear the deepest and most transformative fruit to a client, that of truly growing up, maturing, accepting oneself, and creating a more meaningful life.

Some helpful resources for humans in existential crisis:

The School of Life: ‘The importance of a breakdown’

The School of Life: ‘The sanity of madness’

James Hollis: Finding Meaning in the second half of life: How to finally, really grow up.

James Hollis: The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife.

Pema Chodron: When Things Fall Apart