How to manage existential dread

January 20, 2023

How to manage existential dread

“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”—Martin Heidegger

We all face moments in life that feel out of our control. Anxiety creeps in, and in extreme cases, it makes us realize how fragile and fleeting our existence could be. In the face of existential dread, how can we rise to the challenge, take back the reins of our lives, and make decisions not led by fear?

At some point, all of us go through an existential crisis of some kind. We wonder if anything we've done up to this point has ever mattered or if it was all in vain. These moments of doubt could be brought about by many things, such as a traumatic life event, huge life transitions (especially unwanted ones), large-scale crises such as pandemics, wars, and natural disasters, anxiety or depression, and facing death (of a loved one, of a stranger in close proximity, or having a near-death encounter firsthand).

Sometimes it could be as trivial as feeling a sense of loss of identity after moving to a new place when you’ve been in your old home for years.

What these events have in common is that they make you feel as if you’ve lost control over your life, or that you’ve come to a standstill, and they make you grieve over the perceived (or real) loss of something that felt essential to your being.

When existential dread creeps in, it tends to “tunnel our vision” or make us look at the situation through a narrower perspective. This could cause problems when it comes to decision-making, both in our personal and professional lives.

You’ve probably felt it firsthand over the past years. One after the other, nationwide and global crises seem to come our way: the COVID-19 pandemic, the war between Russia and Ukraine, the economic decline, and whispers of a possible local or global recession—the list seems endless.

As evidenced by the rise in cases of depression and burnout, a large number of people suffered from anxiety. We've all been in fight-or-flight mode for such a long time.

As leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners running a business or leading a team in times like these, how can we manage existential dread to make sure we can cope, adapt, and decide appropriately when the need for great leadership arises? And how can we help the people around us manage their existential dread so that they can cope and thrive, with no one left behind?

The first thing is to get comfortable with not knowing.

One of the reasons we feel existential crises is because we fear the unknown; that fear feels like a threat to our existence. We think that if we want to be in control of our lives, we need to always be in the know about everything in our environment.

However, there are times when being in control necessitates putting your trust in your experience and gut to fill in the gaps while concentrating on the things you can exert control over. Afterward, dealing with the fallout as you go.

Wishing you could make the storm go away or predict when and where it will hit will not do you or your crew any good. Sometimes control means surviving for now and strategizing what to do later.

Because crises can occasionally arise that are unexpected or urgent, regardless of how well you prepare. It is a natural part of life. There will be circumstances beyond your control, but there will also always be fantastic opportunities in every crisis.

Seize control by looking for those opportunities.

But if you are not comfortable facing the unknown, panic can cause you to stand still. It narrows your vision, making you miss these opportunities because you are busy looking at what is beyond your control. It impedes your decision-making and slows down execution.

It is understandable to feel fear in the face of crises. We are humans. But as leaders, we are also responsible for the people we are leading. They will look to us for reassurance and guidance to navigate these rocky situations.

Another source of fear is the fear of making the wrong decision at a crucial moment. Facing risks comes with acknowledging the possibility of losses, and it can feel daunting to be the only person responsible for all that weight. So don’t.

Don’t be the only one responsible.

Once you’ve gained your composure and you and your team are planning how to navigate a tough crisis, ask them for their input. Listen. When in doubt, let your values guide you. And once you've made a choice, let your team know in a straightforward, consistent manner. 

When things go wrong, fix them. If you don’t know what you are doing, that is okay. Everyone else feels that way too. Sometimes, acknowledging that you feel as lost as everyone else is the best way to calm the team. Knowing that you are not alone in feeling so overwhelmed by an unexpected circumstance is reassuring. 

Lastly, lead with benevolence. Putting everyone’s safety first should be at the heart of every decision you make as a leader. You can’t lead a group of panicking people by making them feel like you’ve left them to fend for themselves.

But letting them know that you care about their well-being and safety first and foremost can help ease their minds, and when the panic subsides, they are in a better headspace to contribute and function as part of the team.

A global pandemic isn’t something we face every day, but there have been a lot of valuable leadership lessons that the past few years have taught us. I hope it helps you and me be better prepared for the next existential crisis we have to face, whether as leaders or as mere human beings navigating life.

Thanks for reading “A Brilliant Tribe.”