The most common question people ask when I tell them that I specialize in working with gifted, talented, and creative people is, “why do gifted people need therapy?”
There are many commonly held ideas about gifted people that probably lead to this question. Ideas like:
- Gifted people have an (unfair) advantage over others
- Gifted people don’t need help
- If they are so smart they should be able to figure it out on their own
- Gifted people are happy, popular, and well-adjusted
- gifted people are successful
- gifted people don’t have disabilities…and many more.
The thing is, these ideas are myths. Maybe these myths do apply to some gifted people but probably not to most and certainly not to all.
So… why DO gifted people need therapy?
First of all, gifted people need therapy for the same reasons that anyone else needs therapy. Gifted people experience mental illness just like every other population of people and in some cases (which I’ll talk about in a bit) more often than other groups. Gifted people experience anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, personality disorders, autism, attention deficit disorders… basically any kind of disorder you find in the diagnostic manuals (excluding developmental disorders that require low IQ for diagnosis) can be a problem for gifted people.
Even though there may be a lot of people who think “if they’re so smart they can figure it out on their own,” the truth is that no one (not even the smartest person ever born) has come into the world with an instruction manual. No matter how smart a person is, it is overwhelming to face mental illness. It is scary, isolating, and sometimes embarrassing or feels shameful to experience mental health problems– maybe even more if you have always been able to trust on your mind to lead you in the right direction and a lot of your identity is based on the idea that you CAN figure anything out on your own.
Second, just like everyone else, gifted people experience “problems of living” such as relationship problems, trouble adjusting to life changes, loss of loved ones, marital problems, divorce, parenting problems, loneliness, career problems, identity problems, feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction… the things we all face in the course of our lives. And, just like everyone else, some of them find enough support through friends and family or self-help books to deal with those problems, some of them avoid the problems by over-working or other means of escape, and some of them go to therapy for help.
Lastly, there ARE some problems that lead gifted people to therapy that are not very common in other populations. Most gifted people experience overexcitabilities which cause them to be extra sensitive and intense in ways that others might find weird, disturbing, and even misdiagnose as a mental illness because they are rare in the general population. Another issue that is common among gifted people, but rare among others, is asynchrony; uneven (sometimes profoundly so) development in different areas. I have, for instance, known quite a few exceptionally gifted kids who, at eight or nine, could talk to me about the nature of consciousness or complicated math concepts that I can’t begin to comprehend but are not completely potty trained. Can you imagine what ideas you might develop about yourself if you had the comprehension and thoughts of a 20 year old, the emotional development of any kid your age, and couldn’t quite figure out the potty thing?
At the SENG conference I went to last weekend, during a talk on trauma, I saw a statistic that 80% of gifted kids experience bullying. I don’t know the details on that statistic but I can tell you that it is very common for gifted people to experience bullying as kids and also as adults. They often find it difficult to “fit in” with others and may have a very hard time finding people who can understand them or share their often quirky interests. This can lead to isolation and feelings of alienation that are difficult to understand or overcome and can also manifest as thoughts of the self as damaged, broken, alien, or otherwise unlovable.
Existential depression is another issue that is fairly common among gifted people but fairly rare in the general population. In gifted people this kind of depression (a kind of despair over questions about the meaning of life, purpose, death, and the possibility of meaninglessness etc..) can strike as young as age six or seven and can often lead the person to contemplate suicide. I haven’t seen studies on it but I would guess that there may be a higher incidence of suicidal ideation among gifted populations especially due to existential depression and alienation issues. If you have any info on that I’d love to hear about it!
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the reasons why gifted people need therapy but I think you can get the idea. Life is hard! And sometimes we all need a soft place to land.