THE EXISTENTIAL FLU — Diagnosing how we lose awareness and get back on track.
I had a crushing existential crisis recently…
Don’t worry, I managed to dig myself out of it. Not only that, but I think I can reduce its occurrence in future. This experience is not just ‘feeling down’ — it’s a completely undocumented illness that plagues the modern world called the Existential Flu.
What’s the Existential Flu? When your thinking is invaded by negative questions, self-doubt, low self-belief, a sense of meaninglessness, fuzzy-thinking, frustration for life and… well, that feeling of being hopelessly lost.
- These thoughts are not accurate, they don’t reflect your reality or progress in life — they are an invasion.
- What happens in EF is that you revert to your most basic evolutionary wiring and social conditioning — your most alert and independent self gets ousted like Steve Jobs at Apple.
Like the regular flu, you can catch it even if you’re ‘healthy’ — but it signals something very important about your life.
(A big thank you to the lovely Emily Hausman who helped me in reviewing this piece.)
Today we’ll uncover:
- PART I: Symptoms — What it feels like when you lose sight and begin deeply questioning yourself.
- PART II: Understanding — A deep and comprehensive take on why you feel this way, and how it happens — like understanding the ins-and-outs of any illness
- PART III: Avoidance — How you can avoid EF in future and the terrible feeling of existential dread.
- PART IV: Treatment — 6 Ways you can treat the dreaded EF and get back on track
How did it start for me?
Everything was going fine until I got COVID — this derailed my routine. Stay patient Joe I told myself.
Then a big consulting contract got cancelled — woops! There goes a wad of business income.
I was also rethinking the entire structure of Constant Student… what do I do next?
Fourthly, my Youtube Channel, which had been growing like gangbusters decided to do a ‘Titanic’ by crashing into an iceberg and coming to an immediate halt.
Safe to say that my uncertainty threshold was exceeded — and there I was, left freezing and shivering in the cold blue ocean of despair and disdain. And Rose wouldn’t move over to let me on the raft.
This let in the Existential Flu — an illness like no other.
If you swim in the icy waters of the ocean, your chances of getting the flu are pretty high. Your immune system weakens, making you more vulnerable to infection.
When you’re shivering in the ocean of existential dread, angst, fuzzyness and negative self-questioning, it’s your existential immune system that drops its guard and lets in the EF.
Part I: SYMPTOMS — What does it feel like to have the Existential Flu?
Summarising my recent experience.
(I’ve written out a full, extensive list of symptoms further below but for now I’ll recap them via my most recent experience with EF.)
As I froze in the water, I was circled by negative thoughts like I’m hopeless, I suck, I’m an imposter, I’ve done nothing with my life and why am I even here?
I began comparing myself and my progress to my friends in other startups and with online followings. I’m usually very grounded and comfortable going at my own pace but all of a sudden I couldn’t help but feel inadequate in comparison to others.
I felt like I would not be able to advance my own mission and develop my work (both my podcast and The Constant Student).
I also became anxious about my relationship status — something I rarely think about. With EF, I started observing my other friends with partners and thought will I be able to find a good partner again?
I could feel my mind debating my worth, looking for ‘evidence’ that I was, or am, good enough as a person.
My ego was like a detective, looking for ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ — you launched that book last year Joe, and you’ve had feedback from people that your stuff is good, that you’ve helped them. Then another voice debated back but you know that you shouldn’t need extrinsic rewards or ‘proof’ of how good you are, you should be content in yourself, and just let those things come.
That’s the sort of internal war that rages with this illness.
But all the while you feel a little detached or cut-off from things — you feel what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called ‘thrownness’ — that feeling that you’ve been randomly thrown into the world with no meaningful purpose or reason for it.
As a result of that — me feeling lost there in a big blue ocean with nothing to tether myself to… or rather, my ‘self’ to — I was flailing like mad, looking for something to cling to. To attach to.
Desperate for any small win or lift — a new follower, some good news, praise, validation, attention, approval, ‘success’ — anything. Desperately looking in the water, I didn’t have the ability, time, or patience to look up and find the stars again.
So how did I get out of this ocean?
First, here is a full list of symptoms.
- Low energy
- Loss of motivation to do productive things. People who are looking for motivation really need to find clarity
- Fuzzy feeling — dazed, confused — but don’t know why
- Incredibly low and depressive moods, inability to feel joy
- Extreme self-doubt and low self-efficacy — the belief in yourself to realise meaningful world outcomes — to ‘succeed’ in ‘anything’ (even if you have already!)
Reversion to baseline human wiring and social conditioning
- More dopamine and pleasure-seeking behaviour — looking for quick fixes and ‘wins’, e.g. gaining followers, money, status, likes or validation from others.
- Comparison to others — unable to see your individual worth, you try to observe your worth via comparison to others. It’s like not being able to see how long a piece of string is, and needing to hold it against something else.
