Your Rainforest Mind

Support For The Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive

Existential Depression in Gifted Teens

76 Comments

photo courtesy Magnus Lindvall, Unsplash, CC

photo courtesy Magnus Lindvall, Unsplash, CC

Beth came to see me for counseling when she was 16. Unlike many teens who might be reluctant to seek counseling, she asked her mother to find her a therapist. She knew she was in trouble. When her mom contacted me, she said that Beth used to be energetic, motivated, athletic and a high achiever in school. When she was nine, she planned her future: running for President of the United States. Lately, she’d become depressed and lethargic. Her grades were dropping. Life had become pointless. What happened?

Beth told me that she was lonely. Her one friend, Maddie, was unreliable, using Beth as her counselor but never reciprocating. Beth said that kids her age weren’t interested in politics or philosophy. They weren’t asking existential questions. And, for Beth, finding a boyfriend always ended up in disappointment. The boys would accuse her of over-thinking or of being too serious. School was disappointing as well. In one instance, she said that she’d read 1984 in English class and spent hours analyzing the implications of the book and rewriting her essays. Her classmates dismissed the book. It was “stupid.”

Beth was a worrier. She was searching for meaning in her life and in the world at large. She questioned everything: the importance of grades, whether college would be worth the money, her “laziness,” internet censorship, GMOs, how she would find a meaningful career, the “enormity of the universe,” how to deal with climate change and on and on.

And yet, Beth didn’t know that she was gifted. Even though she scored well on tests, she didn’t see herself as particularly smart. She hadn’t been identified as gifted in school. She didn’t see that her problems were related to her rainforest mind.

So, I explained it to her.

I told her that she fit the profile to a tee: Extreme curiosity, constant questioning, intense sensitivity, loneliness, unusual empathy, perfectionism, intuition, passion for learning, multiple interests and abilities, anxiety and existential depression. Yep. Rainforest mind.

It took a while to convince her. She said that she was “average” and didn’t want to seem critical of others or ungrateful. But eventually, she believed me. She wasn’t a freak or lazy or a misfit. She was gifted. And now that she knew who she was and what to look for, she could find intellectual peers and look for people and organizations that also wanted to change the world. She could accept that these rainforest-y traits were positive qualities. She could research many career paths and build a life that mattered.

And, perhaps, she’d decide to run for President after all.

_________________________

Adapted from my forthcoming book: Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth available in June 2016.

To my dear bloggEEs: Oh my gosh. Where were your comments on my last post? Where did you all go? Was there something in the post that discouraged your responses?

Have you known a teen like Beth or were you a teen like Beth? Did you experience existential depression? Do you still? Did anyone tell you that you were gifted? How does it feel to know it now?

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Author: Paula Prober

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in counseling gifted adults and consulting with parents of gifted children. The label "gifted" is often controversial and confusing. I use the metaphor of the rain forest to describe this population. Like the rain forest, these individuals are quite complex, highly sensitive, intense, multi-layered, and misunderstood. They're also curious, idealistic, highly intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, and they love learning. I've been an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I've written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, and Advanced Development Journal. My book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, was released in June 2016 by GHF Press and is available on Amazon or at your independent bookstore.

76 thoughts on “Existential Depression in Gifted Teens

  1. Thanks Paula. I’ve really been struggling with this. Overall, I’m doing a lot better, but I still wrestle with depression. My little dog doesn’t worry about any of the things that you mentioned above. It’d be nice to be a little doggier and a little less rainforest-y

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paula, I love this, thank you. I’ve written about two of my many middle school students with gifted traits who have not been formally identified but have needed support. If you haven’t seen them already, you can find them on my blog page at http://oneworldgifted.weebly.com/blog. Thanks for all your wonderful posts. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hallo Paula and my fellow Gifted Human friends. Ja, sure it took a long time for me to acsept me as gifted.
    The problem is, How to convey and apply this?
    I read the blog’s and it brings a smile to my face and inner Humanity. To realize I am not alone.
    This site has taught me how to see myself, accept me and make the most of our Fast Grasping of facts,
    then getting bored and find something new to explore. To all my gifted friends out there… NEVER give up.
    Zelda

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I feel envious of Beth! Having a mother who took her concerns seriously. Getting help when she was young. And I’m still looking for that peer group — other people who care about what I do and aren’t scared off by my complexity. (Sorry, feeling quite negative today.)

