It is essential that therapists, coaches and other helping professionals know what giftedness is, how to recognize it in clients, and how to best support their gifted clients. Anyone helping a gifted person is, by necessity, helping a gifted mind - and gifted minds work in unique ways, have unusual needs, and grow in unconventional directions. Here are some guidelines for helping professionals and gifted clients from InterGifted Founder, Coach & Trainer Jennifer Harvey Sallin.
by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
IGNORANCE CAN HURT US
When I was studying to become a psychologist, I never once heard the word giftedness brought up. We didn’t even hear about IQ testing, unless it had to do with measuring disability. Admittedly, that was nearly twenty years ago and I was specializing in clinical psychology rather than research psychology. But still, many of the psychologists, psychiatrists and other helping professionals I train today report that they either had a short mention of giftedness in their training, or, like me, none at all.
I know a training program can’t cover everything, and when the numbers of gifted people are so very small (common research says about 5% of the population is gifted), it somehow makes sense that giftedness as a topic would get low priority. But then, what about those 5%? What are they supposed to do when they need to reach out for mental health support from professionals who are missing essential information about how their unusual brain works? These are moments when ignorance really can hurt. I have heard stories from countless clients about their search for, and failure to find, a therapist who could help them understand their (gifted) mind.
I myself was a casualty of this battle. In my early 20’s, I sought help from a therapist who very quickly diagnosed me as mentally healthy, since, in her words, I was very knowledgeable about and understood my “issues”. Yes, I was knowledgeable about them, and I knew how to discuss them in complex ways that sounded impressive; but at 22 years old, knowing about and being able to discuss my problems did not translate into me knowing how to heal from them. This unfortunate misattunement mirrored back to me that my struggles were invisible, or I feared, invented. Maybe she was right and I was okay? I started to doubt my own inner reality, and then I doubted therapists in general (irony of ironies, since I was one myself) and became scared to reach out to a therapist again for years. Not getting the help I truly needed led me to making decisions for myself that only deepened my problems, and got me more entrenched in the the trap of seeming exceedingly smart and capable, yet suffering terribly in silence.
In my case, my therapist confused my high intelligence for mental wellness (not an uncommon mistake therapists make when working with gifted clients). A few other common hurtful mistakes therapists and other helping professionals make - much of the time out of ignorance - include:
- Telling their clients that giftedness does not exist
- Telling their clients that “everyone is gifted in their own way”, so their giftedness is nothing special to look at or consider
- Telling their clients that their need to discuss or explore their giftedness is a sign of arrogance or elitism
And this is, of course, when a client is aware of their giftedness. Many times (and perhaps more often), the client is not aware of their giftedness, and again many usually ignorance-induced mistakes are made in therapy and coaching, such as:
- Treating the client as though their mind is “normal” and thus should follow normal goals, values, and healing course
- Missing that gifted people can experience extreme trauma in conjunction with their giftedness (i.e. extreme feelings of alienation, intellectual/emotional starvation, and so on); or that many gifted clients have elements of Complex-PTSD from feeling the gifted part of themselves chronically invisible, unseen, uncared for, or exploited
- Misdiagnosing gifted traits such as high excitability and meta-thinking as ADHD or another neurological disorder
- Misdiagnosing gifted and traumatized clients with personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The list goes on, but these are some main points to consider. Of course, since gifted clients are human, there are overlaps in diagnoses, goals and values with their non-gifted counterparts; but it is important that the professional supporting them does not dismiss, diminish or ignore the role giftedness plays in all of the above. For some gifted people who have lived with a primary feeling of being misunderstood, missing crucial accurate social mirroring, and struggling to find meaning in the neuronorm world, they can, like me, feel more hurt than helped by the support they sought, and even experience this rejection or misattunement of the gifted part of themselves as (re)traumatizing.
