Unexpected Consequences of Growing Up Gifted
November 13, 2020
Image courtesy of Andrea Piacuadio via Pexels.
People have a tendency to think that gifted children grow up to be highly successful, motivated, well-rounded adults who have their lives together in a way that makes them happy. While generalizations about anyone are dangerous to make, it’s fairly safe to say that this is an outdated way of thinking about gifted children growing up to be gifted adults.
The reality is that while only approximately 5% of the population is gifted, as adolescents, they experience a multitude of differences that leave most feeling isolated, disillusioned with society, and depressed. While studies are inconclusive about whether or not gifted adolescents are more prone to depression as adults, we must recognize a lack of proper care can lead to depression and unexpected consequences as an adult.
To fully understand this, we need to understand:
- What does it mean to be gifted and depressed?
- Gifted Trauma (the gifted child’s experience and the gifted adult’s life)
- Therapy as as gifted adult
Redefining the loaded terms “gifted” and “depression”
We need to be very clear about what we mean by the terms “gifted” and “depression,” because they are words loaded with years of misunderstanding and preconceptions by society, and even at times, psychiatry.
The designation “gifted” is by and large an administrative one as far as academics apply. There are no absolute definitions by which to identify gifted individuals, but there are signposts. The majority of the time, giftedness is often regulated to the idea of a high IQ, learning or achievement aptitude, or talent. However, this definition is outdated and rather limiting. Increasingly, psychologists and psychiatrists are realizing that gifted must also include high levels of emotional intelligence and/or spiritual intelligence.
Emotional intelligence includes intrapersonal intelligence and interpersonal intelligence. Intrapersonal intelligence is a type of emotional intelligence that allows you to be self-aware and take inventory of your emotions, reactions, and motivations in order to regulate them. Interpersonal intelligence deals with how you relate to others in terms of understanding and interacting with their motivations, emotions, and reactions. Empathy is a huge part of this. Spiritual intelligence is a bit difficult to define as well, at turns thought to be intuition, existential thinking, life’s purpose, development of personal meaning, understanding of the self, and more. This of course relies on the understanding that spiritual is not the same thing as religious, which is a concept many people struggle to understand regardless of IQ, education, etc.
These different types of intelligence must also be included in our definition of “gifted,” even though they are not traditionally thought of in that manner, because while they cannot be measured by IQ they are certainly ways to acquire and apply information of value.
Depression also has its stereotypical representations-- tired all the time, lazy, unhappy, weepy, ghosting plans all the time, chronically cancelling plans, guilt-- which are harmful and not the entire picture. There are different types of depression, just like there are different types of intelligence. And different types of depression require different clinical and social approaches.
Most people are aware of major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, perinatal or postpartum depression, and the like. Not everyone is aware of existential depression. Existential depression is essentially a type of depression that occurs spontaneously in the face of lack of structure, meaninglessness, or a major loss or threat of one. It may affect gifted children-- and adults-- more keenly than others, given their level of multi-intelligence and tendency towards intense emotions and thinking. Existential depression is often misdiagnosed as major depression in gifted folk, as they might present mental health issues differently than “normal” clients.
Then vs. now-- the gifted kid is now an adult
Your childhood will always affect your adulthood, and gifted children have it in spades. For better or worse, their “gifted” label affects them their entire life.
Let’s face it-- any type of label as a kid has both pluses and minuses-- of which the minuses are of a personal and social nature. The “gifted” label blesses the child with extra academic enrichment and opportunities-- but only when school districts and parents can afford it. Gifted adolescents are lauded, encouraged, and attention is paid to them. Parents are (generally) proud, and their academics or talents are a source of pride.
The downside is that this same label opens them to social and emotional issues, such as-- but certainly not limited to-- bullying, a pervasive perfectionism, harsh self-criticism if perfection isn’t reached, inability to accept criticism even when constructive, and a mismatch between physical and mental/emotional development. Gifted students may struggle with frustration towards slower peers, been seen by others as asking excessive questions, inability to handle boredom, and might lose their temper in the face of ignorance (whether perceived or real).
Interestingly enough, gifted children also tend to have a multitude of interests and passions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can develop into a unique problem later in life.
Because they have so many interests-- and are really good, or even superb, at doing them-- making career decisions can leave gifted children vulnerable to social pressures. Gifted children often don’t have enough self-confidence or self-esteem to choose their path, so they are more likely to choose a prestigious career path because that is what society expects of people with their label.
Their “multipotentiality”-- or unusually high levels of general ability to do anything and therefore everything-- often leaves older gifted children and adults with an aversion to picking and sticking with one career. However, it’s also true that some do not have this problem, because they are gifted in one particular area. These singular-gifted students also face issues of frustration, shock, dismay, and other negative emotions due to an inability to plan long-term and realize the sacrifice and tenacity needed to accomplish their careers and goals.
So when gifted children become gifted adults, they fear failure and are less likely to take risks. They may also maintain that sense of perfectionism, and as such, are never happy-- because who can be perfect, much less all the time?
Gifted Adult Therapy
Even if you received therapy as a gifted child, there is no shame or guilt in needing to have one as a gifted adult. Therapy at any age for any reason is never due to a lack inside of you. You are a whole and worthy person who just happens to need someone to coach you on a personal level.
Therapy for gifted adults should look different than therapy for more median folk. A gifted adult will most likely be knowledgeable about their issues and able to discuss them on a more complex level than a therapist is used to having. This may lull some into thinking that their gifted client doesn’t have mental health issues. Understanding a mental health condition and thriving through it are two very different things. A gifted adult client may know they are gifted, and so are struggling with understanding the cause, or perhaps exacerbating the presented symptoms.
Therapy for gifted adults might also look like multiple therapists at the same time, or hopping from one to another. This might be caused by differences in giftedness, or they might be creatively using the mental health care system to personalize their treatment plan.
Certain types of mental health issues present differently in gifted adults. For example, they might present as clinical or major depression, when in fact, it is existential depression. The same is true for positive disintegration as clients progress through healing and self-actualization. This may cause trouble in the diagnosis process.
There may also be gifted trauma, also known as gift-specific trauma, involved. Gifted trauma stems from childhood issues with feeling like you don’t belong anywhere because of your gift. Bullying, starving for mental stimulation, school mismatch, and other issues specific to the life experience of the gifted child may also contribute both to the main mental health issue and gift-specific trauma.
Different modalities should be used to address each mental health issue. Gifted clients usually need a highly personalized approach due to their gifted nature, and so multiple therapeutic approaches-- for example, cognitive reframing for a bullying issue in the past but Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for depression-- are key to success for both the client and the therapist.
There is a shortage of information and literature about gift adults and therapy, and navigating gifted therapy is a newer discipline. We encourage you to reach out to support groups and take seminars in order to expand your knowledge and support network, either as a patient or as a therapist.
If you were a gifted child, chances are you’ve had some serious mental health struggles now that you’re a gifted adult. Many of them may have stemmed from gift-specific traumas in your childhood, or even some that you’re experiencing in your adult life. Some may be your giftedness manifesting as mental health symptoms (such as when excessive self-awareness is misdiagnosed as narcissism). All of them are treatable, and in a way that validates you as a gifted person.