I’m stuck in a miserable and futile existence

<span>Photograph: Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Shutterstock

The question I see a therapist once a week. But I have a shameful and persistent feeling of despair. I’m stuck in a miserable and futile existence. I don’t like work. I hate being trapped within someone else’s schedule, sending pointless emails, attending pointless meetings. I hate the nine-to-five, the long commute, asking permission to take leave – it’s just sleep, work, sleep, work.

I have no garden, and noisy neighbours. I won’t starve or lose the roof over my head but I can neither afford to go away on holiday nor to dine out or buy clothes and books.

My family and friends are wonderful. I have a partner who loves me. But I am just desperately unhappy. How can I say any of this out loud to the people close to me? I feel like a petulant child: stuck, wailing. I don’t know how to be alive in this world and be happy.

Philippa’s answer Some unhappiness is unavoidable. Being unhappy is one thing but you do not have to suffer the double blow of being ashamed of your unhappiness.

I wonder if your parents couldn’t bear for you to be unhappy, so although they didn’t mean for you to find yourself unacceptable when you are sad, this may be the result of them not being able to tolerate sad feelings in their child. If our sadness is not taken seriously when we are growing up, or if we were shamed for it, it is harder for us to learn how to be with sadness when we are adults.

I believe difficult feelings should be welcomed, as they serve as a warning bell that we need to make our lives more meaningful. Others disagree with me and would argue that difficult feelings should be tranquillised. I do believe there is a place for psychiatric drugs, but not as a first port of call. It is important to listen to our feelings so we feel motivated to enact changes that enable us to make the most of our lives.

In your position, I wonder if I would experiment with honest conversations with people who love me. You are giving yourself a bad time about being sad and maybe only imagining they might condemn you for what you are going through, or be somehow hurt by it. Not talking authentically when you are depressed can make it worse. It’s 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 learn that you are acceptable, even if you are miserable.

You could change your work – or if you can’t, you can change your attitude towards your work. Or to broaden that idea out a little, you can change your life or you can change your attitude to your life. We cannot know whether doing something different will make a difference, but doing something the same is less likely to bring about change. You are allowed to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them.

Not talking authentically when you’re depressed can make it worse

A therapist once told me he was working with a graduate and the only work she could get was as a sales assistant in a perfume outlet in a soulless shopping mall. She was miserable in this job. And he suggested that, while she must do that job before another opportunity arose, she must be the very best perfume seller that she could be. She shifted her attitude, threw herself into learning all she could about scent and ceased to dread the work. She was still trapped in a job she had not planned to do, but a shift in attitude made a difference.

In Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, he talks about a man who came to see him who could not bear being alive since his wife died. Frankl asked him what would’ve happened if he had died first and she’d had to survive him. The man answered that for her that would have been terrible, she would have suffered so much. Frankl pointed out that his own suffering meant that she had been spared such pain, but at the price of surviving and mourning her. Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning. Frankl could not revive the man’s wife but he did succeed in changing his attitude to his own suffering.

Frankl also quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Existentialist philosophers argue that life is meaningless and our task is to come to terms with that. Frankl, though, thought to make life worth living we each need to find our own meaning unique to us.

Meanings that made sense to us when we were younger will need to be revised as we age. It is common for some sort of crisis or feelings that are hard to bear, like those you are experiencing now, to precipitate such a revision.

What you have in common with Frankl is that you are trapped. He was imprisoned in concentration camps without knowing for how long, or whether he would die there, doing pointless, punishing work. You are not in peril but you are still stuck doing work you find meaningless. Nevertheless, he found the will to live by finding meaning, despite being imprisoned – and now this is 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

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk