Purpose Anxiety is a Thing

Purpose anxiety is real. Studies have shown that identifying and actualising our purpose in life is good for our health. It reduces stress, fulfills basic human needs, stimulates economic success, and enhances physical, emotional, and mental health. Living our purpose adds meaning to life and delivers personal fulfillment. Identifying our purpose answers some of the big questions in life. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I meant to do with my life? Who is my ideal partner? What is my ideal career? The benefits overflow to society. Living our purpose enables us to contribute to the evolution of consciousness within the collective soul.

Is it any wonder that not knowing our purpose creates anxiety? Being unable to fulfil it produces anxiety. Searching for our purpose generates anxiety. Living without a purpose in life makes us miserable. Purpose anxiety.  

I propose that we turn our thinking on its head and reclassify life purpose as a lower order human need. If we were to identify our purpose today, then we could start living it, and heal this pandemic of purpose anxiety. We need to challenge the current definition of basic human needs.

Abraham Maslow developed a theory about human motivation. He proposed that motivation is the result of a person’s attempt at fulfilling at least five basic needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places self-actualisation at the top of the pyramid. While it has been acknowledged that these needs do not necessarily occur in the order in which they are represented, it is unfortunate that self-actualisation appears to be the icing on the cake. Eat the cake and save the icing until last. In some ways, this seems to be a misrepresentation of an essential human need to find meaning in life. Yes, it makes sense to aim for self-actualisation as the pinnacle of success, but these days, to represent self-actualisation as the smallest of human needs can be misleading.

We can turn our thinking on its head and reclassify life purpose as a lower order human need
Eat the icing first

In modern, western society we see a more widespread fulfilment of basic needs. We tend to live longer. How we define our self has evolved. For example, we believe that if we suppress the expression of our true self, then we are not being authentic. This concept was almost unheard of 100 years ago. We say we want to be authentic and true to self, and yet, here we are, still putting off self-actualisation until after we feel better instead of before. Why not use the knowledge of our purpose as the panacea for purpose anxiety?

The path to self-actualisation begins when we identify our life purpose. Life purpose knowledge can fuel our spirit and feed our soul. Shouldn’t life purpose knowledge be defined as a lower order need, included alongside love and belonging? If knowing our purpose makes us feel better and live longer, and it can fuel economic success, then why should we wait until other needs have been met before we define our purpose in life? Wouldn’t knowing our purpose sooner rather than later generate the motivation, the drive and therefore the energy we need to build our lives on our terms?

To the Bearer of Feminine Power

Once upon a time there was a bearer of feminine power. The bearer fought and defeated many dragons. Nonetheless, success was shallow. Something was missing. Thirsting for fulfilment, and lost in the desert, our bearer persevered, urged onward and into multidimensional power.

The heroine’s journey begins, according to author of The Heroine’s Journey (1990) Maureen Murdock, when our heroine rejects or is separated from their original feminine power to embrace a new way of life. This separation is known as the mother/daughter split, where the heroine embarks on the journey as the metaphorical daughter, having split from their original, internal feminine power, or having separated from their mother, or mother-like figure.

Our heroine proceeds to identify with masculine power. They enter a masculine dominated sphere of life. The heroine perceives masculine power as systems in society organised on masculine dominated lines in which women are often excluded. This means that our heroine must fight for a place in society, standing up to the masculine power that is strangling the heroine’s options in life.

To the bearer of feminine power, our heroine faces the saboteurs, by Gail Goodwin 2021
Our heroine overcomes the obstacles and hurdles

Enter, the dragon.  Our heroine comes face to face with saboteurs who attempt to destroy the heroine. Saboteurs try to convince our heroine to give up on their chosen path. But the heroine wins. Dragons are conquered. Hurdles and obstacles are overcome.

Nonetheless, our heroine’s sense of achievement is only temporary. Success feels hollow. The heroine’s new way of life is empty even though it appears full. Something is amiss. Identifying with masculine power alone has become too restricting for the heroine. To continue in this way would be an act of self-betrayal. Selling one’s soul is costly. Maintaining the illusion is draining. Feeling spiritually dead, the heroine is about to enter the desert.   

A crisis ensues. Parched for meaning and fulfillment while surrounded by “success”, the heroine is plunged into despair. While the masculine strategies worked in the past, they are no longer enough to solve this crisis.

Our heroine is stuck. Energy is depleted. Motivation has dried up. Unable to go back to the initial, masculine power position, the heroine yearns to reconnect with feminine power.

