We Don't Have to Live in Existential Crises
Within the past few months, I have been taking a serious deep dive into "what I want".
The question itself is annoyingly broad and if the reader is anything like me, it's a question that comes up quite often (even after you believe you've already answered it). However, I think it's something we have to ask ourselves to make sure we keep pursuing the life that we want, but more importantly, the life that we need.
Mid-Life and Quarter-Life Crises
We can describe a mid-life crisis as a transition of identity and self-confidence that occurs in middle-aged individuals, typically between the age of 40 and 60 years old.
However, in recent years we've been hearing more about the Quarter-Life crisis. Similar to its middle-aged predecessor, the Quarter-Life Crisis deals with anxiety over the direction and quality of one's life. But this directly impacts individuals usually between their early 20's up to their mid 30's. While the Mid-Life Crisis grapples with the ideas of "I'm [this age] and I haven't accomplished enough, life is so short and I haven't done everything that I want to do yet, I haven't made anything of myself". The Quarter-Life Crisis usually takes place after college or moving away from the family home, in which an individual has officially entered "the real world". Despite life seemingly "just getting started" there's still the idea of needing to cultivate life-long relationships and accomplish great things in a relatively short period. Both crises suggest to the individual that you either are running out of time or that you've already "missed your chance".
What a lot of us have to understand is that these "crises" are based on a societal lie: "If I haven't lived a life of great accomplishments or wild experiences up to this point, then I have already failed". This societal lie can drive people into these crises to make spontaneous decisions and drastic changes that might not be in their best interest. People may find themselves restless, increasingly apathetic, regretful, and nostalgic (idealizing their past while avoiding thoughts of the present and future). Life decisions that take careful thought and planning are being done on impulse i.e. quitting a job, buying an expensive car, rushing to buy a house, moving across the country (or even to the other side of the globe)!
When we remember that there is no deadline for being great, we can make life easier for ourselves. There are numerous examples of people realizing their dreams--big or small--at any and every age. Focusing on the age we are when those things happen, speaks more to what we want our image to be rather than who we want to be and what we want to accomplish.
"What Do I Want" Isn't a Bad Question
As I said before, the phrase "what do I want" is very broad. And no matter what kind of spin you put on it, it tends to sound melodramatic. However, making a habit of asking ourselves what we want is how we keep moving forward, whether or not our original goals have changed. We also have to remind ourselves that we should be asking ourselves this question when it comes to every meaningful aspect of our lives.
What do I want in a relationship/marriage?
What do I want in a job? What do I want in a career?
Do I even want a job? Or do I want a business of my own?
What do I want for my living situation?
What do I want financially?
What do I want my impact to be (if I want to make an impact at all)?
What do I want others to see when they look at me?
But what may be more important than figuring out what we want, is figuring out why we want it in the first place. Unfortunately, a lot of us go through life either not thinking deeply about why we want certain things or numbing/distracting ourselves so we don't have to think about those things.
There are times when I ask myself why I want something and it turns out I may have pursued something that I didn't want. Maybe it was something I was told I wanted. Maybe it was part of a plan I made years ago and I just went along with that plan despite the nagging feeling that this path wasn't right anymore. Maybe it's something that other people want and maybe I convince myself that I want it for myself too. It took a whole semester of graduate school for me to realize that I didn't actually want the degree I was pursuing, nor did I have a clear understanding of why I was pursuing it in the first place. For some people, it takes them years within a career field to realize that they don't like the industry in which they work and decide to make a shift.
When I stopped to think about why some of us pursue things even when we already know we don't want them, I was led to believe that a lot of it has to do with shame, image, and fear. Our society glorifies the stories of people doing magnificent things at a very young age. This isn't a bad thing. But one of the unintended effects of celebrating young success is that it perpetuates the same societal lie: "If I haven't done [xyz] by [this time frame], my success is not worth celebrating". I've seen people realize two years into their undergraduate degree that they don't want to pursue something else because they feel like "it's too late" and they don't want to deal with the "embarrassment" of starting over. There are people who choose a path because it feels safe and they fear the instability of something that they're far more passionate abut.
