I often recall learning about the concept of “highway hypnosis” during my high school driver’s education class. For some reason, it fascinated me. Every time I caught myself in a spell of this highway hypnosis, I would think back to that day in class.
Highway hypnosis is a state in which one can drive an automobile distances without having any recollection of the journey. During this state, an individual is able to respond safely to external events, but is not actively conscious of doing so. Not remembering your drive home from work—the twists, the turns, usual potential hazards avoided—is a common example.
How many of us do this with other areas of our lives? When a person comes to me with the realization that he or she has been going through life responding to external events without really being conscious or aware of the events, that is what I call existence. What happens to individuals who start to simply exist, and what can be done to change that? In this post, I hope to address why individuals go through motions and what can be done to begin living.
What Does It Mean to Exist?
Existence is a state of being. Unless we have died, we are all in existence. How we understand, perceive, and honor that existence is what will be different. A majority of individuals go through life existing, not living. Not unlike highway hypnosis, when you are in a state of existence, you are able to respond to external stimuli without being conscious or aware of it. Over time, this unawareness leads to an internal feeling of “something is wrong.”
Going Through the Motions?
The most difficult part of being/existing is going through life not knowing that you are doing this. Instead of being aware of what we are feeling, most of us will find ourselves doing the same things day in and day out. You may feel exhausted every night. Maybe you are frustrated with your job situation, relationship situation, etc. You may find yourself constantly complaining or having the burning desire to complain about something. Many turn to common habits such as mindless eating, binge drinking, shopping, promiscuous behaviors, etc. You may wake up feeling irritable, tired, sad, angry, or all of the above. However, if you are like most of us, you probably didn’t even realize you were doing these things until you got to this sentence.
Individuals who are going through the motions, feeling stuck in a rut, existing, almost always are unaware of their feelings, emotions, and behaviors. They are able to respond to external stimuli, but because they are unaware, they are not able to truly understand how their feelings toward work are wearing them down, or how they may be depressed because of difficulty in their relationship. Often they respond to external stimuli, hoping the response will change things, but if they are not aware of what is happening, more than likely their response to external stimuli will only perpetuate their experience.
Want to Start Living?
If you’re identifying that you may have been existing for some time, it is time to start living. It begins with creating a life of awareness. It is much easier for me to type this than it is to do it; however, with realistic and conscious efforts of creating awareness, you will slowly develop a more natural ability to check in with yourself and become aware of what you are doing, feeling, thinking, etc.
One way to get started is to set an alarm for every hour. When the alarm goes off, take a moment to check in with yourself. Identify whether you were thinking about one thing while doing something else. Were you aware of what you were doing? Do you know the various things you just did? Identify what you were thinking about. Often our thoughts need acknowledgement. Take a moment to acknowledge your thought, and then go back to the actual task.
You can also engage in mindfulness and deep-breathing exercises to help you find ways to control your thinking. In these exercises, as you focus on one thing the goal is to notice any drifting; at the moment you notice the drifting, acknowledge it and then refocus to the task at hand.
It also helps to take time to ask yourself if you are happy—and what happiness is to you. Many of us get stuck in being because happiness is an end goal. Find ways to make happiness the journey, not the destination.
Finally, let go of the expectation that you have to figure it all out by yourself. Seek professional help; by doing this, you can learn to truly go through life living, not just existing.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pooja Shah, PsyD, Existential Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor
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