Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults

By WEBB, J. Ph.D.

The full version of this essay appears, with permission from the author, on the website for the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Read article intro below, and click on the link above, or following this intro, for the full version.

When people undergo a great trauma or other unsettling event—they have lost a job or a loved one dies, for example—their understanding of themselves or of their place in the world often disintegrates, and they temporarily “fall apart,” experiencing a type of depression referred to as existential depression.

It’s very hard to keep your spirits up. You’ve got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you. ~ Woody Allen

When people undergo a great trauma or other unsettling event—they have lost a job or a loved one dies, for example—their understanding of themselves or of their place in the world often disintegrates, and they temporarily “fall apart,” experiencing a type of depression referred to as existential depression. Their ordeal highlights for them the transient nature of life and the lack of control that we have over so many events, and it raises questions about the meaning of our lives and our behaviors. For other people, the experience of existential depression seemingly arises spontaneously; it stems from their own perception of life, their thoughts about the world and their place in it, as well as the meaning of their life. While not universal, the experience of existential depression can challenge an individual’s very survival and represents both a great challenge and at the same time an opportunity—an opportunity to seize control over one’s life and turn the experience into a positive life lesson—an experience leading to personality growth.

It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely than those who are less gifted to experience spontaneous existential depression as an outgrowth of their mental and emotional abilities and interactions with others. People who are bright are usually more intense, sensitive, and idealistic, and they can see the inconsistencies and absurdities in the values and behaviors of others (Webb, Gore, Amend, & DeVries, 2007). This kind of sensitive awareness and idealism makes them more likely to ask themselves difficult questions about the nature and purpose of their lives and the lives of those around them. They become keenly aware of their smallness in the larger picture of existence, and they feel helpless to fix the many problems that trouble them. As a result, they become depressed.

This spontaneous existential depression is also, I believe, typically associated with the disintegration experiences referred to by Dabrowski (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Mendaglio, 2008a). In Dabrowski’s approach, individuals who “fall apart” must find some way to “put themselves back together again,” either by reintegrating at their previous state or demonstrating growth by reintegrating at a new and higher level of functioning. Sadly, sometimes the outcome of this process may lead to chronic breakdown and disintegration. Whether existential depression and its resulting disintegration become positive or whether they stay negative depends on many factors.

I will focus my discussion here on characteristics of people, especially the gifted, that may lead them to spontaneous existential depression, relate these to Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, as well as to other psychological theories, and then discuss some specific ways to manage existential depression. Read more


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