“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Soren Kierkegaard, Danish existentialist philosopher.
My client said something like, “I hate my life. Are you suggesting that I need to accept what is to move on? How does that make sense?” We were discussing an existential paradox. It reminded me of the day my mentor suggested, “Be the love you want to receive.” At the time, I felt confused, but not forever!
In my undergraduate studies I only took one philosophy course. However, in my masters program in humanistic psychology, existentialism perspectives would repeatedly surface. Indeed, they often arise in the therapeutic process for those eager to find meaning in their trials and tribulations. My exploration here is less about being academically accurate and more in the service of those who have questions about their reality. The therapeutic process involves becoming conscious or aware of one’s thinking, feelings, impulses and behaviors and why.
Meaning of Existential
Existential issues are questions about our human existence, about being alive. We exist! We, as thinking, questioning beings want to know why we exist. What purpose is there for us on the planet? Existentialism is the study of BEing. Becoming conscious is the process of asking some of the key questions about our existence.
When we start asking existential questions we often go into turmoil looking for a definitive answer. Here are some common questions that are asked in the therapeutic process:
- How do I make the right decision?
- Am I really in control of my life?
- What does my life mean?
- Can I really change?
- Can others really change?
- Why me?
- Is life fair?
- Why was I hurt?
- Why was I abandoned?
- Can I do it all?
- Why do some people succeed and I don’t?
- Who am I?
- What is my life purpose?
Many of our existential questions are best answered with paradox.
Meaning of Paradox
The Oxford dictionary defines paradox as, “A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.”
Paradox, in the context of existentialism, means thinking above and beyond absolutes such as right or wrong, good or bad, angelic or evil. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) refers to black and white thinking or all or nothing thinking as dysfunctional thinking.
When we try to answer existential questions with black and white thinking we can end up in an existential dilemma. An existential dilemma is when our right answer doesn’t work or traps us. For example, my client stated, “If I accept where I am at this moment, I won’t be able to move on.” This is an example of black and white thinking which has him in a damned if I do and damned if I don’t situation. The mental safety net is a willingness to live in a world of duality, of contradictory concepts, of gray (not black and white) and flexible thinking.
The Mental Health Benefits of Existential Paradox
Avoiding or resisting asking existential questions and accepting paradoxical conclusions can create mental health and stress management challenges. Sitting calm in a storm is a paradox and might save your life.
When we accept paradox, we ease off our tendency to fight for the right answer, solution or direction. When we start to see and accept ambiguities, uncertainty, and contradictions, we stop seeing ourselves as either a success or a failure. Another benefit of accepting paradox is we develop an existential wisdom. We become more creative and flexible. As Dr. Al Siebert wrote in The Survivor Personality,
My research has taught me that the most resilient people in rough situations are those with a balance between self-esteem and self-criticism, blend of self-confidence and self-doubt, positive self-concept open to accept the existence of flaws and weaknesses . . . the “selfs” in resilient, thriving people are paradoxical.”
Let’s go back to my client’s existential dilemma of, “If I accept where I am at this moment, I won’t be able to move on.” My hope is that he will be able to see that it is not an either/or decision. I invite a calming existential paradox, such as, “If I deny my reality, I won’t see how to change it.” Then I would invite an exploration of how he got to where he is now, how he truly feels about now, and how now can inform him to move forward in a conscious and discerning manner.
Allow yourself to reflect on these existential paradoxes.
- We spend more money on stuff yet long for more.
- It is hard to get a job with no experience and you can’t get experience unless you have a job.
- We build bigger houses while feeling more lonely and disconnected.
- Social Media has created social disconnect.
- During covid-19 we were to stay at home and stay connected.
Healing Existential Paradoxes
- I have freedom while having limitations and barriers.
- I am insignificantly significant.
- I am special just like everyone else.
- The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.
- Seeking happiness creates unhappiness.
- The answer lies in my question.
- Too often I want others to change while not being willing to change myself.
- I want everyone to like me while I dislike some people.
- It takes strength to allow myself to be vulnerable.
- Forgiving another, frees my soul.
- To truly trust another I need to trust myself to survive their betrayal.
- Denying my feelings deepens my pain.
Existential Wisdom Paradoxes
- The only constant you can count on is change.
- We are born to die.
- Storms bring us rainbows.
- It is normal to be unique.
- We are all perfectly imperfect or flawed.
- When one door closes, another one opens.
- The only certainty in life is uncertainty.
- The more we give what we long for, the more we have it.
- The more we love ourselves the more love we have to give.
- It is a sign of strength to ask for help.
- What I know for sure is what I don’t know.
- Life is not a problem to solve.
- Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
- You cannot, not communicate. Your silence is deafening.
- Not making a decision is deciding.
- The faster you fail (make mistakes), the faster you will succeed.
- The faster I work the behinder I get.
- Those who believe they know it all know little.
- Betray your children so they will leave home.
- Early to bed and early to rise, wrecks your social life.
- What others think of me is none of my business.
- The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.
- You are full of yourself! Is a wonderful truth to embrace!
- Who do you think you are? Is an existentially exquisite question.
Deep Thinkers’ Existential Paradoxes
- “If I am only for me, who will be? If I am only for me, what is the point?” Hillell, ancient philosopher
- “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher
- “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher and playwright
- “Life begins on the other side of despair.” Jean-Paul Sartre.
- “I can always choose, but I ought to know that if I do not choose, I am still choosing.” Jean-Paul Sartre
- “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” Jean-Paul Sartre
- “When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers, psychologist who developed Client-Centered Therapy
- “The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” Peter A. Levine, psychologist and developer of Somatic Experiencing therapy
- “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Kahlil Kibran, Lebanon philosopher and poet
- “Pain shared is pain lessened. Joy shared is joy increased.” Spider Robinson, Science Fiction author
May this exploration of existential paradox lessen your pain and increase your joy . . . just like it did for my client!
Please check out these related posts:
- Dozens of Famous and Powerful Resilience Quotes
- Book Summary: The Survivor Personality
- What Resilient People Know and Do to Develop Their Grit
- What Makes Us the Way We Are?
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