Emotionally gifted and navigating the world

By Nicole A. Tetreault, PhD

High emotional capacity is a blessing and a curse.  Without high emotional intelligence individuals like St. Teresa of Calcutta would have not impacted our world so profoundly.  We need these individuals to open our eyes to be more empathetic, caring, and develop creative solutions to better society.  Even with all of  St. Teresa of Calcutta’s massive progress, she suffered silently with her faith and the vulnerability of the human condition.  Gifted individuals with a high emotional intelligence are told they are too sensitive that they just need to get over it, and that they take too much to heart.  In reality, highly gifted emotional individuals can’t get over it or stop being too sensitive in a quick manner, their brain is wired differently.  

Gifted individuals have expanded brain regions and networks for emotional processing, insula and cingulate cortex, allowing them to feel all dimensions of emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, joy, and trust, identified by Robert Plutchik) and ponder the deep emotional complexities.  Importantly, sensory information (touch, taste, smell, tactile, hearing, and seeing) along with memories are coded in the expanded regions for emotional processing thus a heightened sensory response can elevate emotional content of an experience or memory.   We know that gifted individuals experience the world with an elevated intensity and their brain wiring and neuroanatomy are the core of their expanded ability for processing information.  It is paramount we embrace the range of human neurodiversity.

Gifted individuals with a high verbal IQ self reported they had increased worry and rumination compared to age matched individuals.  At a glance, a gifted individual with an expanded vocabulary evaluates words, language, and meaning in a more complex manner which, can amplify their thought process, emotions, and experiences.  A gifted individual may have all 464 meanings of the word run at their fingertips, may ruminate on the beauty of language, and create poetry like Maya Angelou.   

Many emotionally gifted individuals have a profound commitment to make the world better which, may exacerbate their emotions and intensity.  Social justice is a core value that weighs on a emotionally gifted individual and when the balances are uneven this may be very challenging for the individual as well as for others since the perceived evaluation is embedded in their anatomy and drive.  For example, a gifted child on the playground who experiences a classmate cheating in a game of dodge ball may cause a rage of fury if the cheater is not disciplined. The injustice on the playground may carry with them throughout the day and may have difficulty letting go, since the gifted individual is prone to worry and rumination.  

An increase in anxiety and depression was self reported by gifted individuals compared to the national average.  It is hypothesized that their increased emotional ability may be a precursor for increased accounts of anxiety and depression.  Gifted expansive empathy is seeing, feeling, and embodying things more deeply and is at the center of the gifted experience.  In a recent study individuals who experienced social exclusion activated anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, indicating that physical and emotional pain illicit similar neural networks.  Is too much empathy a bad thing?  In a recent study, researchers found that too much empathy can actually be disadvantageous since it can hinder processing other information and be linked to negative emotions.


On the flip side, individuals must experience the broad range of emotions and in our society we over emphasize that individuals need to be joyous and happy all the time.  In reality, emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations fluctuate moment to moment.  Importantly, the moment, feeling, experience, and situation need to be evaluated for what it actually is rather than what it is expected to be.  A gifted individual can find peace in the truth of the moment rather than what is expected.  Tuning into the moment mindfully can aid in their understanding and self healing.  Specifically, when individuals practiced a mindfulness meditation while watching another’s pain, it allowed for an adaptive mechanism for suffering.  Here are ways to help support an emotionally gifted individual and strategies to navigate the complex world.

Listen to their needs and feelings.  A profoundly gifted individual needs to be heard and the act of listening and acknowledging their stories, feelings, and bodily needs is the first step in understanding the depths of their emotions. <