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How I Got Out of My Existential Crisis

Stack World Founder Sharmdean Reid talks maintaining optimism in the most pessimistic of times


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By Sharmadean Reid

8 May 2023

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s intelligent and introspective women, we are constantly searching for meaning in the world. Trying to make sense of it all. At various moments in our lives, there will be no answers, pushing us to the edge of the abyss. We know that existential crises will come for us, and we know that with management, this too shall pass. We do not stand still and wallow in the melancholy for too long. We push forward, we stick to our methods, and we generate new purpose. By adopting strategies to manage our various existential crises, we can emerge as butterflies with a great sense of clarity about who we are and why we are here.

If you really knew me you would know that I experience sadness a lot. Long periods where I am disconnected and not acting in true purpose. I’m just very good at hiding publicly and very good at fulfilling my duty at work. But people can feel it. They can feel my quiet black hole energy. My son and I call this “The Muffin”. When he was small, we watched the brilliant movie The NeverEnding story and for years he thought The Nothing, was called The Muffin, so we affectionately continue to call it that whenever we are sad.

What is The Nothing? In The NeverEnding story, it was the result of humans inability to believe. As their busy working worlds took over, they forgot about Fantastia, the land in the story book, and so it started to disappear, swallowed up by a dark nothingness. That is what The Muffin is. Its an apathy to the world around me, which leads to me slowly starting to disappear. I had so successfully managed my emotions and anxiety, that sometimes I just felt nothing. And as someone who feels so deeply, with the full spectrum of her emotions, this would be quite scary. Apathy protects you very well from anxiety, but I lost my heart and my drive within the process.

People, things, feelings all matter. And when they stop mattering, that is when my existential Muffin begins. In the movie, there is a significant scene where the protagonist, Atreyu, is faced with a daunting decision. He must walk through twin Sphinx statues, towering on either side of him, which mark a grand entryway leading to an important destination. However, passing through the statues is not so simple an act - as failure to believe in oneself results in the Sphinxes opening their eyes and unleashing powerful lasers, destroying anyone who doubts themselves.

Doubt forms a big part of my existential crisis, not only in myself, but in the systems and institutions that are here to protect and serve us. When nothing is right in the world, how can I be expected to be right in myself? How can I stay in my tiny lane, working on what I’m meant to be working on, when all around me, there are forces working against me?

Existentialism, as understood through the work of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, invites us to confront the realities of the human condition: our mortality, our freedom, and our responsibility to create meaning in a world that can so often feel chaotic and uncertain. It asks us to grapple with the big questions of life, such as "What is the meaning of existence?" and "What is the purpose of my life?" and to find our own answers, rather than relying on external sources or societal norms.

There are many times in my life when I have desired to be more of a ripple on the surface of an ocean that to be a deep current at the bottom of an abyss. Thinking deeply and reflecting often makes you more attuned to the complexities of life and more prone to questioning your place in the world. Intelligence comes at a cost. Ignorance is bliss.

As is my usual perspective, where pain is the lesson is and so I believe that at its core, existentialism is a signal to take ownership of our lives and make choices that align with our deepest values and beliefs, even in the face of adversity or the unknown. It challenges us to embrace the discomfort that comes with being human, and to find meaning in the struggle. It encourages us to live authentically, with integrity and courage, and to connect with others in a way that acknowledges our shared humanity. In short, existentialism asks us to live with awareness, intention, and a willingness to embrace the full range of human experience - the joy, the pain, the love, and the fear - in order to create a life that works for you.

Pain is the lesson is and so I believe that at its core, existentialism is a signal to take ownership of our lives.

But apathy is also a luxury. We have work, children, lives to get back to so what can we do to move through the process more efficiently? There are a series of tasks that I now work through whenever these crises come, which they do with regularity, giving me a toolkit to manage them.

Firstly, I list some emotions and attempt list the current issue that matches them. I don’t always have answers at this point, but I write the words anyway.

Sad/Despondent - Why?

Frustration - Why?

Anger - Why?

Annoyed - Why?

Then I zoom out and look at macro world events and my media diet and assess how that might affect affect my mood. Did someone declare war? Was another woman brutally mrudered? Accept that you do not exist in a vacuum and the content you consume will have an underlying impact on your mood.

Next, I look at my state of being. A key part of me slipping into crisis mode is the Upper Limit Problem - a concept first explained to me by my coach, Jess Ratcliffe, which comes from Gay Hendricks’ book, The Big Leap.

“Here’s how an upper limit problem works: We all have an inner ‘thermostat setting’ that determines how much success we allow ourselves to enjoy in various areas of life. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we may do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.”

As I scale myself and my business, could my mind be attacking itself to keep me at my safe level? What was I afraid of? Furthermore as I reflected on the book, I realised I was just hanging in my “Zone of Excellence” with my work, I was doing all the things I was good at.

“Most people build their careers in their zone of excellence, the area of life in which your skills are proficient. The problem with the zone of excellence — and the reason why so many people in it are most unhappy — is that it is the mastery of that which already exists. It is building out other people's preexisting needs and ideas. It is a fine line away from the zone of genius, the mental state in which you will actually thrive.”

