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Existential depression is a crisis that arises when one confronts issues such as the meaning of life, isolation, death, and one’s place in the world. That may mean something different when you are an innately intense, sensitive or gifted person.
What is existental depression? Who has existential depression?
Existential depression is if you see and feel what most others don’t;
If you have high expectations of yourself and others;
If ideas and interpersonal conflicts keep you up at night;
If you are passionate about upholding fairness and justice;
If you are immensely curious and get obsessed with what you love;
If you can’t stand hypocrisy and have to speak the truth, even though others don’t like it;
If you are strong-willed, have an independent mind, crave autonomy and freedom;
If you can’t bear arbitrary instructions, routine activities and explanations that make no sense;
If you are bothered by the gap between what could be and what is- both in yourself, others and the wider world.
You might be a trailblazer; and for years you have wondered why despite your capacity for deep joy and connection, you also struggle with an inferiority complex, self-doubt, chronic guilt, bouts of anxiety and sometimes existential depression and despair.
Existential depression is a type of depression that is often associated with giftedness. This type of depression can be caused by feelings of isolation, intense awareness, and sensitivity to the absurdity of life. People who suffer from existential depression feel like there is something inherently wrong with the world, and they can’t find a way to connect with it. They may feel isolated and alone, and they may be plagued by doubts about their own purpose in life.
Some people may be genetically predisposed to existential depression, while others may develop it as a result of feeling out of place in the world. Being a neuro-atypical people can often lead to feelings of isolation, since most people are not intellectually or emotionally capable of understanding what they are experiencing.
“Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.”
Rainer Maria Rilke ~
Existential Depression Test
This is not an official ‘existential depression test’, nor does it aim to diagnose. But if you identify with some of the following symptoms, you may want to consider the possibility that you are having an existential depression.
- Feeling that your actions have no meaning or purpose. No matter what you do, you do not feel that you can really change the world.
- You feel that you are a worthless person with no redeeming qualities and that everything you do will be in vain.
- You feel that you are trapped in a meaningless and pointless existence. Not many people understand what it means to feel nihilistic.
- You feel a deep sense of loneliness and isolation that cannot be remedied by friends or normal social contact.
- A pervasive fear of death and dying, the fear of not having done what one should do in this life.
- Inability to enjoy anything and loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure or excited you.
- You no longer know what to do with your time to feel less depressed.
- Feeling lost and aimless and not knowing what your goals anymore, even objectively you have job, roles and projects.
- You are almost only able to see the dark side and the tragic events in the world. You feel that you are losing faith in humanity.
- A feeling of emptiness and loneliness. Sometimes you feel even more isolated when you are with friends and families who do not understand you.
- Cynicism and bitterness toward life, bitterness about being in this situation and not being able to find help.
- A sense that you’re not living your life to its fullest potential, but not knowing what you can do about it.
Existential Depression in Gifted People and Intense People
In a 2012 paper published in European Psychiatry, scholar Seubert found that for a specific population, the traditional idea of depression and the common therapy methods to treat it are not effective. Instead, depression for that specific population should be understood from the framework of, and be offered treatment based on, the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD)— a concept of personality development devised by psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902 – 1980). TPD explains the relationship between existential depression and gifted people specifically. TPD views depression not as an illness, but as an existential crisis- and also an indicator of a person’s creative potential.
This specific group of individuals, likely gifted and intense, where the traditional understanding of depression does not apply, possess the following two traits:
1) An inner autonomous drive to develop one’s personality — Driven by a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a passion for knowledge, they are continually learning and growing. They push the arbitrary limits imposed by traditions or social confines. Their idealism often manifests as anxiety, perfectionism and existential depression.
2) Overexcitabilities — Overexcitability is a term coined by Dabrowski to describe a way of being in the world characterised by intensity and aliveness. Physiologically, these individuals have a heightened response to stimuli and have a vivid experience of their five senses. More than average, they are highly attuned, intuitive, perceptive, and sensitive to their surroundings. Some manifestations of overexcitability include sound sensitivity, having physical allergies; surplus energy, an extremely active and imaginative mind, a need for intellectual rigour, intense feelings, being highly empathic and emotionally sensitive.
For this group of highly intense and intelligent individuals, a ‘normal’ understanding of depression does not suffice. What they are experiencing is likely to be an existential depression. An existential depression is a depression that arises when one confronts issues such as the meaning of life, isolation, death, and one’s place in the world. Because they are idealists who can envision the possibility of how things could be better, they also see how the world, people, institutions and systems fall short of their ideals. As children, if they share their concerns with others, they are met with blankness, puzzlement, and sometimes criticism. From a young age, they learn to silence themselves to fit in with others. As they grow older, they can not help but be pained by the hypocrisy, arbitrariness, and dysfunction in the world. On realising that there is a limit to their ability to make changes, they deeply feel disappointment and frustration, which ultimately leads to hopelessness, existential depression and despair
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.
