Binocular Behavior & The Gifted – A Dysfunctional Form of Self-Protection and Control

Gifted people sometimes use “binoculars” to observe people and create theories about what is happening in others’ minds; this can be healthy at times, but also very painful at times. This article by InterGifted's founding director Jennifer Harvey Sallin helps gifted individuals to understand the crucial role that differences in cognitive timing play in the tendency to relate with others from a distance, and gives guidance for how to avoid letting "binoculars" keep you from relating directly with the world around you.

written by Jennifer Harvey Sallin | originally published on Rediscovering Yourself


I talk regularly in my coaching practice about a behavior I symbolically call “Binocular Behavior”. This behavior is essentially when a person is scared of getting hurt and uses imaginary “binoculars” to monitor what another person is doing, thinking, or planning to do in order to (in theory) protect themselves or control the outcome of a situation. Observing others’ behaviors, in itself, is rather healthy as it allows us to react appropriately to kindness or threat, thereby giving us motivation to act or information to self-protect. However, “binocular behavior” is a dysfunctional level of that observation – trying too hard to anticipate kindness or threat, or any other behavioral indications from others that respond to what we are already internally hoping or fearing.
In reality, seeing the world through our “binoculars” is our way of guaranteeing that our pre-existing inner hypotheses come true.  It is our way of finding “signs” that “prove” that our fears or hopes are grounded. Or our way of manipulating others from a distance in order to guarantee that we get what we need, because we don’t trust that handling things more directly – face-to-face – is safe enough.

Imagine having a feeling that your boss doesn’t like you. An appropriate course of action might be to talk directly with your boss and ask if he or she is satisfied with your performance. In the case of inappropriate or disrespectful behavior on his or her part, expressing your concern and clearing limits might clarify the situation. In binocular behavior, however, you probably won’t say anything. You will keep your distance, and put your “binoculars” to your eyes. You will wait and observe to see how he behaves, feeling fear or anticipation in your belly as you wait for “signs”, and once you see them, you will likely interpret them by yourself. “He didn’t come to say ‘hi’ to me today; I wonder if he’s mad about something I did” or “She looks agitated; I wonder if it’s because I came in late yesterday” or “He seems happy today; I bet he’s impressed with my report.”

Maybe she’s agitated about her train being late or her daughter’s teenage crisis. Maybe he’s happy because he had a great weekend with his family.  Who knows? But as long as you have your binoculars up, and are ready to find signs of what you fear or anticipate, you can be sure the agitation or pleasant mood is going to look like it’s related to you! This will give you plenty of “proof” for any pre-existing theories you may have formed about yourself regarding not being liked, needing approval, being invisible to others, or “causing others’ happiness” based on your performance, etc. It is here that you see how what you are looking for shapes what you see and experience as your “reality”.

This behavior becomes particularly emotionally challenging in romantic relationships. Using binocular behavior, people in intimate or romantic relationships avoid talking directly about their needs, and instead keep their distance, guessing and making sometimes elaborate (if incorrect) theories about why their partner called or didn’t call, looked sad or didn’t look sad, or said this or didn’t say that… The list of possibilities here is endless. We can waste years trying to interpret the behaviors of others or trying to work in secret to influence them.

Binocular behavior is a way of creating and living in a world of inventions! Observing someone from a distance is not the same as being in a functional, close, healthy, professional or intimate relationship with them. But for those of us who were hurt as children, many of us didn’t develop a sense of trust. Maybe it wasn’t safe to talk to your parents about your feelings, needs or expectations. A client recently told me about how he watched his mother for reactions before speaking up or taking action. This is classic binocular behavior. He wanted to avoid at all costs firing up her rage, which was very strong when she became angry. It scared him, and so he used his “binoculars” to make sure he kept at a distance and only approached when she seemed calm. This led to severe self-censoring. He didn’t speak up when things really mattered to him, as long as the “binocular signs” showed him that his mother wasn’t “approachable”. So, he learned not to speak up most of the time, and to, in some ways, live his life on the “side-lines”, observing, fearing, trying to control, and feeling “left out”.

