Why are gifted individuals so prone to existential depression?  

The essential features of giftedness are an intense drive to acquire and master new information, a protean imagination, spontaneous insights, leaps of imagination, clairvoyance, a finely tuned aesthetic sensibility, a razor-sharp intellect, a capacity to be inspired, and uncanny physical abilities. These are the hallmarks of giftedness and the building blocks for spectacular accomplishments. They allow gifted individuals to experience the world in rich, complex, and spiritual ways.

These features can be a source of intense pride and personal power, but they can also lead to feelings of alienation, detachment, isolation, disillusionment, and a sense of meaninglessness and insignificance. These are the symptoms of existential depression.

How does existential depression evolve from the core features of giftedness?

Gifted children often feel as though they have left childhood prematurely, entering adulthood too early and left their peers behind.

Even at a young age, they are aware that their ability to see, do, and imagine beyond the ordinary sets them apart from their peers. This power to spontaneously and automatically discover and create in outsized ways allows them to dream of grand successes. However, this turbo-charged experience can make them feel isolated and ungrounded. Instinctively, young gifted children feel something has gone terribly wrong: somehow they’ve left their childhoods early, skipped adolescence, and entered a world that only belongs to adults. In this emotional limbo, the magic of giftedness can coexist with guilt, shame, isolation, and detachment. Not only have gifted children trespassed, but they have also left their peers far behind. Often, these feelings can be the beginning of existential depression.

Examples of the Spontaneous Intuitive Processes Associated with Giftedness

Orhan Pamuk (2004) in “Snow” (chap. 10, p.81) describes a particular piece of writing as a “flash of inspiration” – like someone whispering in his ear – and yet during the process of writing in this way, he was in constant doubt about its self-worth.

Michael Brown (1994) in Martin et. al.’s “A Nobel’s Eye View of Scientific Intuition” (Int’l Journal of Science Education V.16#4, pp161-162) describes the remarkable, unexplainable process of discovery and exploration in his laboratory: “It felt like we were guided by an invisible hand – we never seemed confused about the path forward.”

Henri Poincare, the gifted French mathematician, said in “Science and Method,” “It is by logic we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”

In the course of their work, many accomplished adults can identify and acknowledge these spontaneous intuitive processes that pop up just at the right time. They seem to welcome, use, and enjoy them without conflict or distress. Sadly, many gifted young people find these spontaneous, unexplainable processes difficult to accept and value as part of being gifted. Because of their difficulty accepting the reality of their giftedness, they interpret them as evidence that they are facile and clever, or worse, cheaters, liars, and imposters. For many gifted young people, the effortless processes that can end in high-level accomplishments rarely lead to self-esteem. They instead seem to lead to denial and feelings of guilt and shame.

Failure to answer the Big social as well as the Big personal Existential questions 

Parents, teachers, and mentors may be fascinated by a gifted child’s ability to explore the “Big Existential” questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What’s life’s ultimate purpose and meaning? Why is there so much injustice and moral/ethical duplicity? A gifted child’s inability to find answers to these questions is unsettling. Even more disturbing is a gifted child’s inability to answer their own personal existential questions: Why was I given these special qualities and abilities that allow me to function at much higher levels than my peers? What am I supposed to do with them – develop them for myself and aspire to be the best or help others less fortunate than me? If I use them to follow my own interests and perfect my own abilities, does it mean I’ve become narcissistic and self-absorbed? What happened to my altruistic concern for others? What did I do to deserve them? What should I do to keep them?

Confusion about how to answer these questions and worry that, as young children, they shouldn’t even be thinking about these issues can lead to feelings of shame and guilt that can develop into the symptoms of existential depression.

Normally endowed individuals : why do the rarely develop Existential Depression ? 

Many normally endowed individuals worry about themselves and their place in the world.This is especially true during developmental transitions when the comforts and security of their current phase need to be given up for the excitement and challenges of the next: can I handle the work in the next grade level? Will I survive in a bigger school? Will I find a new goup of friends? 

Although these worries can be intense and cause plenty of suffering , they generally are shortlived and episodic . when they become persistent preoccupations without resolution, they can lead to feelings of alienation, isolation, disillusionment, detachment feelings of meaninglessness and dissociation – the symptoms of an existential crisis. 

Normally endowed individuals also have concerns that go beyond their narrow personal ones. They ,like their gifted counter parts, have questions about the nature of human existence – where did we come from;what are we supposed to be doing here ; why is there so much cruelty and dishonesty amidst so much good and beautiful? 

But, Unlike their gifted counterparts , these concerns rarely become ones that cause intense distress.When they do become more of a focus, its usually because they have been displaced from unresolved personal or family worries. 

When normally endowed individuals do develop forms of extreme emotional  distress – distress that may feel like a threat to their very existence ( for example during an adolescent identity crisis) -whether from worries that are personal or concerns that are more social and philosophical – this extreme form of emotional distress rarely develops into an existential depression 

Why is this? 

