“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”
–Pearl S. Buck
Most of us believe that gifted people lead happy, successful and fulfilling lives. It is true that many extremely intelligent and creative adults do lead fulfilling lives, but it is equally true that the gifted can be vulnerable to feelings of emptiness, low self esteem, isolation, anxiety and depression. The gifted client is a minority individual. The National Association of Gifted Children and legislation in most states define gifted children as those who are in the upper 3% – 5% of the population in one or more of the following areas: General Intellectual Ability, Specific Academic Aptitude, Creative Thinking, Visual or Performing Arts, and Leadership Ability (Webb, 2005). It is a fair assumption to generalize this percentage to adults as well. We have more information than ever on the emotional needs of gifted children, but gifted adults, many of whom don’t even know they are gifted, can remain invisible to both the world and worse, to themselves.
As a society, and as therapists, many of us have a blind spot about what giftedness means, what it feels like, and the emotional challenges involved in growing up gifted. Lack of awareness about the unique experience of the very bright and creative individual can lead to misinterpreting, misdiagnosing, and ultimately injuring your patient. It is of the utmost importance that we can distinguish between characteristics of giftedness and the characteristics of psychopathology. We must also see the connection between giftedness and difficulties in self esteem, relationships and career. So, what does it mean to be gifted, how does it feel from the inside, what are the challenges and what we must keep in mind to facilitate healing with the gifted grown-up?
2 year old Bianca was ready to explore. Like a race horse, she was off, out of the living room, where her mother was sewing, and out of sight. There was so much to see and to do in the kitchen. She climbed up on a chair and started pressing the on button of the coffee grinder. “Whrrrrr! Whrrrrr!” followed by peals of laughter. “Bianca! No!” Her mother was exasperated. What was wrong with this child that she kept doing such crazy and dangerous things? Why couldn’t she behave? She picked Bianca up and carried her, screaming, back into the living room. Bianca was devastated. Why was she stopped from the fun toy? Why was her mother so angry? What was wrong? She wasn’t ready to stop playing – it was so fascinating! Crushed, baffled and utterly bereft, Bianca cried, wept, screamed and kicked. She had a genuine, heartfelt tantrum. “Stop it,” whispered her stoic mother. And when Bianca didn’t, she got a time out, alone in her room, dumbfounded and abandoned, until she couldn’t cry anymore.
This is one of many memories Bianca has of being punished for her energy, curiosity and fullness of emotional expression. These qualities, fundamental to her giftedness, were misunderstood as pathology. It is no surprise that this brilliant researcher entered therapy as an adult with broken relationships and a certainty that something was very wrong with her.
The entire concept of giftedness has developed over the last decades. Once defined by IQ scores and academic success, giftedness today is seen as a whole person phenomena based on the capacity for higher development and a drive to move the world from “what is” to “what ought to be” (Lind, 2001). Characteristics indicative of giftedness are (Streznewski, 1999):
- Speed of learning or of getting things done
- Sensitivity to both beauty and pain
- A highly developed moral sense and a need to speak up
- Ability to see patterns and analogies and to do abstract thinking
Other qualities found in the gifted are (Lovecky, 1986):
- Perceptivity: the ability to use intuition, abstract thinking and empathy to see through many layers of self, others and societies
- Entelechy: to a drive towards fulfilling one’s potential
- Divergency: uniqueness of thought, feeling, ideas and personality
This depth and breadth of thinking and experience predispose the gifted individual to be idealistic, concerned with moral issues and to feel a strong desire for social justice.
Intense and Excitable
Many who are gifted are not merely more intelligent than average, but also have a heightened and more intense experience of life. Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980), a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, believed that what was called “psychoneurotic” was not necessarily a defect or an illness (Dabrowski, 1972). He developed his Theory of Positive Disintegration out of his belief that conflict and inner suffering were necessary for advanced development of both the individual and the human race.
It does not seem that authentic creativity of a high level is possible without the activity of neurotic and psychoneurotic dynamisms. There is no great drama, great poetry, religious mystery (which after all, present the original experiences of their authors) without significant elements of suffering, disruption, depression and inner conflicts. There are no epoch-making philosophical works without serious disintegrative experiences of those who created them (Dabrowski, 1973).