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Paula, Great post. You nailed the description of a gifted teen. So sad how many teens – and adults – have felt there was something wrong rather than embrace their unique differences.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I have a suspicion that a lot of your blogEEs are in an existential funk right now over this Trump business. I know I am.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Love this article. Would really appreciate knowing tools to help my teen take steps to get out of this funk. How do you help such a child find friends??? She can be at social events and clubs and yet not connect and feel lonely in a crowd. What to do??

    Liked by 3 people

    • Is she an introvert? If so, crowds wouldn’t be the answer. What about finding one friend to invite to your home? Look for one person who might do something that she likes to do. (even reading together) And remember that friends don’t have to be the same age. Mentors are also good companions. You could also look at some of the blogs at http://www.hoagiesgifted.org or at http://www.giftedhomeschoolers.org. Lots of moms blogging about how to help their kids.

      Perhaps some other readers have some ideas as well? BloggEEs? What ideas do you have?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I never did find friends my age, but I had horses and an adult friend/mentor at the barn who got me through.

      Liked by 2 people

    • This is my daughter and my son – and was me throughout my childhood, okay, it is me now too. But I’ve accepted it.
      It just feels ‘safer’, less fireworks and accusations… I thought for the longest time I am people ‘blind’ , but it is the opposite, I see past the facade and deal with who I really meet, very politely, kindly, but I am guessing that is unnerving and maybe that is the cause of anger and strong accusations. Strange how when you tip things out, and look at things from a different perspective, everything makes sense, where before nothing did.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This post makes me really look forward to your forthcoming book. As a patent I learned to identify & validate the sensitivity & intensity through my children. I think of this as kind of “back door” awareness. This list reminds me of me, sounds much like my kids, & encourages me to continue to stand by to support this unique way of being in the world for my kids & myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is me now at 38. I am the only mom who wants to talk about advanced psychology instead of decorating and what sports to put my kids in *sigh*.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes, sigh. Welcome to your rainforest mind!

      Like

    • Nappies [diapers] brands and which store accurately sizes baby clothes… the world of motherhood felt like another level of ‘low’, =( I wondered at the beginning if it was a quirk of tiredness, that people were limiting conversation just because… but actually, they were genuinely interested in those things… I love being a mother [most of the time,] but never felt more out of place than in mother and baby groups and gatherings… and school sports days. =/

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I know a lot of people struggling right now. I read somewhere once May is one of the worst months for depression which is counterintuitive, because it’s sunnier and warmer. Maybe everyone is hiding under blankets for awhile?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I hide in the corner at library story time. I refuse to sing songs and animatedly participate with my 5 year old. I just can’t. I’ve tried having conversations with some of the other moms, and can’t find common interests since I have interests outside of my kids. I couldn’t survive without my Internet friends.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I think that it must be hard finding the motivation to do schoolwork when one has bigger questions on their mind. Thanks for this enlightening post.
    I hope you don’t mind if I ask an off-topic question. Are gifted people more likely to struggle with dissociation than the typical population?
    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know the answer to that, Bee. I can’t say that I’ve noticed that and I haven’t seen any research on it. Maybe there’s something about that if you read about the highly sensitive person. Maybe Elaine Aron addresses it. And gifted folks are often highly sensitive. So it’s possible that extreme sensitivity might result in more dissociation. (to avoid feeling?) But I haven’t noticed that. Mostly I see dissociation with abuse histories.

      Like

  13. Boy, Beth’s story is a lot like my own, right down to the obsession with Orwell’s 1984!

    Unfortunately when I was that age I did not yet have the awareness to realize I was depressed and so I struggled for years until I finally dropped out of high school at age 17. I eventually did seek help a couple years later but this led to an even worse situation. By the age of 22 I had become thoroughly ensnared in the psychiatric web which never recognized that my symptoms had their roots in giftedness. Decades later, and it has only been the past few years when I began to disentangle myself from it.

    I mentioned that I was writing a memoir of sorts about these experiences in another post, but I am perpetually stuck on a couple of elementary problems: when you have spent so much of your life being a misunderstood outsider, how do you tell your story in such a way that more than just a few people can relate to it? How do you say “I am gifted, thus I suffer (and why anyone should care)”, without coming off as egotistic, melodramatic or simply delusional? Being misunderstood and attacked for it is a big fear of mine, and yet I am compelled to tell my story because I believe it ties into larger issues that all people face, not just the gifted.

