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4 Existential Truths – How Modern Life Makes Them Harder & How Psychotherapy Can Help or Hurt

1. Freedom

When people first learn about existentialism, it can seem like a depressing, boring, or hopeless philosophy. But for those practicing existential psychotherapy (or at least addressing existential themes in therapy), dealing with some of the difficult or terrible stuff in an authentic and brave way can help people experience the most precious gems of life: real joy, love, desire, wildness, belonging. Here is a list of what Irv Yalom boiled down to the four “existential givens” that we wrestle with: our essential freedom and ultimate responsibility; our isolation and unavoidable loneliness; the meaning we must provide or find in life’s meaninglessness; and the inevitability of our death and the deaths of everyone we love. People often come for psychotherapy to deal with one or more of these existential givens without even realizing that is what they need to do. Unless you studied philosophy or psychology in grad school, you probably didn’t come across these concepts. But they are everywhere, and these 4 existential givens are a very helpful way of seeing the fundamental struggles we all face (or avoid facing).

We each get to make choices and deal with the consequences, never knowing what will actually happen as a result of our choices. So freedom can be powerful and terrifying and we are often looking for ways to escape from freedom and let someone else take responsibility (and blame) for the big choices in life or even moment-by-moment choices, so we won’t have to.

Modern complications:

We are inundated by information and choices and this actually increases our anxiety. Too much freedom about trivial options can be paralyzing: we want a can of chicken noodle soup, but we don’t know which of 19 options to buy in the soup aisle. And yet, we also feel our freedom choked off by the growing ways we are tracked and surveilled. Children feel this especially strongly in the past generation or two—it’s hard to disappear for a while and learn autonomy and freedom as a child anymore. Lacking a felt freedom inside of us can make it hard to be aware of our existential responsibility and make it hard to exercise freedom later in life.

Our need to belong to a social group or community can increase or reduce our sense of freedom. Belonging to a group can provide a sense of identity and purpose, empowering us to express ourselves authentically within the group. However, groups also pressure their members to conform to group norms, and then we have to tangle with how to remain free and autonomous within a cherished group: how to belong without annihilating ourselves or the group.

How therapy can help or hurt:

Depth-oriented therapies can help you explore your unconscious motivations, fears, and conflicts that may be interfering with your sense of freedom and autonomy or may be causing you to avoid or deny your freedom. Therapy can help give you insight and a greater sense of self-awareness and agency, so you can make more authentic choices in your life. However, some therapists might fail to address external factors that constrain your freedom, such as systemic oppression, socioeconomic barriers, or cultural expectations that are hard to overcome. Also, if your therapist imposes their own values or interpretations onto you, it can hinder your ability to explore and assert your own sense of freedom. In therapy, you can ask yourself: Is this therapist or this way of working helping me address my concerns and difficulties with my existential freedom, or are we avoiding or missing this?

2. Isolation

Despite living in a world in which we are surrounded by others, we ultimately experience a sense of isolation or aloneness. No one knows us completely. Each person’s existence is inherently separate from others, and this isolation can lead to feelings of alienation and existential angst. Many of the European existentialists (Dostoevsky, Kafka, Sartre, Chekov, Camus) dealt with the 4 existential givens in their stories, and the loneliness and alienation we all face was a central theme in their books.

Modern complications:

The interconnectedness created by social media and digital communication can ironically amplify our sense of loneliness and disconnection. Social media can create superficial relationships and a false sense of connection, while reducing how much we bother with face-to-face interactions and genuine human connections. Many people become increasingly fearful of IRL connection when they get used to carefully controlled and limited doses of connection through devices. And the pace of things: music, video editing, news cycles, fashion trends, memes, leaves us with less time for meaningful relationships, leading to increased feelings of isolation and alienation.

Belonging to a community can reduce our sense of isolation; but when so much in life feels alienating, it’s possible to feel stress about the possibility of being rejected by our community if we are fully authentic with the people we care about. Identity-based movements can give a sense of solidarity and validation for marginalized people, but they may also reinforce divisions between different identity groups, perpetuate social fragmentation, and increase feelings of isolation among those who feel excluded or marginalized within their own communities if they don’t conform to expectations.

How therapy can help or hurt:

Depth-oriented therapies provide a safe and supportive place for you to explore your feelings of isolation and loneliness. Through the therapeutic relationship, you can experience empathy, validation, and connection which can help alleviate your sense of alienation and foster a greater sense of belonging. But therapy may fail to address systemic factors contributing to social isolation, such as societal stigma, discrimination, or lack of access to supportive communities. Additionally, if the therapeutic relationship lacks authenticity or empathy, it may reinforce your feelings of isolation rather than mitigating them. In therapy, you can ask yourself: How are we addressing in our therapy some of the difficulty, confusion, or awkwardness of my sense of aloneness here? How much does the therapist even realize how separate I feel sometimes, and am I telling them the truth about this?

