Isn’t being gifted supposed to make everything easy?  Then why do so many gifted adults feel wounded, discouraged, lonely and trapped?  Let’s find out. 

From the outside looking in, the life of a gifted person seems like it should be amazing.  The commonly accepted narrative or “pop culture understanding” of giftedness is that gifted people have it easy because they’re so smart.  We know everything there is to know about everything, and we never have to work hard, and success just lands in our laps.  Right?

But from the inside, the perspective is very different.  We know, as gifted adults, that living with our intensely perceptive brain can be extremely challenging, and living in a society that fetishizes equality, marginalizes uniqueness, and stereotypes nonconformists as eccentric and vaguely suspicious, we know that that can be extremely detrimental to our mental health. We’re living in a world where we’re expected to suppress our best traits in order to be accepted, and that’s insidiously unhealthy.

Unfortunately, knowing that, and expressing that so that we can get help are two different things.  There just isn’t space for us to share our struggles because from the outside, it looks like we have everything and it’s disingenuous of us to complain.  Hey, you got all A’s in school, or you have a good job, or you have a lovely family, so what in the world do you have to complain about?  

By one estimate, there are over 6 million gifted people in the United States alone, and that’s just if you define giftedness very narrowly by IQ score and count the number of people who scored in the top 2% of a standardized IQ test.  And of course we know that giftedness shouldn’t be defined by an intelligence score and does include people with all kinds of creative, kinetic and emotional talents, so that means that the number of gifted adults just in this country is actually much higher, and in fact there are MILLIONS of people around the world who are living (or we can even say trapped) just like us in this bizzarro world where we have very valuable skills but we’re fed all these messages about what we should be like, what we should act like, what we should want and how we should get it, and those don’t align with our real experience, so we end up feeling like we’re in the wrong … so living with a gifted brain actually makes us discouraged, lonely, confused about our worth, and ultimately, unhappy.  

There are actually five very real reasons that make it hard to be gifted, and none of them are your fault!  

These are situations that result from cognitive dissonance, where what we’re told doesn’t jive with what we know, and that’s why we feel so discombobulated.  This is why our mental health is suffering.

    1. Unfair labeling  Let’s start with the one that began in our childhoods and has probably left the most lasting wounds.  It’s the situation where our gifted traits are misunderstood and profoundly misread, and we are mislabeled as “too much.”  

    Giftedness is actually intensity, across a lot of different areas.  We’re intense seekers of answers, we’re intensely curious, we have an intense urge to understand and to connect and to perfect, and we experience the world around us intensely.  It’s our intensity that makes it possible for us to see and absorb so many more details in our environment, to learn so quickly and to make intuitive, original connections with all that information. 

    But what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say someone is intense?  You just thought of someone who’s “kind of a lot”, right?  In today’s world, the prevailing view of intensity is negative –  sometimes we will call this kind of person “extra.” as in she’s so extra.  And that’s not a compliment.

    So here we are, all bright and shiny and excited to experience the world in our intense way, and the people all around us are framing our enthusiasm as something to be reined in.  It’s really hard to go out into the world with the best of intentions, and be met with the message, “Stop being yourself, we don’t like it, it’s not right.” “You see this, all that you’re doing, stop doing that.”  It hurts when the people around you don’t accept or respect or value your authentic, core self.

    And it’s not just energetic intensity that provokes these negative reactions.  We show intellectual intensity and we’re called too driven.  We show intense empathy and we’re called too sensitive.  We show that we can achieve in multiple areas of expertise and we’re called too scattered. We show an intense need to get things right and we’re called perfectionists or too demanding or too controlling. 

    We’re not out to cause trouble, we’re not trying to be arrogant or overcomplicate things or take over, but somehow, that’s how we’re viewed.  

    And it all stems from a misunderstanding of who gifted people are and what innately drives us.  We work hard because creating things and solving problems really lights us up, it makes us feel alive, and gets us into a state of flow … but then we’re told we don’t know how to relax, or that we’re just trying to make everyone else look bad.  

    It’s gaslighting at its finest, and it’s very hard to see that it’s not an us problem, especially because this messaging started when we were very young, so it’s really ingrained and sadly, may now part of our own narrative about ourselves. 

    The way to counter this is to learn as much as we can about what giftedness really is, so we can start to realize that the traits that we’re ashamed of are actually very normal, and are actually our strengths.  I’ll touch more on how to do that in another post.  But for now, let’s move on to the next thing that can make a gifted person unhappy.