    So far my solution has been to write a “Roman à clef”, fictionalizing many things while using code words for “gifted”, “talented” or “sensitive”. But the trade-off is that I risk diluting my own story, or worse being branded an outright liar, rather than simply being misunderstood. Any thoughts?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I understand your concerns, Mark. Especially in today’s social media world, people are so easily attacking. I think it makes sense to find ways to protect yourself. Maybe others will have different thoughts and will share them. I don’t know what a “Roman à clef” is. Please explain!

      Like

      • Well before you think I’m getting a little high-falutin’ with my language, I had not heard that term either until a few months ago 😉 I was researching pen names, anonymous writers etc. when I came across the term. I am still not super-clear on literary definitions (though admittedly I don’t really care), but basically Roman à clef is a French term for “novel with a key, a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction.” [Wikipedia]

        Some of these books are thinly veiled autobiographies with just the names changed (Charles Bukowski’s use of his alter-ego Hank Chinaski for example), while some are almost complete works of fiction based very roughly on real events and people.

        There are some practical reasons why I want to retain my anonymity, for instance I know there are going to be many people who will not think a welfare recipient has “earned the right” to publicly criticize the way the mentally ill and/or the poor are treated (though those are hardly democratic opinions, referring back to my earlier mention of the growing trend of authoritarianism).

        But a large part of it is I don’t like the spotlight. For example, I used to win a lot at sports when I was young, and I dreaded every time I had to go up to the podium to accept my trophy because I felt embarrassed. I like the feeling of satisfaction of doing a good job and having my accomplishments quietly acknowledged by a few people I respect, but I don’t like being celebrated publicly.

        Which is weird, because I am good at things that often draw attention to myself. Maybe this is a bit like the”self-policing” that MamaTech referred to? That feeling of not wanting to overshadow others or take up too much space or attention. Anyway thank you and yes I appreciate any feedback.

        Liked by 3 people

    • I believe that being straightforward and calling the struggles what they and attaching them to ‘why they are’ is really valuable, I wonder had you considered writing under a pseudonym? Honestly addressing and opening doors to understanding [at whatever capacity people are able to absorb] is something that builds bridges and helps for people to recognise themselves [or facets of]. What is also does is to get a truth out there in the mainstream that is more thorough insight removing jealousies that can turn bitter, why ‘normal’ is relative, and how that impacts every facet of life.

      Writing under a pseudonym empowers you to be unconstrained by what others think, yet, gives you the platform you crave to overcome hurdles that currently seem to drag you back.

      I’d love to read your work when you feel ready to share. =)

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Good read there. Mark’s story resonates, too.

    We are trying to help our teen, 17 now, with social anxiety and depression w suicidal urges. We have begun therapy, and now mild meds to have the time to get her the tools and support she needs.

    She is highly gifted, and went into a gradual downward trend in school, interests, family time. She says that to her, things started with trust issues at jr high, and have snowballed. She feels like a burden. She feels guilty if she asks for attention, especially since she knows that she has leadership, charisma, and manipulation skills, discovered through using them at early ages. She self-polices her behavior toward others, but not toward herself. 😦

    We love her so much, and we are glad she has reached for help, but we are a bit overwhelmed. I wonder how much higher the incidence rate of anxiety and depression are in gifted populations, vs typical? It feels like it is higher.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t know the statistics. Of course, being a therapist, it’s what I see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more anxiety and, at least, more existential depression due to greater awareness, imagination and sensitivity. Is your daughter reading my blog? It sounds like she might relate to many of my posts.

      Like

  15. Question: In your experience, do many or most gifted people struggle with depression?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m probably not a good judge since I’m a therapist so I see a lot of it. But like I said above, I suspect that there’s lots of existential depression because of the depth of thinking, questioning, awareness, perception and emotion. I wonder if you could find statistics in an article on the SENG website.

      Like

  16. This hurts my heart – the idea that so many gifted and talented kids fall through the cracks and suffer because they never figure out where they belong or how to fulfill their potential. I have a brother who was so bright they tried to skip him a grade, but he had a lot of anxiety so my parents decided against it. He became very disillusioned throughout middle and high school and felt like he never fit in. By 18 he was diagnosed with depression and put on medication. He was in and out of counseling for years, in and out of college, and in and out of jobs. During some career counseling in his late 20s, they determined his IQ to be 145. Now in his 30s, he lives with my parents and is on social assistance; he just never got the right help. I wonder how many adults like him are in the system. Breaks my heart 😦

    Liked by 3 people

  17. At your suggestion, I looked over on SenGifted.org. I didn’t find the statistics I was looking for, but found Webb’s page on Existential Depression. Wow. I really want to thank you for pointing me in the direction of this subject. This is TOTALLY me, and my son, and one of my good friends. Now I understand why I’ve always craved the human touch so deeply. And I also understand why I always question the deep things in life, and nobody else seems to care about those things.