3. Meaninglessness

When existentialists argue that the universe is inherently devoid of meaning or purpose, they don’t mean that we should just give up. Rather, it goes back to “freedom and responsibility”: it is up to us because no one else can do it for us: we must grapple with the challenge of creating meaning in our lives in the face of this apparent meaninglessness.

Modern complications:

In a world dominated by materialism, consumerism, and instant gratification, we may struggle to find deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. We look around and a meaningful life seems not to be rewarded socially or financially. The relentless pursuit of wealth, status, and external validation can overshadow our difficulties around the meaning of our lives. And the emphasis on tech has led to a constant stream of distractions and entertainment, making it easier for us to avoid confronting existential concerns and engaging in introspection.

Shared values, goals, and narratives within a group you belong to can offer a framework for understanding the world and your place within it, mitigating feelings of existential meaninglessness. Yet, while some groups focus on helping members find purpose and meaning, other groups can emphasize narratives of powerlessness, pointlessness,  and “no way out,” potentially worsening our sense of meaninglessness.

How therapy can help or hurt:

Depth-oriented therapies encourage you to explore your existential concerns and search for meaning in your life. By delving into your values, beliefs, and existential anxieties, you can cultivate a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, even in the face of existential uncertainty. However, certain therapists may struggle to address existential concerns if they focus exclusively on symptom reduction or superficial problem-solving. If therapists avoid engaging with existential questions or dismiss clients’ search for meaning as irrational, it can leave you feeling misunderstood and disconnected from the therapeutic process. In therapy, you can ask yourself: How is this therapy oriented to my search for meaning? Are we really dealing with the fundamental struggle here? It’s possible at some point that you may need to find a more ‘meaningful’ therapist rather than concluding that life is meaningless and about being a more functional cog in the machine.

4. Mortality:

Death is as inevitable as our wish to avoid dealing with it. “No one here gets out alive” is part of the human condition. Our awareness of mortality or our denial of it influences the way we orient to time, our priorities, and our “life choices.” People who have a near-death experience can feel like life is much more precious, or can begin to feel that life is random or meaningless. In facing our deepest feelings about death (our own or the death of someone we love), we can feel much more alive or we can feel like life isn’t worth living. When people get close to the edge of a cliff, they can feel exhilarated or can be terrified of “the call of the void” almost as if they will be pulled over the edge. Death (and our contemplation of it) is a scary given, and a deeply important one.

Modern complications:

Despite advances in medicine and healthcare (or perhaps because of them), we often struggle to come to terms with the reality of mortality—that we all will die. The emphasis on youth, beauty, and longevity in mainstream culture can exploit our fear of aging and death (to sell us products and services), leading to a perpetual denial of death and an avoidance of conversations about end-of-life care and the legacy we are leaving. And the pervasiveness of violence, natural disasters, and global crises in the media can heighten our existential anxiety and remind us of our vulnerability in the face of mortality. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Although, perhaps we all would be better off to make some time for that.

Belonging to a community or social group can provide us with support and comfort in confronting the inevitability of death. Learning and sharing rituals, traditions, and beliefs around death and the afterlife (or lack of it) can offer solace and a sense of continuity beyond our lives. What do we want to leave behind for others when we are gone?

How therapy can help or hurt:

Depth-oriented therapies provide a space for you to explore your fears and anxieties related to death. By confronting existential realities such as death, loss, and impermanence, you can gain a greater acceptance of your own mortality—not just an intellectual acceptance, but a deeply felt settling-in about it—and to develop more appreciation for the ‘deliciousness’ of life. On the other hand, some therapists may inadvertently reinforce your avoidance of mortality-related concerns by focusing solely on the present or avoiding discussions of death altogether. If your therapist lacks comfort or competence in addressing existential issues, it can inhibit your exploration of your unconscious mortality fears.

Belonging to a community or social group can provide us with support and comfort in confronting the inevitability of death. Learning and sharing rituals, traditions, and beliefs around death and the afterlife (or lack of it) can offer solace and a sense of continuity beyond our lives. What do we want to leave behind for others when we are gone?

In therapy, you can ask yourself:

Are we addressing some of my deepest fears about my potential death or the loss of the people I love (or the fear I might have of feeling such a loss)? Are we both avoiding the scarier stuff and staying in safer, easier territory? Is this what I need here?

“Advanced” cultures and technologies offer little to help us address the existential givens—these essential difficulties in our humanity—which is why many of us increasingly feel drawn to more “organic” or “primitive” or “cottagecore” aesthetics and traditional rituals that allow us to feel a sense of belonging, meaning, legacy, depth, and empowerment. We have the freedom to address these issues or not address them, and life can bring massive shocks or challenges that push us to face these existential givens before we feel ready. Isn’t it nice to know there is a whole array of artists, thinkers, and helpers to provide tools and psychological equipment to help you find your way? And when you are shopping for a therapist to help, just be sure to look for the therapy equivalent of an experienced back-country guide rather than an app or a YouTube video to help you orient in the direction you need.

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