Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Encountering the Gifted Self Again, For the First Time
By Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, PhD
Telltale Signs of Adult Giftedness: There are many confusing notions about what giftedness is and is not. Indeed, in several respects, the life experience of the gifted individual seems paradoxical (e.g., being considered highly successful while secretly feeling like an impostor).Dabrowski’s (1972) theoretical construct of giftedness suggests that the development of gifted individuals is a matter of nature (heredity), nurture (environmental influences), and a dynamic inner force that fuels self-motivation and self-direction.He proposed five developmental levels that encompass the evolution of the personality. Counselors would do well to be mindful of Dabrowski’s (1964, 1970) contention that advanced development and maturity require a shedding of obsolete psychological patterns.Crisis and pain generally act as essential catalysts for this growth, which is frequently the point at which the counselor meets the gifted adult. The pains that accompany the process of advanced development must not be dishonored or looked upon as failures.Gifted clients must be respected and acknowledged for daring to go down the unpredictable road of self-actualization. And despite the fact that they may need our encouragement and guidance, gifted people are resourceful and generally resilient, and do not need counselors to stand in their way like an overprotective nursemaid.In reviewing the following markers of giftedness, I suggest they be considered as enduring characteristics that are normal components of the gifted personality, building blocks of excellence and self-actualization, and the rootstock of eventual wisdom.HARSH SELF-SCRUTINY: One of the primary signs of a gifted I.D. is a display of a persistent, often harsh, self-evaluation. Gifted people tend to monitor and measure their performance, behaviors, and motivations all the time.They instinctively practice metacognition as a method of self-guidance, and when constructively applied they depend on it as a rich resource for personal insight. This trait is often first visible in the client’s willingness to shoulder all the responsibility for the current problem: “It’s probably just me. I really shouldn’t even be here. I’m probably wasting your time. I guess I should just learn to be satisfied with things as they are.”
Remarks such as these should ring a bell in the mind of the evaluator that perhaps there is more here than simply someone who is suffering from low self-esteem.
COMPLEX THINKING AND VERBAL ACUITY: Another marker of giftedness is a strikingly broad base of knowledge as evidenced by a client’s ability to readily connect various bits of germane information. The counselor may get the impression: Here sits a bubbling reservoir of a person who is vibrantly aware, full of information, gems of trivia, and a bevy of dates, names, places, and anecdotes that seem to spring to mind all at once.
One can almost hear the cognitive and intuitive wheels spinning behind their impassioned eyes. Many gifted adults have remarkable verbal abilities and a burning desire for intense exchanges of ideas (Roeper, 1991). What may at first appear to be tangential thinking and verbosity is often a tip-off to the enthusiasm and animation that comes naturally to many gifted people.
They are articulate talkers who love a hot discussion. However, an unknowing counselor may find their desire to discuss and discuss and discuss again quite irritating, or even a sign of obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Yet many gifted adults seem to make sense of their world and to satisfy an important need through intense dialog.
In fact, many of them simply love to play with speech patterns, twists of a phrase, and hidden meanings, or simply enjoy the sound of certain words as they roll off the tongue. Because of this, many clients do well to realize that at times they can be overwhelming to others and may sometimes need to rely on themselves as their own best company.
The gifted client tends to interject all possibilities, analogies, and images into the discussion—anything they deem relevant to the issue at hand. Apologies for having so much to say is a sign of giftedness because it points to the socialized shame so many gifted children and adults internalize as they are repeatedly chastised for being too talkative.
Hearing them out takes time and patience, a consideration so many of them have been ill afforded. Sometimes when gifted clients encounter a therapist’s openness to their expressions they are so responsive that they insist on over-staying the allotted time.
This is not simple rudeness, because for them this is a rare event. Besides, in their experience there is hardly ever enough time for in-depth discussion or heated debate.
Fortunately, most clients respond respectfully to gentle reminders about scheduling parameters. The therapist may also uncover a resistance to being summed up too quickly, which can be seen in a client’s tendency to rephrase nearly everything the evaluator feeds back.
