Counseling Gifted Clients: Journeys through the Rainforest Mind

Counseling Gifted Clients: Journeys through the Rainforest Mind

by Paula Prober
Working with gifted clients is a challenging and fascinating opportunity to appreciate those with a “rainforest mind”.
Filed Under: Children, ADD/ADHD

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What do you do with the clients you suspect are super smart?
What do you do with the clients you suspect are super smart? You know, those who talk fast, think fast, and ask probing questions; those who are so articulate and seemingly high functioning that you can’t understand why they say they are depressed and anxious. How do we begin to understand, let alone help, those clients who are paralyzed by fears of failure and the pressures of their “great potential”; who have exceedingly high standards and expectations for themselves and others? They change jobs frequently, are continually questioning themselves, and express frustration, impatience, and confusion with slower thinking co-workers. How can we walk alongside those clients who feel such deep and unrelenting loneliness, even if they have many friends and are in partnerships, and who were perhaps bullied and bored in schooling situations when they clearly have (or had) an enormous passion for learning? How can we fully and deeply assist those clients who have an unusual number of sensitivities to sounds, textures, visual stimulation, chemicals, and emotions? Or even begin to co-construct a meaningful treatment plan with clients who feel a responsibility for making a difference on the planet, have extraordinary empathy, and feel despair and idealism about the future? And how do we stay intimately attuned with clients who have experienced serious trauma in childhood but appear to be unscathed, those who are so tuned into us in therapy that they can sense when our attention is drifting, are afraid of overwhelming us, and who, in fact, do overwhelm us with their intensity, depth, intuition, and levels of awareness?

These are some of the challenges I experience working with gifted clients. Perhaps you do, too.

What is Giftedness?

Defining giftedness is difficult and controversial. There are many theories and definitions. Concerns over justice and equality can make this discussion tense and uncomfortable. Here is one way to think about it: all humans ought to be valued and appreciated and are worthy of love and respect. All humans differ in their strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, intellectual capacities, sensitivities, preferences, talents, temperaments, experiences, cultural backgrounds, and desires. It can get tricky when we talk about intellectual differences. And yet, intellectual differences exist. Giftedness exists—in all cultures, races, religions, and socio-economic groups.

giftedness exists—in all cultures, races, religions, and socio-economic groups
It can be easier to see giftedness in children because they are often reaching typical childhood milestones earlier. Their precocity can be apparent in their language, curiosity, interests, and questions. They often read before they get to school and have abilities and wisdom beyond their years. I consult with parents of gifted kids. Here are some examples of children I have heard about: the eight-year-old who wants to be Richard Feynman for Halloween. The five-year-old reading The Chronicles of Narnia. The four-year-old who cries when listening to Mozart because the music moves him. The ten-year-old whose favorite pastime is watching BBC documentaries. The six-year-old who refuses to eat meat for ethical reasons. The nine-year-old who rescues the grasshoppers on the playground. The ten-year-old whose poetry breaks your heart. The fourteen-year-old who’d rather read David Foster Wallace than hang out on social media.

Notice I did not describe the child who performs well in school. Gifted children may test well and get high grades, and they may not.
So, defining giftedness is complicated. But we don’t actually need a clear, concise, undisputed definition to serve clients who fall into this category in one way or another. We don’t need to give them a label. We just need to understand what they may be dealing with due to their gifted traits and how to help them.


Traits of the Gifted Client

These are some of the characteristics of gifted clients with whom I’ve worked:
  • Advanced vocabulary, existential questions and concerns from an early age, multiple in-depth interests
  • A range of deeper-than-normal emotions and sensitivities (often underground in men), advanced analytical abilities, need for precision in fields of interest, perfectionism
  • Rapid thinking, talking, and learning
  • Excessive worry, great empathy for all living things, unusual insight into themselves
  • Avid reading, unending curiosity, and passion for learning (not necessarily for schooling)
  • More complex ethical, moral, and justice concerns, insight about things that others don’t notice, tendency to argue for fun or for intellectual stimulation
  • Idealism, wit, imagination, creativity, questioning authority, and needing to understand the meaning of life
  • Loneliness, anxiety (particularly when bored or during extreme bouts of thinking), existential depression, self-doubt even with seeming successes
  • Difficulty finding friends, serious schooling frustrations, uneven development

The Rainforest Mind

I have discovered that one way to manage discomfort with the label and definition of giftedness is to use the metaphor of the “rainforest mind.” I was a teacher of gifted children before becoming a therapist, and many educators were not happy about identifying them as such. I suggested we think of it this way: people are like ecosystems. Some are like meadows, some deserts, some volcanoes, and some rainforests, for example. They are all beautiful and valuable. One is not better than the other. The client with a rainforest mind is the most complex: multilayered, intense, overwhelming, colorful, highly sensitive, full of complicated creativity, and misunderstood. I have many clients who have read my blog/books and come to me saying “I’m not gifted, but I have a rainforest mind.” These clients are often uncomfortable with the label, too, and many deny they are gifted.

people are like ecosystems
You may be using your most tried-and-true therapeutic methods with these clients but feel something is not quite working. You feel you are missing a very important piece of their puzzle but do not know what. Your client says they are struggling, but they seem to be capable, compassionate, and insightful. At times like these, I have found it useful to consider that my client has a rainforest mind.

the client with a rainforest mind is the most complex: multilayered, intense, overwhelming, colorful, highly sensitive, full of complicated creativity, and misunderstood
Giftedness is a phenomenon that has its own set of complications. These clients desperately need us to see all of who they are and all of who they want to be. They need to be able to feel safe to be vulnerable and to trust that you can handle their exuberance, intense emotions, questions, contradictions, complexities, fears, intuitions, sensitivities, and, yes, their brilliance.


