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What Is Purpose Anxiety And Are You Stuck Living In It?

I’ve been reading about ‘the Great Resignation.’ Following what has been the most challenging two years for the planet in recent decades, many people have decided enough is enough. We’re handing in resignation letters by the droves to go after what we really want in life.

Which sounds empowering and motivating on the surface, but dip just a teeny bit below, and it might leave you with more questions than answers; Should you be following suit? What would you do if you resigned? What is it you really want in life?

If answering that last question leaves you utterly stumped, confused, and even anxious, you’re not alone. For every person who seems to know what they want in life, there are a dozen more who have no clue. And the loud narrative around finding our purpose isn’t helping.

A recently coined term goes some way to help us understand the conflicting feeling of knowing we should pursue a purpose but having no idea what that purpose is: Purpose Anxiety.

What is Purpose Anxiety?

We’ve more than enough well-meaning life coaches and gurus across social media advocating that we should all be working to obtain our sense of purpose in life and answer the big questions that don’t seem to go away. As Mary Oliver rightly asked:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Answering the question is about more than knowing what you want to do for work. Research has shown a link between having a strong sense of purpose that you’re committed to and greater feelings of self-worth, meaning in life, and positive emotions. 

Our personal answer to the question of the purpose of our life matters.

But while finding purpose leads to a greater sense of wellbeing, research has been indicating that the search for meaning has the opposite effect. Daniel Goleman, a leading Emotional and Social Intelligence psychologist, author, and researcher, advises:

“The research shows that having a void when it comes to meaning in life, and so searching for a purpose, accompanies the loss of cognitive and physical abilities as people age. Such “purpose anxiety” has been a topic of research and reflection for some time now. The term encapsulates the doubt and distress many people feel when they’re struggling to discover a sense of meaning, including understanding how and where they can make a meaningful difference.”

In her research on the topic, Organizational Psychology researcher, Larissa Rainey, devised the following definition:

“Purpose anxiety can provisionally be defined as the negative emotions experienced in direct relation to the search for purpose.” 

Rainey explains how purpose anxiety can be experienced at two different stages:

  1. While struggling to discover what your purpose might be.
  2. While attempting to actively ‘live’ your purpose.

Feeling anxious about finding your purpose isn’t uncommon. In her study on purpose anxiety, Rainey found a massive 91% of participants reported experiencing purpose anxiety at some point in their life.

How do you know if you’re stuck in Purpose Anxiety?

Much like other forms of anxiety, purpose anxiety is experienced on a spectrum. Symptoms range from mild to severe and encompass emotions such as stress, worry, frustration, panic and fear, comparison anxiety, and generalized anxiety. 

Speaking from experience, I’ve definitely felt the tightening in my chest wondering what on Earth I’m doing with my life, whether I’m in the right job, and how I’m contributing to the world while utilizing my innate skills (no pressure whatsoever!).

Where Purpose Anxiety showed up in my life

Here are three ways I realized I was stuck in purpose anxiety:

1. Bouncing between jobs

After a year or so with one company, I’d begin to feel a familiar tug that I was in the ‘wrong’ place. Instead of speaking with management or finding ways to make my job more fulfilling, I’d simply move on. I thought that my career had to naturally ‘tick’ my purpose boxes without much input from me.

2. Making ALL the comparisons

It’s all too easy to get sucked into the highlight reels others present across social media and make harsh comparisons. I found myself feeling as though everyone else had their life together and was doing something meaningful while I was stuck wondering where my own life was headed exactly.

3. Dismissing progress

In the thick of feeling stuck, anxious, and like I wasn’t moving forward with a sense of purpose, a quote kept finding me. You may have heard this one too: “remember when you wanted to be where you are now.” I realized I was so focused on finding this elusive idea of a big meaningful life; I dismissed the steps I’d already taken towards living my goals in ways that felt more purposeful in small, organic ways.  

How can you move forward from Purpose Anxiety?

One of my most adored artists is Agnes Martin. When I look at her work, it seems obvious that painting and art were her purpose in life. So it was intriguing to discover a list she’d sent to Arnold Glimcher in 1980 for her biography of all the jobs she’d held before becoming an artist, including having worked as a tennis coach and at a hamburger stand.

Purpose, it seems, is no straight line.

Goleman asks a vital question: “How much [of our understanding of purpose] is rooted in a misunderstanding of what purpose is supposed to be or look like?”

While there are practical steps we can take towards living our purpose, I also think we need to reframe how we currently think about purpose within our lives. It doesn’t have to be some grand leap towards meaning. Purpose can be small, weaved into the fabric of our days, in ways we might not recognize if we only focus on the big picture stuff.

Instead of asking, what is my purpose in life, we can ask, what is my purpose today? What is one thing I can do in this moment to feel meaningful and authentic?

Over time, I believe we’ll find ourselves leaning into what purpose can look like at different levels on different days. And in so doing, truly live our own unique sense of purpose.