    Now that I know what it is I’m dealing with, maybe I can find a way to address it.

    Here is their link: http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/existential-depression-in-gifted-individual

    Keitie, your story breaks my heart. I’m so sorry for your brother.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. I’ve dealt with existential depression all my life and I watch my 17 year old son dealing with it. He totally denies the gifted label though he obviously is. He and I both seem to operate on multiple levels, being depressed and cheerful at the same time. I once realized that I was whistling a cheerful tune while crying over something that was troubling me. Recently one of my friends told him that he was the “most optimistic pessimist the he had ever met”.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Pingback: Existential Depression in Gifted Teens | Inspired Teaching

  20. It seems like existential depression never goes away in the life of gifted individuals. As a parent, I need to know how to help my
    daughter cope. What are our options?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Simple as it may sound, listening to your child is huge. Careful, deep, active listening. Reflecting back what you hear without judgement, advice, or fixing. Often these kids need to talk for a while and as they do, they come up with their own solutions. Or they just feel better having been heard. You can also find mentors or other support people to listen. Finding books on topics like science, philosophy or spirituality can help kids see what others are thinking and feeling about their questions and concerns. If she worries about environmental or political issues, there are activist organizations that might provide ideas and hope and options. Have you heard of http://www.freethechildren.com? It looks like a good group doing important work. (I write more about this in my book! Coming soon!)

      Liked by 1 person

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  22. Hello Paula. I’m Devin and I’m a 14 year old girl. When I read this post of yours, it felt like someone finally understood me. I had been battling clinical depression or two years but even after I came out it felt like, no one really helped. And when I read about this, I Felt really satisfied like as though all my doubts have been understood. So thank you. Hope you have a great day.
    -Devin.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. A very informative article! Really a great read!
    I’ve written an article myself on my own depression and history – and how I believe writing helps us and can help us to combat this. Check it out if you like. https://emilycrutcheruk.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/how-writing-is-helping-me-combat-anxiety-and-depression/
    Emily x

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Im 17 and currently going through this I hate it because all my friends are out having fun but I just can’t enjoy anything because I see everything as pointless it’s so hard! Will I change or will this be forever?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Simon. It’s complicated. You may always analyze situations deeply. You may always be sensitive and insightful. But I think it’s harder at 17 to deal with it and to find kids who are like you. I don’t think you’ll always “see everything as pointless.” You’ll find meaning and love and joy and purpose. You’ll find other rainforest minds. Keep reading my posts. It may help answer some of your questions. Here’s one that might apply: https://rainforestmind.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/will-my-gifted-kid-ever-be-happy/ I’m glad you wrote! It will get easier.

      Liked by 2 people

      • But will I ever get back to normal? I’ve had theses thoughts that are demotivating me saying what’s the point if you die anyway? And I try and try to tell myself tgere is point but it’s just not working

        Liked by 1 person

        • Simon. I’m not sure what you mean about getting back to normal. Are you saying that there was a time when you didn’t feel this way? Or are you saying that you want to be “normal” like the other kids? If you have a rainforest mind, you have a different normal. And your normal does lots of deep thinking. I wonder if you could acknowledge that, yes, death exists, but you have all of these years of precious life, so what can you do while you’re alive? Think about what you love doing. Learning new things? Reading? Martial arts? Writing? Drawing? Listening to music? Coding? Hiking in nature? Solving problems? What can you do that you will enjoy in spite of the fact that at some point you will die? What will give your life meaning now in spite of the unknown future? I wonder if there’s someone you can talk with about all this. A parent? a teacher? a counselor? a mentor? Maybe there are other reasons it’s hard for you to be motivated. It would be good to explore these with a trusted adult. OK?

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          • I’ve just lost all interest in life itself in everything I can’t enjoy myself in anything no I have not always been like this I pondered about the meaning of life one day and this is how it arose. I feel like there’s no hope I have to force myself to eat and everything. I’m so scared

            Liked by 1 person

            • Oh, Simon. It’s time to find an adult to talk with about this. Someone you can be with in person. Parent? Teacher? Coach? Counselor? Neighbor? Friend? Grandparent? Uncle? It’s important to reach out for help with a person who is there for you. If you think they might not understand, show them this blog post or other posts if you need help explaining what you’re feeling. Maybe there are other events in your life that have triggered this or have made it hard to know what to do. There is hope!!! There is meaning in life!! Even when gifted teens feel depressed about life, there are ways to find pleasure, joy, and meaning and purpose. Please reach out to someone near you so that you realize that you’re not alone in this. And they can help you.