Some of the Issues

The gifted clients with whom I’ve worked come to therapy for the same reasons most clients do. They might be dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, attachment issues, addictions, or childhood trauma. But there will likely be other issues that will need your attention. The following are some of the concerns I see in my office every day:
the gifted clients with whom I’ve worked come to therapy for the same reasons most clients do

  • Unhealthy perfectionism that stems from early intense pressure to achieve. Healthy perfectionism that is often misunderstood and stems from an innate desire for beauty, balance, harmony, justice, and precision.
  • Multipotentiality, which is a desire to pursue many career paths and multiple interests. This is often mistaken for irresponsibility, inability to focus, or even ADHD.
  • Extreme difficulty with decisions due to the ability to see too many options and to worry about the implications of every choice.
  • Existential depression and despair, particularly rooted in an early and ongoing sense of justice and social responsibility.
existential depression and despair, particularly rooted in an early and ongoing sense of justice and social responsibility

  • Difficulty finding friends and partners because of differences in intellectual capacity and in emotional depth and sensitivity.
  • A history of bullying in school and boredom over many years in a traditional classroom where they already know the material. Great frustration with coworkers and supervisors who are less competent or less conscientious.
  • Being given too much responsibility for siblings and parents in a dysfunctional family. The tendency to be the counselor for family and friends with no reciprocation. A capacity for resilience when raised with abuse, masking serious self-doubt, self-hatred, depression, and anxiety.


What Can a Therapist Do?

These are some of what I hope will be helpful hints and strategies I have found effective with these clients.
  • Get familiar with the traits that often accompany giftedness. Explain these to your clients. Learn to differentiate the issues that come with giftedness from the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Explain how having a rainforest mind can be challenging. Suggest books, articles, and websites.
  • Look for ways your clients are masking their pain because they are used to practitioners who assume they are just fine and often their friends and family members overly rely on them because they are so capable.
  • Allow them to talk a lot without being linear or chronological; take notes if it helps you keep track. Create a very large container to hold what is likely to be a great deal of intensity. Love their difficult questions, big emotions, deep dives, and quests for justice and a better world.
  • Be authentic and sensitive. Listen deeply. They are often particularly intuitive and will be able to sense when you are irritated, not feeling well, or distracted.
  • Get your own therapy. If you are also gifted, take time to explore the resources for yourself.
  • Be careful that you don’t misdiagnose—giftedness can look like ADHD, ASD, OCD, and even bipolar disorder. (Note: Some clients can be gifted and also have a mental health diagnosis or learning disability, called twice-exceptional or 2e. It will be important for you to know about this as well.)
  • Know your limits and notice if you are intimidated by their intelligence. Refer if you are frequently overwhelmed or uncomfortable.

The Case of Marilyn

For the purposes of this article, this case example will focus mostly on psychoeducation around giftedness rather than the childhood trauma the client experienced. This case description is adapted from my book, Your Rainforest Mind.

like many of my clients, Marilyn did not initially know that she was gifted
Thirty-year-old Marilyn, a graduate student in anthropology and women’s studies came to counseling because, as she said, “I reached the end of my own abilities to fix myself.” Marilyn’s mother had died a year earlier, and her intimate relationship was “faltering.” In describing her goals in counseling, she wrote, “I want to stop carrying the weight of my family’s legacy, to untangle the mess in my head, to be free.” Marilyn had a history of difficult relationships with partners and trouble finding emotionally healthy friends. Like many of my clients, Marilyn did not initially know that she was gifted.

She described a bipolar, physically and sexually abusive mother. Her father was kind and loving to her but didn’t stand up to stop the abuse. According to Marilyn, her parents were “spectacularly unsuccessful in the real world.” And when Marilyn was twenty-two her father died suddenly.

As a child in school, Marilyn was bullied. She was excited about learning, academically ahead of her peers, and a talkative extravert whom teachers dismissed with impatience and children rejected.

As with most of my clients, we worked on two main tracks. Track one was the long road to healing from severe childhood trauma. Convincing Marilyn through lots of counseling processes based in attachment theory and somatic experiencing that the abuse wasn’t her fault, that she was, in fact, worthy of love, was the more complicated task. Over time, Marilyn felt more trust in me and allowed herself to grieve the losses she had experienced for so many years.

in spite of her rejecting, critical, abusing mother, Marilyn was a kind, loving, competent woman
Marilyn, like many gifted folks, had shown a powerful resilience. In spite of her rejecting, critical, abusing mother, Marilyn was a kind, loving, competent woman. The damage was evident, though, in her distorted view of herself, her existential depression, somatic symptoms, and her inability to believe she was worthy of love. It took time for her to feel safe enough in therapy to allow herself to grieve and to trust.

