To Fully Live, You Must Be Aware of Death (Existential Therapy)

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Death’s Prevalence

“Physicality of death destroys us. The Idea of death saves us” -Irvin Yalom

Death is the one thing that happens everyday that almost no one talks about. Why is it so taboo? Is it the fear that prevents us from talking about it or something greater? We see death all the time on movies and television screens, but when it confronts us directly we do everything in our power to avoid it. According to Irivin Yalom, (A prominent Psychologist and Author) this avoidance of death causes many motivations of human behavior.

Come to think about it, I never once spoke about death in my work as a therapist, up until about a month ago. As a therapist, my main motivation is to understand why we do what we do. What causes us to adopt mal-adaptive behaviors? What motivates us? What are we most afraid of? What makes us most happy? Does our avoidance with death hinder our ability to answer these questions?

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What is Death Anxiety?

It would not be productive for our species if we were scared of death all of the time. If we just sat there contemplating when we would die, we would never get anything done. The knowledge of our limited existence on this planet is both our greatest asset and curse. We are able to bypass instant gratification and work toward a purpose that is greater than ourselves. Although, the fear of death can often paralyze us into inaction, anxiety and depression. According to Existential Psychologists, secondary ways people combat the fear of one day not existing is to make a lot of money, have a family or even write a book. These are all things that we do to live on throughout history.

Ultimately, you have two choices when contemplating your limited time here on this planet. You can let it paralyze you, or you let let it invigorate you to live live more fully. The latter often happens when people are confronted with a terminal illness. They often receive a sudden spur of inspiration to live more fully. This is because they have no other choice than to accept that their life may soon be over. This type of event is known as an “Awakening Experience”.

“Death is everything and nothing” -Irvin Yalom

An Awakening Experience

An Awakening Experience is a major life event that causes you to contemplate your existence. Examples include;

  • Birthdays
  • Making a will
  • A death of someone you know
  • A career change
  • College reunion

Awakening experiences cause the person to re-examine their life and change it for the better. The most famous example is Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”.

Side Thought: Why Fear Death is you never perceive it? You and death never coexist. When death approaches you won’t have consciousness of it. You will instead live through others.

Death=Separation

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Death is separation from the world itself. It is the ultimate form of loneliness.

There are 2 kinds of loneliness.

1. Daily loneliness.

Is the fear of intimacy and fear of being unlovable. Friends and family of dying people avoid to get to close in fear of confronting their own death. I remember when my Grandpa was on his death bed my Mom was unemotional. I know she was sad, but she said that she was trying to be strong. The reality is that death was confronting her. It was an awakening experience that changed her.

2. Existential isolation

When you die you lose all individual memories that are unique to you. No one can accompany you in death. This is why there have been suicide pacts and why some Pharaohs were buried with their slaves. This is why empathy is so vital when someone is terminally ill. The power of empathy is Paramount because it tells the sick person that, “I am in this with you until your end.”

How Do We Live?

“Love your fate. Become who you are.” -Fredrich Nietzsche

There are two concepts that you can grasp to live a more fulfilling life.

1. Understand that wealth and goods are endless and unsatisfying- The more we get, the more we want. There are two ways to become unhappy,to not get what you want and to get what you want. Our Ego is the author of this narrative. The attainment of goods and things is much like drinking seawater. The more we drink it, the more thirsty we become. We don’t have goods. They have us!

2. Kill Your Reputation- Half our worries stem from our concern of the opinions of others. The sad thing is that we can never know what others really think of us. Relying on others’ for your own self worth is relinquishing control of your life. At the end of the day, your perception of yourself is the only thing that matters.

Overcome Death Anxiety By Living In The Ontological Mode

Ontological means living in accordance with the laws of nature (reality). It is about seeing the objectivity and finality of life. Become aware of your mortality and be primed to make significant changes. Use authentic engagement toward meaning and self-improvement.

Exercise: I want you to imagine yourself in one year. Think of all the regrets this future self may have from not accomplishing the goals he wants. What changes in your life right now that you can reduce the possibility of these regrets? This is a common exercise used by Existential Psychologists.

What Is Existential Psychotherapy?

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Existential therapy starts with the belief that although humans are essentially alone in the world, they long to be connected to others. People want to have purpose and meaning in one another’s lives, but ultimately they must come to realize that they cannot depend on others for validation, and with that realization they finally acknowledge and understand that they are fundamentally alone (Yalom, 1980). The result of this revelation is anxiety in the knowledge that our validation must come from within and not from others. This is the essence of true self-esteem.

For Existential therapists (ET), psychological pain and problems come from a person’s inability to deal with the normal existential anxiety that comes from confronting life’s mortality, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom. For other theorists, the way of being is merely an expression of how one chooses to live one’s life. However, one may feel unable to come to terms with the anxiety of being alone in the world. If so, an existential psychotherapist can assist one in accepting these feelings rather than trying to change them as if there is something wrong.

Everyone has the freedom to choose how they are going to be in life, however this may go unexercised because making changes is difficult; it may appear easier and safer not to make decisions that one will be responsible for. Many people will remain unaware of alternative choices in life for various societal reasons.

“We die alone and our memories die with us” Irivn Yalom

This was a brief explanation of Existential Psychotherapy. I suggest you check out Dr. Yalom’s website and Staring At The Sun

One Response

  1. Great article, I am doing an online interview series about life, if you are based in a location I will be in within the next few months, and art interested in being a guest. Please email me 🙂

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