We do it with school, we do it with careers, and we most definitely do it with relationships. "I've invested so much time into this job/this degree/this person, I can't start over now". But if we don't allow ourselves to move on and pursue what we want, we only set ourselves up for a lifetime of regret or resentment. We allow the fear of starting over or the fear of being new to overpower the disappointment of staying exactly where we are.
Life Doesn't Have to Be a Constant Crisis
This year I've had to tell myself on more than one occasion to calm down. That may sound dismissive, but more often than not it's well warranted. I've previously explored the topic of All-or-Nothing Mentality: the idea that if I can't get something right 100% of the time then there's no point in doing it at all. It's the reason that if we miss the time to leave for the gym (by less than five minutes) and no we won't have a minimum of 30 minutes of working out so we'll just "try again tomorrow".
I'm guilty of operating on an All-or-Nothing mentality myself, but the reality is that thinking this way is a quick way to live a life full of disappointment. It's a life of pursuing a venture, stopping that venture, beating ourselves up for not continuing the venture, and going into a downward emotional spiral over our perceived failure: wash, rinse, repeat. We end up living a life believing that "once I get to this destination or this accomplishment, I'll feel fulfilled and I won't run into these negative depressing feelings again". But as someone who has lived it, I can tell you that it couldn't be further from the truth.
It would be nice to end this with some sort of listicle that presents "How to Get Over an Existential Crisis in 5 Simple Steps" but our issues will never be simple enough to just mark off like a checklist. What we need is the understanding that pursuits of self-improvement, success, and health are never as linear as we would like them to be. We tend to stress ourselves out over benchmarks that don't actually exist outside of our own minds.
I do want to provide some things that are helpful for me. I wouldn't call it a remedy, or a one-time cure that will make it all go away forever. Rather, these are a set of practices that (when done consistently) help pull me out of the funk of existentialism:
Taking Rejection Objectively, Not Personally: Getting rejected from any opportunity that you had your heart set on is never a good feeling. But I like to remind myself that I can attend a pity party without overstaying my welcome. Mourn if you have to, but don't let it consume you. After all, what is meant for you will be for you.
Do it Scared: I cringe thinking about the opportunities I passed up because I didn't bother trying in the first place. Whether that pursuit may be (a person, a job, a program, etc) chances are we'll feel more pain from regret than we do from rejection. Of course, there are things that take a lot of meditation and prayer before we should make the decision to pursue them, but fear should not be the determining factor.
Be Present: Easier said than done, especially if you are dealing with certain roadblocks like anxiety or depression. But I slowly realized that when I'm not present in what should be a good moment, I've robbed myself of having a good memory. I'll think back on that moment and I won't be thinking about the event, the people I was with, the scent that was in the air, or the weather on that day. All I'll be left with is the anxiety I feel over something that likely doesn't even matter anymore. When I'm present at the moment and not focusing my mind on things that are outside of my control, I can't help but be content.
Practice Gratitude: Again, this is a habit I've had to build up over time. It's fairly easy to fall into despair about what we haven't accomplished, what we don't have, what we feel like we can't have, the opportunities we didn't get or didn't pursue, etc. Practicing gratitude may look like using a journal (written or digital), praying, meditating, or verbal communication with a supportive loved one. Whichever medium you choose, it's really just about taking a few minutes to take the focus off of yourself. When I pause and thank God for all that He has done or the situations He has helped me escape from, it's much harder for me to focus on the negative.
Speak/Share Your Dreams: For a long time, I have felt that certain things I want to achieve are simply out of reach or better yet they were "unrealistic". I thought it was so grown up of me to suppress those dreams and aspirations and try to forget about them. But as you can imagine, this basically just made for an almost weekly emotional breakdown for several months. I started becoming transparent about what I wanted, starting with my husband and eventually with my mentors and close friends. What I found through a conversation is that these things weren't stupid or childish, and actually attainable if I just went for them.
It's cliche, but life is truly not a race. I'm all for accomplishing things sooner rather than later, but never believe that your life is somehow less valuable just because there are certain things you haven't checked off (yet). You are reading this, which means you are still here, which means you can still do whatever it is that you are called to do.
Thanks for reading,