I am stuck in a miserable and futile existence | Work & careers


The question I see a therapist once a week. But I have a shameful and persistent despair. I am stuck in a miserable and futile existence. I don’t like work. I hate being trapped in someone else’s schedule, sending useless emails, attending useless meetings. I hate the nine to fivethe long journey, ask permission to take time off – it’s just sleep, work, sleep, work.

I don’t have a garden and noisy neighbors. I won’t starve or lose the roof over my head but I can’t afford to go on vacation either. nor dine at the restaurant where to buy clothes and books.

My family and friends are wonderful. I have a partner who loves me. But I’m just hopelessly unhappy. How can I say all this out loud to people close to me? I feel like a petulant child: stuck, moaning. I don’t know how to live in this world and be happy.

Philippa’s response Some misfortunes are inevitable. Being unhappy is one thing, but you don’t have to suffer the double whammy of being ashamed of your unhappiness.

I wonder if your parents couldn’t handle you being unhappy, so even if they didn’t want you to find yourself unacceptable when you’re sad, it may be because they can’t tolerate sad feelings in their child. If our sadness isn’t taken seriously when we grow up, or if we’ve been ashamed of it, it’s harder for us to learn to be sad when we’re adults.

I believe difficult feelings should be welcomed, as they serve as the wake-up call we need to make our lives more meaningful. Others disagree with me and will say that difficult feelings need to be calmed down. I believe there is a place for psychiatric drugs, but not as a first port of call. It’s important to listen to our feelings so that we feel motivated to make changes that allow us to get the most out of our lives.

If I were you, I wonder if I would experience honest conversations with people who love me. You struggle to be sad and maybe just imagine that they could condemn you for what you’re going through, or be hurt by it in some way. Failing to speak truthfully when you’re depressed can make the situation worse. It is important to be understood and to put your feelings into words. It’s great that you have a therapist to talk to, and I hope that by being accepted by your therapist, you’ll learn that you’re okay, even if you’re miserable.

You could change your job – or if you can’t, you can change your attitude towards your job. Or to expand this idea a bit, you can change your life or you can change your attitude towards your life. We can’t know if doing something different will make a difference, but doing something the same is less likely to bring change. You are allowed to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them.

A therapist once told me that he was working with a graduate and the only job she could get was as a sales assistant in a perfumery in a soulless mall. She was unhappy in this job. And he suggested that, even if she had to do this job before another opportunity presented itself, she had to be the best perfume saleswoman she could be. She changed her attitude, embarked on learning all she could about perfume and stopped dreading work. She was still stuck in a job she hadn’t planned to do, but a change in attitude made the difference.

In Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s quest for meaning, he talks about a man who came to see him who couldn’t bear to be alive since the death of his wife. Frankl asked her what would have happened if he had died first and she had to survive him. The man answered that for her it would have been terrible, she would have suffered so much. Frankl pointed out that her own suffering meant she was spared such pain, but at the cost of survival and grieving. Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds meaning. Frankl was unable to revive the man’s wife, but he managed to change his attitude to his own suffering.

Frankl also quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can endure almost any how.” Existentialist philosophers argue that life has no meaning and our task is to accept that. Frankl, however, believed that to make life worth living, we each need to find our own unique meaning.

Meanings that made sense to us when we were younger will need to be revised as we get older. It is common for a crisis or hard-to-bear feelings, such as the ones you are currently experiencing, to precipitate such a review.

What you have in common with Frankl is that you are trapped. He was imprisoned in concentration camps without knowing for how long, or if he would die there, doing useless and punitive work. You are not in danger but you are still stuck doing work that you find meaningless. Nevertheless, he found the will to live by finding meaning, despite his imprisonment – and now that’s your task too.

Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, is published by Vintage at £9.99. Buy it for £9.29 at guardianbookshop.com

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