The Gifted Adult and Existential Depression

As gifted adults, our highly sensitive selves often reach momentous peaks and seemingly bottomless valleys in our emotional experiences.  We search for meaning in our lives, contemplate ideas like the finality of death vs. the possibility of an afterlife, and wonder how we can help the world we live in.  But what about when we can’t find all the answers, or when we realize that maybe there aren’t even answers after all?

Gifted adults very often have a desperate need to create.  We need to know that we are doing something that is making our world a better place, or helping the people who live in it.  We have to spend our time sharing, contributing, learning, exploring, reaching for understanding and meaning at the next level because without this we develop a huge gap within ourselves.  And this gap can very easily create existential depression.

In The Van Gogh Blues, Dr. Eric Maisel describes how the lack of opportunity to create sparks negative emotions in someone who has the ability to make a difference, someone who he calls ‘a creator’:

This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful.  Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating.  Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow.

So one of the ways that we can overcome existential depression is to find ways to make meaning in our lives, to contribute and to help others.  When we give of ourselves, we not only energize the focus of our efforts, but we bring life to our own spirits.  We feel that we create meaning by using the unique parts of our human selves.

If you find yourself feeling down and asking yourself questions like, “What is this all for?”, “Why am I even here?”, or “Is this all there is?”, then consider how well you are currently creating in your life.  And if you haven’t been sharing as much of yourself as you could, do something good for someone else, and you’ll find yourself in a better place.

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  • Elizabeth Braun

    That’s why I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses – all life’s big questions meaningfully and satisfactorily answered, both intellectually and emotionally.=) Highly recommended!

    I still love to be useful and creative, but I’m enormously relieved to be spared the ‘why?’=)

    • Sonia Dabboussi

      It’s great that you’ve found something that is so beneficial and comforting for you intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes that’s a really hard thing to come by.
      For other people who may not yet be where you are in this regard, what would you say you’ve gained by having your questions answered?
      Not everyone has the same religious beliefs or life practices, but many of the underlying ideas and ideals are shared among people all around the world. What kinds of things would you say have been most helpful to you, especially with the many challenges that gifted people face? And which ones would you suggest that other people strive for first if they are currently far from finding this satisfaction?

    • Mike

      I think it’s great that you’ve found something that you’re able to take solace in; however, for me personally, a major aspect of my intellectual development consisted in the realization that human beings have a rich set of cognitive biases, one of which is to assume there exists an answer to every question thinkable. The consequences can be manifold and devastating when we cling to the idea that there is an answer to every question, and we end up making up answers to our questions – some times answers that have unintended harmful consequences. I sincerely think that once an individual is able to accept the fact of empty questions and our tendency to ask them, and recognize this inherent bias in the human mind, that individual will be much happier. No longer will they fervently desire to find answers that do not exist, and will feel no need to invent answers. That is what religions are, after all: complex structures of interlocking beliefs that are designed, though not consciously, but by the laws of cultural diffusion, to provide a lens through which people may view and interpret the world that minimizes the anxiety of perceived uncertainty. Curiosity can be a gift, but it can also be a tragic flaw. Unchecked, it can do us emotional and intellectual damage. If we recognize this, religion isn’t necessary in the first place, since we eliminate pseudo-questions in recognizing our cognitive biases.

    • Truth

      You can’t be both gifted and  Jehovah’s Witness. It is mutually exclusive. 

  • Jenna

    This post describes exactly how I feel. Though I have never been identified as gifted by a ‘professional’; neither by my parents, or other family members. It makes me feel very sad because they don’t understand me. I don’t know how to create meaning in my life, and at no point will they understand that this is OK, for me. I am told consistently that, I must ‘normalize’ my behaviour, which again just confirms in my mind that, the people closest to me are not very close at all, as they fail to understand how I see things. The more they reveal to me of their selves, the more I conceal myself in light of this. I think I am dealing with it by separating a part of me from them, a part of my personality is truly my own, but it hurts too. The hardest part is that my struggle to find meaning is interpreted as a mental disorder by my parents, so it’s difficult for me to understand if I am deluded in my own thinking regarding how I see myself and those around me. Am I gifted, but unidentified, or just deluded? Can this explain how I feel, and how others regard me? I just don’t know. I do know that in someway having this confirmed would probably help my self esteem, but in another way I know that it is not important. I still have to find meaning for myself, and I guess thats pretty much something that can only be gained from understanding how I can define myself and feel happy with that source of meaning; which could be any number of ways. Though of course, I will remain curious, because all the characteristics of being gifted, seem to just fit. I have thought about having my IQ tested as some sort of source of relief, but seen as I had such terrible schooling, I very much doubt I would score highly as I have no knowledge of certain subjects what so ever. Its a shame in some ways, but I guess it could be turned into a positive challenge, to seek confirmation through other means!

    I enjoy reading this blog, thanks to your efforts, I am gaining in some understanding of my behavior, even if there is the possibility that I am especially deluded as my parents suspect! 🙂

    • Dwayne S

      I would doubt you are deluded, and I’d be curious to hear if you’ve come to any conclusions since your post.  I think if I’ve learned anything from reading various posts on giftedness it’s that your experiences are not uncommon, maybe more “normal” within this particular group of people (gifted). 
      It seems particularly unfortunate that those we look to for confirmation and support, such as family, are unable to give us what we need.  I’m sure many families can and do support their loved ones, however if we are some of those who don’t get that support we might feel even more alone.  I think that’s where religion, or a deep faith in some greater power will help, to not feel alone but to be loved and supported unconditionally.
      My 2 bits anyway.

    • giftedforlife

      Jenna, I kind of liken giftedness to being able to see in colour while others around us are colour blind.  We both see the same objects but we experience them in different ways.  Imagine trying to explain various intricate shades of orange to someone who can only see ‘orange’ as yellow.  As much as they may try to understand and help, in some ways they really can’t.

