Spiritual Growth through Existential Crisis

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Reader’s Question

I am a 23-year-old female going through an extreme crisis. I grew up in a house with an amazing family. My parents are so loving; they have been super-supportive and just great all around.

I grew up as a strong believer in God. My whole life was based on Him: ministry, church, my friends, everything. I met a guy from church about a year ago and we dated for almost ten months. He was everything I wanted and after nine months of dating, we started discussing our future. Then, out of nowhere, he told me he “struggles” with homosexuality. He proceeded to share way too much about his past with it, his therapy, what he went through when he was younger, etc.

The story of his struggles broke my heart so much because immediately something went wrong in my brain. How could the bible say that it’s a sin when clearly it’s not a choice? My boyfriend is proof that it’s not something people choose. I never really believed that before, but after he shared his story, my heart broke to see how insecure and hurt he was feeling; how ashamed and “sinful”. My brain has taken all of that in a direction I never saw coming.

I now believe god isn’t real and we are all just meaningless existence. I’ve done a lot of research on evolution and homosexuality in nature, and the bible has started sounding phony to me. This has led me to overanalyze every single part of life, to the point that I’ve had suicidal thoughts because of the physical and emotional effects it has had on me. I think about the concept of time, our calendar, birthdays, Christmas, food; and I analyze literally every second of everything. I feel like god was made up in my head.

Something crazy went wrong in my head through all of this and it’s debilitating. I love my family so much and I want to love life, but my head has this extreme weird tightness all over. I have a hard time taking a full breath (not panic attack breathing, but an inability to breathe fully, like I’m stuck in a constant state of angst because I have no clue who I am now). I keep thinking that if god isn’t real and I just exist, there is no point. How do I find a purpose, feeling this way and knowing what I know?

Everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, but this is so real for me. I don’t know how to just be. I physically don’t feel right in my head. I think, “oh, it’s anxiety;” but then, I think anxiety is something we define and make up — we’re just pointless and have no meaning. Then I’m stuck, knowing how much I love my family, and wanting to get through this. I try to exercise, play guitar and just be, but my head is not right.

Psychologist’s Reply

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Questioning one’s spiritual and existential beliefs can be a very painful experience, so I am not surprised that you are having such a hard time right now. However, the good news is that pain can lead to change. Thus, working through this crisis can help you end up a much wiser and more compassionate person than ever before. In fact, many spiritual leaders experience times of doubt and questioning, so please know that you are not alone in this.

Religion is a very difficult topic to confront because, like you, many people are brought up in a specific faith. A lot of religions teach that their beliefs are the only ones that are true, so when something doesn’t fit (like it didn’t for you), it throws people completely for a loop and they have nowhere to turn. People tend to be so immersed in their particular faith’s beliefs, that the resources they have available to them tend to be limited if they want to branch out. And I think that is where you find yourself.

In your pain and disbelief, it appears as though you have confined yourself to a black and white thinking pattern. From your description, it seems as though you think that a higher power is either one way or another; that there is no middle ground. However, religion and spiritual beliefs can be much more complicated than that, and these complications are worth checking out. For example, there are denominations in the Christian faith that do not believe homosexuality is a sin. We tend to hear about the more fundamental and evangelical religious believers, but that doesn’t mean that more liberal theologies don’t exist. Consequently, doing some research might be of great assistance to you.

If you like reading, then check out books on a variety of religious beliefs. If you prefer more hands-on experiences, then attend various places of worship. Do not necessarily limit yourself to just one faith. Try all that seem to have some appeal for you and then decide if you like what they have to say. If one strikes you as a good fit, you could even schedule an appointment with a leader of that faith and discuss some of your fears and concerns. If there is one near you, you might consider checking out a Unitarian Universalist congregation, because they welcome people of all faiths and beliefs, even non-believers. In short, don’t give up on spirituality just yet.

However, if you do the research and still decide that you do not believe in a higher power, that still doesn’t mean that there is no reason for your existence, that your life doesn’t have a purpose. People who are atheists may not live their lives based on spiritual beliefs but that doesn’t mean they have no ethical or moral code; it’s just a different one. Again, do some research on this. For example, American Atheists and Atheist Alliance International are two groups with an online presence that I found during a quick Google search. I’m sure there are more.

Finally, it does sound like you’ve been experiencing a great deal of anxiety. Again, I am not surprised, because your recent experiences have amounted to a gigantic shift in the foundation of your personal makeup. That sounds pretty anxiety-producing to me! While I do agree that anxiety is something we define, it isn’t something we make up. Anxiety has some pretty clear physiological manifestations, like difficulty breathing, physical tightness and a general feeling that something isn’t right in our bodies (sound familiar?). Thus, as you go through the process of figuring out what you do and do not believe, perhaps you should consider using some anxiety reduction techniques. These may help clear your head enough so that you can find the answers you need in order to move forward. Please keep in mind that while the journey may be tough, the destination — wherever that is for you — will be worth it.

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