I have a childhood memory of playing with a simple Chinese finger trap I received in my Christmas stocking. After learning of the challenge of the toy, I thought I would give it a try. However, I quickly discovered, just like the many other children before me, the trap tightened around my fingers and I could not get them out. The harder I pulled, the tighter the puzzle held my fingers. It was infuriating and counterintuitive. It took a few minutes, but through simple frustration, I gave up in defeat—and then found that my fingers were released when I stopped fighting!
I find Chinese finger traps to be a good metaphor for life. When we accept our struggles, they tend not to be as overwhelming and we are better able to engage in problem-solving. In my work as a psychotherapist, I often find people add additional stress and complications to their life when they refuse to accept the existential givens of life. As an existentially oriented therapist, I often explore these themes woven throughout the stories of the clients I work with.
1) Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency
The first existential given is that as humans, we desire freedom, yet with more freedom comes more responsibility. Oftentimes, people want more freedom, but resent the increase in responsibility, because they find the responsibility leads to anxiety. Responsibility can be a deeply frightening insight; it makes us acutely aware that we alone are responsible for change in our lives. This isn’t to say there aren’t powerful influences in our lives—our partner, our parents, our spiritual beliefs, and more can impact us, but at the end of the day, we must choose how we will live. We have to decide what we want and accept responsibility for our choices.
We are in a unique period of human history where for the most part, we have more freedom than ever. It is no longer assumed we will be bound by the location, community, career, and religion of previous generations. In light of this, it is interesting that anxiety and depression are more prevalent. I believe this is often due to feelings of overwhelm, shame, worthlessness, and guilt as we are confronted with the possibilities before us. I often see people avoiding this given by deferring to others, never verbalizing what they want, becoming overly agreeable, and avoiding expressing their own opinions. It is easy to become cynical and withdrawn when you respond this way. People in this position find themselves resenting others, yet fearful of accepting responsibility for their own freedom.
What would it mean to embrace this existential anxiety? What if we could acknowledge the fear in claiming responsibility for our choices and choose to face life with daily courage? I believe this is possible and necessary for an authentic life.
2) Death, Human Limitation, and Finiteness
It should be no surprise to you, but you will die. (I’m really sorry to be the one to break that news to you, if you weren’t already aware.) “Living oblivious to the reality of death (and human limitation) is equally as destructive as to live in the constant fear of it. To live a truly authentic and genuine life, one must face the reality of death and limitation” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death). A central tenant of the existential style of therapy I practice is to balance the awareness of death with coping resources so as to not become overwhelmed by it.
A reminder of death allows us to focus on what matters—it allows us to be present and not distracted by superficial arguments. You may have seen this in those dealing with a terminal illness. It is often seemingly tragic moments that can bring sharp awareness of mortality and refocus our values and priorities. In order to truly live, we need to open ourselves up to the reality of death.
I have worked with many people stuck on this idea: since everything ends, why participate in life? Why make my bed, eat food, or invest in relationships at all? There are no simple answers for this question, but the general avoidance of pain or uncomfortable emotion is one of the most common sources of anxiety. I believe therapy can help you learn that even though loss is a reality of life, the choice to fully engage with the time we have is rich and meaningful. .
Here’s a simple thought experiment for you…
I want you to imagine you will die in one month’s time. What comes to mind? What would you begin to change? How do you want people to remember you? Are you living in such a way now?
I was working with a woman with body dysmorphic disorder who spent hours each day looking in the mirror trying to change her appearance. She would never leave the house without a hat and baggy clothing. She spent years of her life like this—stuck in a negative loop, believing she was ugly. A few months ago, I shared this same thought experiment with her. I was struck by her response. She began to cry and stated, “I don’t want to be remembered by people as the woman who spent all of her time worrying about her hair. I want to be remembered as someone who was kind and present.” That realization was a powerful moment in her life. She still struggles with her body image, but over the past two months, she has been participating in life, going to the gym, engaging in meaningful relationships, and has reduced time spent looking in the mirror.
3) Isolation and Connection
Humans are fundamentally relational beings, and relationships provide the most profound sense of meaning for our lives. However, even though relationships are profoundly important, isolation is a critical component of our being. What I mean is that each of us has a unique experience that no other human can completely know. We cannot expect others to satisfy our needs or complete us. This is part of the limitation of being human, and when we do not accept this reality, it can lead to neurotic, dependent, and chaotic relational patterns. When we acknowledge and accept our existential isolation, we begin to healthily adjust our expectations of others, which allows us to relate on a deeper, more stable level.
4) Meaning and Meaninglessness
Humans by nature are meaning makers. As Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It is our interpretation of reality, not the actual experience of it, that determines how we make sense of life. Meaning is what makes existence not just bearable, but fruitful. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Think back on some of the hardships of your life—what helped you cope with that experience?
Conversely, the lack of meaning is one of the greatest existential terrors we experience. It is my experience that a vast majority of people who struggle with depression on the deepest level are those struggling to find meaning in life. I believe there is meaning to any person’s life, but I understand that meaning might look different for each person.
5) Emotions, Experience, and Embodiment
You might be reading this and starting to feel a little depressed or anxious. That is okay and appropriate! These existential givens give purpose to those feelings, and if we learn how to embrace these emotions instead of avoiding them, they can be healthy and productive when we learn how to cope with them. While I believe there is anxiety and depression that is unhelpful and inhibits functioning/quality of life, many times, the feelings we label in this way are appropriate given the situation. Therapy is a space where one can explore these emotions, determine if they are helpful, and learn the skills to recognize and integrate our emotions into our everyday lives. It is good to feel anger, anxiety, and sadness at times, because those emotions help us to engage with life more fully. When we learn how to healthily embrace emotions, they can be catalysts for deeper connection and positive change.
Maybe you’ve been stuck in the Chinese finger trap for too long and you’re tired of fighting. I know what it’s like to experience the freedom and relief that comes with exploring these existential givens, which is why I’m passionate about joining others in that journey. If you’re interested in using therapy to find more connection, authenticity, hope, meaning, and fulfillment, feel free to reach out.