What Does an Existential Crisis Look Like?

Existential crisis is like a call from our soul. It is calling out to us to live more meaningfully.

As long as we are humans, we can't avoid going through an existential crisis.

Even psychotherapists do. In fact, I went through one myself in 2020.

Let's walk down memory lane.

Lockdown in Singapore

2 weeks into our circuit breaker in 2020, Singaporeans find ourselves having to endure another 4 weeks.

Why can’t the government just call this circuit breaker a lockdown like other countries?! I want to loiter around aimlessly, why can’t I?! There is nobody on the streets, why do I need to wear a mask?!

These were some of the questions I was asked in the first two weeks. At the time, I had the inner resources to fend myself from these frustrated-filled outbursts from the people around me.

Hope. I had it.

This was going to be like a retreat. Finally, some time to myself! A luxury I’d been yearning for since the beginning of my doctoral journey anyways. No work. No problem. I will just need to spend less. I have supportive family and friends. I have a direction in my life- writing my thesis and setting up my private practice. All is set, what more do I need for these 4 weeks?

But, hope can be such an elusive thing. I had it but it can be taken away so quickly at the same time too.

Precisely at the moment when I found out that our remaining 2 weeks had extended itself to 6.

Now I find myself asking those questions as well.

This is an existential crisis we are all in.

People are dying without their loved ones to send them off on their last journey. We have to make lifestyle changes that we would prefer not to.  Parents are anxious that their children with mental health issues are going to be caught not wearing their masks on the streets yet they’re limited by what they can do. Elderlies are suffering from insomnia, triggered by anxiety and worry, but do not dare go to a hospital for fear that they may get affected themselves. Children are forced to consider balancing risks with concern about their demented parent’s welfare in terms of isolation and lack of stimulus way before the circuit breaker kicked in.

Even for the people who are bent on not being defeated by it mentally or emotionally finds themselves affected by it one way or another. One poignant example is the mad rush for bubble tea before the stricter restrictions set in.  In a way, it’s a death of some sort. Not the physical kind but we have to die to some of our desires, cravings and needs.

Useful things I have learnt from the Existentialists

Today, more than ever, humanity needs to turn to existential philosophy for wisdom and direction.

It’s a great reminder, especially now, that man exists.

And to exist in existential terms is not the passive ‘lying around’ understanding that many of us hold today.

The etymology for ‘exist’ in Latin is ex-sistere which means to ‘come into being’ or to ‘take a stand’. This standing out takes on an active feel that contrasts sharply with the passivity that comes with saying ‘unicorn exists’, meaning that unicorns are lying somewhere in the world waiting to be found.

As active agents in the world, we are not bound by our essence or a fixed nature which goes on to set our purpose or function in the world.

As Sartre said, man is not a manufactured thing. Instead, our existence is a dynamic one where we are capable of going beyond ourselves.

Yet, today, my authentic selfhood, and probably for some of you here too, has been thrown into the limelight once again and up for scrutiny as I question what it means to be myself in these crazy times.

Authenticity as ‘an openness to existence, an acceptance of what is given, as well as our freedom to respond to it’ given by Hans Cohn may become, paradoxically, inspiring and empty at the same time for some of us.

We may have the intention to transcend ourselves, as existence necessarily calls for.  For me, I want to commit to being a better student, counsellor, friend, wife or even just a better human being. I believe fully in being the author of my life, fulfilling my responsibilities with the resoluteness and passion that existential philosophers like Heidegger and Kierkegaard had talked about.

Yet, the hardest part is not in commitment but it is more so that the extended restrictions that stops us from giving our wholehearted yes to life in the near future.

For many of us, the existential crisis lies in how to move forward with our lives.

How should we even start making sense of 2020?

However, these existential philosophers also remind us that existence is not an individual endeavour.

We live in a world. This world is not just an environment that is independent from those who talk about it. The word ‘world’ comes from the Old English compound, weor-old, and taken etymologically, it means the ‘age of man’. As such, when we talk of us living in the world, we have to take into consideration that the human factor is essential in our concept of the world. Our existence is impossible to be apart from other people. In other words, we need others to exist.

Yes, existentialists are wary against people who lose themselves in the ‘herd’ or ‘crowd’. However, funnily, the hyphens in Heidegger’s being-in-the-world serves as a solace for me as well, especially at this time where I am reminded that we do not live in isolation.

