Supporting Gifted People: Guidelines for Therapists & Coaches (and Advice for Gifted Clients)

It is essential that therapists, coaches and other helping professionals know what giftedness is, how to recognize it, 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. Jennifer Harvey Sallin shares helpful guidelines & resources for professionals, as well as tips for gifted clients seeking gifted-specific support for healing & thriving.

by Jennifer Harvey Sallin

updated April 2021


UNTRAINED IN GIFTEDNESS

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 have had the problem too. 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 trap of seeming exceedingly smart and capable, yet suffering in silence.

COMMON THERAPEUTIC MISTAKES

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 ("gifted trauma", 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 a 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 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 she did not validate my giftedness per se, she 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 experience 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 some key points of what I teach to therapists and coaches in my Gifted Psychology 101 Courses :

KNOW WHETHER YOU ARE GIFTED & WHAT YOUR UNIQUE COGNITIVE PROFILE IS

Through your professional training, you were encouraged to be aware of your own personality style, issues, needs, and struggles, in order to be fully present and helpful to your clients. The same is required regarding gifted clients: in order to best support them, it is essential to know if you are gifted. And if so, in what ways? What is your level of giftedness? What are your areas of intelligence and how do they interact together? Are you twice-exceptional? If so, how does that affect your giftedness expression? Have you gone through gifted trauma, and have you healed from it? If you know nothing about yourself in this way, it will be very challenging to know how to recognize or discuss these questions with your gifted clients. Without this key area of mirroring and validation, your gifted client may struggle to feel seen, heard and fully accepted in your therapeutic relationship.

How can you know your gifted profile? It's a whole dedicated process, which starts with getting curious about your own gifted mind. You can dive into the literature available on the topic, starting with our articles and ebooks. Additional recommended readings 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. Additionally, you can be formally assessed via a qualitative assessment with me or another of our InterGifted assessors. If in the end, you discover you are not gifted, that’s equally important to know, so that you can recognize and validate your client's differences.

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. Bring them up, ask your client if they are gifted, or have ever seen their traits, behaviors and struggles through the lens of giftedness. Before putting diagnoses on troubling 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 resorting to potentially misdiagnostic labels. Encourage the client to explore their own recognized or unrecognized potential giftedness through sharing reading resources, and encouraging them to seek an assessment or other support for more fully becoming aware of their unique mind. 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 to one of our Gifted Integration Work coaches or a trained gifted-specific therapist.

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, learning disability or other diagnosable condition, such as autism-spectrum disorder or ADHD. Twice- or multi-exceptionality is often described as having high ability paired with (contextual) disability. The gifted part is ready to go fast, and the contextually disabled parts often slow things down or keep things more challnging and messy. Be ready to help your clients explore which of their needs, behaviors, challenges and opportunities come from which aspect of their brain, so that they can channel their giftedness fully while also caring for and managing any disabling factors of their profile. As with the topic of giftedness alone, if these explorations go beyond your scope as a helping professional, be ready to suggest other specialized professional support to your client (again, we offer coaching and support for gifted people with complex profiles).

To learn more about distinguishing gifted traits and challenges from those of multi-exceptionality, a good place to start is James Webb's book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: Adhd, Bipolar, Ocd, Asperger's, Depression, and Other Disorders.

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. Some have, at the other extreme, been idolized by their therapist as a "genius" who is almost above the human realm. All of these scenarios are detrimental to a gifted person seeking help. If your client is gifted and you are not, or if they are exceptionally or profoundly gifted and you are mildly or highly gifted (or vice versa) it is essential that you remain aware that you may feel discomfort with their cognitive speed. If you feel your gifted client is thinking "too fast" for you, and you're struggling to facilitate discussions smoothly and effectively, 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. Conversely, if you discover that you are high+ gifted, and you feel your non-gifted or mildly gifted clients aren't thinking "fast enough", it may be time to reconsider who your ideal client is based on your own giftedness profile.

In all cases of giftedness level mismatch, referrals to another helping professional with a giftedness level similar to your client's can provide an integrated support for your client. Sometimes you can continue working with your client in the ways that relate to your specialty (i.e. somatic experiencing or EMDR), while they get additional support from the gifted-level-matching professional who can provide better-attuned mirroring on their level of giftedness.

It was linked above, and if you haven't already read it, my article on High, Exceptional & Profound Giftedness is a good place to start learning more about giftedness levels.

BE AWARE THAT GIFTED VALUES, NEEDS & EXPRESSION CAN BE VERY DIFFERENT THAN THE NORM

It's clear by now how important it is to welcome a gifted person's unique expression. If you're used to working with non-gifted clients, when you have a gifted client, you may feel that their values, needs and self-expression are drastically different from what you're used to seeing and treating. This can be disorienting for professionals unexperienced with the gifted population and is, again, why it is essential to understand your own (potential) giftedness and go through your own giftedness integration. It is important to be prepared to adapt your therapeutic or coaching approach to the gifted person in front of you, rather than seeing the client's uniqueness as something to be "corrected" or channeled back toward goals and needs that would suit the neuromajority.

To start exploring the unique developmental trajectory and needs of gifted people, have a look at my article on Gifted Adults and Second Childhoods: Revisiting Essential Stages of Development.

