Surviving and thriving in a global existential crisis

Emmy van Deurzen is a philosopher and existential therapist. She is also a professor of psychology and psychotherapy, with 17 books to her name, several of which have been translated into a dozen languages. She is the Founder and Principal of the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling at the Existential Academy, which offers post-graduate training courses, in partnership with Middlesex University. Among her books are the bestsellers Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling in Practice (Sage), Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness (Sage), Everyday Mysteries (Routledge) and Paradox and Passion (Wiley). Her new book, Rising from Existential Crisis, will be published later this year by PCCS Books.

Some months before the coronavirus pandemic moved from China into mainland Europe, you embarked on a book about Brexit and how the process of leaving Europe plunged the citizens of the UK, and of Europe, into an existential crisis. You intended to write about ‘rising from’ this existential crisis. How would you conceptualise this new crisis facing arguably the whole of humanity now?

It has been a remarkable time in terms of changes and crisis in the UK. The four years of Brexit created a deep sense of desolation for many people, particularly for EU citizens living in the UK and Brits living in Europe. This was something close to my heart because of my own background, having been born in the Netherlands and having studied and worked in France for many years before I came to Britain in 1977. It was terrible to witness the personal suffering of so many of my friends and clients who were harmed by the situation in which they lost control of their lives and felt they no longer had any future. This is something that still endures for many of them to this day, though this is now overshadowed by the much larger crisis of the pandemic.

Having created a free emotional support service for EU citizens who had become disenfranchised by the Brexit situation, I collected a lot of information about their experience and their mental health problems. There are many lessons to be learnt from this situation about how people cope in a crisis and how they are able to rise above it. This became even more relevant as most of the world population was plunged into the corona virus pandemic. It became obvious that many people needed support in processing difficult experiences in this respect as well.

What is an ‘existential crisis’? How do you define it?

An existential crisis is a situation in which our entire existence and everything we used to take for granted is in the balance, so that we feel insecure and threatened and lose our bearings. This affects all dimensions of life, at the physical, social, personal and spiritual levels. It means that our bodies are challenged, our relationships are changed, our sense of our self is altered and our beliefs and values are shaken up. For most people, this is a very difficult experience to encompass as it leads to a revolution of our established patterns, routines and habits. It always involves a lot of loss and therefore leads to feelings of bereavement and sorrow, as well as confusion, fear, anger, doubt and panic. If it isn’t dealt with properly, people may end up suppressing their emotions, which can lead to further complications further down the line.

In some situations, it may lead to the person suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and becoming incapacitated for a long time. However, from an existential viewpoint, it may also lead to a renewal of existential courage and strength, and it is this latter response that I am most interested in.

How do we ‘rise from’ a crisis of this nature, both in the immediacy of the national and internal lockdowns and when we begin to emerge and re-establish normal living?

The reality is that most of our lives are touched by existential crisis at some point and many of us, with hindsight, recognise that these moments of crisis have become points of growth, development and transformation for us. While we are in the midst of such a defining predicament, we usually feel turmoil and fear. Our inner peace is shattered and can be hard to re-establish. Nevertheless, many people are capable of doing something positive with this shattering, as it allows them a certain amount of new freedom, because old identities become obsolete and expectations are lowered. This gives us permission to start doing things very differently. When the crisis is critical and leads to loss of life, it may feel calamitous and completely negative. It may take many years, sometimes decades, to absorb the shock, and the scars will last forever. Even then, people often find ways of making meaning out of this experience.

Viktor Frankl’s work is a shining example of this. He went through one of the worst imaginable existential crises, when he lost all of his family in World War II and found himself interned in a concentration camp. He made it very clear in his writings and also in person, that everything he had valued was wiped out and that he was forced to find the creativity and determination to craft new meanings. Afterwards, when he was released from the camp, he was able to stand strong with his clients through the worst of times, like a rock in the sea, because he had been able to face the abyss and didn’t fear it any longer. Such an example of rising from crisis is hard earned. We cannot really learn to do this unless we are ourselves exposed to a similar situation.

This year, we are living a very strange reality, where many people across the world have been in lockdown and have feared for their own lives or those of other people. These circumstances have certainly become traumatic for some of us and, as counsellors and therapists, we need to figure out how to approach the situation. It’s not enough, and almost certainly impossible, to aim for people simply to re-emerge and re-establish their old lives. New lessons have to be learnt from this period of trials and tribulations. These are existential lessons.

What is the role of therapists in this current coping and in the rising/resurgence?

For such times of existential crisis, we need therapists who are able and willing to face things head on and who have the capacity to imagine how bad things are for some of their clients. When we are exposed to this much difficulty and challenge, we become highly sensitive to other people’s responses.

If we sense that our therapist is not genuine in their understanding of our critical position, we cannot remain open and trusting. Thus, we need therapists who are capable of showing their mettle and who are used to confronting the depth of despair with their clients, while keeping their eyes on the possibilities ahead.

