Bringing our giftedness to therapy isn't always easy, both for gifted therapists and gifted clients alike. The shame or fear we feel around our gifted complexity and/or gifted wounds, and the lack of support we've had for integrating our giftedness into our lives, show up in ways that dampen our ability to give and receive good gifted-specific therapy. Jennifer Harvey Sallin has written this article to open a collective discussion on the need for us to be able to bring our giftedness into the therapy process, so that our whole gifted self can heal and provide healing to others.
by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
CHALLENGES OF BRINGING OUR GIFTEDNESS TO THERAPY
Shame thrives in secrecy, and something many gifted therapists and gifted clients don't like to talk about is what they perceive as the more "shameful" side of how their giftedness shows up in the therapeutic relationship. As adult giftedness has only recently been a topic of serious conversation (and is still quite on the fringe of traditional psychology and therapy practices), there have been few spaces to have open conversations about how our giftedness intersects with our capacity for offering healing space for others as a therapist, and how our giftedness intersects with our capacity to participate in and heal through a therapeutic relationship as a therapy client.
In this article, I will look briefly at common struggles of gifted therapists and gifted therapy clients, opening the door to what I hope will become a more collective conversation. Healing is available for gifted therapists who have been struggling in secret, and for gifted clients who have been wondering if there will ever be a therapist who welcomes or is able to help heal their whole self, giftedness included.
To start, here is a short list of struggles that gifted therapists sometimes face:
- going faster than (less gifted or non-gifted) clients can mentally follow
- expecting (less gifted or non-gifted) clients to see a bigger picture than they do
- getting frustrated with (less gifted or non-gifted) clients' lack of mental complexity and speed
- getting bored with the repetitive aspects of therapy
- feeling guilty for feeling frustrated with clients and for feeling bored in their work
- when the above conflicts go unresolved, feeling like a fraud or a failure as a therapist (i.e. shame)
And here's a short list of struggles that gifted therapy clients sometimes face:
- going faster than their (less gifted or non-gifted) therapist can mentally follow
- expecting their (less gifted or non-gifted) therapist to see a bigger picture than they do
- getting frustrated with their (less gifted or non-gifted) therapist's lack of mental complexity and speed
- feeling guilty for feeling frustrated with their therapist
- when the above conflicts go unresolved, feeling like a fraud or a failure as a client (i.e. shame)
- having their giftedness ignored, shamed or otherwise pathologized by their therapist
- having their gifted-specific needs and challenges be minimized
- being misdiagnosed or misguided by their therapist, in relationship to their giftedness
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
Your giftedness, whether you are a therapist or a client, plays a starring role in the therapeutic relationship, even if you don’t know you’re gifted or you know it but you're trying to hide it. Here's a sampling of what can happen when giftedness shows up in ways that detract from or even harm the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship and process:
As both therapist and client, you might project onto one another mental complexity that is not there. You might relate to the other as though your vision of their potential is the same as their reality (when often it is not). That might look like expecting your therapist to understand your mental complexity (when they cannot) or like expecting your client to live up to whatever gifted-lens potential you see in them (when that may not be part of their real capacity or desire).
You might be ashamed of your giftedness and be trying to mask it. As a therapist, you might not want your clients to see how analytical or how deeply emotional you are. As a client, you might not want your therapist to see how much you think all the time or how much you know or how deeply you feel. If they knew, you’re sure they’d be overwhelmed by you and judge you, maybe even reject you. You’re sure they would think you’re arrogant and full of yourself and you can’t let that happen. So you hide this part of yourself hoping your client, or your therapist, doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
Gifted therapists who deny their own giftedness are likely to deny the giftedness of their clients. “Everyone is gifted in some way”; “Gifted people just want to feel special”, “Giftedness is something you grow out of”, “You should learn to stop thinking so much”...and so on. Saying these things doesn't make them true, but it can make both you and your clients continue to avoid integrating and reconnecting deeply with your respective gifted selves.
Using Giftedness as a Form of Protection
Some gifted people feel like they are better than others, and that plays just as much a role as gifted shame. Perception of gifted superiority, which in many cases may be a response to trauma or gifted-specific trauma, can lead therapists to think they know all the answers for their clients. It can lead clients to think that their therapists are “stupid” or “useless”. All kinds of dysfunctional therapeutic dynamics can arise when giftedness is used as a perceived proof of superiority in the therapy relationship.