WHAT THERAPISTS, COACHES & OTHER HELPING PROFESSIONALS SHOULD KNOW
In my own case, I finally did find the help I needed, in the form of a mentor who recognized my giftedness; but it took years. I did find a therapist and a coach before her who while they did not validate my giftedness per se, they did nothing to invalidate it, and that was certainly helpful. But, with my mentor, it was completely different - she validated a whole part of me that, before her, no one had really seen or understood. Instead of looking at me as a usual client with usual goals, she looked at me as one of the many unusual-minded people she supported: someone with my own unique values hierarchy, potential and need for support that required a completely unconventional approach and a lot of validation. She knew what giftedness was, had years of supporting gifted people, and was able to legitimize my struggles and give me hope in a way no other person had before. I met her when I was in a full positive disintegration, and I don’t know what would have become of my life if she had not uttered the words to me: “You have a gift, and the question is: are you going to accept it?” That question, and her accurate mirroring and support, allowed me to make it through to the other side of my positive disintegration.
She inspired me so much, and did so much to save my life, that I was, in turn, inspired to support other gifted people in a similar way, which is what I’ve been doing for most of the last decade. It started with specializing in coaching gifted adults, and has grown to founding InterGifted and for the last several years, training and mentoring therapists, coaches and other helping professionals who want to learn how to best support their gifted clients. Here is some of what I have learned, and what I teach about in my Gifted Psychology Courses and mentoring, about what therapists, coaches and other helping professionals should know about themselves and their gifted clients:
KNOW WHETHER YOU ARE GIFTED & WHAT YOUR UNIQUE COGNITIVE PROFILE IS
Just as helping professionals are encouraged to be aware of their own personality style, issues, needs, and struggles, in order to be fully present and helpful to their clients, they should (in order to best support gifted clients) know if they themselves are gifted. And if so, in what ways? What is their level of giftedness? What are their areas of intelligence? If they know nothing about themselves in this way, it will be very challenging for them to know how to recognize or discuss these questions with their gifted clients. How can you know your gifted profile? One way is by having a qualitative assessment with us. If you discover you are not gifted, that’s equally important to know, since you’ll have to study the topic to get to know what giftedness looks like and how to recognize it.
Our blog and ebooks are great places to start to learn about what giftedness is and how you can recognize it. Additional recommended readings on this topic include The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide to Liberating Everyday Genius, by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen and Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-being of Gifted Adults & Youth, by Paula Prober.
BE ABLE & READY TO RECOGNIZE GIFTEDNESS IN YOUR CLIENT
Keep giftedness in mind during your sessions and if a client is showing signs of giftedness, don’t ignore them. Before putting diagnoses on behaviors, explore if/how they may be related to or exacerbated by giftedness. Find out if learning about giftedness would resolve a gifted client’s issues before (mis)diagnosing them. Help the client to explore the question by sending them to our website, suggesting an assessment, or recommending any of your favorite gifted-specific resources to them. If their needs to learn about their giftedness exceed your abilities as a helping professional, be ready to refer them to someone who can explore this fully with them, such as a coach or mentor in our InterGifted Coaching Network.
BE ABLE & READY TO RECOGNIZE TWICE- OR MULTI-EXCEPTIONALITY IN YOUR CLIENT
Your client can be gifted and have another (or multiple other) neurological disorder or other diagnosable condition, such as autism-spectrum disorder or ADHD. Be ready to help them explore which needs, behaviors, challenges and opportunities come from which aspect of their brain. If these explorations go beyond your scope as a helping professional, be ready to suggest other specialized professional support to your client, such as via our InterGifted Coaching Network. Though we only provide coaching and mentoring, we do also help people find gifted-specific therapists when needed.
Recommended reading on twice- and multi-exceptionality is the book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: Adhd, Bipolar, Ocd, Asperger's, Depression, and Other Disorders, by James Webb. SENG also has an important Initiative on Misdiagnosis which is worth checking out.
BE COMFORTABLE WITH ANY GIFTEDNESS-LEVEL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR CLIENT
I have often heard clients tell me that they saw a therapist or coach who was uncomfortable with, or even jealous of, their giftedness level. If your client is gifted and you are not, or if they are exceptionally or profoundly gifted and you are mildly or highly gifted, it is essential that you remain aware that you may feel discomfort with their cognitive speed or meta-thinking. If that is the case, let them know that you may not always be able to follow their train of thought as fast as it is, but that it is important for them to feel comfortable expressing themselves at their most authentic pace.
