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Gifted Adult Therapy: The Wounds of Being 'Too Intense'

Have you been told you are too much, too sensitive, or too serious?

Therapy for gifted adults is an emerging field; many with traditional mental health training have little knowledge of it. Intense and gifted people are endowed with great potential, but they are also prone to emotional and interpersonal crises. Without the right kind of guidance and support, they may be held back from meeting their full potential. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself before committing to a course of therapy or coaching:

  • Are you an emotionally intense and highly sensitive person?
  • Are you a fast learner?
  • Do you often feel out-of-place in the world?
  • Do you get excited easily, and your creative inspirations keep you up at night?
  • Do you 'absorb' other people's feelings and energies to the point where crowds and social settings are overwhelming for you?
  • Do you set extremely high standards for yourself or are deemed as a perfectionist by those around you? Do you challenge authority?
  • Do you have a strong autonomous drive and a need to work independently?
  • Do you get frustrated when you witness injustice or corruption in the world and struggle to tolerate other people's ignorance or apathy?
  • Do you downplay your achievements and abilities to appear 'normal' so others won't attack you?

If you resonate with some of the above questions, then you may be a gifted person without knowing it. Therapy for gifted adults is a relatively unknown specialty, often unrecognised by mental health professionals trained in traditional psychology.

Who is a gifted adult? It may not be what you think. Your immediate reaction on seeing the word 'gifted' might be to cringe, as it is such a loaded concept. The traditional definition of 'giftedness' is limited to metrics like IQ, or achievements in conventional talents such as music or sports. The reality is that there are infinite forms of extraordinary abilities not captured in the conventional conception. Many gifted people, for instance, possess a high level of interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, and spiritual intelligence.

Gifted Trauma

From a young age, being extraordinarily intense might have brought you many invisible woundings. You might have been labelled as 'gifted', but that does not mean you had the right understanding and support to help you find your way in life.

A perennial struggle is there are few people who can meet your intellectual speed, emotional intensity, and spiritual intuition. Even as a child, you were an 'old soul'. You asked deep and complex questions that the adults around you could not answer. You are concerned with existential themes such as death and the meaning of life. You also care deeply about global and environmental issues, but few around you could share your thoughts. Others may look at you with puzzlement, or dismiss you for being naive.

On top of your struggles in school, your home might not have been your safe haven. With your sensitivity and deep empathy, your parents might have leaned on you and treated you more as an emotional confidant and partner rather than a child. In other words, you were 'parentified'— with the roles between parents and child reversed.

Even when no one tried to harm you, your natural competence and intuitiveness may have caused you to take it upon yourself to ease the distress and solve problems for those around you.

Your gifted trauma does not just disappear as you become an adult. If it remains unhealed and unprocessed, it may show up in the following self-sabotaging emotional and behavioural issues:

Existential Depression. Gifted people are prone to existential depression. Existential depression is seeing the discrepancies between how things could ideally be and how they are. Your despair comes from witnessing not just the injustice, dysfunctions, and hypocrisies in the world, but also other people's apathy and ignorance. You may have visions about how things should be, but they are not shared by those around you, which puts you in a perpetually lonely position.

Underachievement. However unconsciously, you have learned to adapt yourself socially to negate envy, attack, and misjudgment. When you were young, the grown-ups in your life might have intentionally downplayed your achievements to 'level the playing field'. They might silence you as they were threatened by your questions or your challenge to their authority. However unconsciously, these treatments of you were internalised as a kind of internal buffer. As a result, you have defaulted to hiding your creative ideas, downplaying your achievements, or stifling your voice to make sure others stay in their comfort zone. Even when you want to step up and manifest your gifts, you are not able to. You may turn down a career opportunity, avoid intimacy, or become extremely socially anxious.

The Crisis of Conformity. With the speed of your operation, intellectual depth, and the complexity of your inner life, it is difficult for you to walk the conventional life path dictated by mainstream society. However, you may be forced to take up stereotypical gender roles or make career choices that are not true to your nature. If due to social adaptations, you have silenced your true self, you may experience an intense mid-life or quarter-life crisis, or be faced with depression or a critical illness later in your life.

Aloneness in The World. Finding true peers or romantic partners is often a challenge for the gifted. You get bored and under-stimulated easily and may have trouble finding people who can keep up with you. You need a lot of alone time to process your thoughts, are likely highly independent, and value autonomy. You may find it hard to meet someone who meets you intellectually whilst being romantically appealing. Saying that, when you do find people you can trust and be with, your relationships tend to be deep and long-lasting.

