Creating Meaning in Your Life

Look at you! What a success! You’re an entrepreneur, doing what you love. Maybe you’ve gone to school, you’ve built a successful business, and you’re reached your goals (or at least some of them).


So now what? Maybe you’re feeling totally fulfilled, you may have a husband, wife or partner, children, a family you love, involvement in a religious community, hobbies. Or maybe, there’s a little irritating question in the back of your mind: is this all there is? What’s the meaning of life?


Years ago, when folks were engaged in more life-or-death jobs like growing their own food, or keeping their families safe from wooly mammoths, the question of meaning did not exist in the same way that it does today, with countless books and workshops covering the topic. So congratulations to all of us in the civilized world! Because we have individuals that do our taxes for us, grocery stores that stock thousands of different food items, and health care, we get spells of insomnia where we lay awake in an anxious panic contemplating who we are and what we’re meant to do.


In existential therapy, the question of meaning is closely tied to other questions like connection and freedom. Oftentimes, people draw a sense of meaning from involvement in a cultural or religious group, having a lot of friends, having family nearby, things like that. As for freedom, many people feel limited by the choices they have available, but if they could truly grasp the freedom they have to change their life, and accept that responsibility, their sense of meaning and fulfillment would probably come from very different sources.


The thing about meaning that most people don’t realize is that a person’s sense of fulfillment oftentimes isn’t solely satisfied by their chosen career.  Sometimes folks go into a profession like social work or counseling because they want to contribute to society and help others, but then get burnt out by the workload, or realize that some other yearning inside of them is not being answered. Other times people choose a career for security, for money, or because of family obligations, which could mean that a job is picked for reasons other then a person’s love for their job. Sometimes a person purses a career in what they most love in life, only to realize that it doesn’t quite leave them totally fulfilled.


People are very inconsistent, flexible, changeable, wonderful creatures. What made a person stimulated and satisfied at 22 might lose it shine at 40, or maybe even 30.  The metamorphosis you might go through after your parent dies, or after you go through a divorce might render that very specialized degree you worked so hard for in that specialized field completely obsolete when you realize that your life’s calling is to be a florist, say.


So next time you find yourself asking the question “what else?” remember to go easy on yourself. Just because you aren’t feeling entirely fulfilled by all the wonderful things in your life doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate what you have.  Be kind to yourself when you experience that giant question mark, and practice questioning yourself and your needs early on so that you can hear that voice when it’s still a whisper and hasn’t risen to a shouting crescendo. A simple daily meditation practice can help attune your hearing to that inner voice; it doesn’t have to be fancy or difficult, just a few minutes a day.


One of the most obvious and consistent ways people have been able to add meaning to their lives throughout the years is to volunteer. There’s definitely a reason people have been doing it for as long as they have, ask any friend who volunteers in the community and you will surely get a goofy grin and a story about mentoring a child, tutoring immigrants, training dogs at the animal shelter, or some other wonderful experience. Some folks find a deep sense of meaning in pursuing meditation and religious practices.

That instrument or language you’ve always meant to learn? Do it! And write me when you do, because I’d love to hear all about what brought meaning to your life!

Letters to Yalom — #3 — Existential anxiety and Existential guilt


Dear Dr. Yalom,


Here I am again, posing yet another unanswerable question! I hope you remember me, I emailed you recently about Existentialism and castration anxiety, and now I’m on the topic of existential anxiety versus existential guilt.


First, let me paint you a picture:


Here are two brothers, hypothetically they could be therapy clients of yours or mine or any therapist. The older brother is solid in every sense of the word: responsible, stable, hardworking. But he has always chosen the straight path, good job, responsible financial decisions, things like that. The younger brother picks one unusual dream after another to pursue—employment in creative fields, travel, uprooting himself to live in foreign lands, collecting fascinating friends and lovers, studying religion and volunteering in his spare time. The elder, in his retirement, feels a sneaking sense of disquiet, a “what have I really been doing all these years?” feeling, even though his family and career have brought him a great sense of pleasure. The younger feels a sense of disquiet from time to time, but it is different. Instead, he feels a sense of panic from when embarking on a new challenge.


In my readings of Existential therapy, I’ve come across two concepts that infinitely thought-provoking to me. One is existential anxiety, and the other is existential guilt. The former is what happens when we acknowledge our endless freedom and the accompanying responsibility and really live a fulfilled and challenging life by constantly pushing our boundaries and heading further into the unknown. The latter is the experience we get by turning away from our potential for greatness to chose the safe path. Both ideas have some merit to them, and both provoke some uncomfortable emotions at times. As you might have already guessed, I was imagining what these two ideas might look like in the first paragraph, the eldest dealing with the subtle rumblings of existential guilt, the younger struggling with the fright of existential angst.


I was thinking about these two ideas in relation to the four paradoxes: freedom versus responsibility, isolation versus connection, being versus non-being, meaning versus meaninglessness. Existential anxiety versus existential guilt could also be a paradox, although it is a parallel paradox to freedom versus responsibility. It seems to me that many of us could retreat into existential guilt when we feel threatened, when a loved one dies, when we fail at something. Especially in the wake of September 11, 2001, the retreat to safer pastures could seem especially attractive. Maybe when something goes well for us, or we are in a stable relationship and feel more able to step out of our normal limits, we move forward more boldly.