This Upper Limit Problem is something I can crash into while Playing Games I Can Win. It’s the result of doing 100% of the things I already know how to do and being in too much pleasure and ease. The result means that you never get to your Zone of Genius. The tension between wanting to stay in my safe zone, while also not feeling like I was pushing myself to the next level, while also feeling a little bit angry and annoyed was resulting in a very noisy head, that I couldn’t seem to escape from. A swirling storm of feelings. I tried to tackle them one by one against my words.

Sad/Despondent - Upper Limit Problem

Frustration - Not achieving my Zone of Genius

Anger - What was I angry about?

Annoyed - What exactly was I annoyed at?

One answer could be the suffering it took to get here. It is at this point of the toolkit, I begin to have some compassion for my experience. I worked a lot, I sacrificed a lot. I did a lot alone. Would I have got here without the suffering? Why must I always suffer to create things that do well? This feeling - like clockwork - then leads to me being angry at the system that rewards a ridiculous amount of overworking, game playing and bullshit, and so I withdraw from the system and The Muffin begins. Ok, so I had some more answers

Ok, so I had some more answers

Sad/Despondent - Upper Limit Problem

Frustration - Not achieving my Zone of Genius

Anger - A system of inequality and labour.

Annoyed - The suffering to get to the wins.

“What I realise now, looking back at my existential crisis, is there is no silver bullet. No spa day or vacation is going to solve my problems.”

So now I have some things to work on in terms of my purpose, but first, I had to take care of the basics. One can not be expected to work through these difficult mental challenges, withut first addressing our fundamental human needs.

Physiological: I took care of myself. I stopped drinking completely. I got enough sleep, I attempted 20 mins cardio a day or 10k Steps. This meant that my body could support my mind.

Spiritual: I went to yoga, I meditated, I chanted. I felt connected to something bigger than myself. What is your church?

Social: I joined several community events on The Stack and hosted many dinner parties. Social bonds are essential for humans to feel human. Hosting a dinner party gave me a micro sense of purpose and excitement for meaningful conversations.

Gratitude: I would look back at my life (especially at pictures of Baby Roman) and feel utterly grateful for the things I’ve seen, experienced and done.

Stopped watching the news: I listen to the morning news on my Alexa, and that's it. No papers, no tv, no social media news.

Made playlists of music I loved aged 15 to 25, aka the responsibility-free years. UK Garage, Grime, Dubstep and S Club 7.

I bathed in nature. Lots of long, wet walks in the English countryside.

“I understand now that the work is never finished and I need to practise what I preach.”

These things are table stakes. The basics to get you prepared. Let’s now go to the next level of Optimism making. This requires active participation and work.

12 Step Programmes I returned to my programmes to find communion in those also experiencing suffering.

I consumed stories of purpose in books, tv and film. Classic stories of people fighting for justice.

I reflected on The Hero’s Journey, understanding that this was all just part of my cycle.

I listened to the usual motivational and philosophical podcasts, but also audiobooks, while walking.

I went back to my hometown for a trip, to my siblings. I returned to my source. As soon as I was back in Wolverhampton I experience such a positive energy shift! I love this place and it reminded me of how far I’ve come.

So after taking some action to consume content that helped me understand the importance of meaning, I now had to apply it. This is the hardest but most rewarding part of finding my optimism again. All of this work was done through conversations with friends and journaling.

I seriously started to question what I really wanted. Do I want to be on this growth trajectory and keep working at a startup? The answer is yes, but on my own terms. My life's work – equality for women – remains the same, but what exactly was my role in that? I know what I want to be doing at 70, is my work today going to get me there?

My current missionThe Stack World – how are we executing on the vision? Do I feel like we are really making an impact and difference? How can we make this difference at scale?

Does my role suit what I’m good at and suit my lifestyle? Where am I best supported and where are the gaps I need to fill?

Am I giving to myself what I’m giving to others? Being of service is my default state and it’s now my job. Am I supporting myself the way I support our Members?

How do I get to my Zone of Genius? What am I uniquely good at that means that without my contribution, it wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist at the level I could do it?

What actions can I take today to make progress rather than setting unachievable goals as a form of procrastination?

Learning Mode is critical for me. Am I actively learning in my role?

I rounded off these questions by actually updating my own Vision, Mission and Principles. The simple one page document that reminds me who I am and what I stand for. I then complete my annual Big Woman Energy Vision Setting Document, creating a narrative for my future. It’s at this point that I usually begin myself again. I am fired up, I’m excited about the future and I am full of my usual energy and optimism. My work and my purpose are aligned.

When this feeling of purpose returns and The Muffin is eaten, I then take the necessary steps to update our business goals, build a team who will get me there and let go of the people who won’t. With each surge forward, there must be things, people and practices I leave behind.

I understand now that The Work is never finished and I need to practise what I preach. These New Methods were started when I was 28 and a decade later, it is easy to feel complacent, like you know it all. Only through consistent and concerted effort on my methods did I find my zest for life again. By understanding my role in this speck of humanity on the timeline of this universe, by designing products that give me something to look forward to and by finding a group of people to help me move towards that goal, I am myself once more.

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