If You’re So Smart, Why Do You Need Counseling?

By Deborah Ruf.

Self-indulgent. Whiny. Weak. Many of the generation who lived through the Great Depression and World War II would admit that they do not understand the current popularity of psychotherapy. If you’re depressed, get on with it. Fix it. Change your attitude. To many people, needing therapy implies lack of strength, self-sufficiency, or competence. In fact, our “G.I.” generation views life quite differently than younger generations. According to Strauss and Howe (1991), “Throughout their lives, these G.I.s [the generation] have been America’s confident and rational problem-solvers” (p. 261). They continue,

Such a generation has had little thirst for spiritual conversion, no need for transcending new consciousness…Valuing outer life over inner, G.I.s came of age preferring crisp sex-role definitions…G.I.s matured into a father-worshipping and heavily male-fixated generation. As rising adults, they came to disdain womanish influences on public life…The G.I.s’ rift with their own children arose, in substantial part, from the refusal of Boomer youths to accept the exaggerated masculinity of G.I. fathers (p. 264).

The Baby Boomers, who are the focus group of the current paper, have been born into and raised in an unprecedented era of prosperity and relative safety. If one considers Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1968), Maslow theorized that self-actualization could not even be considered until physiological, safety, belongingness and love needs are met for individuals. Ironically, the very attitudes and accomplishments of the G.I. generation may have paved the way for the current younger generations to take the time necessary for inner growth and change. The G.I. generation who underplay their problems and behave as though there is a solution to everything if you just try hard enough has spawned generations who more and more can recognize and admit when they are depressed, angry, sad, or unfulfilled.

Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jew who died in the holocaust, recognized that different times allow different kinds of talents and strengths to emerge (1983). In her final entry to her journal prior to her death in a Nazi extermination camp she wrote,

I always return to Rilke [philosopher-poet]. It is strange to think that someone so frail and who did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. Is that not further testimony that life is finely balanced? Evidence that, in peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions? A response that they are unable to formulate themselves since all their energies are taken up looking after the bare necessities? Sadly, in difficult times we tend to shrug off the spiritual heritage of artists from an “easier” age, with “What use is that sort of thing to us now?”

It is an understandable but shortsighted reaction. And utterly impoverishing. (pp. 242-243).

Terman’s longitudinal study group was part of the G.I. generation. According to Terman and the follow-up studies, the gifted group had above average mental health including a low incidence of depression (Terman & Oden, 1947, 1959). The then-popular notion that giftedness brought with it mental illness or peculiarity was largely debunked by Terman’s study. It is possible, though, that the gifted group played the games of the day exceptionally well.

Highly Gifted Adults and Counseling In the early 1990s I collected case study material from 110 highly gifted men and women between the ages of 20 and 83, three generations, as part of my doctoral dissertation study (Ruf, 1998). No one over age 60 reported any counseling; nearly a third of subjects between the ages of 40 and 60 sought counseling; and about half of the under-40s had already had some sort of counseling by the time they participated in the study. It became clear that a generational cohort effect was greatly influencing the viewpoints and outlooks of my subjects. Already needing a data reduction device, I decided to limit the data analysis to people of my own generation, the Baby Boomers.

The subjects quoted for this paper are part of a subset of 41 adults who were between the ages of 40 and 60 (in 1993 at the time of data collection), who have all scored at the 99th percentile and above on standardized tests of intellectual ability, and who all volunteered for an anonymous study of high giftedness in adults. Nearly all the subjects reported some painful experiences relating to their differentness as gifted when they were children. Fully 75% of the subjects wrote about their intellectual struggles to make sense of the world and their place in it. In fact, the over-riding cause of expressed sadness, disappointments, and depression appears to relate to that existential question. When intelligent members of the Baby Boomer generation tried to talk to their similarly intelligent G.I. generation parents about “finding themselves” and other existential questions, it was all too common to hear, “If you’re so smart, why can’t you figure it out for yourself? What makes you think you need counseling?” As a result, guilt and shame were often added to the list of issues with which the study’s subjects struggled.

Within the 41 subject highly gifted group, 13 (nearly 32%) people reported that they received therapeutic counseling. Although several of the excerpts presented in this paper are from people who did not receive counseling, all are reflective of the issues that motivated individual searches for personal growth. Of the nine people (22%) of the study subjects who, at the time of data gathering, were exhibiting some evidence of higher level development behavior described by Dabrowski (1964), only three of them did not mention having received counseling support, although, unfortunately, it was not a direct question in the study questionnaires.

Incidence of Abuse Among the Gifted In my dissertation study group of highly gifted adults, 56% reported some degree of abusive treatment in their childhoods. Although approximately half the group reported slappings and spankings, I did not consider that common form of discipline among this age cohort for a subject’s inclusion in the abusive category. Instead, repeated verbal and emotional abuse is included, as are the 19% who reported sexual abuse, the additional 12% who experienced sexual interference (inappropriate touching or adult exposure, for example, that the subjects reported as disturbing to them), and the 15% who described stronger physical abuse. Three subjects admitted to being outright beaten more than once during their childhoods.

Direct comparisons of abuse for study subjects com