By and large , normally endowed individuals, unlike their gifted peers, are less concerned about being fiercely  independent and are ,during times of extreme emotional distress, willing to reach out for emotional support, guidance , and reassurance or are receptive to these from parents, teachers who may perceive their need. Also, Normally endowed individuals are comfortable turning to a group of peers who are quite willing to invite someone new to join them in “blowing off” the heavy stuff so they can all enjoy a  carefree popular culture. 

Gifted individuals and Existential Depression: other factors that can cause it 

Like their normally endowed counterparts, gifted individuals are also ambivalent about moving up to their next developmental level. On the one hand , they are eager to use their prodigous intellect at a higher level.The possibilities for this are more likely if they’ve skipped a grade.  Perhaps they will find friends with whom they can share their unique interests; friends who like what happens in the classroom and friends who want to dig into the big existentian questions about life: its meaning and purpose; perhaps they won’t have to feel that erosive low grade sense of alienation and detachment. 

However, these exciting possibilities can be tempered by certain negative ones. As the  the work will inevitably  get harder, gifted individuals begin to worry they’ll experience their first failures. Yet at the same time they worry they’ll still be the smartest person in the room; and with a wider age gap, they worry it will be even harder  to deal with the social issues – genuine friendships will still be out of reach. 

In this context, some gifted individuals are prepared to confront their resistance to sacrificing their private time  to live in their own head in order to feel the genuine  desire for social and intimate relationships and work on developing the skills necessary  . They recognize the need to give up aspects of living in their own world to avoid more and more loneliness.It becomes clear that Living in their own imagination is not a way forward.  

And , as they get older , these types of gifted individuals also know they have to confront their biggest existential questions– ones that have plagued them since childhood: how do I understand and accept the reality of my own giftedness and use it. Why was I given these extraordinary abilities and sensitivities?, do I deserve them?, what am I supposed to do with them?; how do I maintain them?; do I even want them ?; what good are they anyway.? 

Accepting and embracing giftedness..reaching out for help when complicated worries become existential distress 

Faced with the intellectual and social challenges of a more advanced educational or occupational environment,some gifted individuals have the emotional maturity to accept the reality of their own giftedness and others reactions  to it. Although this process of acceptance can be a difficult one ,they fine ways to do it without betraying a core part of their idenity 

For some gifted individuals , the solution includes becoming a leader in their field of interest. In this way they can retain engagement in their  interests and get the benefits of  exploring them in both a private and  social context . This strategy adds new stresses and dealing with new challenges – taking on the opportunity for personal power and receiving the power others are eager to give for the benefit of being mentored; managing their own emotional reactions to having power  over others and managing the reactions of envy and jealousy as well as admiration. Whatever compromises are involved in giving up exclusive  privacy and pleasure of their own explorations and discoveries,and the work of developing new talents in dealing with other people’s issues and social dynamics  seems worth avoiding the worst of loneliness, isolation and other aspects of existential distress. 

This doesn’t mean that some aspect of the arrangement can’t get out of balance and precipitate an existential crisis.But, having relinquished some independence and experienced the benefits of depending on the interactions with others for their self esteem and well being, they are prepared to reach out or take recommendations to reach out for help when existential issues become too much for them to handle on their own. This  key factor – the willingness to reach out and depend on others for their well being is what often prevents an existential crisis from becoming and existential depression. 

Avoiding the personal  and public acknowledgement of giftedness 

Other gifted individuals convince themselves  they can avoid acknowledgement of their giftedness and sidestep public recognition of it by continuing the solitary pursuit of  their areas of special interest. As they get older however, they often find that working in isolation doesn’t bring the rewards they hoped for – a reclusive life style eventually  diminishes their own pleasure and intensifies feelings of alienation ,disillusionment and a sense that their life is slowly loosing its  meaning. .More existential  distress comes when they watch their peers moving ahead in their personal lives – developing intimate relationships and establishing marriages and families.Now they fear that the special abilities and sensitivies that allowed them to be well ahead of everyone else are leaving them behind.Guarding their independence in the face of a deepening   existential crisis – hoping they can use their superb intellectual abilities to think their way out of it – put them at great risk for developing an existential depression. 

Unable to get beyond this emotional impass  often becomes the turning point when an existential crisis becomes an existential depression. 

A crucial  factor in how a existential crisis becomes an existential depression is a gifted individual’s reluctance to reach out for help.Having avoided the experience of dependency when they were young children , they see the need for it as an indication of personal failure instead of a sensible strategy to protect their giftedness ,its development and their current well being. 

Existential Depression: The Basic Psychological Pathway 

The ultimate psychological conflict of many gifted individuals is how to accept the reality of their giftedness and use it to benefit themselves and others instead of denying it ,disavowing it ,or undermining This conflict is their core existential dilemma. 

Because this conflict is often unconscious – completely out of a gifted individual’s conscious awareness – the outward manifestations are emotional volatility,self defeating behaviour ,underachievement and inability to form a solid sense of identity. 

The emotional stress caused by this ongoing unresolved psychological conflict about being gifted and how to use- it regardless of circumstance or relationships – is ,for many gifted individuals ,the underlying psychological pathway to an existential depression. 

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Jerald Grobman M.D.


Madelon Sann L.C.S.W.​