When people undergo a great trauma or other unsettling event—they have lost a job or a loved one dies, for example—their understanding of themselves or of their place in the world often disintegrates, and they temporarily "fall apart," experiencing a type of depression referred to as existential depression. Their ordeal highlights for them the transient nature of life and the lack of control that we have over so many events, and it raises questions about the meaning of our lives and our behaviors. For other people, the experience of existential depression seemingly arises spontaneously; it stems from their own perception of life, their thoughts about the world and their place in it, as well as the meaning of their life. While not universal, the experience of existential depression can challenge an individual’s very survival and represents both a great challenge and at the same time an opportunity—an opportunity to seize control over one's life and turn the experience into a positive life lesson—an experience leading to personality growth.
It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely than those who are less gifted to experience spontaneous existential depression as an outgrowth of their mental and emotional abilities and interactions with others. People who are bright are usually more intense, sensitive, and idealistic, and they can see the inconsistencies and absurdities in the values and behaviors of others (Webb, Gore, Amend, & DeVries, 2007). This kind of sensitive awareness and idealism makes them more likely to ask themselves difficult questions about the nature and purpose of their lives and the lives of those around them. They become keenly aware of their smallness in the larger picture of existence, and they feel helpless to fix the many problems that trouble them. As a result, they become depressed.
This spontaneous existential depression is also, I believe, typically associated with the disintegration experiences referred to by Dabrowski (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Mendaglio, 2008a). In Dabrowski's approach, individuals who “fall apart” must find some way to “put themselves back together again,” either by reintegrating at their previous state or demonstrating growth by reintegrating at a new and higher level of functioning. Sadly, sometimes the outcome of this process may lead to chronic breakdown and disintegration. Whether existential depression and its resulting disintegration become positive or whether they stay negative depends on many factors.
I will focus my discussion here on characteristics of people, especially the gifted, that may lead them to spontaneous existential depression, relate these to Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, as well as to other psychological theories, and then discuss some specific ways to manage existential depression.
A Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski worked and wrote prolifically about his ideas in the years from 1929 until his death in 1980, living part of his life in the United States and in Canada, as well as in Europe. Nonetheless, he remains largely unknown in North America, despite his many publications and even though he was friends with prominent psychologists such as Maslow and Mowrer. Although his theory of positive disintegration is highly relevant to understanding existential depression—as well as many other issues—I myself did not become aware of Dabrowski’s work until about 10 years ago.
But long before I knew about Dabrowski’s theory, I knew about and understood existential depression. In fact, I knew it on a personal level, for I have lived it. Like so many leaders in various fields, particularly those men and women who have a deep passion for a particular “cause”—whether connected to religion, government, healthcare, the environment, or education—I experienced it because I saw how the world was not the way I thought it should be or could be. There were several periods in my life during which I was so “down” that it was truly an effort to see any happiness around me. The result is that now, whenever I think about existential depression, it rekindles within me, bringing into conscious awareness thoughts and feelings that, most of the time, I would rather ignore or avoid—thoughts of hopelessness and despair for our world.
I have come to realize that once one becomes aware of and involved in thinking about the many existential issues, one cannot then go back to one's former life. As the saying goes, “Once you ring a bell, you cannot unring it.” Like so many others, I continue to strive to manage how these issues impact me, as well as the depression that often accompanies them. In truth, this low-grade and chronic depression is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it reflects my underlying dissatisfaction with the way things are, with the way I am, and with the way the world is, and it leads me to continue striving to do better in order to give my life meaning and to help others find meaning. But I admit that sometimes I do envy people who have never experienced this kind of depression.
Dabrowski’s ideas have given me a helpful cognitive framework for understanding existential depression, as I am sure they have similarly helped others. And although my relatively recent discovery of Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration is new when compared with my understanding of other theories in psychology, those other theories are also useful and provide a foundation for comprehending existential depression. After all, existential issues are not new; existential thought appears in writings of many past centuries.
I first became aware of existential issues as a college freshman when I was assigned to room with a student who was older than I—in his mid thirties. Having been in the Navy, he was far more experienced with many different kinds of people and many different ways in which people choose to live their lives. He was a thoughtful agnostic. I, on the other hand, had grown up in the Deep South in an insular culture that had limited vision and rigid beliefs; my loving parents were traditionally religious and tried to live conforming, righteous, and conventional lives. My father, a dentist, made a good living, and we attended church on Sundays. Until my college experience, I thought that my family’s life was the way things were supposed to be; I thought that everyone should share those same values, behaviors, and world views.