For such a client (and he is like many of us!), it is very hard to think about dropping the binoculars and just speaking up – saying what he needs, what he expects, what he prefers, what his limits are. There seems to be an inner block to taking this “simple” action. It is a physical impossibility, because he never learned it, and instead has a lifetime of practice at staying silent.


For gifted people, binocular behavior takes on a particularly complex and sometimes twisted aspect, depending on how often and how extensively it is used. Gifted people are known for their exceptional imagination and their general intensity of mind and experience (for more information on this, see my article on Dabrowski’s “Overexcitibilities” in Giftedness). Having strong imaginative, abstracting and pattern recognition skills, and able to predict others’ behavior patterns quite accurately, can lead to a false sense of “knowing for sure” what is going on in another person. The scenarios and theories that gifted people can sometimes develop in keeping their distance and trying to control life and relationships from the sidelines are often genuinely impressive! At times, the complexity of these theories is worth a several-volume novel. They can be so well thought-out (despite their sometimes misguided basis), that untangling them and rediscovering the simplicity of life in thought and action can be a rather complicated process.

This helps in understanding why traditional therapy or coaching methods are at times of limited value for gifted people. The therapist or coach who is not aware of the pattern and experience of gifted cognition may not grasp the profound roots of the complex self- and relational theories their gifted client has invented. Many of my clients come to me after having completed one or sometimes several traditional therapies, which while somewhat beneficial, did not succeed in helping them understand the complex functioning of their minds and did not ultimately get to the heart of the matter.

One crucial aspect of how gifted people use their “binoculars” relates to differences in cognitive speed, levels of interest and curiosity, and levels of mental and emotional intensity, between them and people around them. Seeing marked differences that they do not fully understand, gifted individuals are known to interpret these differences in speed and intensity as “signs” either about themselves (“I am not interesting”) or about others (“He is not interested in me”). But someone’s lack of curiosity may just be that: a lack of curiosity and nothing more. Where the gifted person may conclude that the non-curious person is “not interested” and take it personally, the reality might just be that the person isn’t curious – not about you and not particularly about anyone else.  This is, of course, hard for the gifted person to swallow, since curiosity is their main energy in life. The gifted expect others to be curious too, and when others are not so, they often put on their binoculars to figure out the “problem”. And fix the supposed “problem”. But this leads to wastes of energy and unfulfilled personal potential. It also causes interpersonal frustration, as imposing one’s “solutions” on someone who doesn’t see a “problem” is rarely effective or helpful. Mental speed and level of curiosity are not signs of “purpose”, and assigning “purpose” to these qualities can result in the gifted creating problems that aren’t there.

Perhaps the boss who you feel doesn’t like you has recently given you your annual review. You were looking forward to thorough feedback so that you could be engaged in your work, have new challenges to look forward to, aspects to work on and improve, and feel genuinely appreciated and rewarded for your sincere efforts. But instead he only said: “You’ve done well this year, keep up the good work next year”. The gifted person who stays silent (read: doesn’t ask for additional feedback) and puts on “binoculars” is likely to take the boss’s lack of thoroughness as a sign of something personal, and the mind-film starts running again: “He’s not very interested in me”, “she’s not committed to her job” or “he’s trying to sabotage my efforts”. Perhaps, and perhaps not.

If we consider the incidence of giftedness in the general population – the research suggests something below 10% – we can infer the statistical chances that your boss is gifted. In the case that he is gifted, he is perhaps more likely to be thorough, as he is more likely to share your curiosity, love of learning, and commitment to challenge and growth. In the case that he is not gifted, he may be less likely to be thorough – but looking at the situation through your binoculars and assuming that his level of engagement signals his lack of interest in you, a lack of commitment to his job, or even attempts to sabotaging you, is an illogical stretch. Rather, looked at objectively, he may be performing to his own level of capacity, interest, and values. Unfortunately, it is a level which isn’t a good match for yours, but this is neither a judgment nor a problem. It is, rather, information and perhaps an invitation to look for more engaging work at one’s preferred level of functioning. This dynamic is a significant challenge for many, if not all, gifted people in social situations, and why very many gifted – the high majority of my clients as well – work independently through entrepreneurship or other creative means. The higher one goes on the gifted scale, the less probable it becomes for one to do conventional or routine work.

