As children and teenagers, many people get asked by the adults around them: Who do you want to be when you grow up?
Not many dare to answer like Gott — a character in one of my favorite Polish movies, 7 Emotions. When a teacher asks him in class, Who do you want to be when you grow up? — he simply says:
Myself. I want to be myself.
Being a movie character, Gott finds it easy to claim this. In real life, being true to yourself can be a tad more difficult than that. As we grow up and the world expects so much of us, we easily bury our true selves under those expectations.
But if you keep it hidden for too long, it’ll eventually start knocking on the door of your mind. Your true self will want to be noticed and honored. If by that time, your life has already diverged from your heart’s desires, the knocking may manifest as feeling lost in life.
You’ll hear conflicting voices in your head. You won’t know what the “right thing to do” is. Strong feelings may come up that you don’t quite recognize — that’s how long they’ve been forgotten in the depths of your unconscious!
Feeling lost, although unpleasant, is often a good sign. It’s the moment when things start shifting and the momentum for a major change is growing. Don’t dismiss these feelings of confusion and overwhelm.
Rather, ponder what Henry David Thoreau once said:
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”
The Great Fantasy of Being in Control
First, let’s understand why we see feeling lost as a bad thing. After all, it’s just another human experience that we all share, isn’t it?
Odysseus was lost for 10 years as he tried to get back home to his Penelope. J.K. Rowling used rock-bottom as a “solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.” Your parents surely also had moments when they didn’t know what decision to take.
Everyone feels lost at some point in life, and they just have to roll with it. But if feeling lost is such a universal human experience, then why do we find it so hard to accept it?
In our modern culture driven by achievement, you learn early on that you need to “take your fate in your own hands.” This implies the need to always know what’s going on — both in the world and your mind. It puts immense pressure to “choose right” and avoid wasting time on jobs, opportunities, and relationships that are not a good fit for you.
But how can one have access to such precise knowledge? How could we know what our life path is without trial, error, and feeling lost? We may fantasize about having total control and knowing exactly what to do in each moment. However, life is usually more ambiguous than that.
Especially in a world that changes so fast as ours and presents so many possibilities, we’re bound to feel overwhelmed from time to time. David Brooks put it well in his essay about “the odyssey years” — a period of soul-searching that became an intrinsic part of modern lives, especially for young adults:
“Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, (…) but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.”
The fluidity of our world certainly contributes to feeling lost. But even this aspect aside, simply being human makes this an inevitable experience.
Why Feeling Lost is Inevitable at Some Point in Life
Many psychologists believe that we all have some kind of essence, a part of our personality that isn’t up to choice. We’re not born as a tabula rasa. Humans have innate preferences, talents, and predispositions that contribute to that famous sense of “true self.”
Kennon M. Sheldon, a psychology professor specializing in human goals and motivation, refers to this as one’s “implicit personality.” According to him, when we don’t know what we want in life (aka feel lost), it’s because our connection to that deep part of ourselves is a bit dusty.
“Bos and Dijksterhuis (2012) argued that people may not know what they actually think is important, even though they typically rely on conscious (deliberative) processes in their decision-making. This view depicts people as making conscious decisions without having the information needed to make the best decisions. Hofree and Winkielman (2012) reviewed research suggesting that people are often unaware of the core processes that underlie their feelings, desires, and choices, and showed that core liking and conscious wanting can be manipulated at a subconscious level, causing situations such as ‘wanting something one doesn’t like.’”
In other words: When we don’t know what we want, it’s because we don’t know our true selves well enough.
Sheldon argues that most of us learn to live by the “explicit personality” when we become adults. By explicit personality, he means the way we relate to our environment and position ourselves in it. This layer of personality is concerned with our behaviors, interactions, the way we incorporate social norms in our lives — in other words, all the elements through which we learn how to “fit in.”
Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with fitting in. We all need to find our way to do it, or else we’d be complete outsiders, condemned to the peripheries of social life.
However, as you move through life motivated mainly by your explicit personality, you may gradually lose the connection with the implicit one. You may diverge from your values and a sense of purpose. This creates a disconnect between who you are on the inside — and the persona you display on the outside.