My roommate, to whom I owe much gratitude, patiently listened as I tried to persuade him of the validity and righteousness of my limited views, after which he gently asked questions that required me to think in ways I had not considered before. He quietly pointed out the arbitrariness and meaninglessness of the many ways in which people, including me, lived their lives, as well as the inconsistencies and narcissistic grandiosity in many people’s beliefs. He introduced me to Voltaire’s Candide and to philosophers like Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. It was all quite a shock to me, because up to that point, I had thought I had the world pretty well figured out.
In my coursework I was also exposed to some of the well-known existential theologians—Paul Tillich (Protestant), Jacques Maritain (Catholic), Martin Buber (Jewish), James Pike (Protestant), and Alan Watts (Zen Buddhist)—all of whom were trying make sense of life from a religious viewpoint. As I studied and learned, I began to see for myself the hypocrisies and absurdities in the lives of so many people around me, including my parents and myself, and I became quite depressed. Fortunately, a kind and caring psychology professor allowed me to meet with him for several sessions to talk about my angst and disillusionment, or I might have imploded. Thanks to this professor, who in many ways saved my life, I slowly began the process of learning to manage my discontent and depression so that it could work for me rather than against me. I changed my major to psychology, and in graduate school, I learned that many others before me—certainly those who were introspective and thoughtful idealists—had grappled with similar existential issues and existential depression throughout the centuries.
While I was in graduate school, the humanistic psychologist Rollo May edited a book titled Existence: A new dimension in psychiatry and psychology (1967). This book highlighted an entire area within psychology that centered on existential issues. May became one of the most widely known spokespersons on existential psychology, and the book continues to be a classic. It was built on the writings of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who emphasized phenomenology—the phenomena of being aware of one’s own consciousness of the moment. Heidegger had written about Dasein, or “being there” in the moment with oneself and with how one perceives the world.
Other writers in May’s landmark book focused on the applications of existential awareness to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, raising fundamental questions for therapists such as, “How do I know that I am seeing the patient as he really is, in his own reality, rather than merely a projection of our theories about him?” or “How can we know whether we are seeing the patient in his real world...which is for him unique, concrete, and different from our general theories of culture?” (May, 1967, pp. 3-4). Or, said another way, “…what is abstractly true, and what is existentially real for the given living person?” (p. 13). As therapists, we have never participated directly in the world of our patients, and yet we must find a way to exist in it with them if we are to have any chance of truly knowing them. We have experienced the world in our own way, with our own family and our own culture. In our attempts to understand others, we generalize from our own experiences and expect others to think, react, and be like us. How can we see the world as our clients see it?
Although many early existential psychologists and psychiatrists were neo-Freudians, they differed notably in focus from Freud. Instead of concentrating on a patient’s past, pioneers such as Otto Rank also focused on the “present time.” Karen Horney emphasized “cultural approaches” and “basic anxiety from feeling isolated and helpless.” And Harry Stack Sullivan highlighted the importance of one’s experiences in interpersonal relationships in the “here and now,” as well as what one has learned from one’s family environment. These neo-Freudians believed that only by considering the present and a person’s current experience could we understand that person. In actuality, they were building off of even earlier concepts from philosophers and theologians who had struggled with the meaning of existence, as well as with how one’s perceptions color one’s life—philosophers from as far back as Socrates in his dialogues and Saint Augustine in his analyses of the self.
It is well-known that many famous artists and musicians have experienced existential depression (Goertzel, Goertzel, Goertzel, & Hanson, 2004; Piirto, 2004). Eminent persons who have suffered from this kind of depression include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Clemens, Henry James, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Dag Hammarskjöld. In fact, the famous 17th century gifted mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) fully captured the experience of existential awareness when he said, “When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me, I am afraid, and wonder to see myself here rather than there; for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, nor rather now than then” (Pascal, 1946).
Yalom (1980), who is perhaps the most widely read current Western writer on existential psychotherapy, describes four primary issues of existence (or "ultimate concerns")—death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure—that is, humans do not enter a world that is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure, which we ourselves create. Thus, we have social customs and traditions, education, religion, governments, laws, etc. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, we will never completely know that person and no one can fundamentally come to know us; a gap always remains, and we are therefore still alone. The fourth primary issue, meaninglessness, stems from the first three. If we must die, if in our freedom we have to arbitrarily construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what absolute meaning does life have?