Like many gifted clients, Marilyn did much self-examination. She particularly enjoyed art projects and used journaling and other art forms to delve deeper. She was a big reader and was always looking for resources that would expand her knowledge, particularly in the areas of body image and women’s issues.

The second track is simpler but essential. Even though Marilyn had experienced academic success, she did not identify as gifted or understand the traits. She wrote about this: “There were—and still are—so many times in my life I felt an unbridgeable distance between myself and others, like I fundamentally see the world in a different way that I can’t even explain because we don’t speak the same language.” Even though Marilyn found friends, she felt extremely lonely much of the time. She was often the caretaker in the relationship, giving much love and support but not getting much back. She wrote, “I get hungry for people who are socially competent and intellectual and curious about literally everything and creative and broad-minded and motivated by justice…People who care and feel deeply but also think in complex wide-ranging ways.”

even though she was an optimist, Marilyn felt despair over finding a truly loving and kind, intimate relationship
Even though she was an optimist, Marilyn felt despair over finding a truly loving and kind, intimate relationship. And with both friends and partners, Marilyn had difficulty setting boundaries and asking for what she needed. Being gifted, this was even more challenging, because it wasn’t easy finding other sensitive, intelligent souls. I referred her to my blog, books, and other articles about giftedness to reinforce that her difficulties with peers and her enthusiasm for learning outside of school were also typical traits of the gifted.

As time passed in our work together, Marilyn graduated with her Master’s degree. Her advisor may have been the first teacher who recognized and appreciated her giftedness, telling her she was the brightest student she had ever worked with. This was an important acknowledgement. Marilyn and I continued therapy as she looked for employment. Fairly quickly she found a job that was not in her field of study but that suited her well.

Marilyn was employed in social services as a case manager and was wildly successful. The combination of her rainforest-minded traits of sensitivity, empathy, energy, attention to detail, and intelligence worked well with the population of families she helped. She often took on extra responsibilities to keep herself busy and mentally stimulated. In meetings, she saw the big picture and solutions long before her colleagues. So she was restless in the job when she had accomplished her goals and was not recognized for her skills. These can be the frustrations of many rainforest minds on the job. It was likely that Marilyn would find more challenging, financially rewarding work as her confidence grew, but this position was satisfying her need to make a difference.

I would remind Marilyn that some of her struggles were due to her complex intellect, high level of sensitivity, multiple interests, divergent thinking, very high standards, fast learning abilities, and deep empathy
In many of our sessions, as we talked about relationships both personal and professional, I would remind Marilyn that some of her struggles were due to her complex intellect, high level of sensitivity, multiple interests, divergent thinking, very high standards, fast learning abilities, and deep empathy. In other words, her rainforest mind.

Over our years together, Marilyn made enormous progress. She could acknowledge how severe her losses had been and grew more and more self-accepting. Her self-criticism had decreased significantly, and she became able to recognize her many strengths. She began to imagine that she would find deep friendships and a kind loving partner. Eventually, she accepted the idea that she was, indeed, gifted.

Marilyn described her experience this way: “I keep hoping to meet people with whom I can relax and be just me, all of me, unafraid to let them see who I really am, in all my dorky, questing, art loving, social justice-obsessed, bibliophile, rebellious, intersectional feminist, world-changing glory.”

***


Marilyn is but one example of the many fascinating gifted clients with whom I have been privileged to work. If you can identify who among your clients is gifted, has a rainforest mind, and if you can listen to, understand, and explain the particular challenges that these folks often face, it will make a big difference in the effectiveness of their therapy. You will be seeing and knowing them in a way that very few others, if any, have. And that will change everything.

Helpful Resources

Books/Articles
The gifted adult: A revolutionary guide for liberating everyday genius™.
The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What do we know?
Your Rainforest Mind: A guide to the well-being of gifted adults and youth.
Journey into your Rainforest Mind: A field guide for gifted adults and teens, book lovers, overthinkers, geeks, sensitives, braniacs, intuitives, procrastinators and perfectionists. .
Webb, J. T., & Amend, E. R. (2016). Misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses of gifted children and adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Aspergers and other disorders. Great Potential Press, Inc.

Websites
Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)
Your Rainforest Mind
Gifted Challenges
Puttylike
 

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Bios
Paula Prober Paula Prober, M.S., is a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. Over the 35+ years she has worked with the gifted, Paula has been a teacher and presenter at universities, webinars, podcasts, and conferences. She consults internationally with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. She has written articles on giftedness for Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal, the Eugene Register-Guard and online for Thrive Global, Rebelle Society, and Introvert Dear. Her popular book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth is a collection of case studies, strategies, and resources. Her latest book, Journey into Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide For Gifted Adults And Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of her most popular blog posts along with writing exercises and resources. She blogs at rainforestmind.com.