Case Example of Existential Angst

stuck - angst exampleI 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.

Existential Angst

cliff falling - angstSøren 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.