People are most often affected by existential issues as a result of their own experience of puzzlement from trying to understand themselves and the world, which then generates feelings of aloneness and existential depression. The people who worry over these issues are seldom those in the lower reaches of intelligence or even in the average range. In my experience, existential fretting, or for that matter rumination and existential depression are far more common among (though not exclusive to) more highly intelligent people—those who ponder, question, analyze, and reflect. This is not surprising since one must engage in substantial thought and reflection to even consider such notions. People who mindlessly engage in superficial day-to-day aspects of life—work, meals, home duties, and chores—do not tend to spend time thinking about these types of issues. Brighter individuals are usually more driven to search for universal rules or answers, and also to recognize injustices, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies.
Other characteristics of gifted children and adults also predispose them to existential distress. Because brighter people are able to envision the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world falls short of their ideals. Unfortunately, these visionaries also recognize that their ability to make changes in the world is very limited. Because they are intense, these gifted individuals—both children and adults—keenly feel the disappointment and frustration that occurs when their ideals are not reached. They notice duplicity, pretense, arbitrariness, insincerities, and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. They may question or challenge traditions, particularly those that seem meaningless or unfair. They may ask, for example, “Why are there such inflexible sex or age-role restrictions on people? Is there any justifiable reason why men and women ‘should’ act a certain way? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing but then do the opposite? People say they are concerned with the environment, but their behaviors show otherwise. Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? They greet you with, ‘How are you?’ when they really don’t want you to tell them the details of how you are. Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? And with our planet? Are others really concerned with improving the world, or is it simply all about selfishness? Why do people settle for mediocrity? People seem fundamentally selfish and tribal. How much difference can one person make? It all seems hopeless. The world is too far gone. Things get worse each day. As one person, I’ll never be able to make a difference.” These thoughts are common in gifted children and adults.
As early as first grade, some gifted children, particularly the more highly gifted ones, struggle with these types of existential issues and begin to feel estranged from their peers. When they try to share their existential thoughts and concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. The very fact of children raising such questions is a challenge to tradition and prompts others to withdraw from or reject them. The children soon discover that most other people do not share their concerns but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others' expectations. The result for these gifted youngsters is conflict, either within themselves or with those around them. But as George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
As they get older, gifted children may find that even their families are not prepared to discuss and consider such weighty concerns. They “may have to search far and wide to find others who share their sometimes esoteric interests or even to find someone who laughs at their sometimes quirky jokes. This challenge follows young gifted adults into the workplace, where the entry-level positions that they find themselves in can result in their being lost in the crowd, unable to find others with whom they otherwise might feel a genuine sense of connectedness” (Fiedler, 2008, p. 170).
Although they want to relate to others, gifted individuals often encounter what Arthur Jensen (2004) has described as an intellectual “zone of tolerance”—that is, in order to have a long-lasting and meaningful relationship with another person, that person should be within about plus or minus 20 IQ points of one’s ability level. Outside of that zone, there will be differences in thinking speed and depth or span of interests, which will likely lead to impatience, dissatisfaction, frustration, and tension on the part of each participant.
Gifted children and adults are often surprised to realize that they are different. It is painful when others criticize them for being too idealistic, too serious, too sensitive, too intense, too impatient, or as having too weird a sense of humor. Gifted children, particularly as they enter adolescence, may feel very alone in an absurd, arbitrary, and meaningless world, which they feel powerless to change. They may feel that adults in charge are not worthy of the authority they hold. As one child described it, they feel “like abandoned aliens waiting for the mother ship to come and take them home” (Webb, Amend, Webb, Goerss, Beljan, & Olenchak, 2005, p. 136). This alienation creates social and emotional issues for them with their age peers, as well as with their teachers, which only adds to the possibility of depression.
When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality—giftedness in several areas—these youngsters may also become frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. Although they try to cram 27 hours worth of living into a 24-hour day, there simply isn’t enough time to develop all of the talents and interests that they may have. They have to make choices, but the choices among so many possibilities feel unfair because they seem arbitrary; there is no "ultimately right" choice. Choosing a college major or a vocation is difficult when one is trying to make a decision between passion and talent in areas as diverse as violin, genetics, theoretical mathematics, and international relations. How can one be all that one can be? In truth, one cannot be all that one “could” be in every area. This realization can be very frustrating.
The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of a righteous indignation—they feel, “It isn’t right!” or “It isn’t fair!” But they quickly discover that their anger is futile; they realize that it is ineffective when directed at "fate" or at other circumstances which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression. It is a type of “learned helplessness,” a phrase coined by psychologist Martin Seligman (1991). “I’m helpless; I can’t solve this.”
