Existential Depression: Are you hurting, trailblazer?
Existential depression is a crisis that arises when one confronts issues such as the meaning of life, isolation, death, and their place in the world. It may mean something different when you are an innately intense, sensitive or gifted person.
Existential depression is if you see and feel what most others don’t;
If you have high expectation 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 others don’t like it;
If you are strong-willed, have an independent mind, crave autonomy and freedom;
If you can’t bare 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.
“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 and Intense People
In a 2012 Paper published in European Psychiatry, scholar Seubert found that for a specific population, the traditional idea of depression or therapy methods are not effective. Instead, their depression 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). The TPD views depression not as an illness, but an existential crisis- also an indicator of a person’s creative potential.
This specific group of individuals, 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 surrounding. Some manifestations of overexcitabilities 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 sensitive 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 their place in the world. Because they are idealists who can envision the possibilities of how things could be better, they are also seeing how the world, people, institutions and systems fall short of their ideals. Even as children, if they were to share their concerns with others, they are met with blankness, puzzlement, and sometimes criticisms. From a young age, they have learned to silence themselves to fit in with others. As they grow older, they could not help but be pained by the hypocrisies, arbitrariness, and dysfunctions in the world. On realising that there is a limit to their ability to make changes, they feel the disappointment and frustration deeply, and ultimately this 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— not just cultural, but also biological (how we are wired)— into consideration. It neglects the fact as human, beyond basic needs we also have to express our idiosyncratic nature— what makes you uniquely you, 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 point at which materials gains and political power define success; this culture fosters a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality and radical individualism. To Dabrowski, however, contorting oneself to fit into such a ‘primitive and confused’ (1970, p.118; cited in Mendaglio, 2008) world is in itself dysfunctional. In a world where most people passively accepts socialisation, he believed those who rebel are endowed with extraordinary potential. However, this certainly does not mean a glamorous or comfortable life. It is likely that the non-conformist would experience, more than an average person, inner conflicts and existential depression.
In TPD, growth is when one moves past subservient and confirmative 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 old structure of beliefs, values and behaviours; this is unsettling, and we might be thrust 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 were, what we had learned through our family, education and from the social order could no longer withstand our questioning. More and more, what seemed ‘normal’ look hypocritical, insufficient, or unethical. However, a part of us still believes it was us that was wrong, or assume it is due to some inherent defectiveness that we do not fit in. With the voice of an inner critic, we harshly question and scrutinise ourselves.
Eckhart Tolle, the renown spiritual teacher, through his personal experience describes the chaos of his existential depression as follow: “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’.
Live thy Life,
Young and old,
Like yon oak,
Bright in spring,
Then; and then
All his leaves
Fall’n at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough
– By Alfred Lord Tennyson
If we then try to resolve our existential depression through conventional wisdom and traditional advice from others, we will find that these methods have ceased to help. Then, we are propelled to move onto a path of self- discovery and soul search. 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 its 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 reached a higher level of functioning, you become an original thinker, with your own approach to solving problems and creativity. You are also much more able to manifest your gifts and talents through words, art, meaningful domestic endeavours or social actions.
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.
CYCLES OF RENEWAL
In your life, there might not be just one, but several cycles of crisis and renewal. These are what you 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 limit and stretch yourself all the time; even you are not aware of this is what you are doing, or that there is the 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.
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 of 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.
Seeing the origin of your inner conflicts accurately 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.
I SEE YOUR SHEDDING PAIN
Intense people are ever-growing creatures.
You reflect on almost everything- every situation, interactions, and encounter with all things.
You have an insatiable hunger for knowledge and insights.
You can quickly feel stuck and need for expansive intellectual, geographical, and emotional adventures.
You grow so fast others could hardly keep up.
Expanding so vast 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 emotions 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 ways of being, alongside the beliefs, behaviours and defences that have expired are dropping away. What you are experiencing, is a growing pain.
You tell the truth because you have to, even 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 could do it no longer.
Stepping into your bigness requires releasing your old identifications, beliefs, ways of being in the world, and, often the 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 attacks.
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 of 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 the more honourable path.
But it is by doing what others don’t could you get to where others don’t.
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 what 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 would 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.