Existential Depression And The Theory Of Positive Disintegration
The traditional definition of mental health is based on how well a person can adapt to social norms. This notion does not take diversity— both cultural and biological (how we are wired)— into consideration. It neglects the fact that as human beings, beyond our basic needs we also have to express our idiosyncratic nature— what makes you uniquely yourself, which might include your strengths, your quirks and your intensity. This is what Dabrowski called your ‘true essence’, or what Winnicott considered your ‘true self’.
Our society has come to the point at which material gains and political power define success; this culture fosters a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality and radical individualism. However, to Dabrowski, , contorting oneself to fit into a world that is so ‘primitive and confused’ (1970, p.118; cited in Mendaglio, 2008) is in itself dysfunctional. In a world where most people passively accept socialisation, he believed those who rebel are endowed with extraordinary potential. However, this certainly does not lead to a glamorous or comfortable life. It is likely that the non-conformist would experience, more than the average person, inner conflict and existential depression.
In TPD’s idea of existential depression, growth is when one moves past subservient and conforming behaviour, and steps into authenticity, even if it means one has to first go through an existential crisis. We can only make the transition from lower levels of mental functioning to higher levels by experiencing productive conflicts – an existential depression in disguise- that could look like mental disorders. In ‘Psychoneurosis Is not an Illness’ (1972), Dabrowski made this point clear: “Without passing through challenging experiences and even something like psychoneurosis… we cannot realise our multidimensional and multilevel development to higher levels.”
To walk from the old to the new, we must first loosen our previous structure of beliefs, values and behaviours; this is unsettling, and might thrust us into an existential crisis— where we question if our life has meaning, purpose, or value. During this time, many of the explanations for the way things are, that we learned through our family, education and from the social order, no longer withstand our questioning. More and more, what seemed ‘normal’ looks hypocritical, insufficient, or unethical. However, a part of us still believes it was ourself who was wrong, or assume that we do not fit in due to some inherent defectiveness. With the voice of an inner critic, we harshly question and scrutinise ourselves.
Eckhart Tolle, the renowned spiritual teacher, describes the chaos of his personal experience of existential depression as follows: “You are meant to arrive at a place of conceptual meaninglessness…where things lose the meaning that you had given them, which was all conditioned and cultural and so on….It looks of course as if you no longer understand anything. That’s why it’s so scary when it happens to you’.
All his leaves
Fall’n at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough
– By Alfred Lord Tennyson
If we try to resolve our existential depression through conventional wisdom and traditional advice, we will find that these methods do not help. Then, we are propelled to move onto a path of self- discovery and soul searching. We find solace through designing our own ‘auto therapy’, or by reading books and biographies, writing or journaling, creating art or music, and learning from kindred spirits across time and space, from books or the internet. Eventually, we learn to rely on ourselves to console, reassure, comfort and nurture our inner being, and to get to the other side of our existential depression.
The process of getting through an existential depression could be likened to that of a psychic death and rebirth. Again quoting Eckhart Tolle: ‘They awaken into something deeper… a deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual any longer. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death that you die. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died there – only an illusory identity… Often it is part of the awakening process, the death of the old self and the birth of the true self.’
Despite having to go through a period of confusion and despair, the result of your existential depression is a renewed sense of independence and integrity. Once you reach a higher level of functioning, you become an original thinker, with your own approach to solving problems and to creativity. You are also much more able to manifest your gifts and talents through words, art, meaningful endeavours or social action.
I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight.
C. JoyBell C.
How to Deal with Existential Depression
Existential depression is a form of depression that can occur in gifted people. It is characterized by a feeling of emptiness and aimlessness, combined with a sense that life is meaningless. Intense and gifted people may be more prone to existential depression because of their heightened awareness and sensitivity and their ability to question the meaning of life.
If you are affected by existential depression, there are things you can do to help yourself. There is not much “official” psychological literature on the subject, but if you look around forums and less official sources, you will find that many gifted people plagued by nihilism discuss how to deal with existential depression. You may find comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.
To deal with existential depression, it is important to understand that your feelings are valid and real. You are not crazy or defective for feeling this way. Even most people do not understand your experience, try not to bottle all your feelings up inside. Expressing yourself through writing, art, or music can be very helpful in managing these emotions.