The answer-less question I am posing is this: Is there really a range between this existential anxiety and existential guilt? Are we in the same place on the spectrum our whole lives? Is this matter as simple as a person’s level of self-confidence?


If I seem a bit biased in my descriptions of these two phenomena, it’s because I am. I’ve aimed to leave no rock unturned and no continent unvisited in my life, to stretch my limits no matter how much it scared me. I sometimes find myself impatient with people who have chosen the more common path even though I seem to find them often. This is something I continue to work on in my personal life and as a therapist.


So Dr. Yalom, I’ll probably ponder this question some more, and then write to you again with my thoughts. My best wishes to you,

Kate Stewart


p.s. In case this is of any interest to you, I started posting my letters to you on my website.


Yalom wrote back, but like I would imagine, he is very busy. Here is what he wrote:

i’m sorry but i’m overwhelmed by e-mail and need to protect my writing time and simply cannot give your interesting question the time it deserves – irv yalom


Finding Fulfillment Through Connection

Finding Fulfillment Through Connection

I originally published this article on, a professional networking website. 


As a therapist, I see a lot of different types of problems and crises: Is this relationship working? Should I quit my job? Where am I going from here? But one of the most common complaints is lonliness. These days, people’s lives have made them so isolated that meaningful connections with people can be hard to come by.

The ironic thing is that with the advent of technology, we can be connected in some form or another every minute of the day. Can’t be with your family? You can call them on the telephone. Want to talk to someone in a far-flung location? Skype! Never again will you miss an important milestone your darling niece’s life, even though she lives 1,000 miles away. But where does all this supposed connecting get us?

In Existential therapy, they refer to this dilemma as a paradox, the isolation versus connection paradox (among other labels). The reason it is called a paradox is because it is a constant struggle for balance. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum of isolation and connection; one day we might feel completely connected to our community because of a family picnic or an outing with friends, on another day we might feel very disconnected because we’re working alone out of a home office.

Not only can our feelings of connection impact our emotional health, but our emotional health can also have an affect on our connection to others. Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have both been shown to cause social withdraw, which can actually make both of these conditions worse.

Remember what it is that makes you feel connected. Are you finding the types of connections you need from your friends? Are your family members able to fulfill the needs you feel for caring and support? If not, speak up, and if you aren’t able to get what you need by asking, look for it elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to look for other fulfillment in the community, find mentors and keep in close contact with them. Find people who make you laugh and call them on the telephone if you can’t see them in person. Remember to bring balance to your life!

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to leave comments.

Letters to Yalom — #2 — Cross-dressing and Castration Anxiety

Letters to Yalom — #2 — Cross-dressing and Castration Anxiety

Some of you may be familiar with Irvin Yalom, he pretty much wrote the book on Existential Therapy, and he’s also written many amazing non-fiction about his therapy work. His honesty about his own experiences sitting with clients, and ability to admit his shortcomings and mistakes is inspiring for me in my work. I’ve read most of his non-fiction books, and have been so inspired by what I’ve read that I’ve started writing him emails about his work. I’ve decided to publish my letters on this website.

Thanks for reading!

-Kate Stewart

Dear Dr. Yalom,

I’m a fairly new therapist, and I identify Existential therapy as my theoretical orientation.

I wrote an email to you not too long ago, but I never got a reply. This email was regarding the role of cross-dressing or ‘transvestism’ in pathology. You wrote in Existential Psychotherapy that this urge stems from castration anxiety, but I was very curious to see if your views on this had changed as gender identity has emerged as a subject of study in recent times.

The ironic thing is, I was looking for an answer from you, and I came to realize later that this isn’t neccessarily a question for you, as an author and leader in your field, to answer. It’s really a puzzle to ponder myself, as a clinician. What do I believe? What are my own experiences with people that cross-dress and transgendered people? I was also remembering what you wrote about therapy being recreated with every client, and how true that would be, especially in the case of clients that cross-dress. They might be greatly helped by a therapist who didn’t judge them and bring pre-conceived ideas about the cause of crossdressing impulses into the session with them.

So the conclusion I’ve come to is this, I don’t know why people cross-dress, or are transgendered. I realize I may never understand this on a first-hand basis, and it’s quite possible that there are many reasons people do these things, and the only reasons that matter are the reasons that my client brings to me in therapy.

As a therapist at the beginning of her career, this is just the beginning of the questions that I will have to answer for myself (aside from the input of my supervisor and colleagues). All of elders in my field that I have met that I respect have told me that the most important tool at our disposal in therapy is ourselves, the subtle quirks of our personality, our instincts, our humor.

So Dr. Yalom, don’t feel obligated to respond to this email. It would seem that I learn the most from unanswered emails! But I would like to say thank you for all of the books you have written. Your words are very soothing to graduate students and budding therapists (and most certainly other people too) in their realistic and kind tone.


Kate L Stewart, MA

P.S. Yalom actually responded! Here is his email:

very glad to hear that i, through indirect means, have stimulated such an investigative process in you – my best wishes, irvin yalom