Ever spent a few days or weeks feeling flat, listless, sad, unmotivated and/or tired, for no reason that is apparent to you?
That’s a funk. And whilst you can wait ’em out, you could also be proactive about their resolution.
An existential crisis is a more profound experience. Sometimes called “a dark night of the soul”, when you’re amidst one of these bad boys, you struggle to find the purpose of anything. Life feels empty and meaningless.
Crises of existence can be triggered by major life events, such as catastrophic losses, or – as in my case – can be brought about by an ongoing challenging situation, such as doing work that doesn’t resonate with you.
And they aren’t totally negative experiences: dark nights cause us to reevaluate everything in order to learn, or rediscover, what brings us meaning in life. They can help us to experience deeper joy and happiness going forwards.
This post is about why funks and existential crises happen, what you can do to prevent them from happening, and some suggestions based on my experience if you are currently going through either.
(The suggestions are geared towards addressing funks brought about by your mind and negative thinking, rather than those caused by burnout or biological imbalances.)
What causes a funk or an existential crisis?
I’m going to go to the heart of what causes these states.
Funks and existential crises happen due to our false unconscious reality constructs. The key false assumption is that things are what give us happiness.
For as long we experience happiness to be circumstance-dependent, then contentment is fragile.
This is why personal growth work, and especially things like mindfulness, can be disruptive: they dismantle that idea. Our experiences begin to lead us to the truths that all perceptions are fabrications of the mind, and the world is not the source of our happiness.
Can you do anything to prevent them from happening?
The long term work is shifting how you experience life, and seeing yourself as the source of your happiness. For inspiration on that idea, read this article about developing responsibility.
But there are more immediate interventions you can use, too.
Start by changing your attitude to funks and existential crises. Here are the stances I would recommend:
- Acknowledge that you aren’t going to feel happy all the time. Dolly Parton said “if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain”. She was right.
- Instead of trying to get rid of anything, try understanding it better. Those who can better understand their dark sides, or who can explore their emotions, benefit by having greater personal freedom.
- Try being grateful for your funky state. Low moods are your emotions forcing you to pay attention, instead of auto-piloting through your life. They also teach you that you can’t be entitled when it comes to feeling happy. The fact is that most of us need to consciously craft a positive psychology by gardening the mind.
- Be grateful for your existential crisis, too. Dark nights can take you to the source of your identity, and lead you to discover what gives you a sense of purpose beyond your everyday responsibilities.
Are there risk factors for getting into a funk or experiencing an existential crisis?
Never developing your mindfulness abilities (your ability to watch yourself thinking, sometimes called “meta cognition”) is the highest risk factor for both.
There are two other things:
Funks are linked to what makes you motivated
The biggest risk factor other than a lack of mindfulness is a failure to understand deeply what drives you as an individual. In other words, what motivates you.
Motivation isn’t simple. We are all motivated by things unconsciously, and pursuing these things can keep us from feeling genuinely fulfilled. Understanding your personality structure (I recommend using the Enneagram) helps you to distinguish those unconscious motivations. For example, as a type 7, I am motivated on the surface to stay busy, and to consume information and experiences. However, that isn’t really what’s going to make me fulfilled.
Read this guide if you want a few other useful distinctions about motivation.
Existential crises are about identity and purpose
Just as funks have a close relationship with motivation, existential crises are about your understanding of your identity and purpose. Again, this isn’t an easy exploration, but it is a worthwhile one.
Here are some things that distract you from developing your identity: not spending enough time on your own; not doing self-discovery work; never learning to see through the constructs of reality. All the things that I talk about in my book.
What to do when they happen
Here are some things I do when going through funks, and dealing with an existential crisis:
The priority should not be to “snap out of it” – it should be to acknowledge and accept that you are feeling low. Here are some things I do after that:
- Try to understand what is underneath your funk. This will affect the actions you need to take. My funks tend to happen when I’ve been pursuing relaxation and enjoyment excessively over working on my long-term goals. So what gets me out of my funk is taking action. If you’re funk has happened because you’ve been ignoring some sadness (for instance), then a different solution is needed.
- Don’t get stuck on the “why” though. Focus on “what?”, as in “what can I do?” Keep asking yourself the question.
- Avoid short term fixes. Ask yourself what things you can do now that’ll bring you lasting satisfaction (they might not be the funnest things.)
- Get a mindfulness practice going if you haven’t already. It’ll help you to monitor and influence what you give your attention to, among other things.
- Talk to someone close about how you are feeling. Use a good listener to get clarity.
- Focus on what you can do about your perspectives, rather than your circumstances. Circumstances are slower to change, whereas your psychology is highly malleable and responsive to what you feed on it. Where do you think it is wiser to invest your efforts? If you are struggling to change your perspectives, listen to podcasts, read books, etc.
- Do tasks you’ve been putting off. The things we put off hold a lot of power over us.
- Just do the next right thing.
- Be patient. Accept that you are going through a dark night of the soul, where you may have to “live some questions” (Rilke). Surrender to all of the confusion you may feel (and if you want some assistance with that, read this, and this). It will pass, just as everything does.
- Examine what has just happened in your life to lead to this. It tells you a lot about where you were getting your sense of purpose, and whether that is a sustainable situation. Purpose is independent of other people and circumstances: it is closer to capacities that we can exercise. That should make living your purpose more accessible to you.
- Get connected. With other people. Use your encounters to remind yourself that you matter. Taking the focus off yourself helps.
- Reflect on what you can do to give you a sense of purpose going forwards. Do this in manageable doses.
- Contemplate this quote by Haruki Murakami: “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm is all about.”
Low feeling states are designed to teach us something. Appreciate yours, whilst doing what you can to experience less of them in the future.
If your funks are a rarity, or if you feel like you’ve no good reason for one, then I wouldn’t be in a hurry to make them go away. They might be your route to better self-awareness.
And as for your existential crisis: take comfort in that it’ll lead you to a richer experience of life.
If you let it.