Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guiding the gifted through difficult times: James Webb's, "Searching for Meaning"

We know that gifted, high ability individuals have intellectual skills well above the norm. We know that they often possess overexcitabilities and heightened sensitivities. But disillusionment and existential depression?

Clinical psychologist, professor, author, and founder of SENG, Dr. James Webb vividly captures the difficult journey many gifted individuals traverse in his most recent book, Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment and hope.”
"Existential depression arises from idealism, disillusionment, and feelings of alienation, emptiness, and aloneness, and it is more common among gifted individuals. The gifted become depressed particularly because their high intellect allows them to contemplate the cosmos and their very small place within it” (pp. 79-80).
Webb highlights common features of giftedness, such as heightened sensitivity, intensity, concern with fairness and justice, and curiosity about the meaning of life, often manifest at an early age. Gifted children frequently develop a sense of idealism and purpose, and a drive to solve and remedy the problems of the world. Unfortunately, this passion may lead to frustration:
“As bright, curious and observant children grow up, they become aware that so many of the things that parents, teachers, and community leaders claim about the world are false…” (p.12).

Even at a young age, gifted children may be passionately concerned about war, poverty and injustice, and also cognizant of the hypocrisy, insincerity and lack of compassion demonstrated by others. They quickly learn that they don’t quite fit in with mainstream thinking or with many of their peers, and adult authority figures and religious and cultural institutions may offer little guidance. As Webb states, "perhaps the most extensive problem for idealists is… recognizing, managing and living with the disillusionment and loneliness that often come with being an idealist” (p.28). 

According to Webb, existential depression occurs when an individual becomes aware of four fundamental issues: 1) the realities of existence – we are mortal and ultimately alone; 2) that meaning and value are what we assign them to be; 3) human connection - that attachment and social identity are issues we must resolve; and 4) freedom and free will involve choices that can be both enlivening and also terrifying. Gifted individuals' intellectual abilities and overexcitabilities make them more sensitive to existential issues and affect their response to them.

“Disillusionment is a necessary first step toward enlightenment and self-growth” (p.80).

Dr. Webb incorporates the wisdom of philosophers, researchers, psychologists, and a wealth of clinical experience into his writing. While he outlines the trajectory from youthful idealism to disillusionment and existential depression, he ends with a hopeful outlook and recommendations for arriving at self-acceptance. He provides examples of maladaptive coping, and then offers healthy strategies for managing disillusionment and depression that are both inspiring and motivational. It is well-written, easy to read, and as reassuring as it is thought-provoking. And while many will pick up this book to understand more about their child or student, most will also come away with greater clarity and awareness about themselves.  

Webb, J. (2013). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.

For other blog reviews of this book, see Wendy Skinner and Gifted Parenting Support. 

If you have read this book, please leave a comment about what you think.


  1. I have just ordered this book hoping it will lift me out of the malaise I am caught in - again..."why bother anymore, it makes no difference - no one listens, no one can see what I see...I may as well go watch some TV"

    1. Liz, I hope the book is helpful, but as always, counseling support can be necessary for overcoming the type of feelings your describe. Wishing you all the best,