The urge to reconnect consumes our heroine. It drives the heroine to reclaim their feminine power. One by one, our heroine resurrects their original feminine powers, strengths, values, skills, and attributes. Thirst is quenched, hunger is pacified. After returning from the desert, our heroine has a new perspective and a deeper appreciation of these traits and characteristics. Embracing feminine power once again, our heroine heals the mother/daughter split.

Secure and assured of their feminine power, now the heroine makes peace with their own masculine approach to the world, allowing our heroine to heal the wounded masculine within. This paves the way for an internal synthesis of both powers. The heroine integrates their masculine and feminine qualities and perspectives.  At one with the self, our heroine now has a foothold in both worlds.  

A Reluctant Hero Transformed

Stories about heroes are scattered throughout history, fairy tales, myths and legends. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, found a common theme running through our stories. He identified both the archetype of the Hero and the stages of the quest, or the journey that the hero follows, in many of the tales and myths from around the world. It’s an ancient classic, a familiar theme. A useful map. I’ve been using the Hero’s Journey as a map for coaching clients since 2009.

The pandemic is new territory for everyone. We can use the story of the Hero’s Journey to interpret the fatigue and its challenges that we’re facing during this time. We can use it to find more meaning. I’m thinking that finding personal meaning in this pandemic might make it easier to bear, to accept, persevere and overcome. More energy. Less burnout and fatigue.

Broadly speaking, the Hero’s Journey consists of: 

  • A call to adventure.
  • Crossing the threshold into the unknown.
  • Challenges and temptations.
  • Slaying our dragons.
  • Death and rebirth
  • Transformation
  • Returning home
A map of the Hero’s Journey

The call to adventure:

We are reluctant heroes. We were thrown on to the path of the Hero’s Journey the moment the WHO announced that we were in pandemic. As the pandemic began to settle itself into our lives, some refused to accept the call while many of us realised that the pandemic is not going away, so it had to be faced. It was a call we were compelled to answer. 

Crossing the threshold into the unknown:

Answering the call propelled us out of our ordinary world and into one that would have been unbelievable in 2019. We have entered unknown, extraordinary territory, pushed far beyond our comfort zones and into the unfamiliar in almost every aspect of life. Suddenly, we are working and studying from home, feeling isolated, our movements restricted and human interactions curtailed.

Challenges and temptations:

We’re in a very different world full of new problems, obstacles, challenges and temptations. Learning to work and study from home, functioning in isolation; learning to cope with restrictions and a cycle of lockdowns placed on almost every aspect of life. Learning to live and die with the virus. Now we’re free. Now we’re not. Yes we are, oh no, we’re not. The urge to escape is tempting: to find comfort in overindulgence, or conversely, to move from the city to the country, or to pack up our belongings into a van and drive far away.

Escaping is good for us, but the energy behind the urge needs to be applied in a constructive way, or we deplete our power. We end up feeling burnt out.

Enter: The Dragon

Slaying the dragon:

Enter the dragon, the personal challenge or problem we, as reluctant heroes, must conquer or solve, if we want to extract some sort of personal meaning from this collective, pandemic experience. We can take it as an opportunity to strengthen our character. Or not. 

Death, transformation and rebirth:

A weaker part of our character dies when we conquer a dragon. We are strengthened. No longer burnt out, we have more energy. We are different, renewed. So we can return to our ordinary lives. We’ve come full circle; a stronger version of who we are. Wiser, with a story to share.

To extract take some personal meaning from this pandemic and to move closer to transformation, here are some questions and actions to consider:

  • Where are you on the hero’s journey?
  • How can you transform your reluctant, burnt out hero into one that is prepared to face the dragon?
  • What type of hero are you?
  • What is your dragon?

To answer these questions, choose one archetype from the list below.

Let your eyes be drawn to one that stands out from the rest. Your chosen archetype will serve a dual purpose. It will clarify your hero qualities and identify your dragon. It can also give you insights into what you need to do to slay it.  

What type of hero are you?
  • After you’ve chosen one archetype, the next step is to list at least 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses that describe your hero. 
  • How can you use your hero’s strengths to help you to slay your dragon? 

Remember I mentioned previously that when choosing an archetype to describe your hero, that it would serve a dual purpose? The weaknesses you’ve listed for your hero actually describe your dragon. The weaknesses are your dragon.

  • What do you need to do to slay your dragon?
  • What would life look like if you managed to slay your dragon?
  • What would happen if you don’t slay this dragon? 

We haven’t yet completed this journey. But having a map out of it can provide hope on the road ahead.