We can never fake authenticity or existential courage. We can only help people to go as far as we have gone ourselves in our own lives. If we haven’t faced down failure, catastrophe, disaster, crisis and death, we cannot truly command authority in the face of such experiences in our clients’ lives either. Maturity and reflective understanding are therefore extremely important.

What do you see happening now among your clients – emotionally, mentally, physiologically and existentially? Have their personal issues receded in the face of this greater threat (remembering that suicide rates dropped during World War II, for example)? And for couples and families, is there a coming together or a falling apart?

It’s quite extraordinary to see once again how crisis and catastrophe bring out both the worst and the best in people. Those who have had previous mental health problems are far more at risk again. Not only do they find it scary to be faced with a situation they cannot control and oversee; they also fear other people’s bad responses in the situation. They stop feeling they can trust society, or even nature, and feel dreadfully alone in that disappointment. I have seen some people becoming more obsessed with cleanliness than is good for them and more inclined to remain in total isolation than even the Government has suggested. I have seen some people becoming more paranoid or more agoraphobic. The same happened with the Brexit situation and EU citizens too. People feel terribly alone and abandoned, and it is a good thing we have been able to provide online therapy sessions to help them remain connected and find some solace and support.

Some people feel aggrieved at the way others are operating in the circumstances, especially when this involves profiteering from other people’s misery. It is however also uplifting to see how many good people there are and how genuine the response of helping others has been, not just from health and care professionals but from many ordinary people who have staunchly volunteered to support those who are more vulnerable. This teaches us much about the human condition and our capacity to rise up when faced with misfortunes. We are seeing how crisis affects people across the whole spectrum.

Many people have begun to think more deeply about their lives and what is of most importance to them. People have started thinking more about death and fate as well. They realise that things can change at the drop of a hat and that we should never waste time. In both the Brexit and pandemic situations, there has been a knock-on effect on people’s livelihoods. Some have found themselves in sudden situations of hardship they weren’t at all prepared for, and this too can lead to terrible tragedies and hardship. We have also seen the impact of such struggles on families and couples, both in the positive and in the negative. Some have realised they need to pull together in their quandary; others have become far more conflicted and just want to get away and break up as soon as possible.

More people have learnt what it is to live with anxiety and depression. The confinement of the lockdown has impacted on people’s physical, emotional and mental health and wellbeing. We learn how important it is to look after ourselves and find mental and emotional strength and balance in order to stay sane. Many people remark on their desire to find new purpose and make something better of their lives, having seen how fragile everything is.

Your parents would have had personal experience of extreme deprivation of food, liberty, freedom of movement and more in the wartime Netherlands, and you would have also experienced some of this in the 50s in your childhood. Are there lessons for us from the past and from previous such crises, whether war or disease?

You are very right about that! My parents used to tell me so much about their plight in World War II, when they lived in the occupied Netherlands and my father had to go into hiding in terrible circumstances, while my mother worked as a nurse with children dying of tuberculosis and diphtheria. While the stories used to frighten me as a child, I know that living through this with them in my imagination has given me quite a lot of backbone. The horrors of their suffering, witnessing family members being deported or shot in the street for being part of the resistance, challenged me to find the inner strength to cope with my own problems.

I never forget that my parents survived by the skin of their teeth, living on nothing but soup made of flower bulbs, as the occupied part of the Netherlands was entirely deprived of supplies for the final nine months of the war.

My dad nearly died of double pneumonia, as there was no heating anywhere and he was hidden in the rafters of an old building. Such images are always at the back of my mind, and knowing my parents got through all this has often given me courage in the face of difficulties. I can see that people are finding courage in that same way again, today. As my parents often remarked, the war made them grateful and more aware of what was of true value in life. I very much hope that the new generation will learn similar lessons from the current situation.

How would you hope to see people changing how they live and relate to one another in a better future, when we are through this?

I fervently hope that we shall have become more united and more aware of the need for kindness. So many people are discovering that wealth, popularity and fame are not so important. What matters is that we make a worthy contribution to the world and that we keep learning, loving, communicating and searching for clarity, understanding and fairness.

What matters also is to find out how we can rise after suffering and take something good from our dark nights of the soul. This is what we used to call building character, dropping or polishing some of our bad habits under pressure and acquiring strength and vitality. When we see this happening, not just in ourselves but in others around us, we retrieve a feeling of our connectedness and purpose in life.

Where now for you in terms of the planned book on rising from crisis?

Though my book has been temporarily put on hold to deal with some of the practical requirements of putting all my work online, both at college and in my practice, I have also become more ardent in my desire to make this a book that can help people with these issues and problems. I am grateful that there was time to ponder about this and shift the emphasis of the book, making it much more about the experience of learning that we filter and distil from our difficulties. I have found my personal confrontation with the possibility of my, or my husband’s, imminent demise very invigorating, to put it mildly. It has brought me up closer to the plight of my clients. It has made me more determined than ever to use my abilities and talents to help this world change for the better.

Source: Therapy Today, June 2020, BACP