Existentialism is not as individualistic and despairing as it seems to be.  Man exists as persons only in a community of other persons and no authentic existence can lack a social dimension.

Reinterpreting Mick Cooper’s words in his book Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy, an authentic being-with-self can only be obtained while being-with-others. 

In the midst of losing my mojo, I appreciate my existential philosopher friends more so than over. As I read their work, I am called to appreciate the solidarity that I have witness so far in the local community where friends are reaching out to one another in inventive ways like zoom lunches and the public volunteering themselves in their own ways to support those needing an extra emotional or mental boost.

At its core, existence is paradoxical.

Authentic selfhood requires the exercise of individual freedom, will and decision for its attainment.

Yet, at the same time, we can only exist as persons in the world with others. This inherent paradox in an authentic existence becomes all the more prominent now with our second wave of restrictions.

And the existential question many of us could be asking as a society and as a human race at the moment is:

How we can continue to exercise our freedom, will and creativity, being the active agent that existence requires of us, while not being swallowed up by the new restrictions that are continually being rolled everyday (for good reasons)?

I don’t yet have an answer. And maybe I don’t need one. I don’t know.

But I’d like to think that the question is a hopeful rather than a despairing one.


Coping With Anxiety

Living with anxiety can be very tiring.

At this time, it is important to look after your physical health, practice good sleep hygiene and form strong and healthy support networks. Keeping up with a meditation practice or even just practicing breathing exercises has shown help some of us cope and feel more in control. Apps like Headspace or Insight Timer have many simple and easy-to-follow guided practices that are especially useful for beginners.

One may say that I have tried all these ways of coping with my anxiety but nothing seems to be working. This place feels helpless and vulnerable to some of us while it may feel bleak for others.

Yet sometimes, it is not so much what we are doing that is not helping. It is the attitude we go into doing these activities that needs some adjustment.

1. Having a different relationship with anxiety

In the article on existential anxiety, we mentioned that anxiety is part of being human. Whether we are conscious of it or not, anxiety is present in all of us. There is a purpose to all emotions, anxiety included. Anxiety is those up swinging emotions that makes us want to do something about our lives. It gears our body up for the things we aspire to achieve. It can be seen as a creative energy that challenges us to be more inventive with how we want to go about life.

Seen in this perspective, anxiety is not something to be eliminated but merely managed. We have to reconsider if anxiety deserves to be thrown away since it can be good for us. Rather, it is more about sitting more comfortably with anxiety, letting it to teach us what life is asking of us while not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by it.

Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, we feel like it is all we can think about. Our anxiety becomes us and we become anxiety.

The Buddhist teaching of bearing witness can aid in our awareness that we are more than just our anxiety. It allows us to say

‘I feel anxious. I have anxiety. I am being anxious. But I am not anxiety. I am more than my anxiety. ’

Some of you may be wondering, ‘how does this work?’

Try to imagine this: you are looking at a cloud in the sky. You who notices the cloud is not the cloud but the observer. Next, move your attention to another object around you. The fact that you can identify it means that you are not the object. This is the same with our anxiety. When we watch anxiety come and go within us, we become witnesses of the emotion. We are not the emotion.

This is a healthy way to look at anxiety or even other difficult emotions as it allows us to honour its presence. Yet, we do not need to identify ourselves as anxiety. Our lives are more than just our feelings. We are also formed by our values.

2. Write it down

Can you allow your anxiety to motivate and guide you to a more authentic and purposeful life? What can your anxiety teach you about your relationship with yourself, others and your world around you? Jotting all your thoughts and feelings about these questions in your journal can be a helpful way to find out how to cope with your anxiety in your own unique way.

3. Talk to a therapist

When you have exhausted all the options and none is not helping, you can consider seeing a therapist or counsellor. There are many forms of therapy out there and each therapist works differently with their own style and specialization.

For a very general idea of how different therapy works, you can read the previous article on 'Do all therapists work in the same way? How do I choose my therapist?'