In such depression, people typically—and often desperately—try to discover some sense of meaning, some anchor point that they can grasp that will allow them to pull themselves out of the mire and muck of injustice or unfairness. Often, though, the more they try to struggle out of—or wallow in—their depression, the more they become acutely aware that their life is brief and ultimately finite, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a very large world, and that there is a frightening freedom and responsibility regarding how one chooses to live one's life. They feel disillusioned, and they question life's meaning, often asking themselves, "Is this all there is to life? Isn’t there some ultimate and universal meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am one small, insignificant organism alone in an absurd, arbitrary, and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I just die. Is this all there is?" Questions like this promote a sense of personal disintegration.
Such concerns are not surprising in thoughtful adults who are going through some sort of quarter-life or mid-life crisis. However, it is startling and alarming when these sorts of existential questions are foremost in the mind of a 10- or 12- or 15-year-old. Such existential depressions in children deserve careful attention, since they can be precursors to suicide.
Dabrowski also emphasized the role of socialization, which he called the “second factor,” as a key force influencing personal development, though the amount of a culture’s influence varies with each person’s inborn developmental potential. Nevertheless, the social environment often squelches autonomy, and “adjustment to a society that is itself ‘primitive and confused’ is adevelopmental [i.e., hinders development] and holds one back from discovering individual essence and from exercising choice in shaping and developing one’s self…” (Tillier, 2008, p. 108). Even so, when one becomes more aware of the scope and complexity of life and of one’s culture, one begins to experience self-doubt, anxiety, and depression; Dabrowski emphasized that all of these—as discomforting as they are—are necessary steps on the path toward heightened development. Thus, as one becomes more aware of “what ought to be” rather than just “what is,” he or she experiences increasing discomfort and disillusionment, often leading to a personal disintegration that, according to Dabrowski, is a necessary step before one can reintegrate at a higher level of acceptance and understanding—a new level representing growth.
Reintegration at a higher level is not a certainty, though. Whether or not one is in fact able to reintegrate depends on what Dabrowski called the “third factor”—an inner force, largely inborn, that impels people to become more self-determined and to control their behaviors by their inner belief/value matrix, rather than by societal conventions or even their own biological needs. This third factor allows people to live their lives consciously and deliberately, acting in accordance with their own personal values. The dynamic of the third factor drives people toward introspection, self-education, and self-development, and it allows them to reintegrate themselves at a higher level so that they can transcend their surroundings in a highly moral and altruistic fashion. Some individuals, however, may disintegrate and fail to reintegrate at a higher level, or they may stay at the same level as before. Of course it is desirable to reintegrate at the higher level.
Dabrowski’s descriptions of integration and disintegration are important but are also complex, so I will provide only the highlights of those that are particularly relevant to existential depression. In Dabrowski’s view, there are two types of integration—primary and secondary—and four types of disintegration—positive, negative, partial, and global.
Positive disintegration involves a two-step process. First, the lower primary integration—which involves little, if any, reflection—must be dissolved; subsequently, one must reintegrate to create a higher level of functioning (Dabrowski, 1970). During the first step of dissolution, individuals experience “…intense external and internal conflicts that generate intense negative emotions. Such experiencing may be initially triggered by developmental milestones, such as puberty, or crises, such as a painful divorce or a difficult career event or the death of a loved one. As a result, individuals become increasingly conscious of self and the world. They become more and more distressed as they perceive a discrepancy between the way the world ought to be and the way it is…”(Mendaglio, 2008b, p. 27). The way these persons view and structure the world is thrown into ambiguity and turmoil, along with the internal guidelines that they have thoughtlessly adopted from society to guide their daily behaviors. The external structure that they are steeped with becomes contradictory or meaningless when confronted with articulate, conscious individual experience.
Because people can only stand conflict and ambiguity for a relatively brief time, they will create a new mental organization as they attempt to reduce their anxiety and discomfort. However, this new mental schema may be only partially successful; these individuals may find themselves aware of inconsistencies and pretenses within their new way of thinking, though they may try desperately to convince themselves otherwise. They experience, then, only the dissolving part of the process—without reintegration at a higher level—leaving them with negative disintegration and the accompanying conflicts and negative emotions. Worse, they are unable to return to their previous unthinking way of being (“the rung bell”). Some individuals, usually those with substantial initial integration and limited potential to develop, will fall back and reintegrate at their previous level; others find themselves stuck in disintegration—a serious situation that Dabrowski said could lead to psychosis or suicide.
