This blog post was written by Pooja Shah, PsyD.
“Somewhere in my life, I stopped living and just existed.”
Many clients often find themselves saying this exact statement throughout the course of their treatment. The statement evokes both terror and relief . What does it really mean to stop living and just exist? To come to a place in your life where you recognize this aspect means that you are ready and open to change. In this blog, I will attempt to make sense of the emotional response and how you can better manage it.
When clients come to realize their mere existence, it can be terrifying. The prospect of living seems too daunting and impossible. Many find themselves asking, “How can I start to live if I didn’t even know I stopped in the first place?” To discover and recognize that you have been going “through the motions” may feel overwhelming and defeating. Some feel like they do what’s expected of them and not what they truly want or wish. Additionally, some believe, that at some point in their lives, they lost focus on what was important and their true values. They describe a feeling of being trapped in a plastic bubble, preventing them from reaching outside of the bubble. It’s common to experience depression, stress, and anxiety in these times. The terrifying feeling is finally recognizing that you are in this bubble and not knowing whether you have the skills or tools to get out or if you will just suffocate.
Why seek relief?
Clients find that after acknowledging the experience, it feels as if a weight has been lifted. The actual acknowledgement of fear allows them to face the truth, which ultimately brings relief in that they no longer have to lie or pretend to others. The relief also extends to the ability to be self reflective and honest. When we go through life believing we did not know something was impacting us, more times than not, a small part of us always really knew, we were just afraid to admit it. When we are trapped in the bubble, the recognition of the bubble existing is what will allow one to move forward and grow from it. Yes, initially we may feel we do not have the tools or the ability to get out of the bubble, however, after the initial fear and panic, we will start to recognize it is only a bubble. And all we need to do is find the weak spot so it can then pop, burst, break, etc. It is this recognition that will allow us to feel relief. This is also known as hope. A feeling that change and experiencing something different is possible.
Learn to Live
Once you acknowledge the pattern of existing, it is now time to learn to live. Think of the times in your life you were most happy. For many, this is a difficult task, but we all have at least one moment. When you recall that moment, what about it made you happy? Was the entire moment happy? Were there moments of misery?
When we think about living versus existing, we often mistake the two by confusing living with happiness. Living does not always mean being happy. Living means honoring and accepting where you are and truly allowing yourself to be there, good or bad. This is called mindfulness, being in the moment, non judgmentally.
A major accomplishment for all of us is graduating kindergarten. Although as an adult this seems to be a minimal accomplishment compared to many other accomplishments, as a child, it was monumental. While in kindergarten, you probably felt fear around new experiences and worried about fitting in. Over time, we find our place and the fear and anxiety decreases. Then we begin to prepare for the next level and start to feel pride and excitement. The graduation itself may have been anxiety provoking, exciting, and scary, etc.; however, when it was completed, there was excitement, pride and happiness. As a child going through kindergarten, we are living. We experience every emotion whether good or bad and we keep moving forward. We allow ourselves to be honest with our parents, our teachers and ourselves. This is when we are still innocent and true to ourselves.
Unlike children, as adults, we often find ourselves in places we feel stuck. Stuck in a routine. Stagnant. We fight to control everything only to find most things are out of control. We then feel defeated, stop trying and turn to existence. In an effort to try, we find ourselves chasing happy moments rather than accepting our surroundings. Many times we believe that by chasing these moments, we will find our value, our reason, and our purpose only to feel defeated again when the moment passes and the cycle starts all over again. To recognize existence from living is pivotal. It allows us to see the cycle we are in and nudges us to take steps to break it. To start living means to work towards finding a deeper understanding of our values, reason and purpose in the day to day, good or bad. Now that you have recognized and acknowledged existing, it is time to start living. Start by asking yourself what do I want? What is at least one thing that makes me happy? What do I believe? Start with seeking out those answers while being true to yourself, honest and non-judgmental.