Often they feel the need to view things from a variety of angles and go beyond the obvious to excavate answers that match their intellectual strengths (Clark, 1992; Dover & Shore, 1991; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992).
Though wading through the deep mud of every issue may look like finicky hair-splitting or a diversion tactic, such behavior is par for the course with gifted people for two very important reasons: (1) their thinking style is inherently original, complex, inclusive, and pliable, which in turn makes them profoundly perceptive and attentive to every detail; and (2) most of them have a history of being unfairly defined, outlined, labeled, and circumscribed by others, especially authority figures.
It is imperative that they be allowed an opportunity to explore and consider their ideas and questions thoroughly enough so they feel the counselor is working with them in concert.
HIGH ENERGY AND INTENSITY: It is helpful to look for signs of high energy that are often linked to intense curiosity and impassioned concern. Often this is obvious from the outset if a client seems to be bubbling over with feelings and ideas, as though he or she is electrified by life. Gifted people can be easily misdiagnosed as hyperactive. Many of them simply don’t sit still for long.
Their quick-mindedness and zeal allow them to change direction frequently. And unflagging exuberance is normal for many of them. In fact, intense involvement might be thought of as a need more than a trait because so many things within their scope stimulate them and they have the matching vitality to pursue their interests.
Indeed, when gifted traits of intensity and excitability are linked with a sense of interconnectedness, vibrant imagination, and intellectual strengths, the invaluable product is often humanitarian leadership (Piechowski, 1991).
When gifted adults are fascinated with something, especially something new, they tend to take on what interests them like a holy mission, concentrating for exceptionally long periods of time with remarkable perseverance (Clark, 1992; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992; Lovecky, 1986).
Vivaciousness is a cue to look further to see if the client has multiple interests, and has trouble finding the time to delve into all of them. Many will complain about the dilemma of “so much to do, so little time”, as well as having virtually no down time.
They may talk in ways that suggest they are easily bored, or daring risk-takers who may have developed several careers. Some who are particularly high on the need for stimulation have probably engaged in high-risk ventures in the past.
Rather than a hastily concluding this is a matter of impetuosity, comfort with risk and chance are often key pieces of the gifted achievement puzzle.
VARIED SCHOOL EXPERIENCES AND LEARNING STYLES: The interviewer needs to take care to not overlook a history bereft of outstanding academic or artistic performance.
For a variety of reasons, straight-A report cards and scholarships to Julliard are often missing from the backgrounds of even the most intelligent adults, and should not be considered the sole criteria for being identified as gifted.
Rather than evoking feelings of shame in those who did not fare well in school, an impartial line of inquiry might be more fruitful: “How was school for you? Did you feel at home there with the learning style? Did you have to work hard to do your best? Were you bored? What about school fit for you and what did not?
Did anyone ever complain that you were so smart that you should have done better?” Such questions may elicit the genuine experience of gifted underachievers (Whitmore, 1980), as well as those who may have slipped through the cracks of the education system where their differences were interpreted as wrong-headedness.
It is helpful to bear in mind that many gifted children develop their own learning methods that do not always fit the mold of traditional education (Roeper, 1991) which may explain educational discontinuity or fears of re-engaging in formal education as adults.
ASYNCHRONOUS DEVELOPMENT: It is useful to listen for pangs of frustration that accompanied asynchronous development (Columbus Group, 1991) wherein the gifted child could envision what she or he wanted to create—e.g., a song on the piano, a three-dimensional drawing, an invention—long before the skills were in place to produce it.
Gifted adults remember feeling like failures because of the lag time between idea and competence. Their growth patterns are often laced with a deep sense of defeat because of this gap, especially if it was never explained to them.
For many it was profoundly frustrating when their imaginations seemed to be light years ahead of their developing hands and linguistic expertise (Kerr, 1991; Silverman, 1991; Tolan, 1994; Webb & Kleine, 1993).