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. Similarly, positive disintegration is a process which many gifted people go through while trying to determine their own values and self-chosen ideal, and it can at times look like depression or anxiety. It is important for you to know and 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 you are unaware of how giftedness played into your gifted client's issues, you may not recognize their gifted 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).

There is little discussed about gifted-specific trauma in the literature, so Karin Eglinton and I explore this topic in our Conversations on Gifted Trauma podcast.

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. 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. Make sure you get to know gifted-specific professional peers you can refer your clients to, so that you feel supported in doing your best work as well.

Of course, we're here to help via coaching, gifted trauma therapy and other forms of therapy. But you may also want to research local gifted-specific professionals, or other professionals with specific specialties which complement your own service offerings.

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. Whether you seek support through InterGifted or another professional or organization, here is the advice I usually give to gifted or twice-multi-exceptional people looking for a gifted-specific therapist or coach:

APPROACH THIS AS A HIRING PROCESS

If you were a director 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 director 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 your first 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.

SEEK SUPPORT FROM SEVERAL PROFESSIONALS AND SEVERAL MODALITIES

Don’t expect one therapist or coach to be the one for you for all time. Each helping 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 say thank you and move on to the next supportive relationship. It is healthy to creatively weave through various relationships and modalities (therapy, coaching, etc), depending on where you are in your life and what is relevant for you now, in terms of paid support.

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 the gifted mind without some active and creative tinkering.

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 gifted 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 help finding a new therapist.

GROWING THE NETWORK OF GIFTED-KNOWLEDGEABLE SUPPORT

It's been important for me to contribute to simplifying the support-seeking process for gifted people everywhere. Since 2017, I have been training therapists, coaches, psychiatrists, social workers and other support professionals around the world on the basics of gifted-specific psychology. The professionals I train go through a dual process - learning about and integrating their own giftedness, while simultaneously learning the art and science of supporting gifted clients. They describe their experience of the training process as an immersive, profound, rigorous, and personally and professionally transformative journey (read more about what past participants have said about their experience in their own words). As more and more professionals go through this dual process of gifted personal and professional development, I see the rich and vibrant garden of gifted-specific support starting to bloom.

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My group for therapists runs for 6 months, and covers the following areas:

Recognizing giftedness in clients
  • How to recognize and evaluate giftedness, giftedness levels, and unique giftedness profiles
  • How to bring up and address giftedness with a client
  • How to overcome resistance to the idea
  • Resources for client self-discovery inside and outside of therapy
Most common problem areas for gifted clients
  • Social troubles
  • Lack of peers
  • Lack of recognition
  • Romantic relational troubles
  • Trauma / Complex Trauma
  • Twice-exceptionality, Misdiagnoses + most common gifted/psychopathology overlaps
  • How to best guide and support + resources
Therapeutic dynamics with gifted clients
  • How to fully engage with gifted clients
  • How to handle the overexcitabilities and intensity in sessions
  • How to handle differences in giftedness levels between psychologist and client
  • How to have good boundaries and when to use self-disclosure with gifted clients
  • How to work with client when the psychologist is triggered by his/her own gifted issues
  • When to see breakdown as positive disintegration, and when to see it as "clinical"; how to best help in both cases
Therapeutic logistics
  • How therapy, coaching and mentoring can all help a gifted client, and when each is appropriate
  • Common therapeutic trajectories for clients and how to help them transition from therapy to other forms of support
  • Client drop out and how to maintain engagement
Gifted personal & career development
  • Common gifted career dilemmas and how to approach them
  • Helpful resources for gifted career exploration
  • Giftedness and creativity
  • Giftedness and spirituality/religion
  • Tools of positive psychology for gifted self-development
Understanding & working with special populations
  • Children, teens & adults
  • Elderly
  • Prison populations
  • LGBTQ+
  • Twice-exceptional clients

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My group for coaches runs for 12 months and covers the basics of psychology, plus gifted-specific psychology. Themes include:

 

  • The Benefits of and Difference Between Coaching, Mentoring + Therapy for Gifted Individuals
  • The Gifted Brain, Giftedness Identification & Levels, Twice- and Multi-Exceptionality
  • Recognizing Psychopathology Misdiagnosis in Gifted Clients
  • Personality Development Models, including Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration
  • Trauma + Trauma Healing, including Gifted-Specific Trauma
  • Family Dynamics + Relationships, including Giftedness in Families
  • Common Therapeutic Models & Therapeutic Dynamics
  • Personal + Spiritual Development
  • Career Psychology, including Common Gifted & Multipotentialite Dilemmas
  • Positive Psychology + Promoting Mental Health

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My next coaches' course is starting in June 2021 and we still have a few spots remaining; my next therapists' group will likely run in early 2022. Learn more about both group courses here and reach out to me if you're interested in joining us.

I also teach a gifted profiling training course, which you can learn more about & get on the waitlist here.


 

ABOUT JENNIFER HARVEY SALLIN

Jen is the founding director of InterGifted. She's a psychologist, coach and mentor who specializes in providing training & mentoring for coaches and other helping professionals who support the gifted population. She also performs giftedness assessments and mentors 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. 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.

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