Then, learning about the relationship between existential depression and the cycles of crisis and renewal may be helpful.
In your life, there might not be just one, but several cycles of crisis and renewal. These are what your existential depression actually represent.
You are an ever-growing, truth-seeking person, so you will always be looking for the next best version of yourself. You test limits and stretch yourself all the time; even if you are not aware this is what you are doing, or that there is a healthy drive behind your inability to compromise.
Perhaps a period of chaos and confusion is a rite of passage for the natural non-conformist.
Suffering, aloneness, self-doubt, sadness, inner conflict are all symptoms of expanding consciousness. Your existential depression is not something that tries to ruin you, but an opportunity for growth.
Within you is unbounded developmental potential; it is something that you ought to bring out, or it will rot and swallow you from the inside.
Existential depression might be a recurring theme in your life. But this does not mean you are unhappy or always in turmoil.
Each time you come through a dark patch, you emerge from the chaos with a new order, new insight, and a new way of being.
Each time, you come out feeling more deeply alive, come closer to your ideal self, and to achieving your full potential.
Accurately seeing the origin of your inner conflicts will help you to reframe the meaning of your struggles.
Rather than wishing you were someone else, you learn to reconcile with your unique life path.
In this process, you will realise the most profound pain comes not from being outside of the herd, but from disowning your true self.
Existential depression can be a very difficult experience, but it can also be a catalyst for growth. Dealing with existential depression proactively can help us to explore our values and beliefs, and to find meaning in our lives. If you are experiencing existential depression, it is important to seek support from people, community and literature who may have nuanced understanding, beyond the ‘obvious’, of what you are going through. There is hope for recovery and growth, even in the face of darkness.
“I See Your Shedding Pain”
Intense people are ever-growing creatures.
You reflect on almost everything- every situation, interaction, and encounter.
You have an insatiable hunger for knowledge and insight.
You can quickly feel stuck and a need for expansive intellectual, geographical, and emotional adventure.
You grow so fast others can hardly keep up.
You expand so vastly you lose the sense of where your roots lie.
You are continually outgrowing not only projects, ideas, subjects and vocations, but also people and places.
It is difficult to define who you are, as you are always evolving into the next version of your best self.
While others are in awe of your worldly achievements and ever-expanding footprints, they may not see the pain you carry:
The loneliness of not fitting in anywhere.
The fear of not knowing what lies ahead.
The attacks you endure when walking away from the herd.
The split between what you ‘should’ do and your soul’s cries.
The distance from your heart to your mind, from emotion to logic.
The rawness of having to peel off layer after layer of ego defences.
The shakiness of facing up to vulnerabilities and showing up to life.
The guilt of outgrowing loved ones, letting friends go, leaving families and communities behind.
If you are currently going through a rough patch, experiencing a seemingly never-ending inner turmoil, having chaos inside and around you… fear not. You might be going through a positive transformation. The old way of being, alongside the beliefs, behaviours and defences that have expired are dropping away. What you are experiencing are growing pains.
You tell the truth because you have to, even though you know most people cannot handle the truth.
After a lifetime of biting your tongue for the sake of job security, or domestic tranquillity, you can’t do it any longer.
Stepping into your bigness requires releasing your old identifications, beliefs, ways of being in the world, and, often most painfully, relationships.
You may be plagued by waves of complex feelings— from grief, fear, to remorse.
You may have bad dreams, intense nostalgia, unexplainable physical symptoms, or even bouts of shame.
But march on, my courageous soul.
Like the caterpillar that needs to shed her cocoon, you are breaking through.
You are doing the necessary shedding, so some pain is inevitable.
After all, your shield has been with you for a very long time.
The shedding pain is your growing pain.
Much like the ache that comes from breaking down the old muscle tissue so it can rebuild, or a dose of bitter but potent medicine,
the shedding pain rebuilds you to be a fuller human.
Cry if you have to, but know it is for a worthy goal.
You are doing something uncommon, profoundly important.
Honouring your true self is the harder, but more honourable path.
It is by doing what others don’t that will get you to where others don’t go.
Trust me, the chaos will pass, and liberation and deep joy are on the other end.
Your scar is a sign of your courage, and marks you as the glorious phoenix that you are.
Embrace the shedding pain;
It is a sign that says things ARE heading in the right direction.
Do not let the opinion of anyone hold you back.
Promise yourself that you will no longer do anything out of fear or guilt.
Let go of the demand on yourself to be ‘happy’, but rather, run with the complexity of your rich, ever-expanding world, where joy and sadness, excitement and pain can all happen at the same time.
It is tender; it is wild.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.