- Bias towards tangibility — need black and white proof of ‘progress’ or ‘self-worth’
- Instead of valuing what you normally value, you begin to care about whatever is society’s current flavor. For example, envying your friend’s career progress — but thousands of years ago, people didn’t have careers, so they could not be envied. This is a trick of the mind.
Perspective & blurry vision
- Can’t see the intrinsic value in what you’ve already done in life (leads to a shift towards extrinsic/external indicators of your worth or ‘success’.)
- Can’t see your vision (i.e. life vision), which is like a North Star in the sky, not a carefully carved roadmap. Your awareness shrinks — you’re too occupied by the circling sharks and icy water to see your North Star.
- As a result, revert to looking at the status quo for a way forward, hence the heightened comparison to others.
- Can’t see solutions to the EF as a result of loss of vision.
- Decision fatigue — all the criss-crossing road and options we might take to ‘improve ourselves’ begin weighing on our mind.
- Difficulty actually making decisions — it feels like you’re choosing from the 1,011 cafes in Sydney to go to for lunch, because you don’t have clarity on what you want moving forward.
- Negative self-questioning — negative thoughts about your worth circle like sharks.
Loss of Awareness
The ultimate result of EF is that you become attached to things — like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Go back to the image of freezing in the water, surrounded by sharks — you’re so scared, cold and lost, you’ll cling to anything that could lead to safety.
Life becomes too serious. You become desperate for some sense of ‘success’.
You seek certainty of outcome. You don’t have calm faith in the universe.
PART II: UNDERSTAND — How and why does this happen?
First is the inflammation. Inflammation inhibits your senses with a regular flu — the same happens with EF.
With a regular flu your nose becomes blocked, your airways constrained, vision slightly impaired and there can be a loss of taste.
In EF, inflammation blocks your perspective. You’re in the water trying to attach to something for dear life, instead of being able to look up. You lose sight and perspective of two things:
Inflammation? Of what? — the disruption of whole-body thinking
Wisdom merchants like Eckart Tolle, author of The Power of Now point out that there are three thinking centres in the body.
- The Mind
- The Heart
- The Gut
You can only think clearly when all three are in alignment — Tolle calls this ‘whole body thinking.’ With Existential Flu, inflammation blocks the connection between these centres and you get ‘stuck in your head.’ Really you’re stuck in your mind, where the ego lives.
Your heart and gut help to purify the ego’s schemes, like water cooling a nuclear core reactor — but when they’re obstructed, BOOM!
It’s like letting misbehaving children loose when the teacher steps out of the classroom. I call this state of mind ‘ego hijack.’
Emily requested a follow-up piece on clarifying the heart, gut and mind and which we should listen to. If you want to be notified when it goes live, you can sign up here.
Secondly, your ‘ego hijacked’ mind begins to look in the wrong places for solutions.
Part of the ego’s function is acting as a defense system for your ‘self’, which is the story you tell yourself, consciously and subconsciously, about who you are.
Do you find yourself having a high sex drive or the ability to concentrate on work when you have a regular cold or flu? No — because your body takes attention away from functions so it can concentrate on your physical wellbeing.
The ego does this for the survival of your ‘self’. It tries to take things back to basics — which doesn’t feel good. It chases dopamine, social status, feelings of certainty or success — the ego here is like a 3am pantry raid or kebab shop visit. Cheap and easy is the way, and there’s no care for your long-term health.
Thirdly, in losing the ability to see clearly, you become impatient and seek certainty.
When you’re flailing in the water, you don’t look for the best road to rescue. You take whatever floating piece of debris is nearest to you.
Without clarity, there is no calm and so a void is created within us — this feels unsafe, which is why we next seek the most certain, short-term solution to fill it.
To our primitive minds, status quo is normally coded as this safe path. EF blocks our whole-body thinking and our ability to see ourselves truly — this blocks our internal compass. Without an internal compass, the lure of the ‘safe’ status quo becomes stronger.
You measure yourself against others and/or try to follow the herd when you lose sight of (or don’t know) who you are. You can’t see your internal compass.
For me, I suddenly measured my life by metrics that I normally discarded — like money and followers — and I was desperate for a lift.
This is why you must seek clarity, not certainty or progress — or you’ll never feel content.
Existential Flu plays a useful role.
On this blog we frequently allude to the compass and it’s distinction from the map. While we don’t have time to elaborate, the basic function of EF is like the bumpy lanes on the freeway that make a noise when you veer out of your lane.
The regular flu gets to you when you’ve a) caught it from somewhere or someone else infected or b) when your regular immune system is low.
The Existential Flu gets you when your Existential Immune System is low — things that protect your sense of inner peace, purpose, joy and meaning.
But what are they? I gave just one example in my own story — my uncertainty threshold was exceeded by the misfortune of four things ‘going wrong’ at once.
It’s as simple as that. So that begs the question…
Part III: How do we avoid EF?
1. You’re made vulnerable to EF when you do things that are not right for you.
What are the wrong things? Things that don’t give you a sense of flow, awe, or inner peace. Things that don’t bring you joy, that don’t make you say ‘hell yes!’ when you contemplate doing them.
