Existential dread is defined as: the fear of the groundlessness beneath us. In essence, it’s the fear of freedom, of making the wrong choices. Our lives, spent as far away from deep thought as possible, are cemented in daily routines founded on belief systems comprised of how we ought to live. Our personal philosophies guide our activities, interactions, and the goals we pursue; and, constitute our frameworks for self-esteem and self-love. But, we don’t often have the time or desire to examine them and their contributions to our well-being. And, if we were honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge our apprehension of them.
During the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, in the U.S. (which is still in its beginning stage), some of us began to feel that sense of nausea famously described by Jean-Paul Sartre in his eponymous novel. Sheltered and secluded in our cell-like apartments and homes, the walls transformed themselves into disorienting reflectors, resembling a house of mirrors in a circus. Our sanctums became as frightening as any hospital, reflecting back to us the illness enveloping our souls.
Much of our lives are lived automatically, our goals and routines providing us with comfort and our sense of self. Our values, passed on to us, are the bases of our images of the individuals we want to be. When ripped away by circumstances, like a virus, we find ourselves as children again, presented with an opportunity for rebirth. But, it’s accompanied by existential dread, which accounts for the disorienting nausea.
I spent a good portion of my life searching for self-worth. I believed that I’d find it in acclaim and the love of a beautiful woman; my values were, predominantly, external. Daily life was future-oriented, plagued by agitation and impatience as I craved the requisite validation to feel good about myself. In clinical language, I embodied the unhealthy version of perfectionism, through which I aspired to create a positive self-image. Most of us are perfectionists without even knowing it. Our lives are caught up on an endless treadmill, which doesn’t stop until we turn it off. We spend them consumed with the promise of professional success and its associated wealth, wondering what it’ll feel like when we feel we’ve finally “made it.”
For me, my achievements were never enough. My underlying sense of an inability to be loved was never cured by any particular accomplishment. So, I perpetually surmised that the next one would grant the remedy. But, it never did. I made the mistake of concluding that my global assessment of myself, of being inherently defective, would, somehow, become offset by some plateau that I could reach. Yet, the plateaus were insufficient because beyond each of them was another one.
In my reality, perfection was the only remedy for my angst. As, for a perfectionist, a deep sense of worthlessness can only be cured by an ultimate completion of one’s goals, which tilts the seesaw in our favor. We believe that certainty will heal our biases, for each accomplishment is met with a but, disqualifying its significance. The evidence is doubted, explained away as we revert our minds to our toxic core self-beliefs. And on the treadmill went until I chose to stop it.
I was trapped in black and white thinking, a cognitive distortion which convinced me that I was either terrible or perfect and that there was no in-between. The terror of facing my thoughts developed from my fear of acknowledging my inadequacies and the angst of discovering that I was living badly. As I searched for perfection, some part of me acknowledged the vanity of my quest, hence why I feared the confrontation. What would be left if I acknowledged the wasted time? And how could I go on living with the insight that I’m striving to become a fictitious entity, that I’m, essentially, chasing a ghost?
My short-term thinking, which can described as what’s known as the Sunk-Cost Fallacy, told me to keep going forward because of the effort that I amassed, as though it were a limited resource. And, it would have been painful for me to accept that perfection didn’t exist. I never developed an outline of it because its creation is a myth. Beauty, love, justice, success, perfection are all ideals that can’t be pinpointed temporally. We try our best to approximate them, but our best is never enough. In chasing them in their perfect states, we miss out on enjoying them in their flawed embodiments, wasting our lives on fruitless quests. I believed that it was possible to perfect myself, that happiness was a touch away. Yet, I was a far from it as one could be. And, I would have known that then had I had the fortitude to look inwardly.
Although the mirror torments us, nurturance is its purpose. The two extremes are inextricably linked to each other; Carl Jung remarked, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” Opportunities often exist in difficult places, like in the midst of a pandemic. For us, this period gives us a chance to look into the mirrors of our lives and the choices that we’ve made. They’ll be terrifyingly painful and exhilaratingly liberating. Black and white thinking will attempt to convince us of our fundamental immorality and stupidity, driving us further away from introspection. But, we can remind ourselves that we’re human and have, simply, made mistakes. We didn’t ask for our set of values, and most of us were never taught to examine them. We chase ghosts in the ways our parents did and their parents before them. They couldn’t figure out how to love themselves and, thus, neither could we.
The terror lies in the recognition of the groundlessness beneath our feet; there is no external, existential blueprint. But, in fusion with that freedom, we’re released from the burden of our internalized standards, which we spend extended periods of our lives believing are objectively correct. This is what mental health clinicians label ‘individuation’: the daunting process of self-creation. In our present moment, life is calling for introspection, and those of us in the mental health community want you to know that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Your fears are of your thoughts, but it’s up to you how seriously to take them. The tools of cognitive-behavioral therapy and existential therapy help us perceive the errors our beliefs, for we learn that we’ll never be either terrible or perfect (black and white thinking), that we have personal and professional achievements already worth celebrating (mental filtering), and that there is no right way to live life (existential freedom). So, we possess the ability to reframe our past experiences as mistakes we made in trying to create lives that were worth living. And, if we step closer to the mirrors, we’ll understand why we made those errors.
My perfectionism was based on an excessive focus on certain values (i.e. status and recognition) and an erroneous way of thinking (i.e. that I could and should be perfect to offset how terrible I was). Accepting that our values and beliefs are the driving forces of poor decisions can help us begin to do what, as a culture, we’ve never done before, to face our internal mirrors, our souls, with resolve.
I think you might be me. Except the past tense you use is my present. Was it really through CBT and existential therapy (which btw sounds almost made-up but I love it) that your previous values changed so staggeringly? What changes need to be made? What is step 1.
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You’re the one with the power to assess how helpful your values have been to your well-being and what makes them important to you.