the question I see a therapist once a week. But I have a shameful and persistent feeling of despair. I am trapped in a miserable and futile existence. I don’t like work. I hate being stuck in someone else’s schedule, sending meaningless emails, attending meaningless meetings. I hate five minutes to ninethe long journey, asking permission to say goodbye – it’s just sleep, work, sleep, work.
I have no garden, and noisy neighbors. I won’t starve or lose the roof over my head, but I can’t afford to go on vacation either. or go out to dinner or buy clothes and books
My family and friends are wonderful. I have a partner who loves me. but i’m just desperately unhappy. How can I say any of this out loud to people close to me? I feel like a petulant child: trapped, waiting. I don’t know how to be alive in this world and be happy..
Philip’s response Some unhappiness is inevitable. Being unhappy is one thing, but you don’t have to suffer the double whammy of being ashamed of your unhappiness.
I wonder if your parents couldn’t stand you being unhappy, so while they didn’t intend for you to find yourself unacceptable when you’re sad, this may be a result of their not being able to tolerate feelings of sadness in their child. . If our sadness isn’t taken seriously when we’re growing up, or if we’re ashamed of it, it’s harder for us to learn to be sad as adults.
I think difficult feelings should be welcomed as they serve as a warning bell that we need to make our lives more meaningful. Others disagree with me and would argue that difficult feelings need to be calmed down. I think there is a place for psychiatric drugs, but not as a first port of call. It is important to listen to our feelings so that we feel motivated to make changes that allow us to get the most out of our lives.
In your position, I wonder if I would experiment with honest conversations with people who love me. You are having a hard time being sad and maybe just imagining that you could be condemned for what you are going through, or that you would be hurt in some way. Not speaking authentically when you’re depressed can make it worse. It is important that they understand you and that you put your feelings into words. It’s great that you have a therapist to talk to, and I hope that by being accepted by your therapist you learn that it’s acceptable, even if you feel miserable.
You could change your job, or if you can’t, you can change your attitude towards your job. Or to expand on that idea a bit, you can change your life, or you can change your attitude towards your life. We can’t know if doing something different will make a difference, but doing the same thing is less likely to make a difference. You are allowed to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them.
A therapist once told me that he was working with a graduate and that the only job he could get was as a sales assistant in a perfume shop in a soulless mall. She was miserable at this job. And she suggested that while she should get the job done before another opportunity arose, she should be the best perfume salesperson she could be. She changed her attitude, threw herself into learning everything she could about smell, and stopped being afraid of work. She was still stuck in a job she hadn’t planned on doing, but a change in attitude made all the difference.
In Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, talks about a man who came to see him who couldn’t bear to be alive as his wife died. Frankl asked her what would have happened if he had died first and she had had to survive. The man replied that for her that would have been terrible, he would have suffered so much. Frankl pointed out that her own suffering meant that she had been spared that pain, but at the price of surviving and mourning her. Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds meaning. Frankl was unable to revive the man’s wife, but he managed to change her attitude towards her own suffering.
Frankl also quotes Nietzsche: “Whoever has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Existentialist philosophers argue that life is meaningless and our task is to come to terms with that. Frankl, however, thought that in order to make life worth living, each of us needs to find our own unique meaning for ourselves.
Meanings that made sense to us when we were younger will need to be revised as we age. It is common for some type of crisis or feelings that are difficult to cope with, such as the ones you are experiencing now, to precipitate such a review.
What you have in common with Frankl is that you’re trapped. He was imprisoned in concentration camps without knowing for how long, nor if he would die there, doing useless and painful work. He’s not in danger, but he’s still stuck doing a job that doesn’t make sense. However, he found the will to live by finding meaning, despite being imprisoned, and now this is your task as well.
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is published by Vintage at £9.99. Buy it for £9.29 at guardianbookshop.com
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