Gifted Minds Can Create Complex Defenses
And before you think: “Therapy is about healing, not showing off or playing ego games”, remember that therapists have wounds and egos too -- many of us get into the profession in part because of those very wounds and egos. None of us are fully immune to the strategies humans use to cover up painful psychological wounds, not even therapists. And before you think: “Well, clients go to therapy to get help and to heal, not to prove they’re better than their therapist”, I can simply repeat: none of us are immune to the strategies of wound-management. Sometimes unhealed wounds keep us unable to let down our guard and connect with others. And before you think: “Well, a gifted person would be smarter than to play such games -- it’s a waste of time”, I can assure you that giftedness is not an insulating factor from protective behavior. In fact, because of how complex the gifted mind is, it can at times create some of the most intricate defenses I’ve ever seen.
Unhealed Gifted Wounds
In most cases, I would venture to say that these strategies can be released and the wounds can heal. But it takes attuned support, and that’s where the chronicity of many gifted people’s wounding and protection mechanisms come in, because often that attuned support is hard to find. It helps when the therapist is themselves gifted and has done the work to integrate their own giftedness and heal their own gifted wounds. Yet, many gifted therapists themselves have never had the support of a gifted therapist who was able to help them heal their gifted wounds and embrace their giftedness fully. And it’s hard to guide someone through a process you yourself have not had the support to get through. It's also hard to be the client of someone who is unable to guide you confidently ahead, and many gifted clients give up on the therapy process because they cannot find a therapist who is able to provide that in a gifted-specific way.
This is all hard stuff to talk about. If gifted therapists admit how they feel and admit these struggles, they worry they will be discredited or will put the legitimacy of their work in question. They worry they will hurt their clients’ feelings and cause distrust. They also sometimes worry they’ll have to give up the profession and find a whole new path, when they cannot see how they could overcome these challenges.
WHEN THINGS GO RIGHT
But these challenges can be overcome. I have been training gifted therapists (and coaches, psychiatrists, and other helping professionals) for the last seven years on gifted-specific psychology. As part of their training, we explore their own giftedness, their shame around it or how they’ve used it as an ego-booster. We explore the completely normal feelings they have when clients are a strong mismatch cognitively, emotionally or otherwise, or when clients present with gifted-specific struggles that they as the therapist don’t know how to resolve (because they haven’t resolved the gifted-specific struggles in themselves yet). We look at how they can integrate their giftedness into their own life and sense of self, and how their giftedness is a crucial part of their capacity to offer healing space as a therapist. We explore which clients are a good match for them (considering giftedness levels, areas of giftedness, and other gifted-specific qualities), and which clients are not.
When therapists have gone through this process (explicitly or implicitly), they are ready to provide their clients with:
Attuned Gifted Mirroring
When you understand giftedness, gifted needs, and gifted wounding and trauma, and you've been through your own process of giftedness integration and healing, you can recognize the giftedness of another and mirror it to them without shame, fear, or being triggered into states of fight/flight/freeze/fawn. You have the knowledge, capacity and comfort to allow yourself to be seen in your full gifted self in the therapy relationship. This doesn't mean overwhelming or impressing your client, or knowing all the answers. It means actively using your giftedness for creating connection between you and your client, and especially with your client's giftedness. In seeing you comfortably and calmly inhabit your giftedness, your client will learn that they too can one day feel safe fully inhabiting their own giftedness and can use it as a channel of connection to their world and what is meaningful to them.
Clarity on Who Their Ideal Clients Are
When you have integrated your giftedness, you get a much clearer sense of who your ideal clients are. So often, therapists feel compelled to help everyone that comes to them for support, but then they get overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) by some of their clients, leading to the frustration, guilt and shame I mentioned above. When you deeply understand your level of mental complexity and the way your intelligence and empathy work best, you'll know that just because you're smart doesn't mean you're meant to help everyone. There are certain clients who you can mirror and support better than others, and that's your magic as a gifted therapist -- that's who you should be working with. You want to be a beacon for people who can most benefit from your unique gifts, and it's only by knowing who those unique gifts well and knowing who can benefit most from them, that you can shine the light they will recognize as calling directly to them.
Proof that Gifted Integration & Healing are Possible
As I mentioned above, if clients see you comfortably inhabiting your giftedness, they will know that it is possible for them too. When you are open about the gifted-specific healing process, about gifted wounds, and about gifted needs, they will come to believe that they deserve gifted healing and fulfillment, and it will set them on a path toward their own wholeness and thriving as a gifted individual. This is accomplished not only through the content of therapy, but also simply through the act of being a gifted person that your client can relate to as a role model.
