The reality of life “is that it is without excuse” (as Jean-Paul Sartre would state). What does this mean? Well, people are constantly faced with the reality that they have to choose the kind of people they want to become, and this choosing never ends as long as they are alive. As human beings, we are “doomed to be free” – we have no choice but to choose. Even in not choosing, we choose to let the world around us direct us – that is a choice, after all. You might ask what this has to do with the existential theme of personal responsibility.
Because we are constantly faced with the reality that we have to choose the kind of people we want to become, we are inherently responsible for the way our lives develop. For instance, in choosing to have things done to us, we can easily become victims. Sartre would strongly argue that we choose to become victimized. However, this choice might not be on a conscious level. The choice may be subconscious. For example, maybe something is more comfortable or familiar so an individual steers in that direction. The consequences of that steering bring him or her to a place that is unhealthy. Who is responsible for this unhealthy situation that the individual is now in? The driver is.
By helping people realize that they are the drivers in their lives, whether they like it or not, is incredibly powerful. When individuals realize that they are “doomed to be free,” the excuses they may present about their lives fundamentally change. Existential angst is an essential part of decision-making, yes, and all people grapple with giving up other possibilities as they make choices. However, choice-making is an unavoidable part of life, leaving only us in the drivers’ seats – and personally responsible.
Simply stated, authenticity means being true to oneself, and while this is easily defined, explaining what it really means and getting there is a bit more difficult. How does one become authentic? What does being true to oneself really look like? How will one know when authenticity has been achieved? These are all common questions about the concept of authenticity.
Authenticity is about one’s relationship with self as well as one’s relationship with the world. To reach authenticity (to be true to oneself), an individual must balance the need to be true to self with the need to compromise and conform to others’ expectations. That is, along with fulfilling needs of self, a person also has to get along with others and manage the limitations that society imposes upon him or her. Remember that compromises must always be made when making a decision since all people are inextricably linked to the consequences of the choices they make.
Counselors can play a unique role in helping clients to examine their freedom to choose, the limitation of those choices, and the consequences they bring. Therapeutically, we want to know if individuals have struck enough of a balance between themselves and the limiting world to a point where they are at ease in their current circumstances. Are they at peace with what they are gaining and what they had to give up? Are they accepting the fact that they are limiting other possibilities when they make certain choices? Can they strike the right balance between what they want/need and what they have to give to others? If so, these people can be concretely identified as being positively adjusted in their situations and living more authentically.
In essence, we can say that a person has reached authenticity in a certain situation when he or she has the awareness about the compromises necessitated due to life’s limitations and can accept those limitations and move forward making decisions. We cannot, however say that a person has reached absolute authenticity, that he or she is authentic in every situation of his or her life. This is because authenticity is a process rather than an end result and is situation-specific rather than absolute.
I often work with clients who struggle with existential angst on a pathological level. They stay stuck because they are not willing to give up certain possibilities when they make a choice. Here is a simple example.
A male client I once had wondered why he could not stay loyal to any woman he dated. When he entered into therapy, he was approaching his 50s and was still moving from woman to woman in his dating life. His longest relationship was about 5 months. He wanted to settle into a rewarding relationship with a woman, and he had dated many wonderful women throughout his life that he knew would have suited him well as potential life partners. As he discussed his dating life, he told me that he would lose interest in a woman he was dating because he felt he was missing out on other possibilities with women that might suit him better. “I know that the woman I am dating now is a wonderful person, but what if there is someone better out there?” he would state time and time again. Eventually, he would either break things off with the woman he was presently dating or he date other women behind her back (a behavior with which he morally struggled). He would start to date other women, and the pattern would start again. Eventually, he would meet a woman he really liked, commit to her for a time, and then feel restless (that existential angst).
Because he was not willing to come to terms with giving up other potential partners when he decided he really wanted to stay committed to a woman he met, he kept himself in a stuck pattern he did not want to be involved with – serial dating, some might call it. While many individuals enjoy dating, this particular client’s desire was to settle into a committed relationship, and his existential angst kept him stuck in a situation that troubled him a great deal.
As we worked together, we discussed the need to give up potential choices when a certain choice is made. He had to come to terms with this limitation in his life because, after all, he was a human being and this existential truth was not something he could change. He understood that he had two choices at this point: come to terms with giving up other choices (other women) when a choice is made (a relationship) OR stay stuck in angst (serial dating). This realization was extremely helpful for him to attain, and he was able to move forward in his life as we continued to work together.
It was a process, but for in order to be authentic, my client had to understand that he was free to make choices but that he was also inherently limited by the choices he made (and this limitation is the natural state of existential angst). From the limitations he realized as he decided upon a course of action, he had to make compromises (after all, he could not truly settle into a monogamous relationship with a woman and also date other women, could he?). In essence, the goal of therapy was for him to understand the limitations of human existence and learn to function well within that structure.
Søren Kierkegaard first introduced the concept of existential angst when he described a man standing on the edge of a high cliff. He felt a fear of falling along with an irrational urge to intentionally hurl himself over. After realizing that he had this option, he felt existential angst. Angst or the “dizziness of freedom,” as Kierkegaard called it, is the burden of making moral choices and is a natural consequence of free will. Since Kierkegaard, many existentialists have taken on this concept in their philosophical writings.
How does existential angst apply to our day to day lives?
In essence, existential angst comes from knowing that we will eventually die. We are mortal, and we will all inevitably expire. This is not a bad thing as angst can motivate us to continue to change and to develop as human beings. However, it goes both ways and it can create pathological behaviors and thoughts.
Beyond the global concept of death and dying, existential angst enables us to realize the helplessness of being human and that life intrinsically limits all of our possibilities. Think of it like this – when individuals make a choice, they must give up other choices. While we all have the freedom to choose, freedom of choice is limited to action. That is, we cannot choose our actions’ consequences.
The realization of the necessity to give up one choice because another choice is made is THE key factor in the process of existential angst. To be truly well balanced, individuals must strike enough of a balance between themselves and the limiting world to a point where they are at ease in their current circumstances. If they can do this, they are positively adjusted in their situations and live more authentically. If they cannot accomplish this, they become stuck, often bouncing from the possibility of one choice to the other without moving forward in their lives.