According to Dabrowski, some people are in fact able to complete both parts of the process—both disintegration and subsequent positive reintegration. They develop an acceptance of their self-awareness and self-direction in ways that allow them to select values that transcend the immediate culture and are from then on focused on more universal, humanistic, and altruistic values. They may select a new vocation in which they can use their altruistic vision or a new partner with whom they can share their important values. This higher-level mental organization allows more of a sense of personal contentment with a striving to continually improve, though these people will likely still experience episodes of disintegration, discomfort, and reintegration as their awareness continues to grow.
The Gestalt theorists, such as Fritz Perls, Ralph Hefferline, and Paul Goodman, emphasized two central ideas: (1) we all exist in an experiential present moment, which is embedded in webs of relationships; (2) thus, we can only know ourselves against the background of how we relate to other things—i.e., a figure-ground relationship (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1972). They also pointed out that humans have an inborn tendency to seek closure and, as a result, have little tolerance for ambiguity. Similarly, the little-known theorist Prescott Lecky (1969) hypothesized that humans are born with an instinctual drive to seek consistency as a way of making sense of the world around them, a notion that is similar to Leon Festinger’s (1957) observation that humans will strive arduously to reduce the uncomfortable psychological tension created by “cognitive dissonance” that arises if we have an inconsistency among our beliefs or behaviors.
The neo-Freudian Alfred Adler stated that people, in their attempt to gain mastery over their world, create “fictional finalisms”—invented concepts that cannot be proven, yet people organize their lives around them as though they are true (Hoffman, 1994). Since ultimate truth is beyond the capability of humans, we create partial truths about things that we cannot see, prove, nor disprove. Examples range from the lighthearted (e.g., Santa Claus) to serious sweeping philosophical statements (e.g., “We can control our own destiny” or “There is a heaven for the virtuous and a hell for sinners”). These fictional finalisms ameliorate our anxiety and help us feel more in control of our world. We prefer the comfort of dogmatic certainty to the chaos of questioning or of the insecurity and uncertainness of the unknown. As Freud noted, “All fantasies to fulfill illusions stem from anxieties” (1989, p. 16); these are attempts to feel in control of ourselves and the world around us.
The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich (1957) made a similar observation about humans, which prompted him to redefine God and religion. According to Tillich, God was whatever a person was most ultimately concerned with, and religion was composed of whatever behaviors that person engaged in to achieve that ultimate concern. In other words, a person’s God could be money, or religion, or power, or control, or fame—whatever a person created in order to try to organize his or her life.
All of these theorists would comfortably agree that people seek groups and partners who share their beliefs, which often leads to false but reassuring certainty. These groups might embrace religious or political causes, for example—all of which might be altruistic and benevolent, but yet all of which are likely to require a certain amount of conformity and fitting in at the expense of our individualism. Conformity can be comforting; being an individual, particularly if one is challenging traditions, is often uncomfortable. Dabrowski clearly believed that one cannot evolve into a fully developed and authentic person without developing an individualistic, unique, and conscious inner core of beliefs and values. He also understood that this road was arduous and fraught with discomfort and pain. One must first disintegrate before one can reintegrate at a higher level, and that the process of subsequent incremental disintegrations and reintegrations is likely to continue throughout one’s entire life.
However, our families are not always places of perfect acceptance and happiness; children do things that displease their parents, and parents do not satisfy all of the desires of their children (nor should they, necessarily). When children’s feelings are hurt, they begin to withdraw into themselves and put up protective barriers. They are not as open as they once were; they are more evaluative and more cautious—all part of the process of becoming an individual, separate from parents and family.
As children grow, they become exposed to people outside of the family, and they discover that others do not share the same expectations, values, or behaviors. Questions arise. “Why? Which set of values and behaviors is better? Which is right? How shall I choose?” They see that some behaviors by others are entirely contradictory to the ways in which they themselves were raised.
The brighter that people are, the more likely they are to be aware of how their own belief/value system is inconsistent with that of others. They may also see inconsistencies within their own belief/value system—their values are out of sync with the way they feel! Tension and discomfort arises. They may experience an approach-avoidance conflict about such awareness. On the one hand, they want to become more aware of these inconsistencies and absurdities in order to be fair and consistent and to learn better ways of being, yet on the other hand, they want to avoid such awareness because it makes them uncomfortable and challenges them to examine themselves—not always a flattering activity—as they try to live a more thoughtful, consistent, and meaningful life. These individuals adopt one or a combination of basic coping styles first described by the neo-Freudian Karen Horney (1945): (1) moving toward—accepting society’s traditions; conforming; working the system to become successful, (2) moving away from—rejecting traditional society via withdrawal; being nontraditional and arcane, and (3) moving against—rebelliously rejecting society; being angry and openly nonconforming.
