I’ve been lucky to work with clients who’ve achieved a lot, who can tick the boxes that are conventionally called “success”. Achievement of a creative endeavour or business and financial accomplishment has been the cherry on the top of an engaged life. The journey towards achievement has been exhilarating, absorbing and often brought out the best in collaborators. But, when the battle has been won, when we get to the part of the film where everyone walks off into the sunset, something unexpected happens. After the elation there’s a hangover.
What is this dissatisfaction that is perversely thrown into sharp relief when we get what we have wanted? Great thought has been applied to this over the ages in religion and philosophy.
People who know me know that if you want to get me annoyed, you just have to say that I’m a Life Coach. The focus of my coaching is always rooted in the workplace and often that’s where it remains. But your life in work is inextricably that life through which you experience everything else. Serendipity, bereavement, family, ageing and the unexpected are all part of the same piece. A holistic model for coaching acknowledges the whole person and that they’re built on a single set of building blocks or foundations.
Psychologists and philosophers are known for reducing human nature to a single cause. Freud thought it was sex, religion has come up with many variations of something called God and Nietzsche thought we need to stare into the void and accept that there’s nothing there. I use the existential model, and the building blocks for this were articulated by Irvin Yallom who counted four ultimate existential concerns that sit as the foundations of what we are. What lies at the root of them all is our relationship with anxiety in our lived experience.
Dissatisfaction with life, or “existence pain” is a result of our ongoing enquiry into what we are and what we’re here for. In the Buddhist tradition the idea is that the cause of this dissatisfaction is our desire for things to be other than they are. Existentialist thinkers have come to similar conclusions although see this anxiety, the will to change things, as something that should be celebrated and built upon rather than sublimated.
“An existential approach does not attempt to eliminate anxiety but rather encourages people to face it. Curing people of their capacity for anxiety would mean curing them of life itself. The task is not to suppress, disguise or deny anxiety, but to understand its meaning and gain the strength to live with it constructively”
So the better response to our dissatisfaction and sense of agitation with life is not to overcome and try to remove it by our acts but instead to run with it and recognise that “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement” (Ernesto Spinelli).
This is why, although the existentialists can sound a bit pre-occupied with the morbid, the life they actually encourage is a bare-knuckle ride with the wind in your hair.
The four existential concerns that distract and limit us are Death, Freedom, Isolation and Meaning. I’ll go through each and show how we can create defences that seek to deny rather than accept them.
This is the ticking clock, the sense of the finite and horror at the concept of our eventual non-existence. Although, along with taxes, it’s often acknowledged as the only certainty of life, there are many ways that people can act to try to deny this self-evident truth about themselves.
Although at a conscious level we can acknowledge and rationalise our own end, there can be a subconscious belief that somehow we are different and immune. This shows itself through compulsive heroism, being a workaholic and by seeking power and control. None of these things is intrinsically “bad” other than when they are being done to make a case to ourselves that we’re not like all the others and veer into narcissism.
Belief in ultimate rescuer
This defence relies on a belief that there is something bigger and more important than yourself. Religion, work, family, “the group”, something that’s not us but that we defer to. Achieving it’s aims is more important than even considering ours and a license is thereby found to restrict and limit ourselves
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that humans are “condemned to freedom” which conflicts with our desire for a structured, well-ordered universe. Kierkegaard referred to the “dizziness of freedom” the disorientating effect of recognising that we are tethered only by choice.
With similarities to a belief in an ultimate rescuer, the defences against this involve wrapping ourselves in protective, comforting and constraining structures. Again, this isn’t inherently bad unless frustration with these limitations becomes harmful to us or to those to whom we assign responsibility for them.
This is the conflict between what is, and our desire for contact and the protection of something bigger. In the first instance, it’s the gap between us and others, what we call loneliness. Further than this is any sense that we don’t know or understand our selves properly and that however close we can be with others we are ultimately separate and arrive into and leave the world alone.
So the defence against this would be exaggerated attempts to find affirmation, potentially seeing past people as people as the subconscious calls for validation and recognition by “others” rather than human connection. It could also be to avoid self-reflection and enquiry to better understand ourselves.
The fourth conflict is less about meaning than the dilemma that we have when confronted by the reality of meaninglessness in the world. Humans have been described as “meaning making machines”, that we construct a sense of meaning for ourselves to solve our fundamental need for there to be a sense of purpose.
This search for meaning can be very helpful, creative and rewarding, leading to caring families and productive businesses. But it can spill over into crusadism and zealotry as the end justifies the means. As mentioned at the start of the article, the reward is more often found in the journey than the arrival, even though we may expect it to be otherwise. Common reactions to achievement are to want to do it again or even to go back to the Glory Days when it was all starting out. Our goal is not to find the meaning of life but to find our particular versions of meaning in life.
So, these are the four ultimate existential concerns that grind the gears of our anxiety and dissatisfaction with the world. The point is not to eliminate them, but to recognise them and respond to them proportionally, to be liberated rather than constrained by awareness of them. In coaching, they rarely come up explicitly but they are implicit in many of the conversations that occur.