Existential Psychology

A fundamental piece of my approach is the belief that at our core, we are nothing; there is no fixed, inherent self. At the same time, we are everything in that we each possess the potential to be anything at all. By choosing how we want to be in the world, we create ourselves, although most of us are completely unaware that we choose in this way. These choices are not made in a vacuum; they’re executed against a backdrop of contextual influences such as culture, our physical abilities and limitations, our environment, and messages we receive from those around us, particularly our families of origin. Some of these influences may limit our options, but nothing can remove the ability we possess to craft the sense we make of our lives and experiences.

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Encountering the nothingness at our core causes existential anxiety, a feeling of groundlessness, emptiness, spinning. Typically, we experience this existential anxiety when we become fully aware of any of the four ultimate concerns of life, which are expressed as paradoxes: Freedom/ responsibility, death/striving for life, meaning/meaninglessness, isolation/desire for connection. For most of us, existential anxiety is an intolerable feeling, and we use a variety of resistances to avoid experiencing it. We cling to old patterns, even when they don’t work very well. We distract ourselves with food, hobbies, drugs, and shopping. We tell ourselves we aren’t really feeling what we’re feeling. We learn not to trust ourselves. We past- or future- trip, lost in reverie instead of experiencing what’s happening in the moment. We analyze ourselves, thus taking us out of our experiences and off to some safe, objective place from which to observe the lives we’re living. If we cling too tightly to our resistances, we become stuck there, and this stuckness leads to pathology or suffering. When this happens, our healthy existential anxiety evolves into unhealthy neurotic anxiety.

It’s important to note, however, that resistances aren’t always bad. We need them to survive in a meaningless world. We can’t always be going around awash in existential anxiety. The critical piece is to be aware of the choices we make and how these choices operate in our lives. In this way, we live mindfully. We avoid getting stuck in a pattern or taking it on as a core piece of our identity.

We choose what we notice about ourselves and the world around us, although this noticing is often done without our awareness. For example, when we say, everyone hates me, we may also be experiencing non-hateful interactions, but these interacations escape our notice. It’s like when you decide to buy a certain kind of car, you suddenly start noticing that car everywhere you go, as if all these cars have suddenly appeared out of nowhere. We take in so much more sensory data than our minds are comfortable processing, so we filter our input to coincide with the meaning frameworks we’ve constructed to make sense of our lives.

These acts of choosing also apply to our inner worlds: we choose what we notice internally and we decide how to respond to what we notice. There is no part of our minds that’s completely inaccessible to us, although for most of us, the fringes of our consciousness go unnoticed most of the time. We can access these parts of ourselves, however, if we tune our awareness to notice them. And if we don’t notice them, the body and spirit can have a way of making known the contents of these more remote territories through dreams, physical sensations, illness, and cravings.

We have a need to feel that we understand our world and our place in it. We require meaning, although there is no inherent meaning to the world in which we live. We have to create it for ourselves. For many of us, this means adopting (or rejecting) the meaning frameworks we grew up with. Some of us spend our lives seeking meaning, jumping from one framework to another and never feeling completely satisfied by any of them. And most of us cling tightly to our meaning frameworks, even to the point of denying our own experience of ourselves in order to fit the boxes our frameworks provide. Some of the cruelest things we do to ourselves and each other are done in the name of preserving some meaning framework or another, as if these constructs are sacred. And in a way, they are, because they order our lives and assuage our fears. 

© 2003 by Anne Ihnen