Are You Sucked into an “Existential Vacuum”?

There is such a thing as an existential vacuum, and if you’re like most people, you’re already feeling nervous that you might be getting sucked into one.

Our fine friend Viktor Frankl (yes, the psychologist who wrote the exquisite Man’s Search for Meaning) coined the phrase, and if that sounds too soul-sucking for you, how about we go with the more approachable term of “existential frustration”?

This existential vacuum frustration is characterized by a sense of meaninglessness in life, which announces itself through the subjective feelings of boredom, emptiness, lack of direction, apathy, and questioning the point of pretty much every activity.

“Some complain of a void and a vague discontent when the busy week is over (the ‘Sunday neurosis’). Free time makes one aware of the fact that there is nothing one wants to do,” says existential psychologist Irv Yalom.

When we experience what’s known as a “psychological horror vacui” (a Latin term that refers to our fear of emptiness or the fear of not filling up), symptoms flood in to fill it the vacuum (er, vacui). Sounds like a horror, indeed.

See if any of these 15 meaning substitutes look familiar in your life?

Types of Purpose Substitutes and Sub-Types (source)

Type 1: Addictive Type
*Substance Abuse
*Pathologic Gambling
*Pathologic Shopping

Type 2: Social Type
*Forming Superficial and Unfulfilling Relationships
*Manufactured Drama
*Belonging to an Organization for Social Acceptance and/or Self-Definition

Type 3: “Morally Good” Type
*Inauthentic Altruism
*Inauthentic Crusadism

Type 4: Social Status Seeking Type
Overzealous acquisition of:
*Material Goods
*Prestige/ Power

Type 5: Unfulfilling Engagement Type
*Regimented Daily Schedule
*Excessive Television/ Internet Use

Well? Did any jump off the screen for you? Likely you were able to point the feelings outward, like, “OMG—Cindy manufactures drama all the time! She’s in an existential vacuum of meaninglessness!” (Cindy may or may not be in an existential vacuum, but she sure is annoying with all that drummed-up drama going on.)

But were you able to look inward? Were you able to bust yourself and see that your “overzealous acquisition for material goods,” for example, might be an indication you need a bit more purpose in your days? Maybe you’ve been cramming your days with go-go-go-ness to avoid the whisper of “yeah, but now what?” when you slow down to take a breath?

So what do we do about the existential vacuum?

By way of background to understand the vacuum, existential psychology concerns itself with these fun ‘n frothy principles:

  • Exercising personal freedom, choice, and responsibility amidst the absurdity of the finite human condition (i.e.: fodder for therapy couches everywhere)
  • Living authentically in the midst of said absurdity
  • Defining meaning in life while accepting our temporary existence

The Giant Existential VacuumTo what extent do you feel comfortable with the responsibility that comes from freedom, from the range of overwhelming choices available to you? To what extent do you feel like you’re living authentically—in line with the things that matter most to you, in a way where you can be who you really are? To what extent have you accepted your temporariness, and found meaning in the midst of that giant countdown timer?

We’ve spoken before about ways to make more meaning in your life, and about Frankl’s question of what your life might be expecting of you. Maybe brush the dust off them, and see if anything resonates with you today?

Usually the first step towards building a life you love is to bust yourself where you’ve been flatlining, where you’ve been distracting yourself with “purpose substitutes.” Awareness is the first step in transformation.

The good news is that meaning can be found in small actions, small choices, small moments. We often think we have to overhaul our lives/ devote inordinate amounts of effort towards “a cause,”/ become a monk/ become someone we don’t have the time (or inclination) to be. Sometimes it’s as simple as performing a random act of kindness, or pausing to be grateful for the tulips that are on raging display, or learning something new from a chapter in a book. Minute steps towards meaning, that’s all it might take. That’ll switch that vacuum off before you know it.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: Let’s connect on Instagram!

P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


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