Why do Neurotypical Individuals 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 group of friends?

Although these worries can be intense and cause plenty of suffering, they generally are short-lived 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 counterparts, 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 beauty?

But, unlike their gifted counterparts, these concerns rarely become ones that cause intense distress. When they do become more of a focus, it’s 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 prodigious 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 existential 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 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 heads to feel the genuine desire for social and intimate relationships and work on developing the necessary skills. 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 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 find ways to do it without betraying a core part of their identity.

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 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 the 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 an existential depression.

Avoiding the Personal and Public Acknowledgement of Giftedness

Other gifted individuals convince themselves that they can avoid the acknowledgment of their giftedness and sidestep public recognition of it by continuing the solitary pursuit of their areas of special interest. However, as they get older, they often find that working in isolation doesn’t bring the rewards they hoped for – a reclusive lifestyle eventually diminishes their pleasure and intensifies feelings of alienation, disillusionment, and a sense that their life is slowly losing 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 sensitivities 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 – puts them at great risk of developing an existential depression.

Being unable to get beyond this emotional impasse often becomes the turning point when an existential crisis becomes an existential depression.

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Jerald Grobman M.D.

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Madelon Sann L.C.S.W.​

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