As these people gain more life experience, their perspectives shift. They recognize that Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Yet examining life can be discomforting. For many, certain life milestones are awakening experiences—for example, birthdays (turning 21, 30, 40, etc.) and anniversaries; school and college reunions; weddings and funerals; estate planning and making a will. People find that they want to change their way of living so that they are not simply playing out the roles that others expect of them, but it is difficult to give up old traditions and habits, as well as the connectedness that these customs and practices offer.
People find that whenever they challenge or violate a tradition, it makes others uncomfortable. We want people to be predictable, even if it means that they are behaving in illogical and nonsensical ways. Most people vacillate in their thinking and behaviors; they can see how they might be and how they actually are, but making a leap forward to change is difficult. They may also find themselves feeling angry because they feel powerless to make the changes that they see as needed.
As people grow older, the developmental challenges that they encounter make them progressively more aware of existential issues and increase the likelihood of existential depression. Erikson (1959), Levinson (1986), and Sheehy (1995, 2006) have described a series of adult life stages, each of which has developmental tasks associated with it. A blended summary of the relevant adult stages is as follows:
Age 18-24 “Pulling up roots” – Breaking away from home Age 25-35 “Trying 20s” – Establishing oneself as an adult; making career choices; coming to grips with marriage, children, society Age 35-45 “Deadline decade” – Authenticity crisis; realization that it is the halfway point in one’s life; re-evaluation of oneself and one’s relationships; making choices about pushing harder vs. withdrawing vs. changing one’s life Age 45-55 “Renewal or resignation” – Further redefinition of priorities; changing or renewing relationships; roles change; children leave home; parents age or die; physical changes in self; further realization of own mortality Age 55+ “Regeneration” – Acceptance/rebellion at prospect of retirement; friends/mentors die; evaluation of life’s work; new relationship with family; physical changes; self-acceptance or rejection
Although most people go through these stages during the ages listed above, it is my experience that gifted adults usually encounter these life stages earlier and more intensely than others. As they grope with these issues, they are likely to experience related problems involving marital rapport and communication, expectations and relationships with their children, dissatisfaction with co-workers, and discontent with themselves. In Dabrowski terms, they experience disintegration, with existential depression as a main component.
It is evident, then, that being bright does not necessarily mean that one will be content, happy, and successful—and certainly not during periods of disintegration. More than 30 years ago, psychologist May Seagoe (1974) composed a table in which she listed characteristic strengths of gifted children on one side, and then on the adjacent side, she listed possible challenges or problems that are likely to arise from those very strengths. Table 1 is a similar table for gifted adults.
These strengths and associated difficulties lead most gifted adults to experience at least some existential conflicts that they struggle with throughout their life (Jacobsen, 2000; Streznewski, 1999). Four of these conflicts occur with particular frequency and serve as underpinnings for personal disintegration, creating significant anxiety and depression for the individuals who struggle with them. They are:
To reach positive reintegration, one needs to reach some resolution, or at least a level of comfort, concerning ways to manage (not to satisfy) the issues listed in the bulleted items above.
Along with knowing oneself, it is important to come to grips with three truths pointed out long ago by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (2004). He emphasized the importance of knowing and developing ourselves, stating that: (1) what we have as material goods are temporary, transient, and not able to provide us with lasting comfort; (2) what we represent in the eyes of others is as ephemeral as material possessions, since the opinions of others may change at any time; besides, we can never know what others really think of us anyway; and (3) what we are is the only thing that truly matters. Polonius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, says, “This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man.” Certainly, knowing oneself, including our weak areas, is important. Knowing our thought patterns is also important. As Yalom (2008) noted, “Inner equanimity stems from knowing that it is not things that disturb us, but our interpretations of things” (p. 113). What is our self-talk as we look at the world and at situations in our world?
Next we should understand how we relate to others. Many years ago, Luft and Ingham (1955), recognizing that all of us have “blind spots” when it comes to how we see ourselves, developed a simple matrix which they called Johari’s Window as a tool to help people understand themselves, their blind spots, and their relationships with others. To use Johari’s window, a person is given a list of 55 adjectives and instructed to select five or six that describe his or her own personality. Peers of that person are then given the same list, and they each choose five or six adjectives that describe the subject. These adjectives are then put in the appropriate “window” below. The person discovers which of the adjectives match what others have listed, as well as which adjectives they listed that others did not. The results can be extremely helpful in gaining self-understanding, including how one is seen by others.