Dabrowski identified several innate characteristics he called overexcitabilities (OE) which, when combined with talent and intelligence, are predictive of advanced capacity for growth (Lind, 2001). In his work with patients, Dabrowski noticed that developmental potential went hand in hand with five basic psychic overexcitabilities: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional (Dabrowski, 1972).
- Psychomotor OE refers to an innate physical energy and need to be active. This person may talk a lot, speak very fast, get up and move around, fidget, interrupt, or be the class clown. If channeled well, the person with psychomotor OE could become an athlete, dancer, actor, comedian, or race care driver. Some people might find those with psychomotor OE too much, and they are often diagnosed or misdiagnosed with ADHD (Lind, 2001; Webb, 2005). The challenge (as with any of the OEs) is channeling this energy in positive ways.
- Those with Sensual OE have a heightened sense of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. A person with sensual OE may cut the tags out of her shirts, be very sensitive to smells, temperatures, lights, etc, (Lind, 2001). This is the princess and the pea. Someone with sensual OE will have a great love of music, art, languages, fabrics, foods, and sex. On the other hand, this person can be easily overwhelmed by sensual input and need to withdraw, such as people who hate shopping malls or theme parks.
- Intellectual OE is what is traditionally thought of as gifted. This is a drive to find answers, gather information or understand systems. It comes from a profound need to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, and to analyze and synthesize (Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977; Piechowski, 1979, 1991). The person with intellectual OE has a very fast mind, and is able to grasp ideas quickly. She may feel impatient with the pace of others, and voice frustration and criticism. A gifted person who doesn’t know she is gifted will expect others to keep up and cannot understand why they don’t, which can cause conflict at school, work, and with family and friends.
- Imaginational OE is most identified with creativity. People with Imaginational OE have a rich fantasy life, enjoy “make-believe,” use metaphor, have a high capacity for inventiveness, and experience vivid dreams. They may be daydreamers, writers, artists or actors. A child with imaginational OE will find it hard to focus and stay interested in a class that is rigidly academic and non-creative. She may daydream or draw pictures as a way of tolerating this sort of environment, but then run the risk of falling behind. If not in the right environment, the adult with imaginational OE may find the workplace stifling, demoralizing and ultimately depressing.
- Those with Emotional OE experience feelings intensely. There are extremes of complex emotions, high level of empathy and emotional sensitivity. They tune into others’ feelings and care a great deal about animals. Those with Emotional OE are often told that they are too sensitive or over-reactive. This trait is more likely pathologized than the others.
A gifted adult is a grown up gifted child. The heightened energy, intensity and sensitivity of the gifted person can pre-dispose him to injuries to the self along the road of development. Like Bianca, an intense, excited, sensitive baby can be seen as a difficult baby, and because of this, there is an added likelihood of misattunement and misunderstanding from caregivers. A parent who doesn’t recognize the child’s intensities as part of giftedness may ask “What is wrong with her?” or “Am I failing as a parent?” Misreading the child’s energy and intensity as a problem lays the foundation for a broken sense of self for the child. As the child internalizes these messages, she learns to experience her own feelings, drives and liveliness as proof of badness. “Often a child’s very gifts (his great intensity of feeling, depth of experience, curiosity, intelligence, quickness-and his ability to be critical) will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay with rules and regulations” (Miller, 1981). The early caregiver’s ability to both tolerate and contain the affect states is key to the developing health of the infant. These initial misattunements can lead to a splitting off of the true self (Winnicott, 1960), which is passionate, intense and alive. It is our job as clinicians to be able not just to tolerate, but to understand, validate, bring forth and help channel these sensitivies, excitabilities and enthusiasms.
The School Experience
School is where giftedness is usually identified. In the past, giftedness was only signaled by academic success (Kerr, 1997), so children who underachieved or did average work were overlooked. It is very likely that your gifted adult clients don’t know they are gifted. You may be the first to recognize them as such, and to validate their sensitivities and excitabilities as part of their great capacity for advanced development.