EXCEPTIONALLY HIGH STANDARDS: Early “want to” vs. “can’t” experiences can take an enormous toll on self-confidence, especially when they are looked upon from the perspective of exceptionally high standards.
What is so often touted as unreasonable perfectionism is a life-long issue for the gifted and a topic that should be broached carefully. For the gifted, what is good is rarely good enough, which can be observed when a client discloses chronic problems sustaining feelings of satisfaction.
They may report feeling unsettled, having a sense of urgency, or feeling pressured to always reach farther and accomplish more (Clark, 1992; Frost, Martin, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990; Rocamora, 1992; Silverman & Conarton, 1993).
Perfectionism is often something gifted people have learned to dislike about themselves, sometimes openly vilifying their “nit-picky” ways. Yet at their very core, many gifted people are visionaries who do indeed have the capacity to turn pipe dreams in to concrete innovations—they can and often must hold out for the ideal.
Perfectionistic tendencies are often a good place to begin to reframe and normalize traits of giftedness that have over and again been labeled exorbitant, if not downright crazy.
Rather than seeing their impatience with the status quo and intolerance for mundane activities as grandiosity or naivete, it can be approached from the perspective of striving for excellence.
What looks like a neurotic obsessive-compulsive trait may instead be the manifestation of the Herculean work and perseverance inherent in the process of self-actualization (Maslow, 1970). Any long-term dedication toward perfecting one’s work product is replete with setbacks and disappointments.
No matter how talented the individual, we must remember the maze of difficulties one encounters when attempting to translate visionary ideas into something meaningful and real. Gifted adults with exceptionally high standards are naturally unsatisfied at various stages along the way toward their goals.
In large part, the attainment of excellence depends on staying the course when others might throw their hands in the air in frustration and call it a day by announcing that what they have at the moment is “good enough.”
It is essential that the counselor be cognizant of findings that indicate there is quite a distinction between unhealthy and healthy forms of perfectionism, the latter being present in many gifted individuals.
In fact, fulfillment and pleasure may well be linked to painstaking effort and unconstrained use of one’s gifted abilities (Hamachek, 1978; Frost, Martin, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990; Jacobsen, 1996; Parker & Adkins, 1995).
Counselors can support the tremendous efforts needed to excel and to bring about breakthrough changes in the world by encouraging their gifted clients to find joy in the process and to maintain balance in their busy lives.
EXTRA-SENSITIVITY AND AROUSAL: I find one of the most interesting, and often overlooked qualities of giftedness to be the trait of sensory sensitivity.
Correlations between giftedness and biology are theoretically sound, and brain research related to giftedness has provided us with substantial empirical validation in this regard (Eysenck & Barrett, 1993).
Many gifted adults describe their nervous systems in terms of a built-in antenna device that seems to reach as high as radar and as deep as sonar. Some report experiences of being tremendously absorbent, taking in life experiences through their pores like a sponge.
It appears that highly gifted adults may be more finely tuned in to the subtleties of life and more easily aroused than others around them. Their attention is drawn to stimuli others seem to ignore, which begins to explain why a highly gifted person might appear fidgety or edgy, adjusting and readjusting the thermostat, a sweater, or couch pillow.
This kind of ultra-awareness can be a valuable contributing factor to their qualitatively different experience of life in terms of heightened tone and color and meaning, not simply thin-skinned peevishness. Yet the same sensory alertness can render the gifted more vulnerable and uneasy, and may result in stimulation overload.
The pressure to respond to the slightest shift in barometric pressure, a bright light or loud noise, a pungent aroma, commotion or emotional upheaval, or tiny blips in the way their body is working, can make the life of a gifted adult a rich tapestry of experience.
It can also wear them out. When they hold their ears in an action movie it’s because they truly hurt. When they squint at the sight of an oncoming car it is because their eyes need to be protected. When they repeatedly fiddle with the thermostat it is because it’s really hard for them to regulate the temperature and air quality so they’re comfortable.