It is not enough, though, to simply know oneself. We must also accept ourselves and find ways to nurture ourselves. Below are some guiding principles I have found to be helpful and have shared with others:
When people experiencing disintegration know what they might expect, as in the list above, the experience itself is not so intimidating or frightening. There is hope that the individual will reintegrate in a positive way, though the experience will be uncomfortable for a time. In addition to this understanding, there are several coping strategies that can be helpful, as well as other behavioral styles that may appear helpful but really are not.
Coping with an ongoing awareness of existential issues and the accompanying low-grade depression can be distressing, and few people can directly confront their existential depression for very long. As Yalom (2008) wrote, quoting François de La Rochefoucauld from the 1600s, “You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death.” How do people try to manage these complex and often painful issues? Some coping styles are clearly less adaptive than others, especially when they involve narrowing of thought and high activity levels. Some frequent but not-so-effective styles are:
Other coping styles are more adaptive. They help maintain a personal balance that increases the likelihood of successfully managing disintegrations and existential issues. These include:
In the Middle Ages, families often had a coat of arms, depicted by a shield containing symbols to represent and highlight different aspects of that family’s tradition and heritage. A picture of a sheaf of grain might symbolize that the family owned land; a sword could depict family members who fought valiantly. Below is an exercise to help individuals depict what is important to them—what they would want their coat of arms to look like if we used such things today.
“Your Personal Coat of Arms” is an exercise shared with me many years ago by a colleague that helps people think about the key values they use to guide their life and the decisions they make. This exercise can also help them decide which areas are core values for them and which are simply a veneer of convenience or tradition.
Figure 1 shows an escutcheon that is subdivided. Here are the instructions for filling out your Personal Coat of Arms:
Now consider how central this coat of arms is in your daily life. Do you use your coat of arms only to protect you, or does it also represent something that you aspire to?
You probably noticed that much of what you wrote on your Personal Coat of Arms had to do with your roles in life—perhaps as parent, student, musician, friend, spouse, helper, entrepreneur, adventurer—and roles certainly provide structure to our lives. But this raises some important questions. How much of your identify and self-worth come from the roles that you play? Do you define your roles, or do they define you? Are the roles simply irrelevant traditions and confining rituals, or do they give your life meaningful substance? Are these roles how you want to live your life?
A solid sense of self cannot be built on roles. To do so increases the likelihood of disintegration, because at some point, all of our roles will be stripped from us. There will come a day when we will no longer be a teacher or a business owner or musician or a husband or a wife. We will no longer be someone’s child; our parents will die, leaving us as orphans. I can substitute new roles for the ones I have lost, but those may become lost, too. As I lose the roles that organize my existence, I will find myself having to confront provocative questions. What would I be like without my roles? What value would I have? As I substitute new roles, are they truly ones that I want to select?
Some years ago, a colleague in psychology introduced me to a role-stripping exercise as a way of focusing thought on these issues. It goes as follows:
After the role-stripping exercise, consider once again how much your roles define you versus how much you define your roles. You may wish to contemplate what others would be like without their roles. What value would they have? Perhaps you might ask family members and co-workers how they perceive your major roles. Their ideas might be different! You may then decide to temporarily take “time out” from each of your roles so that you can enrich or enhance other roles. Or you may resolve to develop a new role or invent a new tradition for yourself or your family.
Over the course of our lives, each of us develops a persona—a façade that we put up for the world to protect ourselves from others until we know that we can trust them well enough to lower that façade. Behind this façade is where we cope with our own internal existential issues, but it is also our façade that keeps others at a distance and fosters our existential aloneness because it hinders them from truly knowing us. This façade usually represents our lifestyle, and behind the mask are our values; however, both lifestyle and values are matters that we can choose to adopt or to discard. There are three underlying existential facts. They are: (1) we are basically alone, (2) we will die, and (3) we need others. Interpersonal relationships are basic to human existence, yet we spend so much of our lives in superficialities that we often give too little focus to meaningful relationships. Here are some questions to consider:
Existential isolation is eased to a degree if people simply feel that someone else understands the issues that they are grappling with. For example, even though your experience is not exactly the same as mine, I feel far less alone if I know that your experiences have been somewhat similar.
Many people have written about how important it is that a person not be allowed to die alone, and hospice centers across the country make sure that someone is present at the moment of death. Anxiety about death is not a disease; it is simply a byproduct of life. It seems that death—the final moment in our life as we know it—is a topic that people avoid except in the abstract. However, we need to think and talk about death if we are to live our lives well.