In these cases, referrals to another helping professional with a giftedness level similar to your clients may be necessary. Sometimes you can continue to support your client in your specialty, while they get additional support from the gifted-level-matching professional. The external mirroring they need may be essential to their therapeutic process with you, since they may continue to be quite stuck without it; and since you may not be able to provide it, it is most helpful to bring someone in who can - and that is something our Coaching Network can likely help with.
Recommended reading on this topic is my article on High, Exceptional & Profound Giftedness.
BE AWARE THAT GIFTED VALUES, NEEDS & EXPRESSION CAN BE VERY DIFFERENT THAN THE NORM
It is so important to welcome a gifted person's unique expression. Their values, needs and self-expression may feel drastically different from what you're used to seeing with the majority of your clients. Make sure to validate their authentic needs, rather than look at them as problematic or try to channel them into "normal" goals and values. This can be a challenge, because the client may still be operating under old inherited beliefs that their differences need to be "corrected"; so it is important to help them find the space and self-acceptance (as well as social support) to validate their unusual way of being and finding meaning.
Our blog and our ebooks provide countless testimony to this need, and my article on Gifted Adults and Second Childhoods: Revisiting Essential Stages of Development is a good place to start learning about the uncommon needs, values and developmental process of gifted clients.
BE AWARE OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EXISTENTIAL DEPRESSION & CLINICAL DEPRESSION, AND BETWEEN POSITIVE DISINTEGRATION & PATHOLOGY
If a gifted person has been invalidated in their own search for meaning, they may exhibit signs of depression which look very much like clinical depression. Existential depression is approached by finding meaning, rather than treating symptoms. Similarly, positive disintegration is a process which many gifted people go through while trying to determine their own values and self-chosen ideal. It is a process that, from the outside, can look pathological; and from the inside can feel pathological. However, it is a positive process of internal and external reorganization. It is important for support professionals to recognize the signs of existential depression and positive disintegration to avoid misdiagnosing and/or missing the opportunities that come with these transitory phases of a gifted person's personal development journey.
Recommended reading on this includes: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment & Hope by James Webb, and Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents & Adults, a collection of essays edited by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski.
BE AWARE OF GIFTED-SPECIFIC TRAUMA AND HOW IT IS HEALED
Gifted-specific traumas usually center around having felt extremely different from others throughout one’s life. Other traumas relate to feelings of intellectual, emotional or creative starvation, bullying, exploitation of gifts, schooling mismatch, and extreme pressure to perform. If a therapist or other helping professional is unaware of how giftedness played into these traumas, they may not recognize them as traumas at all. These issues are often resolved not just through cognitive reframing, but must take a gifted-specific replacement approach (filling those needs in the present with the appropriate gifted-specific social support) as well as a somatic-healing approach (resolving issues of fight, flight, freeze and fawn in response to one’s own experience of one's giftedness and the external world’s reaction to it).
Unfortunately, there is little discussed about gifted-specific trauma in the literature, but we are working on changing that. InterGifted Coach & Mentor Karin Eglinton and I are currently exploring this topic in an audio series called Conversations on Gifted Trauma.
DON’T DO IT ALONE
Often, as I tell my mentees and trainees, supporting a gifted client is truly a team effort, as the gifted mind is vast and often needs specialized support in many life aspects and dimensions. Don't pressure yourself to be the only one supporting your gifted clients. Suggest that they join our supportive peer community, or another community of gifted people; get them connected with literature, groups, and other professionals that weave together a network of support for them which validates and gives space for them to live out their giftedness in authentic ways.
ADVICE FOR GIFTED CLIENTS
I have helped many people over the years to find gifted-specific support, and it is not usually a one-stop-shop process. More often, it is a trial-and-error process, and one that takes many twists and turns. But getting the support is well worth the extra work it takes to find it.