Another crucial aspect of how the gifted use binocular behavior relates to the gifted feeling like they “have to take matters into their own hands” because they don’t trust others to complete tasks to their standards. Here, they use their binoculars to “see” (read: project) others’ responsibilities in a given situation according to their own hopes, desires or fears, and then predict non-compliance to these projected expectations. They fear not reaching their standard due to others’ “non-compliance” or “laziness” or other related judgment, and as a consequence, they unilaterally decide to take over others’ “responsibilities” (as unilaterally defined by them). The classic example is group work in school or at university; others include over-caretaking in child-parent, romantic relationships or friendships. In the long term, this hyper-responsibility leads to overextension and exhaustion, which includes cycles of disappointment, self-victimization (“I have to do all the work!”), lack of trust in others, strained social relations, and at worst even a tainted worldview. In turn, for those with whom the gifted are relating, this aspect of binocular behavior is no less problematic, as projected standards and unilateral decision-making often seem arbitrary, and can be unfair or even demeaning. As such, using binoculars in this way can lead gifted people to go against their very own high standards of fairness, honesty and justice in their attempt to control a relationship or situation.

Once again, much of this has to do with mental timing. Cognitively speaking, gifted people are known to be relatively quick to observe and develop holistic views, complex desires, plans and standards in a given situation. This being the case, for the gifted, working together with the non-gifted can at times lead to extreme frustration (though as we see, and for good reason, this frustration can go both ways, as in the example of unilateral decision-making). Differing speeds isn’t a problem in itself, but when gifted people conclude that others “have low standards”, “are lazy” or worse, because of the difference, the misguided and unhelpful judgments can cause problems for all involved.

As this relates to finding the right support, gifted clients often quickly “outgrow” therapists or coaches who, relative to the client, are limited in terms of reasoning speed, comprehension, and creativity. This “cognitive mismatch” can lead the gifted person to feel stifled or even betrayed by the same therapy, or therapist, that was initially helpful. Sometimes, assigning meaning to the therapist’s relative slowness or lack of comprehension causes gifted individuals to lose trust in the therapist or coach as a person, and to believe he or she is incapable of helping at all. More damaging is when a gifted person concludes that the therapeutic or coaching process itself is flawed. Any discipline, such as psychology or coaching, looks different and is applied differently according to differing levels of cognition of each practitioner (as well as, of course, differing values, priorities, structure, and personalities); what works and seems logical at one level makes little sense and can even cause misunderstandings and problems at another. Discounting a whole discipline or process based on one experience with one practitioner practicing in his or her own way, from his or her own level of cognitive function initiates a kind of self-defeating cycle of skepticism for the gifted person: he needs help, but skeptically discounts the possibility of receiving it. Of course, this is the benefit of receiving help at one’s level, which for the gifted person, is not always easy to find (though we at InterGifted are dedicated to making that easier). Often, it takes strategic attention and consistent effort to keep trying until one finds the right match. Thus, one must be patient and persistent in seeking and finding appropriate help from a practitioner whose values, priorities, structure, personality, and level of cognition are a good match to their own.

Realizing and recalling that not everyone functions at the same speed or level of intensity can be very helpful for gifted people (again, less than 10% are said to be considered “gifted”). More importantly, this difference in speed does not reliably indicate intention, only capability. To clarify further, even among the “<10%” gifted, there are widely diverging functioning “speeds”. In fact, exceptionally gifted cognition differs as much from moderately gifted cognition, as moderately gifted does from average cognition (for more on this topic, read my article High, Exceptional & Profound Giftedness). It is immensely beneficial to make an honest and objective appraisal of one’s speed and the speed of those whose behaviors are in question, so that one does not confuse speed and capability with intention, and thus remains realistic and constructive in one’s actions. With this information at hand, one can more wisely choose one’s collaborators, and stop misattributing “bad” qualities or intentions to others who don’t deserve them.