When you realize this, that’s typically the moment you start “feeling lost.” It’s a wake-up call that can happen at any stage of life. People experience it as an existential crisis, the need to find themselves, spiritual awakening — call it as you please. In essence, it’s an experience of waking up to the realization that something needs to change.
And because you don’t quite know what it is — you start searching.
The Advantages of Feeling Lost in Life
“We all have a dream. It might be explicitly defined or just a vague idea, but most of us are so stuck in the muck of insecurity and self-doubt that we just dismiss it as unrealistic or too difficult to pursue.” — Juan Arbalez
I wholeheartedly believe in the above quote. Everyone has a dream, although not everyone knows what it is.
Your dream doesn’t have to be about something tangible, like landing a specific job, a house on a tropical island, or traveling the world. A lot of people formulate their dreams in this way — but at the core of it, there’s usually a feeling they want to manifest.
A sense of freedom. Feelings of accomplishment. The grounding in your self-reliance. These are our actual dreams. And whatever feeling you’re hungry for, there’s more than one way to experience it.
Feeling lost is a wonderful state because it opens your eyes to that fact. There’s more than one “right” way to live true to yourself. And because you can’t control everything in life, sometimes you have to be flexible. You need to hold your dreams and intentions in your mind — but at the same time, be open to life carrying you with its currents.
Going through a period of being lost can help you understand this. I realized that when I lost ground under my feet upon moving abroad on my own five years ago.
Here are the things I appreciated the most about feeling lost and not having a sense of direction.
1. It’s easier to put things in perspective
When nothing is certain and defined, it’s easier to see how the world works. When you’re focused on pursuing a goal and know exactly what you want, your vision is narrow. You fix your gaze on that goal and simply try to get there.
But when you’re floating free, not knowing what you want, you take in a bigger variety of information. You have fewer expectations and because of that, your mind operates with less filtering. Curiosity becomes the driver of your daily experience.
2. You get a chance to know yourself better
Feeling lost is typically a period when we reassess our social connections. We look at our friendships, workplace, family — and ask: Is this the environment I want to be in? And who am I when I’m not with them?
When I moved abroad, I took it to an extreme as I left my circle of friends and family behind. Being detached from my roots allowed me to see myself in a new context. I felt lost and, a lot of the time, also lonely. But precisely thanks to that, I could move to a new level of self-awareness.
3. You ask questions you didn’t dare to ask before
When you live a stable, secure life for too long, you stop questioning things. You learn to take social norms and habits for granted because “that’s just how things are.” Sometimes, you can’t see the downsides of such a complacent attitude until you feel lost and start questioning reality.
An example from my journey is taking a critical look at the Catholic tradition I was raised within. For a long time, I took its system of values and beliefs for granted, just because I was immersed in it. But when I became more interested in my spirituality, I found the courage to put concepts such as sin or eternal condemnation into doubt.
Over time, I started seeing how incoherent the religious dogma was — and how far away it sat from my values.
4. You have nothing to lose
When you feel like you touched rock bottom or that your life is falling apart, you have nothing to lose. From there — like the aforementioned J.K. Rowling — you may find it easier to pursue your dreams just because not much is at stake.
This doesn’t imply you have to literally hit rock bottom, lose all your money, and become homeless. No. Sometimes all it takes is a deep realization that your old life isn’t working. By putting it on the line, you’re not risking much — because you don’t want that life anyway.
No One Has It All Figured Out
Let’s wrap it all up with a friendly reminder: Everyone feels lost from time to time. It’s only human to search, wander, and struggle to find the way home once in a while.
If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to change, ask questions, and grow into new versions of ourselves. We wouldn’t have all those experiences that make us conscious, sentient beings.
Feeling lost can be a gift — if you only choose to look at it this way. It’s a state that presents opportunities you can’t see when you live your life according to a predictable schedule.
So if you’re feeling lost right now — please enjoy it. And remember: No one has it all figured out.
Not even that smartass from a movie who was so firm in his resolve to only ever be himself.
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