Counseling Gifted Adults – A Case Study

By Paula Prober.

Gifted children are often identified by their insatiable curiosity, advanced mental ability, intensity, and thought-provoking questions. But what happens when these children become adults? What are they like and do they have any particular mental health needs? This paper uses a case study of one particular gifted adult to explain the typical issues these clients bring into counseling.

Most of us can recognize precocious children by noticing any or all of the following: thought provoking questions, advanced vocabulary, avid reading, unstoppable curiosity, creative thinking, and unusual mental, academic, and/ or musical abilities. (Webb, Amend, Webb, Goerss, Beljan, Olenchak, 2005) If we’ve worked with them in our counseling offices, or raised them, we find other traits, including: advanced empathy, intense emotion, hyper-sensitivities, and perfectionism. (Mendaglio & Peterson, 2007)

But what happens when these children become adults? And if they come to us for therapy, what do they need and how can we help?

The concept of giftedness, especially in adults, is unclear, complicated and controversial. M. Streznewski (1999), in her book Gifted Grownups, says it’s a “…finely tuned and biologically advanced perception system and a mind that works considerably faster than 95% of the population.” Typically, we associate giftedness in adults with high levels of achievement. But it is not that simple. In fact, the gifted person is as likely to be the high school rebel as she is the valedictorian, the CEO, or the Nobel prize winner (Jacobsen, 1999).

In adults, as well as children, giftedness is a whole-person phenomenon. Being gifted affects not only the cognitive and academic aspects of individuals, those qualities that we usually associate with giftedness, but also their emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. It is more a set of traits than a list of achievements; traits that don’t always make life simple or successful. Throughout their lifetimes, these individuals experience both the blessings and burdens of being gifted (Roeper, 1999).

Over my 29 years of working with this population, I have found certain issues come up repeatedly in therapy. The main challenges include: painful schooling experiences, high levels of sensitivity and intensity, existential depression/ advanced empathy, perfectionism, multipotentiality, and difficulties with relationships. (Mendaglio & Perterson, 2007) When a therapist recognizes the characteristics that often accompany advanced development and explains these traits and their effects to the clients, this explanation, in itself, can have a profound impact on the outcome of therapy (Jacobsen, 1999).

Case Background

Susan had known that she was different since she was seven. Her thoughts and feelings had never fit into the box that was comfortable and reassuring for most children. Her appetite for learning was insatiable. Reading was more nourishing than food. Thinking, analyzing, and synthesizing were better than Barbie.

And she worried about everything: poverty, world peace, and the loss of the rain forests. It kept her awake at night. The adults around her said that she was too young to be concerned with such things. That didn’t help. To her classmates, she just seemed weird–certainly not birthday party material. All of these reactions confused and saddened Susan but no one was explaining to her that she was different because she was gifted: She had a mind running deeper and faster than most. No one told her that seven year olds don’t feel responsible for saving the world.

Forty-five years later, at age 52, Susan came to therapy. Raising her teenaged son, John, had forced her to confront herself. John had been identified as gifted in preschool. Susan started reading about gifted children and was quite surprised to find that she was reading about herself.

When Susan first came to see me, I noticed her intensity immediately. Her penetrating hazel eyes were both anxious and skeptical behind her wire-rimmed glasses. At the same time, her affect was energetic and engaging. She wore a burgundy corduroy jumper with a turtleneck sweater and comfortable shoes.

At that first session, Susan told me her reasons for therapy. She needed to understand how, if she was gifted, it affected her work and relationships and to find ways to “handle this better” –to deal with the anxiety and deep loneliness she felt, to find friends who truly understood her, to communicate more effectively, and to keep her marriage from dissolving.

This was unusual. Most gifted clients come to counseling with the typical requests for help with depression, anxiety, relationships, and family dynamics. They do not suspect that they are gifted and even resist the idea, at first. They are often aware that they don’t “fit in,” but they do not know why. (Jacobsen, 1999) Susan’s awareness of giftedness made the issues involved and the approaches to therapy stand out clearly. That is why I decided to make her the subject of this case study. If counselors suspect giftedness and ask clients about it, using the following guidelines, insight can result that will influence and positively affect the outcome of therapy (Silverman, 1993).

I began by talking with Susan about some of the typical traits of gifted adults. Many of the characteristics were obvious: complex analytical mind, rapid speech, advanced empathy, quirky sense of humor, and perfectionism. As she described her early years, it became apparent that she was prone to multiple sensitivities, meticulous attention to detail and precision, and divergent thinking, all gifted traits. (Webb, et al, 2005) I gave her articles to read and a list