Existential Depression and the Gifted
Are you feeling overwhelmed when you think of how to fix the myriad problems in the world today? Do you feel alone and alienated because others don’t seem to spend much time worrying about this or share your concern? Or frustrated and hopeless because you can’t see how you can make a significant contribution, worthy of your capabilities, despite being able to envisage solutions? Perhaps you feel grief, guilt, or despair. Things may be just fine in your life from an objective perspective, yet you feel unfulfilled or empty and as though something is missing. You may feel disillusioned and struggle with finding a sense of purpose or meaning.
These feelings are very common among gifted individuals and can be indicative of existential depression, a particular kind of depression arising from despair and hopelessness in the face of contemplating the “big” questions of existence, such as life and death, finding meaning in life, and the ultimate reality that we are fundamentally alone. Many gifted individuals contend with existential depression at different points in their lifetime. Existential depression can also be triggered by a major loss or crisis.
Gifted individuals are particularly prone to existential depression for a number of reasons:
- Their capacity for metacognitionthe ability to think about thinking and thus to consider deeply the underlying organizing principles and structures of society and life rather than just living unquestioningly and curiosity mean they tend to ask the difficult questions about life and meaning and question the status quo.
- Their greater sensitivity, intensity, and concern with fairness mean they feel the wrongs of the world more deeply and feel a strong desire to right these.
- Their idealism and frequent perfectionism call them to seek solutions about how they and the world around them could be better, and lead to frustration in the struggle to reconcile imperfect systems and behaviors in the world with the ideals they can imagine.
- They can feel lonely due to feeling different and alienated as they constantly tussle with existential questions, where others may seem to have more “shallow” concerns.
- They have a strong need to find meaning in life and may struggle to find this, given the issues outlined above.
For all these reasons, gifted individuals are at risk of becoming disillusioned and despairing, and tend to react more strongly to these feelings due to their heightened sensitivity. While many people may experience existential depression as a result of a life event like the sudden death of a loved one, gifted people are more likely to have an ongoing experience of chronic or periodic existential depression.
If you are having trouble finding meaning, you may find yourself coping with this by:
- Keeping busy to avoid thinking
- Numbing out through substance use or binge-viewing
- Conforming, despite not really identifying with societal expectations
- Withdrawing and detaching from the world around you and from other people
- Rejecting society openly and angrily
To help yourself get beyond existential depression, you can try some of the following:
- Acknowledging and turning toward the experience of your depression with curiosity rather than trying to avoid it, so that you can gain awareness of what in particular is most troubling
- Journaling about your experience or reading helpful books, such as Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope by James Webb or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning
- Actively rewriting your personal narrative and life script to reflect the positives and possibilities rather than the negatives and limitations/disappointments
- Identifying an organization with which to volunteer your time. This needs to be a cause whose mission you are passionate about and where those involved are similarly motivated
- Developing increased capacity to be present in the moment and fully appreciate it, for example through mindfulness or gratitude practices.
How I help
Overcoming existential depression requires reaching greater understanding about the particular experience of being gifted in an imperfect world, and developing greater resiliency and tolerance for the frustrations and disillusionment that arise from this. I can help you to explore the particular nature of your existential depression. As you gain greater awareness, you will begin to find ways to reformulate your beliefs so you can better tolerate the state of the world, and find meaning in your life. Together, we will sort through your values and aspirations and identify the contribution(s) you most wish to make, so you can set meaningful goals for yourself and locate a stronger sense of purpose. I can help you reconnect to yourself and others and the world around you, which is particularly important if you have been withdrawing or feeling isolated and alienated. I will also help you develop greater optimism and capacity to experience the abundance and joy available in each moment.
Existential depression is just one concern of gifted adults. I encourage you to explore other ways in which I assist gifted clients in my practice.