I created InterGifted’s Coaching Network to make the whole process easier, and we of course invite anyone who is looking for gifted-specific support to explore working with one of our coaches. We personally match you to a coach or coaches who fit your giftedness level, twice- or multi-exceptionalities, as well as any other specific needs you have. We also offer a Gifted Therapy Search & Advocacy Service for gifted and twice-/multi-exceptional people in need of a therapist. If you’re not sure whether you need coaching, mentoring or therapy, we can help you evaluate which would be better
In all cases, here is the advice I usually give to gifted or twice-multi-exceptional people looking for a gifted-specific therapist or other helping professional:
APPROACH THIS AS A HIRING PROCESS
If you were a CEO looking for a qualified employee, you probably wouldn’t just hire the first person who sent in a resume - you need someone qualified who will do the job well. As a client, you are the CEO of your life, and you need a helping professional that is qualified for you and will do a good job in supporting you. In your case, that includes the giftedness question, giftedness level, and any other special considerations you have. Contact several therapists/coaches if you need to, interview each one in an introductory session. Ask them what their experience of giftedness is, what kinds of gifted clients they support and how, and whether they are gifted/what their unique cognitive profile is. If what you find out doesn’t fit, say thanks and move on to the next person. If you're not sure, try one more session and see how you feel. Don't pressure yourself to say a full yes until you are sure it's a good fit.
For those of you on the search for a therapist, it's possible that you may be in a lot of emotional pain at the moment, and it may thus be hard to approach this search with such a “business-like” attitude. In that case, reach out to us for help. You do not have to do this process alone.
SEEK SUPPORT FROM SEVERAL PROFESSIONALS AND SEVERAL MODALITIES
Don’t expect one professional to be the one for you for all time. Each professional has their own specialty and range of work, which may be perfect for a time, but will not last forever. When you feel you have gotten what you needed from a professional, be ready to move on. When therapy is no longer the right modality, consider coaching or mentoring. It is healthy to creatively weave through these various modalities (and others) depending on where you are in your life. For example, I often work with clients who are learning about their giftedness in coaching, while they are still in therapy for healing from childhood wounds.
Gifted people often have areas where they are doing very well and other areas where they are struggling, and everywhere in between. They also often have a wide range of goals, so sometimes multiple professionals supporting them at once for their various goals makes the most sense and is exactly what they need. Essentially, I remind gifted clients that they do not have to take the system as it is, but can creatively use the elements of the system to customize their support needs. After all, the system as it is was created to provide support for the neuronorm mind, thus it’s never going to fit their mind without some creative tinkering on their part.
IF YOU ARE FEELING INVALIDATED, MISUNDERSTOOD OR (RE)TRAUMATIZED IN YOUR CURRENT THERAPY/COACHING RELATIONSHIP, MOVE ON & FIND SOMEONE NEW
I have worked with too many clients who doubted their feelings and experiences with a non-helpful professional, and stayed in harmful support relationships for years - sometimes decades. They thought they weren’t a “good client” or thought they just needed to work harder to make their reality match what their therapist or coach was saying. Of course, therapeutic and support relationships are bound to have moments of disharmony and disagreement, but you should never be feeling chronically invalidated or retraumatized by your relationship with a support professional. If that is the case, affirm that your needs do not match what is being offered and follow the links above for reaching out to us or another support organization to find a new therapist or support professional.
GROWING THE NETWORK OF GIFTED-KNOWLEDGEABLE SUPPORT
As I said above, I've made it my mission to simplify the support-seeking process for gifted people around the world. It is important to me that people like me can more easily find the kind of support they need, and not struggle and suffer so much in silence. If you are a client in need of gifted-specific support, consider working with one (or several) of our coaches or mentors (you can learn more about that service on our Coaching Page and you can write us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get connected to a coach/mentor), or reach out and we'll help research gifted-specific therapists in your area (you can learn more about that service on our Gifted Therapy Search Page and email us at email@example.com).
If you are a support professional, and you'd like to better learn how to recognize and support your gifted clients, consider joining one of my upcoming courses on Gifted Psychology 101. We'll be starting our next groups in early 2020 and would love to have you with us. Individual study courses are also an option for those who are unable to or prefer not to work in the group setting. This option is often a good fit for participants who want to move through the material faster than the groups do, or who do not want to practice coaching or therapy, per se, but still want to master the material (such as teachers, parents, or other people who support the gifted).
And for any of you who want to help inform the general public about giftedness and the need for our support professionals to recognize and be competent in addressing it, please help us spread the word by sharing this article and any of our initiatives in InterGifted. We are proud to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of gifted people all over the world by providing literature, support, community and training for the professionals who support them.
ABOUT JENNIFER HARVEY SALLIN
Jennifer is the founder and director of InterGifted and is a psychologist, coach and mentor 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. You can learn more about her here, and feel free to reach out!