             There are a few types of talk therapy that we recommend for anxiety issues:

  • Existential Therapy- specializes in helping clients to reconnect with their meanings in the face of anxiety.  See our article on 'There is no one way to live' for more information about this kind of therapy.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)- specializes in helping you understand how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feeling and behavior. It teaches you coping skills to cope with specific issues.
  • Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) - In simple terms, ACT is a form of therapy that helps individuals to focus on two key concepts -acceptance and commitment. It aims to help individuals accept what is out of their control (e.g. the presence of anxiety), and commit to actions that are in line with their values (e.g. going to a family dinner). Thus, the focus of ACT is not to change or reduce the frequency of anxious thoughts and feelings and bodily sensations, but to reduce the struggle with these experiences. The practice of ACT is also very much based on mindfulness, so ACT interventions could include the practice of mindfulness exercises.
  • Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy using the creative process in a safe therapeutic space to improve psychological and emotional health. It is open to all - art experience or skills are not required. It may be a transformative intervention for people with anxiety, especially if they have difficulties verbalising their struggles, or if they tend to be overwhelmed by emotions or ruminations.
  • EMDR Therapy is the therapeutic intervention recommended when anxiety and panic attacks stem from traumatic experiences and memories. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing: it is an evidence-based modality used to address adverse life experiences that contribute to disruptive symptoms in present living. 
Who Can Help?
Encompassing's Services

Specialising in providing individual and group therapy services to those who are going through major transitions in life.

Schedule a First Therapy Session with us

The start of your journey to healing. In this Introduction session, you will meet and get to know your therapist, and allow them to get to know you too. This is a good time to get a feel of what working together will be like and if you feel comfortable in the presence of the therapist. The therapist will tell you more about Existential Therapy and what a session is like, as well as field answer any questions you may have about therapy.

You will also get to chance to voice what problems you are facing and the therapist will be able to give you some guidance about how therapy can help.

This session is 50 minutes long and must be booked in advance.

Available in clinic or online.

$220 per 50 minutes

Book now

Other Useful Contacts
Counselling Helplines

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS)

24-hour suicide prevention hotline- 1800-221 4444

10 Cantonment Close #01-01

24-hour emotional support to those in crisis.

Institute of Mental Health (IMH)

24-hour hotline- +65 6389 2000


Offers a range of counselling and rehabilitative services to people of all ages

Tinkle Friend helpline (by Singapore Children’s Society)

1800-274 4788

chat online at www.tinklefriend.com (for primary school children)

Affordable Counselling

Clarity Singapore


(65) 6757 7990, ask@clarity-singapore.org

Helps people to cope with mental health conditions arising from anxiety and depression

Care Corner counselling Centre

Hotline 1800-353 5800 (for Mandarin speaking clients)


A non-profit, charitable organisation offering counselling services for lower-income families across Singapore.

Sage Counselling Centre


+65 6354 1191

Specialising in counselling services for the elderly (aged above 50) and their caregivers

Private Practices in Singapore

Colourfully Pte. Ltd.



Colourfully offers art psychotherapy and EMDR therapy for adults.

Lotus Therapy



Founder of Lotus Therapy, Anita Barot is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her expertise involves working with couples, parenting, and women's issues. 

Insight Therapy Services 
+65 8115 5362 | Alex@insight-therapy.com.sg
Provides adult ADHD, Behavioural addictions (gaming & Sex) & EMDR therapy.

Sofia Wellness Clinic


+65 83683591 | hello@sofia.com.sg

Sofia Wellness Clinic offers counselling and psychotherapy services based on positive psychology to teenagers and adults to help them overcome life challenges and flourish as individuals.



+65 8798 4519 | office@soulmosaic-therapy.com

A practice offering multilingual therapists and a safe, compassionate space to recover strength, resilience and joy

The Psychotherapy Clinic


+65 8828 4006 | simonneo@thepsychotherapyclinic.com.sg 

A private practice with a desire to BRIDGE TRUST and BUILD HOPE into the lives of those that are challenged in their current life station.


Reflections: How Did I Become an Authenticity Researcher?

For a long time now, I have always wondered if authenticity and being Asian are compatible.

Having grown up in Singapore and coming from a traditional Chinese family, I’ve been taught to greet my elders and respect authority figures. We have a saying in mandarin, ‘ 入得厨房 出得厅堂’. It means that an ideal woman is one who can perform diligently in all household chores and yet act as a proper lady who knows how to dress elegantly, has graceful and polite manners and is able to hold mature conversations in social settings.

Training starts at a young age. And through my clinical experience, I notice that I am not alone. An experience I share with many of my clients are the unhealthy labels that we carry with us since childhood: Crying is shameful. We are selfish if we do not share our toys. Talking back to our parents is a sign of disrespect.