    • Snoopydupi

      That’s precisely how I feel. I tested my IQ about a year ago and from that point on I was like F..K YEAH! I KNEW IT ! It turned out I was gifted all along.  I always felt different and smarter and had such ups and downs that I felt I should take it down a notch in front of everybody else. I was confused and ashamed of my thoughts. 
       I’m an only child, with … well.. less intelligent parents who couldn’t keep up with me from puberty onward so we fought a lot and I was at the same time encouraged to do things I didn’t approve of and put down for mistakes I never made..They also interpreted my thoughts and tears as depression and teased me about it.I never trusted them again and they continue to burden me. I come from a country where there is no such thing as gifted education and my potential was  noticed but never developed… I grew up very insecure and hid it from others and myself  with this perky, smiley personality … I never gave school much thought or effort   ( since it was SH.T ) but became rebely kind of student, or so I found out later from my friends.Though I made a wrong call in picking out my studies , getting into college was the best thing ever … and finally in my life I returned to the things I loved most … thinking… dreaming…creating 
      What matters most.. I found my true peers , more or less.. I’m in a happy place most of the time but depressing thoughts run through my life on a daily basis… I laugh along and rationalize.  Sometimes It gets so bad and sad I cry for hours and just have to share it with someone before I move on with the routine. But I would not describe myself as depressed because I do move on. I guess I don’t mind  the sadness  as much as I’m afraid that all of that stress is going to make me sick. 
      Point is : my experience is similar to yours and once I accepted who I was I was much happier and could start working on myself..
      Please don’t turn to religion because in the end if you are gifted you will realize that is all nonsense and have a mayor breakdown 

  • Pompous Force

    Thank you for sharing this insight Sonia, it’s an important idea I’m still grappling with right now. 
    What saved me once may not be helpful for everyone, but is something that restored hope when I started to believe it wouldn’t return to me.
    Introspection and an unconditional pursuit of truth lead to what I now see as the meaninglessness of shared language. This realisation was painful and I experienced a depressed state for the weeks following it. Unlike other experiences of depression, to me, this state felt fresher but more tenacious than depression originating from biased cognitions, negative expectations or unhelpful beliefs, because it was a conclusion begot by reason and intuition. 
    What brought me back to hope was not to stop questioning meaning, but to turn my (possibly incorrigle) need for answers on itself. At this place, I guess I’d say a sort of Nihilism of language, I looked at the place itself and thought “Okay, so language and the world a progeny thereof is not what I have always trusted it to be. Undeniably, this is a bit shit. What now?”
    In this hopeless state I simply asked myself a new type of question, thus turning the reasoning process that lead to despair on itself, to lead me back to hope and sanity (it was inadvertant at the time). The question I asked teetering on the outer boundary of language and meaning was simple:
    “I acknowledge the veracity of this Nihilism, but what would a meaningful world be like?”
    I wasn’t sure if such a world existed, but in imagining its possibility, a little light of optimism flaired up and I ran to fuel it into a conflagration.
    Not quite there yet 🙂 One answer to this question was Harry Potter’s world. Another answer, as Elizabeth’s comment here demonstrates, was religion.

  • whatruselling?

    BULL TWADDLE.  You’re describing typical Bi-Polarism, NOT Gifted.

    Creation for the gifted is NEVER for self. EVER!

    I want to know what your EDUCATIONAL QUALIFICATIONS are?
    Are you selling some sort of religion here?

  • Mike

    This article was actually quite helpful. I went through a period of extreme ‘existential depression’ in which I had a really hard time making sense of the fact of my own existence, what it means to exist, and what it must mean to not exist, and to be dead. I spent a lot of time thinking about, and fearing death. Taking a lot of philosophy courses exacerbated my sadness, because I found that there are so many questions concerning the deep structure of the universe and the human mind that are extremely difficult to answer, and when they can be answered, the answers are very difficult to fathom. I learned a lot in philosophy, and gained valuable intellectual skills that are now serving me quite well in science, but I suffered dearly for the first two years of my undergraduate education. My despair was coupled with an extremely sense of uselessness. I felt as though I was useless (not because I was a philosophy major, ha), and yearned to be doing somewhat what would benefit myself and others. I came very close to dropping out of school and joining the military, or working in unskilled labour.

    To anyone who has gone through a period of intense existential depression in which you cannot pull your mind away from the most abstract existential questions that cannot, in principle, be answered, do yourself a favour and try to understand how the things you are thinking about are not real – they are the products of a mind that is profound, but undisciplined and lacking in direction. Ludwig Wittgenstein, though a genius, suffered extreme existential depression and longed to work as a labourer (and was continually discourages by his fellow academics) because he fervently sought answers that did not exist. Don’t fall into the same trap. I found that when I changed my life up – started doing something different that I believed to be more meaningful and enjoyable, my depression began to dissipate. I went from being a philosophy student focusing on the metaphysics of causation and mathematical logic, to a biological anthropology student with an interest in studying non-human primates to get a glimpse into the evolution of human behaviour. I find much more meaning in the latter, and more real answers to be found, rather than engaging in abstract discussions of nearest possible worlds, and deriving theorems from the null set. The philosopher David Hume said “indulge your passion for science…but let you science be human, and thus have direct reference to action and society”. This is the best way, at least for many gifted people, I think, so feel useful and fulfilled: to pursue their interests in such a way as to be beneficial to others. It’s no wonder most philosophy students go on to be bioethicists in hospitals, lawyers, policy makers, or cognitive scientists. Those who remain in the ivory tower are very few and far between.

  • bill

    Even when you have great faith, enlightened Zen understanding and are involved in creative process or helping others….it is still there, always.