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 humans, 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 the point at which material 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 accept socialization, 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 behavior, 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 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’ looks 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 renowned 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.