    2. High sensitivity in a world that’s turned up to 11    Sensitivity is intensity’s emotional cousin.  The reason the gifted brain can learn so quickly and make connections so easily is because our higher sensitivity allows us to experience the world more deeply.  We see all the details and feel all the feels and that additional amount of input gives us the clues to the answers that other people miss.  

    However, the flip side of high sensitivity is that sometimes, the sheer number of details are too much for us.  We can easily get overwhelmed by too much stimulus, and that includes physical stimulus like images and noise, and emotional stimulus, like bad news about wars and crime and poverty.  Living in today’s crazy world with everything that’s going on in politics and the Middle East and with the climate can really trigger an existential crisis, especially if you’re absorbing the panicky vibes that come along with all that.  It can be very hard to process the idea of living in a world surrounded by bad and scary things that you can’t control.

    Likewise, highly sensitive gifted folks can also have trouble handling the emotional stimulus that comes from volatile personal relationships, whether that’s difficult parents or non-gifted spouses that don’t understand us, or work colleagues who feel threatened by our production speed, or confused by our out of the box thinking – friction from these instances can hit us really hard.  Confrontation doesn’t roll off us easily, it sinks in and eats away at us from the inside.

    And, it’s not just exterior input that can make us feel unsettled. Sometimes we set impossible goals for ourselves without realizing that we’re not doing our mental health any favors.  Gifted folks are often under a lot of pressure to reach very high achievement goals, without needing help and without making mistakes.  There is a frustrating misconception that if you’re smart, you either already know everything, or you can just pick it up and do it perfectly on the first try.  Now when have you ever seen anyone do that?  

    AND, if we’re unlucky enough to have been raised in a situation where love and praise were contingent on our performance, we believe that our value lies only in what we DO, not who we ARE.  So if we’re struggling with something, we’re afraid to ask for help, because that might indicate that we’re not really gifted and therefore a fraud, or we’re afraid to make mistakes, because whoever we’re looking for approval from might withdraw that approval.  Couple that with a highly sensitive personality, and our anxiety levels can go through the roof.  

    We also have a lot of trouble handling criticism, and we get very upset when we think you think we’re not trying hard enough.  We are always trying hard over here, except when we’re afraid to fail, in which case we completely reverse course and fall back into underachievement, because if we don’t do the thing, we can’t screw up the thing.   

    Being highly sensitive means that interactions that to other people seem minor or forgettable have deep and lasting effects on us, and that becomes internalized unhappiness that we carry around. 

    3. Lack of challenge, boredom and marginalization  Boredom is probably the issue that most people would expect me to start with, because it feeds into that misconception that gifted people literally know everything…. And that’s why I didn’t start with it.  It’s not true that gifted folks sit around and whine that everything is too easy.  

    I want to make a very subtle distinction.  There are two types of boredom.  There’s “lack of anything to do” boredom, like when you’re a kid and can’t find anyone to play with, and there’s “nothing around me stimulates me” boredom, which is more accurately known as ennui.  That’s what happens when you lack challenge to the extent that it’s draining the life out of you, and it can also be described as feeling empty and disheartened or discouraged.  

    The gifted brain requires challenge to stimulate it.  Solving problems and creating new things really energizes us. Without a reason to put our brain to work, we really deflate and become demoralized.  I use this example a lot, but it’s just like those smart sheepdogs who if you keep them in the house and don’t give them an outlet for their instinct to work, they start to act up and tear up the furniture.   When we have a skill that makes us happy when we use it, we need to use it. 

    And so many of us thought we were following the right path and got into careers that look good on paper, but one day we looked around and found ourselves stuck in situations where we are completely unchallenged.  

    From the outside, maybe everything looks great.  Maybe we have a high status job and are making a great salary or ostensibly helping other people.  But we’re unhappy and unfulfilled because what we do is too repetitive, or too easy, or there’s no opportunity for creativity or no chance to imagine new ways of doing things.  

    The gifted brain is very goal-motivated, meaning that we love to Find The Answer.  That’s why so many of us like escape rooms and mystery novels and crossword puzzles.  We get a real buzz from the challenge of solving the problem.  We need to constantly learn, create and see a result.

    And beyond that, we need complexity to be challenged, but we also need purpose.  If there isn’t a real reason to solve the problem, then our existential meaning monitor kicks into gear and we start getting agitated about our contribution to the world. 

    When we don’t feel like we’re being challenged, and especially if we don’t feel like we’re making a significant difference to something or someone, we can feel very unhappy. It’s our nature, it’s programmed into us.