The drives and intensities of the gifted, whether or not combined with early childhood deficits and privations, can make the school experience a difficult one. Those who do not thrive academically (due to depression, family issues or boredom) may find school to be a stifling prison. A stimulating environment is necessary to psychological development, so a child in a too-slow environment can actually experience a mind-numbing deprivation and fall behind (Streznewski, 1999). Divergent and outspoken thinkers can be punished for insubordination or for not following directions. Children need to know that they are loved, liked and accepted for who they are. If they are misunderstood, punished or seen as a disappointment to important adults, their self esteem is in jeopardy. Even those identified as gifted still suffer if they were overly pressured to succeed by parents and teachers. The over-focus on achievement undermines the fundamental sense of being loveable for who you are, not for what you do.
A Lifetime of Being Different
Uniqueness is a large part of why being gifted is a mixed blessing. Those with gifts usually do not fit into the mainstream. Although some brilliant individuals succeed socially, many end up troubled to the core from a lifetime of feeling different. I have had many clients say to me, “I wish I wasn’t so intelligent. Life would be so much easier,” or “Why don’t people like me?” They may have trouble finding friends and fitting in. These patients find themselves alone in their sensitivity to current events, social issues, and interpersonal dynamics. They do not understand why they care passionately when others around them do not.
Another challenge is that many gifted individuals, especially females, learn to hide their brightness in order to fit in, be loved, and even to please teachers who value “good behavior” over intellectual or creative expression. It is common to make oneself small to avoid the jealousy of parents, peers or teachers. This is most dangerous when the brightness goes into hiding and creates a loss of self.
Isolation and Alienation
The wounded gifted adult typically enters therapy experiencing isolation. Beneath the refrain of “people don’t get me” or “I don’t understand why people don’t like me” is a deeper, wordless feeling of aloneness. When people are responded to consistently, over time, like they are too much, too sensitive, too emotional, too weird or too anything, they end up experiencing themselves as flawed to the core. A feeling of shame develops like scar tissue around this core, not letting anyone in or oneself out. A shame based person will be afraid to speak up, show up and to be themselves with others. Whether successful or underachieving, the gifted adult is at risk for feeling unlovable at the very center of his being. Even the extraverted, social or compliant individual may be imprisoned by this ability to adapt, because with a successful false-self, the true self gets pushed more and more into the shadows (Winnicott, 1960).
Emotional Needs in Therapy and Beyond
Just as an intense, sensitive, excitable baby can be experienced as a difficult baby, the gifted adult may be experienced as a difficult client. It is important to see this is a sign of hope and health, rather than illness. A fussy, dissatisfied, challenging patient is trying to find herself in your presence by correcting your attunement or differentiating herself from you. Likewise, you may find an easy, compliant client in the gifted adult, and then you will have this layer of adaptation to work through. The gifted adult often comes in feeling stuck in a box, whether this is an internal box of depression or an external one of trying to meet others’ needs in order to be accepted, and failing. As the therapist, you may be the first person ever to be interested in the emotional needs of your client. Likewise, many gifted adults lack people who can track with them, so having the ability to track a quirky, bright, quick and intense client is necessary to the success of the therapy. Being open to correcting the inevitable therapeutic misattunement is equally important. Because the gifted are so vulnerable to being misunderstood, to being told to calm down, make nice, or not be a “know-it-all,” it is essential to realize just how much they need:
- To be really heard
- To have not just their words but their behaviors understood
- To have their strong feelings validated
- To be allowed to be big/intense in terms of affect or idea
- To be allowed to solve their own problems and in their own way
- To be supported in making their own decisions regardless of what others want for them or think they should do
- To have permission to be imperfect
- To be able to own their gifts without internal or external judgment (to risk sounding “conceited”)
- To be able to vent without censorship or guilt
- To disagree with you
- To challenge you
- To be smarter than you without retaliation
- To be mad at you
Gifted adults have a history of having to take instruction from those with lesser abilities or more narrow thinking than their own, and are sensitized to this frustrating experience. Therefore, any attempt to fix, solve, teach or be the expert will foreclose on allowing them to access themselves in our presence. In their attempt to please us, they may actually find themselves feeling more isolated and hopeless. Chances are your client has had to squelch impatience, need for autonomy, anger and frustration, guilt, feelings of being too much, too sensitive, too emotional, too needy, too angry or too monstrous. Your client may also be afraid that if she acknowledges her gifts she will become selfish or narcissistic. Give your client a lot of room to be big, both emotionally and intellectually. Let your client be bigger than you, smarter than you, and to correct you while still keeping vigilant of the feelings underneath. Leave your ego at the door, and be willing to be present. Keep your focus wide and deep. If you get stuck in the content or problem you will be distancing yourself from your client. It is our job as therapists to hear the content level, validate it, and connect it to the deeper feelings, experience and issues underneath; to reach them at a deeper level that has too long been neglected.