              Like

            • I hope you are still here, somerimes the symptoms are a sign too that we need to spread our wings and flyy…to toher places within this life, to explore countries and cultures, to find those people, spaces and places, nature, skills etc that tempt you – don’t let the norms others live box you in, follow your path and make it meaningful for you ❤

              Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Simon,
      I remember at 17 one day being different stood out powerfully for me, i was with a group of friends, it was a beautiful day, and we were walking across a beautiful park to go for a swim, then planned to have a pub lunch, there was banter, teasing [especially between the lads] and a warmth to the gathering that was tangible, but i felt incredibly sad, I really felt I was missing the meaningful connection, part of me craved to truly belong, but part of me felt like a complete imposter. It was as though I was ‘invading’ my body and in reality had a glass wall between my mind and my outward actions [which I’m guessing appeared to be like everyone else… mimicry!

      you are blessed to be on the journey to know you so early, I put me on pause till now really, [I’m 46 now]. I focused on what i could do in terms of helping other people in order to not have to be too concerned about me – I think that is my survival tool that is most powerful, I get a lot of pleasure seeing happiness in others, gifts, practical help, and help in other ways that are called for, overlooking & forgiving others has really helped me too, I probably delve more into the ‘what motivates the negatives’ I’ve experienced from others, and that helps me to then have compassion for them and that helps me to not consider it a contrived ‘hurt’ against me.

      I like what Paula is saying too, lots. =)

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Subhan Allah, she is me and yet not.

    I have since very young wondered at the universe and searched, actively, for the meaning, the purpose, the vastness – wanting to know and understand. I was the only member of my family who looked in churches, outside but in spiritual ways and read a bible every night – of my own free will [a teacher gifted me a bible!].

    I could not keep friends but have always been sought out for help – and never minded giving it too. I was exposed to a lot of trauma though as my mother believed that her children should not be indoors until she was ready, which meant that sometimes I was completely alone when friends outgrew me, or the need of me.

    It was when I had left school and was working – initially in hairdressing [which introduced me to college, otherwise I’d never have had the courage to enter one! I imagined that it was people not like me in higher education. [I spent a few years working before studying, When I spoke about college, my Mother would ask scathingly, “Why would you want to do that?” It was made clear that college was off limits, and it was only a few years later after I had left home and gone through other things that I looked into further studies!]

    … but I digress, it was only then [paying board through working] that I had the permission to stay indoors, and for a few years that is literally when I could shut out the world for awhile. I was just in a depression but had no word for it, I spent the most time in my bedroom and listening to Enya, Clannad, Classical music, and motown. And then I met an interesting [gifted i think] lady at work, close in age just being a few years older, and met new, interesting and educated people, they included engineers and authors [who wanted to publish my poetry! A ridiculous idea to me [i was sure he was mocking me] and i felt a lot of comfort and had fun in their company too.

    But loneliness, till today, it is my reality. I don’t know how to overcome that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • that is when I wrote lots of poetry too, but I never shared it with anyone in my family.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Many rainforest-minded are also lonely, Lisa. I hope this blog can help with that. Also, do you know about intergifted.com? You might want to check out their Facebook group.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Paula, yes I have joined =) I remember you endorsed Beth’s suggestion to go there … her words still make me smile. I think I’m still at the tentative stage of ‘what happens when they find out I’m a fraud? =) [ but I’m but I read comments form some of the members that make me feel a real warmth towards them and will wait and see. I tend to not pursue friendships. I tend to meet someone and accept them as lovely on sight, yet, have then gone on at times to become embroiled in the lives of some very toxic people, and find that difficult to extract myself from. So, I tread warily.

        I kinda jumped in ‘sink or swim’ style =D

        Liked by 2 people

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  27. I found this article when I searched “existential crisis and gifted teens.” This fits my daughter. I was much the same way. I don’t know how to help her. I feel like I am losing my vibrant, bright girl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are more and more resources online that you can access, Lynn. Parents of gifted kids on Facebook in groups and blogging. Look for some of them at giftedhomeschoolers.org and hoagiesgifted.org. It can also help if you understand what it was like for you as a gifted teen. There might be more on my blog that will help both of you. Glad you found us! You can do this!

      Like

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