It’s when you slip away from your values. When you do things that are against your nature… but you probably don’t even realise you’re going there.
The Existential Flu can creep in with the slightest contamination… just like regular flu.
Example: How setting up a business for intrinsic reasons can break you.
Let’s say you started a cupcake business because you love baking. How exciting! You have the perfect vision and can’t wait to get things underway.
But now you have expenses… rent, fit-out costs, production costs, staff wages… you know your break-even point so you work hard to reach it. But as you work hard to reach break-even, you lose sight of your joy of baking.
You become attached to the outcome, even desperate for the outcome. But you don’t break-even. Meanwhile the shop across the road is always full of customers… but you know your produce is better than theirs. ‘That’s not fair!’ you say.
You feel down, low, frustrated, fuzzy… wham! There’s the EF’s early onset. So you see, that’s how simple it is — intrinsic goals can be corrupted by extrinsic focus, which leads to the ‘bumpy lanes on the freeway.’
It’s not to say you shouldn’t run your cupcake business — it’s to say you shouldn’t become attached to your cupcake business or some monetary goal.
2. EF is contagious — if other people have EF, they spread it to you.
It’s hard to catch EF when you’re out in the countryside, away from social media and social comparison, when you’re not chasing any crazy goals or aspirations that feel like a rollercoaster.
Being near other desperate people in the water is dangerous — they might pull you down, and then you both drown.
This might be your partner’s insecurity, your conflict with other ego’s in the workplace, people who put doubt in you, envious people who criticise your life choices and career directions…
Insecure people are like drunk drivers on the freeway. They crash and collide with others all the time.
(Quick note: On the other hand, people who are in whole-life-flow make you feel better about yourself.)
- EF blocks your view of the big picture
- You avoid EF by avoiding things that shrink your awareness
- EF is contagious
But just as getting the flu every now and then is an acceptable consequence of interacting with society, the EF might not be something you avoid at all costs — but accept, as part of being human and interacting with the world.
PART IV: TREATMENT — 6 ways you can treat the dreaded EF and get back on track
To recover you need to regain perspective on the big picture and get back in your ‘lane’. How do we do that? I don’t know, this is a new area of science!
So far, I think these things will tend to work:
1. Do creative things or anything that gives you a sense of flow state, calm and ease.
These tend to be activities you’ve done in the past where you lost track of time. This can be hard if those things have become professional or business pursuits — if so, it might be easier to do creative things that have no link to work, career or your sense of achievement.
2. Take a sufficient break from everything you’re doing.
The more severe the dose of EF, the longer you’ll need to pause your usual activities or routine… eventually your egoic mind gives up on its aggressive hunt and you re-focus on the calm and simple reality. Just like a regular flu, failing to rest will hurt your recovery.
For example, people describe the feeling of calm that sets in when they spend 2-3 days in the wilderness, away from big cities and their everyday lives. It’s almost certain you’ll feel this way because you will reconnect with reality.
3. Have a deep conversation with one or more close friends.
What does this look like? For example, a 2 hour phone call with no particular agenda, where you go deep into topics and what you are both going through in life at the moment — what you’re enjoying and what’s frustrating you. Make it mutually beneficial.
4. Be aware.
Aware of what? No — just aware. Of your breath. Of the sun. The wind. The trees. The stars. The people around you. Sounds lame I know, the ego-hijacked mind resists this — it sounds too simple.
But if you can slow down enough to appreciate these things, it takes the focus away from yourself — again, your ‘self’ — which gives things time to calm the heck down!
When you overcome your EF, this feels like pure bliss. That’s when you think ‘how could I ever get EF and fail to appreciate things like butterflies and trees?’
Bonus points if you get outside to do it.
6. Meditation (in all its forms).
Meditation might not be humming and sitting on a rock, or a 10-day Vipassana — but whatever meditation is for you.
Naval Ravikant sits still with no input for an hour a day and lets his ‘mental inbox’ clear. I have no formal meditation process myself, but I feel a meditation-like experience when I walk outside or get deep into writing.
You might also like to…
- Work on your Avoidance List — things that get you off track in life or give you unnecessary friction and frustration. Write them down so you can return to them over time and remember them more easily.
- Journaling — writing about how you feel helps self-reflection, which creates perspective again.
- Listen to or read the works of calming thinkers and speakers — like Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony De Mello or many religious and spiritual type figures.
- Don’t fight or judge your Exisential Flu — this is like trying to work through your cold or getting angry that you’re sick. More on that here.
Good luck dear friends in fighting the EF — as a recap, remember:
- It is an invasion in your thinking — the thoughts associated with EF do not represent the real you.
- EF is useful, don’t ‘fight it’ — you picked up an infection, and there’s useful information embedded in the experience. Check out the recovery steps on this article next time it plagues you.
- Don’t push through! Rest — like a regular flu.
Next I recommend you read one of these articles:
I will put out more articles, podcast episodes and Youtube videos related to these ideas, as it’s a dense concept. Information on staying tuned is below.
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