What we must understand is this: beyond healthy self-protection, it is a waste of time to try to interpret people’s behavioral signs, and what they mean for us, from a distance. We are most often wrong about our theories, and what’s more, in the majority of cases, our binoculars serve as an escape from our own personal responsibility by placing the “burden of proof” on another person. Instead of getting close to others, and saying what we need, we wait for them by watching from afar to take action. We stay passive, and let others determine the movement of our relational lives.

Just as it is up to others to express their needs, intentions, limits and preferences – without being manipulated or cajoled by us – it is up to us to express our needs, intentions, limits and preferences to them. The point is, one practices binocular behavior because one thinks – a priori – that others aren’t capable, won’t listen, will judge, or won’t be respectful. This is the essence of the self-fulfilling prophecy (for more on how the self-fulfilling prophecy manifests itself, read my article on Emotions and Carried Emotions).

When we are rational about it, we can all admit: it doesn’t feel good to have someone else think for us or independently interpret or try to control our behaviors without asking or talking to us directly. And why should others think for us or control us? Isn’t it their responsibility to think for themselves, and to communicate their thoughts, needs, and preferences to us? And to give us the choice for how we behave and respond? It’s what we are waiting for as we sit behind our binoculars, isn’t it?  But how hypocritical we can be on this point! Those who practice binocular behavior essentially demand that others put their cards on the table first. They hold back, secretly calculating, judging and hoping, and waiting for the other to act. Or, they assume the worst and take the reigns without consulting anyone. They want people to talk to them, but they want to reserve the right not to talk to others. They want to think for themselves, but they want to control others.

Essentially, binocular behavior is a go-to whenever we stand to gain or get hurt, but don’t understand others and don’t know how to directly communicate our fears, needs, boundaries, hopes, dreams and preferences to them. As we have seen, it translates to waiting at a distance to see what others or life is going to do before we decide whether we can act, trust, speak up or otherwise take the action we long to take. In other instances, it translates to “seeing” in our binoculars the limitations and standards we project onto others, and taking over tasks and responsibilities without appropriate communication and consultation. For gifted people waiting on others who, as we have discussed in this article, may not experience or conceive of the world at the same speed or level of values as they do, they are going to wait a long time (read: probably forever). For gifted people who rush to “take matters into their own hands”, they risk exhaustion and loneliness over the long-term.

It can take a lot of courage to accept that others don’t (and may never) see and experience the same cognitive reality as you. Interacting directly with the world based on a realistic acceptance of cognitive differences, as well as a proactive acceptance of who you really are and what you truly value takes humility, patience, presence and an unwavering commitment to accepting personal responsibility for your life. The payoff is, however, inestimable: as one client put it, “I got my life back!”  By accepting the reality that not everyone is like you and at the same time validating your reality through self-directed real-time interaction with the world, it’s true that you get your life back. “Self-directed” is the key: it means actions determined by your self-chosen values. “Getting your life back” lets you experience (sometimes for the first time) an unwavering sense of emotional safety, true interaction and collaboration with others, and full access to the motivation to fulfill your both your inner and outer potential.

So, put down your binoculars. You’ll be glad you did!

About Jennifer Harvey Sallin

Jennifer is founding director of InterGifted and is a psychologist who specializes in providing training and mentoring for gifted coaches and other helping professionals who support the gifted; in performing giftedness assessments; and in mentoring profoundly gifted adults. She writes extensively on giftedness and self-development and you can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. Learn more about Jen here.

2 Responses

  1. […] shows up again and again throughout the case studies is something I call in my coaching practice “Binocular Behavior”. This is the phenomenon of believing that others perceive the world as we do and interpreting […]

  2. […] when one is not able to be one’s authentic self, will typically look like projection, codependent behaviors, fight/flight/freeze/fawn (mentioned above), and so on. Of course, any of […]

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