Empathic Overwhelm. You have a tendency to 'absorb' other people's feelings and energies even it is not your intention. This can make crowds or social settings overwhelming or draining. You may also mistake what you have absorbed from others as your own emotions. As a result, you may have thought you were 'too sensitive' or were 'imagining things'. This can be made worse if you have been treated with gaslighting or scapegoating in your family system. You become framed as, and believe that you are, 'the problematic one' who 'creates troubles for themselves'.

Procrastination. Perfectionism is a common trait of gifted people, and this can paradoxically cause you to delay or sabotage the very task you know you need to do. Your low tolerance with boredom may also cause you to delay routine tasks that do not catch or sustain your interest.

Creative Blocks. Creativity blocks can be caused by negative self-doubt, being overly critical, and the fear of failure. It may take practise and self-knowledge to eventually find an ideal sweet spot where you are in 'flow', and are neither burned out nor bored out, overly drained or under-stimulated.

Imposter Syndrome. Do you sometimes feel you do not deserve any of the credits that are given to you, and that you are living a lie? Gifted people are prone to intense self-scrutinising, and you may focus on your flaws as a way to improve yourself. There is a discrepancy between how you see yourself and how others see you. The feelings of intellectual fraudulence are termed as Imposter Syndrome. If all your life, people have tried to put you down or attack you for your achievements, it can be hard to internalise a sense of innate goodness or confidence, making you more prone to toxic self-doubt.

Gifted Adult Therapy

Perhaps you have kept your gifted trauma a secret all these years but have finally realised that you want some external support to cope. If you decide that it is time to seek therapy for your giftedness and intensity, you may want to weigh in these factors:

Does your therapist have experience in working with gifted adults?

Since only about five percent of the population falls under the category of being intense or 'gifted', at the moment there is little research on the challenges of being a gifted adult. Many gifted people are repeatedly misdiagnosed with labels such as PTSD, Bipolar, ADHD, or Borderline Personality Disorder. It is crucial that you work with a therapist who has worked with and has a nuanced understanding of your unique challenges, without resorting to dogmatic labels and categories.

Ideally, your gifted adult therapist will have niche knowledge on the particular dilemmas and ambivalence an intense person face. Some common themes may be the tug-of-war between freedom and loyalty, or between authenticity and belongingness, the 'survivor guilt' you may have for outsmarting others or for leaving a dysfunctional home, etc.

Can they keep up with you?

You have a fast-moving, complex, and jumpy mind that is capable of highly imaginative and abstract thinking. When you process a situation, you want to cover both the intellectual and philosophical bases. Your questioning nature can make the job of a therapist challenging as you do not take things on face value and would challenge what does not make sense. Therefore, you want someone with healthy esteem who would not take your challenges personally or be overly intimidated by you.

You want to know if the person you are baring your soul to has the openness of mind to accept your thoughts, understand your humour, and keep up with your speed. An adequate gifted adult therapist will be able to acknowledge and support your gifted intuitions, perceptions, and thoughts. They will encourage you to speak and think as you naturally do.

If you feel that your therapist projects their own insecurities onto you, you may find your family dynamic replicating itself in the therapeutic relationship, in which you have to take care of their feelings and protect them. If this pattern is not addressed or reversed it could become toxic, re-traumatising, and eventually hamper your progress and growth.

Are they flexible?

As an intense person, your emotional state can rapidly move from messy and dreadful to all-out existential crisis. When you begin the journey of stepping into your true self and healing, you may have mini-breakdowns driven by intense intellectual or emotional processing. At this phase, you want someone relatively accessible or are happy to work with you flexibly. The traditional psychotherapy model of meeting once a week at a set time may not work well for you.

Do they see through your stoic facade?

You may have spent your entire life trying to hide the pain you feel. You are so used to being the emotional caretaker of others that you don't normally reveal your vulnerability. Given that you might be a high achiever in the world, the inexperienced therapist may perceive you to be 'quite sorted', and neglect to see the burden of pain, shame, and trauma you carry. Sadly, this perpetuates your pattern of pain-avoidance and counterdependency (to solve everything on your own and to never count on anyone). If your therapist or coach does not have the ability to challenge your stoic facade at the right time appropriately, you will continue to put a wall up and won't progress.

Are You Ready to Reach Out?

Being different and misunderstood all your life have created a deep sense of separation and isolation. The early trauma you experienced as a gifted child does not disappear on its own. As an intense and highly sensitive person, you have a vast capacity to love and to give, and you have tremendous potential that is waiting to be harnessed.

If you can find the right person to work with, they can offer you a valuable healing relationship, through which you can grow into the person you are meant to be. Your therapist will allow you to reach deep insights about your past and present, and at the same time give you practical steps to help you channel your creative potential.

Check Psychology Today’s directory of therapists for a professional near you.

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