When they seem upset just sitting in a group of disgruntled strangers it is because they tend to take on the emotional overtones in the room. Perhaps it is fair to say highly sensitive gifted adults are legitimately bothered by things that others simply overlook.
This particular trait is one the prepared counselor can explore while validating the client’s experiences of stimulation overload, then offering suggestions for self-regulation. Gifted adults whose systems operate at these heights often need help finding ways to protect themselves from sensory and emotional exhaustion.
A large number of them, no matter how proficient at collaboration and social interaction, prefer to work and be alone at least some of the time.
Many need regular periods of solitude for self-repair, reflection, transpersonal meditation, and idea-building, which is especially true for those who are more introverted and regain their energy by going inside themselves.
INDEPENDENCE AND PERCEPTIVITY: Gifted people are inclined to display a strong need for autonomy (Post, 1988; Roeper, 1991). Yet this trait must not be confused with arrogance or unsociability.
Within the histories of many gifted people one often hears stories of head-butting with teachers, authority figures, and less-able supervisors. Sometimes gifted adults shun valuable input from others and go it alone too much of the time.
Once trust is built the therapist can help the client understand that being strong-minded and headstrong are not the same thing. Perceptivity is often associated with issues of unfairness, a topic that tends to bring on outrage in many gifted individuals.
Intense reactions to inequity and cruelty are normal for gifted individuals with exceptional perceptivity. However, to the untrained eye, the concerns of gifted people can easily look like melodrama.
Their intolerance of falsehood, hidden agendas, the subtleties of oppression, overt injustice, and even politically-correct social graces can seem overdone.
Moreover, their moral fiber is apt to develop early, often well before they are in a position to do anything about their deep concerns, which renders them vulnerable to extreme frustrations as well as criticism.
They may carry a sense of being commissioned as a one-person militia without any way to impact the things around them they deem wrong or unjust. Indeed, many gifted adults are at risk for recurrent bouts of existential depression because they can be overwhelmed by the problems of the world.
Silently wrestling with feelings of being in some way responsible to fix the world, gifted people can be chronically conflicted about their work and blame themselves for being weak of inept.
DRIVEN GOAL-ORIENTATION: Another trait that earmarks giftedness is unusual drive and perseverance, especially when aimed at a meaningful goal. In many ways drive seems to synthesize the gifted adult’s commitment to the ideal, high energy, achievement needs, curiosity, and independence.
Whether or not a client is achieving up to potential, it is helpful to inquire about an inner sense of purpose or a nebulous plea to contribute something of consequence. Oftentimes the client reveals a feeling of being tugged toward an unclear legacy or to advocate for change, as though it were a call to duty.
Gifted people seem to be designed with an extraordinary goal-orientation, or entelechy (from the Greek entelekheia, meaning a vital force urging one toward self-actualization). This trait is evident in self-starting effort, tremendous perseverance, and steadfast, internally-produced motivation (Lovecky, 1986).
Goal-oriented gifted adults are not usually lost in lofty ideas that have no chance of coming to fruition. Nor are they generally an unsatisfiable lot. Most merely operate with an enormous capacity for doing more than others, and doing it well. Over the lifespan many of them develop expertise in several fields, as well as in hobbies, the arts, community enterprises, and sports.
Because it is an affront to their inherent nature, it is generally inappropriate to simply implore them to tone down, take it easy, or learn to leave well-enough alone.
Those who are multiply-talented may need help in finding creative ways to stay centered as they traverse the sweeping limits of their interest web, strategies that do not aim to diminish the breadth and depth of their lives.
CHRONICALLY MISUNDERSTOOD: Concerns about the socialization and social adjustment of the gifted have received a great deal of attention for decades (Silverman, 1993). Contrary to stereotyped beliefs, large numbers of gifted adults are charismatic, popular, socially adept people who are known as extraordinary leaders and valued friends.
However, many also share a history of chronic feelings of loneliness. Counselors in particular need to be careful not to perpetuate common stereotypes.