For clients, we look at their needs for complexity, speed and big-picture thinking in the therapeutic relationship. We look at which gifted wounds they may have, and what kind of therapist and therapeutic approach may best suit their healing process. We normalize the completely understandable feelings they have when their giftedness is neglected or otherwise unwelcome in the therapeutic relationship, and we explore strategies to help them find a therapist who is able and ready to welcome their full gifted self into the process of their healing. We also look at the ways gifted shame may be preventing them from welcoming their own giftedness into their healing process, and how to resolve that.
When potential gifted clients have gone through this process (explicitly or implicitly), they are ready to show up to therapy in the following ways:
A Clear Understanding of (Gifted) Needs
After integrating your giftedness to some degree, you can see and admit that you have gifted-specific needs. Maybe you're highly+ gifted and you need a therapist who can understand and engage with that level of complexity. Or maybe you have deep emotional and existential giftedness, and you need a therapist who will include that in your work together, rather than only focusing on intellectual understanding or somatic transformation. The combination of gifted needs is unique to each gifted person, so the work you have to do as a potential therapy client is to start to inquire about and explore what your gifted needs are.
Willingness to Unmask Their Gifted Self (if the safety is strong enough)
Assuming you find a therapist with whom you feel safe enough, once you have integrated your giftedness to a certain level, you become able and ready to unmask your gifted self in the relationship with the therapist. That means allowing your full mental complexity, your intensities, and your preferences and needs to show up and be seen and witnessed. Taking off a mask that we've used to protect ourself for years (maybe even decades) can be scary, but when we know we deserve to live out our giftedness in healthy ways, the fear is met with our courage to do the necessary work.
Readiness to Actively Use Their Giftedness in their Healing Process
Linked to this, a certain level of integrated giftedness allows you as the client to be ready to use your giftedness as an active component in your healing process. This means witnessing the gifted wounding, but also tapping into the gifted resilience we all carry within us. By allowing our gifted resilience to be witnessed and engaged in the therapy process, we take important steps in allowing ourselves to get the support we've always needed, both from within (our resilience) and from without (from our therapist).
RESOURCES FOR INTEGRATION
Of course, I've talked about therapy here in this article, but a similar dynamic can happen within the coaching relationship, teaching relationship, parenting relationship or other relationships where there is a helping/supportive dynamic.
If you are a gifted therapist or coach who finds yourself in the words in this article, you may want to join one of my upcoming trainings. My next Therapists' Gifted Psychology 101 Course is starting in January 2023, and there are a few spots still remaining (registration is now open). My next Coaches' Gifted Psychology 101 Course will start in mid-2023, and I am now taking names for my waitlist.
If you are a gifted therapy or coaching client (or potential client) who finds yourself in the words in this article, I hope you will find comfort and courage as you read it. Though I’m no longer able to offer personalized therapy recommendations, the good news is that it is getting easier to find gifted-specific therapy by a google search (something which barely existed even ten years ago). If you're in a space to participate in gifted coaching, you're welcome to explore our coaching offerings here. To understand the difference between therapy and coaching, you can visit our gifted therapy page, and Miriam van der Valk's article on our blog: On Philosophical Coaching for Gifted People.
For both therapists and clients, you may appreciate exploring the following resources:
- My previous article on our blog: Supporting Gifted People: Guidelines for Therapists & Coaches (and Advice for Gifted Clients)
- Paula Prober's book about gifted therapy: Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-being of Gifted Adults and Youth
- To explore your giftedness profile on your own, you can read my articles What is Giftedness? and High, Exceptional & Profound Giftedness
- If you'd like to explore your giftedness profile with us in the format of a qualitative assessment, you can learn more here: Qualitative Giftedness Assessments
- You may find resonance for your experience on my podcast called Conversations on Gifted Trauma
I hope to continue to open the dialog about the importance of giftedness in the therapy (or other helping) relationship and process. It's essential that we can explore this topic without shame, fear or secrecy; that we can each get the support that we need, wherever we are on our journey, in acknowledging and integrating our giftedness into our life and work, and healing any gifted wounds that have been holding us back from fully embracing our gifted strengths and needs -- as gifted clients, and as the gifted therapists supporting them.
cover photo thanks to Benjamin Davies, via Unsplash
About Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Jen is the founding director of InterGifted. She's a psychologist, coach and mentor who specializes in providing training for coaches, therapists and other helping professionals who support the gifted population. She also performs giftedness assessments and writes extensively on giftedness and self-development. You can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. Her climate emergency initiative is I Heart Earth. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. You can learn more about her here.