In our aloneness, particularly as we contemplate no longer being in this world and no longer existing, we do need others. We never outgrow our need for connectedness. Establishing relationships with others typically goes through a sequence of three successive steps: (1) inclusion/exclusion—“Am I a member of this group, or am I on the outside?” (2) control—“Where do I fit in determining what we are going to do? Am I the leader, the follower, the worker, etc.?” and (3) mutual caring—“Do others really care about my concerns, and do I care about theirs?” (Schutz, 1958). However, these three steps can actually interfere with close relationships with others.
Here are some exercises you may find helpful for improving your relationships with others:
These exercises should open the door to improved relationships with others. They help people connect in new ways and become more aware of their behaviors in relationships, including some that may be hampering the relationship.
I have already noted the importance of accepting oneself as valuable apart from one’s roles and separate from others’ evaluations. But learning to do this requires that people learn to manage themselves. This involves them becoming more aware of themselves—their roles, their coat of arms, their relationships—and then learning to manage their self-talk about all of this. If they allow themselves to explore as they do this, they may be able to discover parts of themselves that do not fit with their roles.
Here are some things to try that will facilitate your learning more about yourself, as well as learning new self-management skills:
Part of the human condition seems to be to search for meaning. Throughout history, countless great works of literature have focused on this theme. Victor Frankl, in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, showed us that even in dire circumstances, such as a concentration camp like Auschwitz, there is a great human need to find meaning. Frankl himself, imprisoned and in desperate circumstances in Auschwitz, searched for and found meaning in his relationships with others and with loved ones, even though they were separated.
Unfortunately, the people who need meaning the most are usually so busy achieving that they have little or no time to search for it. Without meaning as an anchor, people are particularly at risk for disintegration and existential depression. Frantic efforts at achievement and control end up collapsing because they are hollow underneath. Are you just playing roles, or are your relationships real? Can you conclude that your life has purpose and meaning? Have you developed values and beliefs that go beyond your roles? What if you could start over? What would you do differently? Can you trust that there is some unity or harmony in life and that your life can fit in somehow? These are important questions to resolve if one’s life is to have meaning.
Meaning develops first from a deep, conscious, accurate, and authentic understanding of oneself. Second, meaning then arises from understanding oneself in relation to the world at large—that is, the sense of how one’s life fits in relationship with the universe. And third, meaning grows from authentic relations with others, which allow expression for the first and a context for the second. It is through our personal relations that we can express ourselves as the unique individuals we are and how we can understand our practical grounding within the universe.
Since, ultimately, you will be the one who has to give your life meaning, what meaning do you give your life? Here are some suggestions that might help you begin the process:
A conclusion about existential issues and existential depression is impossible because they are like a möbius strip that continues seamlessly and endlessly. Yet we do need to help ourselves and our bright youngsters cope with these difficult existential questions. We cannot do anything about death; our existence is finite. However, we can learn to accept those aspects of existence that we cannot change. We can also feel understood and not so alone, and we can discover ways to manage freedom and our sense of isolation so that they will give our lives purpose. We can keep creating and developing ourselves, we can keep working for positive and healthy relationships, and we can keep trying to make a difference in the world, thereby creating meaning for ourselves. Although we cannot eradicate the basic underlying bricks of the existential wall, we can learn from Dabrowski that growth through the discovery of authenticity within ourselves and the expression of our authentic selves through authentic relationships may serve as a salve to soothe these realities of our existence.
In coping with existential depression, we must realize that existential concerns are not issues that can be dealt with only once, but will probably need frequent revisiting and reconsideration. We can support others and help them understand that disintegration is a necessary step toward new growth and meaning—it can eventually be positive. And finally, we can encourage these individuals to give meaning to their own lives in whatever ways they can by adopting the message of hope as expressed by the African-American poet Langston Hughes in his poem Dreams.
James T. Webb, Ph.D., ABPP-CL, has been recognized as one of the 25 most influential psychologists nationally on gifted education, and he consults with schools, pro grams and individuals about social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children. In 1981, Dr. Webb established SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted Children, Inc.), a national nonprofit organization that provides information, training, conferences, and work shops, and he remains as Chair of SENG’s Professional Advisory
Dr. Webb was President of the Ohio Psychological Association and a member of its Board of Trustees for seven years. He has been in private practice as well as in various consulting positions with clinics and hospitals. Dr. Webb was one of the founders of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, where he was a Professor and Associate Dean. Earlier in his career, Dr. Webb was a member of the graduate faculty in psychology at Ohio University, and subsequently directed the Department of Psychology at the Children’s Med i cal Center in Dayton, Ohio where he also was Associate Clinical Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Wright State University School of Medicine.
Dr. Webb is the lead author of five books and several DVDs about gifted children. Four of his books have won “Best Book” awards.
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