The Importance of Being Present
Gifted adults are often accustomed to being treated as either problematic or idealized. Therefore, they can lack a true feeling of connectedness with anyone. We must be open to their inner selves, and to stay present to what they are telling us and feeling at any given moment. This presence and interest in the client’s experience in the moment makes contact possible. There is a neglected inner self that needs company and understanding. The therapist’s human presence with this raw and vulnerable inner self is the real beginning of healing. Being with the bigness, rage, aggression and intensity that feels so monstrous to them, along with the vulnerability, and continuing to be interested, present and caring allows for an unbinding of the bound up self. If we can not be with it, we can not help them to integrate those aspects of self, and we abandon them once again to a feeling that they can never be understood.
The Importance of Depth Work
There is a trap in getting sidetracked by over-analyzing, intellectualizing or problem solving. The risk is that you abandon the client in the process of working through a deeper issue. Learning life skills may be part of the therapy, but it is important to explore what is going on beneath the dilemma. Ethan, a brilliant, successful and introverted novelist, had some questions for his publisher. He came in feeling pessimistic and extremely anxious about asking these questions. I felt the urge to offer advice and help him to see the possibilities of reaching out rather than the danger. But holding back, and asking him to elaborate more about the anxiety, uncovered an area of woundedness we hadn’t touched on before. He had been a precocious, parentified child who learned that he had to have all the answers. Ethan associated the vulnerability that came with not knowing with failure and the disappointment of others. Making room for the naive inner child allowed him to show up in therapy in order to heal. If I had jumped into problem solving, that little boy would have been neglected once again. I would have given advice over him, rather than respond to him.
The Need For Autonomy
Gifted individuals have a heightened need for autonomy. This can cause power struggles with parents and teachers, or conflict with loved ones. These clients may not have sufficient experience with others who can tolerate their desire to do things by themselves and in their own way. Peers may find them rejecting as they may prefer to work alone rather than in a group, and significant others, too, can misinterpret this need for autonomy as rejection. This will come up in therapy as well. Your gifted clients will want to challenge their ability to figure things out and do things on their own. This can take the form of wanting to stop therapy or take a break. It may seem to you that they want to stop therapy prematurely, and you may be right that there is more work to do. It is important to take the time with your client to really assess what is happening here, with an open mind towards the possibility that they may need to practice on their own to further strengthen their ability to trust their own judgment in making life decisions. At the same time, they need to know that you do not begrudge them this need to separate, practice and differentiate, and that you are there for them whenever they may need you. In other words we need to survive their need to differentiate themselves from us without rejecting them.
A Successful Outcome
A successful outcome of therapy with the gifted means they learn to embrace their gifts, intensity and uniqueness. Once these qualities are out of hiding, accepted and even celebrated, these clients are better able to make life affirming choices. No longer feeling the need to change themselves to fit in with the wrong others, gifted clients learn to find bright, interesting others to connect with, to find comfortable environments that support them, and to consciously choose how to deal with the challenges of life in ways that support them and allow them to feel alive.
For more information on the emotional needs of the gifted, log on to www.sengifted.org.
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©2009, The Therapist, the publication of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, San Diego, CA. For reprint permission contact Eileen Schuster, editor, at Eileen@camft.org