    And unfortunately, sometimes, we find ourselves in these unchallenged situations because we’ve been overtly marginalized by someone else.  It’s very frustrating, but this happen a lot to gifted folks in the workplace.  As we’re coming up through the ranks, we can sometimes scare people – either because of our intensity, or the speed at which we produce work, or our complex and out of the box thinking.  And those people can purposely block us from “using our powers” so to speak, by making sure there are limitations on us. 

     Sometimes it’s a comment in a meeting about how “more study is necessary before we consider your solution,” or sometimes it’s pairing you with a slower colleague so you can pick up their slack but also so they’ll slow your roll, or sometimes a new rule will suddenly appear out of nowhere that prevents you from moving forward on an idea that you have.  There are, unfortunately, many situations where you present a threat to your colleagues or managers, so to neutralize you, they’ll actually take challenge away from you.  And that would make anyone unhappy.

    4. Unrealistic expectations.  There’s a great meme out there that makes the rounds every Halloween that says “I’m going as a Former Gifted Child for Halloween, and the whole costume is gonna be people asking ‘what are you supposed to be’ and me saying ‘I was supposed to be a lot of things.’” 

    And I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you why that’s both funny and sad at the same time.  So many of us were sort of promised that because we were smart, we were guaranteed to become successful, rich, famous, you name it.  Which is a completely unrealistic thing to promise a kid, but we believed it, so when we find ourselves in midlife NOT wildly successful, rich, or famous, We Think We Have Failed. 

    But that’s absolutely not the case.  We just haven’t reached an unrealistic goal that someone else set for us.  Objectively, it’s impossible for all six million of us to become wildly successful, rich and famous.  If 2% of the population is gifted, easily 1/100 of a percent of people are actually famous, which means that it’s unrealistic to guarantee six million people a result that will happen to just a few thousand.  Think about all the little kids who play baseball. There are 50 million kids in the US between the ages of 5 and 15 – I looked it up.  And there are about 780 spots available across the 30-odd major league baseball teams.  It would be ludicrous to promise every one of those kids that they’re guaranteed to make it to the major leagues.  And it’s the same with this pervasive assumption that every gifted kid will end up a superstar in his field.  It’s just not possible, and it’s irresponsible of anyone to suggest otherwise. 

    But here we are, all middle aged and all convinced that we’re frauds and failures.  Again, we’re not measuring ourselves against the right criteria.  

    Each of us needs to determine what our own, internal definition of success is, unrelated to what our parents wanted, or what would impress our friends, or what society deems is appropriate for a smart person.  If you’re gifted and you want to be a chef, you should work toward being a gifted chef, regardless of whether someone else thinks you should be a doctor or else you’ll be wasting your potential. And if you’re gifted and you want to raise children, you should be able to pour all your energy and all your creativity into doing that like a boss, regardless of whether your high school math teacher expected you to go into research.  

    You’re not a failure if you haven’t achieved someone else’s goals.  But it can be hard to recognize that we were nudged onto the path we’re on, or that the voice in our head telling us what we “should” do isn’t actually ours.  Untangling this confusion is the subject for yet another post, but I’ll highlight again that one of the reasons that gifted adults can feel very unhappy is that we feel like we have failed.  And that’s a shame.


    5. Lack of connection.  The last reason that gifted folks can feel discouraged is isolation.  It’s hard to find other gifted folks, or even other people who understand and appreciate our gifted quirks, and living without being seen, without anyone to recognize us, validate us, appreciate us and support us can be very lonely. 

    Some of this is a numbers game – there aren’t a lot of gifted people around.  And some of the reason it’s hard for us to find our tribe is that many of us are hiding our giftedness so that we don’t get negative feedback for it. So we’re hard to spot. Or we’re introverted and not going to places where you can find us. You have to come looking for us. 

    Sometimes I think we should agree on a secret symbol that we can all wear as a little pin, or a logo on a hat or a shirt, that telegraphs to other gifted people – hey, I’m in the club too!  I’d love to create a little graphic that needs to be “read” kind of like a rebus, so it’s only obvious what the message is if you decode it.  Let me know in the comments if you have any genius ideas and I’ll add some merch to my Etsy shop!

    The lack of connection to other gifted folks is the fifth and last reason that gifted adults can feel quite dejected, but I hope that now that you’re here, we can start to build a community to support each other! 

    I’d like to start by inviting you to join my private Facebook group. Wayfinders is a supportive online community of former gifted kids who are all trying to find a path where our gifts and passions align with our purpose. 

    I look forward to hearing from you in the comments about what resonated with you in this post, and what additional things you think make gifted adults frustrated and unhappy.  Together, I hope we can start to turn things around!