The common message across these labels is that we should care for others above our needs.  

This is where I struggled with the modern idea of authenticity (see article). If being authentic is defined as staying true to ourselves, essentially being congruent, sincere and transparent, how attainable is it for Asians who ultimately values collectivism over individualism?

It made me wonder if authenticity is only reserved for the western world. I had a hunch that it was not exclusive to only certain groups of people. It should be a universal human value.

I had another belief: It is when we throw the baby out with the bath water, pitting being true to ourselves against being around for others, that problems arise. Looking back at my own life and with my clinical experience, I notice that anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles arise when we perceive the tension between having our voices heard and experiencing a sense of belonging with others to be unsolvable. However, our true voice and our sense of belonging should not be an either/or experience but a both/an.

Even then, there were still many other things I did not know.  How will authenticity look like in an Asian society? How can I be true to myself without throwing away my Asian roots? Should I respect my needs first or others? After all, Asian values like harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, loyalty, and filial piety are not undesirable.

It is with these burning questions that led me to become an authenticity researcher 5 years ago. I hope that my work in attempting to conceptualize an Asian interpretation of authenticity, starting with millennials, will contribute to the mental health of the young people in Asia.

Authenticity: Is Being True to Ourselves Enough?

What do you think of this necklace?” the wife asked. It was a thin silver chain with a dark, large stone encased in silver.

 “I think it’s gaudy, something my grandmother might wear,” the husband replied.

What is your first response if you were the wife?

The husband here is Dennis D. Waskul, a professor at Minnesota State University. Interested in the topic of authenticity, he designed his own Garfinkelian social experiment, where he would be completely honest to himself and others for an entire day. This was his authenticity project.

Authenticity is a buzzword these days. We use it in the field of leadership, tourism, experiences, food and many more. We cannot deny it has become an important value in our society. Even for those of us who do not explicitly use the word, phrases like “be true to yourself”, “be who you really are”, “follow your heart”, “be yourself” or “express the real you” will not be unfamiliar.

Behind these phrases is an assumption that our inner self is the true self and the outer self is just a mask. To be authentic is to make our outer self more congruent with our inner self.

I grew up in this culture as well. I believed it. However, simmering beneath the surface was always some kind of anxiety, guilt and doubt. I often found myself struggling to express myself to others with full honesty. My mind would tell me that it is okay to be honest with what I thought but my body screamed, “Danger!” What became easier for me was to wrap uncomfortable truths in pretty packages – I often wondered if telling these truths as they were might upset the people I was talking to.

So just reading Dennis’ day of expressing his true thoughts cracks me up endlessly. Yet, I am aware of my own anxiety around it as well.

It makes me question if the consequence of authenticity is pushing people away for the sake of being true to ourselves. Is this how it should be?

Here is another snippet of Dennis’ day.

Dennis, are you busy right now?”

“Ah, well, actually YES.”

“Oh, I’m sorry…. Hey I have a student in the office right now, one of my advisees. He is having a hard time crafting the method sections for his qualitative study. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to meet with him, help work through his problems, and get ready to collect data. Could you do that?”

“I could but I don’t want to. I have enough students of my own. I don’t need to take on yours as well…. I am very busy, and you’re asking way too much of me.”

Well, excuse me!” she says in a tiff, as she turns and walks away.

Clearly, I understand where the humour of it comes from. Few of us speak with so much honesty and transparency and it’s refreshing to hear others speak like that.

However, this invites us to rethink what authenticity truly means. Giving Dennis credit, he was being sincere. Sincerity, according to Lionel Trilling, author of Sincerity and Honesty, refers to a congruence between avowal and actual feeling. We would then need to ask ourselves if sincerity and authenticity are actually the same thing.

I’m ending this first article here, with more questions than answers because authenticity is deeper than what it seems.

I’m hoping that through the next couple of articles, you and I can explore different sides of authenticity. And as we emerge out of it, we can see authenticity in a new light. This time with more clarity and understanding.

Related Articles

What is Existential Therapy?

Existential therapy encourages people to embrace the reality of suffering in order to work through and learn from it.

Find out how an existential outlook allows us to be authentic and have a decisive dedication to whatever it is we choose to accomplish in our lives.
Read On