A client’s vivaciousness and striking good-looks do not automatically cancel out potential giftedness. Nor does an expression of happiness and reports of fulfilling relationships.
Despite evidence of relationship strengths, it is important to peruse the client’s feelings of loneliness and isolation (Clark, 1992; Dabrowski, 1972; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992).
Yet many gifted adults are not popular, have few friends, and struggle to gain a sense of belonging (Roeper, 1991). Loneliness can be a recurring problem that diminish the well-being of gifted individuals. When it is difficult to find true peers, relating to others whose interests are different and with whom personal style or values clash, can be far from fulfilling.
For many it can be helpful to participate in a supportive psycho-educational group for gifted/talented adults, or to deeply develop at least one trustworthy friendship.
Clients often appreciate suggestions on how they might create new connections with gifted others, mentoring opportunities with gifted youth, leadership or inspirational roles, and transpersonal ways to maintain a sense of universal kinship and belonging.
SELF-DOUBT: When gifted adults seek professional counseling, many are already accomplished, though they may give themselves little credit. Indeed, though others may consider them extraordinary success stories, many times they secretly feel like failures—”I haven’t done enough, gone far enough, soon enough.”
This is particularly problematic for gifted women who often think of themselves as impostors or frauds, believing it is the proverbial others who are truly intelligent or talented (Bell, 1990).
These talented women are prone to over-qualify their statements and to give away their hard-earned claims to fame. Even in the face of clear-cut evidence of achievement and proficiency, many gifted women continue to discount and minimize their abilities.
It is essential that counselors working with gifted women be apprised of the impact that sex-role expectations have had on them, and that they may be disposed to internalize such experiences and underestimate their worth in a male-dominated world (Bell, 1990).
Also, a giant leap toward self-belief can be founded in explorations of how women define success, inclusive of relationship success (Silverman, 1995). I find that many of my gifted clients—men and women alike—improve their sense of self by reading outside of therapy a few journal articles about gifted adults in general and gifted women specifically.
IMPOSED SELF-SUFFICIENCY: A related part of the giftedness conundrum is a widespread impression that gifted individuals have it all, that because of their exceptional abilities they are automatically equipped to succeed, no matter what the circumstance.
In addition to the differences that set them apart, the notion that gifted people thrive easily and of their own volition only adds to their sense of navigating life as a minority of one, dispossessed of the right to elicit help.
All of these traits come in a wide array of individual packages. We must take care not to pigeonhole and condense the gifted into a single type any more than has already been done.
I find that even though they share certain traits and life experiences, the gifted are as extraordinary in their individual expressions of self as they are in their abilities.
This is why, as in all good counseling, each treatment plan and situation must be individualized and handled with care.
Although many of the preceding recommendations and suggestions that follow may also be appropriate for therapy clients in general, I believe they are key to counseling gifted adults for these reasons: (1) many gifted adults have lost touch with their true selves and have no other setting in which to recover and honor their differences; (2) gifted adults often crave an experience of being valued in their personhood, not simply for their creative products; (3) it is helpful for gifted adults to have an anchor person to whom they can turn for reassurance.
Without any other frame of reference, living within a culture that tends to be suspicious and critical of gifted traits can seriously impair the gifted adult’s quality of life; and (4) the role of the counselor in shoring up the gifted—rather than protecting them—is necessary because the desire to self-actualize, to live out the promise of high potential, can be precarious, painful, and lonely (Silverman, 1993).
What is nourishing me these days? I have always loved watching birds. This Summer I am being intentional about watching them in bird baths…
It’s a game changer: physical movement. I want to see it as daily as brushing my teeth. You in?
This artist has to be highly sensitive. His music opens, validates and soothes so much inside me and certainly offers our world empathy, authenticity and beauty.
Elaine and I participated in an hsp horse workshop in Marin County recently and found ourselves in the woods, in front of a camera. (I can’t wait to show you the blooper section)
“Sensitivity is not weakness; it is the power to see more clearly.” Leila Boukarim (author and blogger)