Are You Having an Existential Depression?
The pain of growing into yourself.
Posted Jan 27, 2019
Are you a trailblazer?
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 despair.
Intense people and existential depression
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 indicator of a person’s creative potential.
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.'
In TPD, growth is when one moves past subservient and confirmative behavior, and steps into authenticity. We can only make the transition from lower levels of mental functioning to higher levels by experiencing productive conflicts 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 realize 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 behaviors; 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 scrutinize ourselves.
Eckhart Tolle, the renown spiritual teacher, through his personal experience describes such chaos 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.’
If we then try to resolve this challenge 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.
This process 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.’
As natural cycles of life go, we must deconstruct our current form to recreate something new. In a way, we must die (Ego Death) to be reborn. Alongside actual things such as relationship, titles and career trajectory, we also need to release certain strong beliefs, a future vision, and ideas about who we thought we were.
During the period of transition, we may cycle back and forth between the ‘stages of grieving’ suggested by Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
- Denial: I am sure I am not that different. I can do what everyone does.
- Anger: Why me? Why does it seem easy to others and not me? Why can’t the world be a bit more understanding?
- Bargaining: Just let me give it another go, maybe I can still count on external recognition to satisfy my needs.
- Depression: This is hopeless. I am a misfit. I will never feel happy and fulfilled. Why do I bother? “
- Acceptance: I am who I am. Even though it is sometimes not easy to be more intense and sensitive than others, I trust that my authenticity will allow the right people, position, and situation to come towards me.
It is paramount to have patience and self-compassion in this process. Our life path, like everything in nature, works in cycles and seasons. You now realize what has got you here may not get you to the next stage of your self-actualization. Think of all the time you have spent in your Adapted Self has been a valuable exploration process, a kind of life research that sets the foundation for your growth. You could not have known until you know; You could not have leapt until you are ready. You have been doing exactly ‘the right thing’ all along. For diving in and giving it all until it no longer works, you are a triumph. There is a natural order to life—you only know the answers just when you need to know it, not a minute sooner or later.
Despite having to go through a period of confusion and despair, the result of your productive conflict 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 endeavors or social actions.
In your life, there might not be just one, but several cycles of crisis and renewal.
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 this is what you are doing, or that there is the healthy drive behind your inability to compromise.
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.