How Did the Conflicts and Anxieties of Adolescence Lead to Underachievement and Self-Destructive Behavior in These Exceptionally Gifted Individuals?

By midadolescence, sexual/social maturation and the pressures for independence brought an increased intensity to the developmental process. New conflicts and anxieties added to the lingering ones from earlier years. The unfolding of gifted traits in adolescence also brought another set of intense dynamics, conflicts, and anxieties to the normal developmental process.

At times, each developmental force with its own pressures for mastery and opportunities for failure seemed to operate separately and could dominate. At different times, several developmental forces could operate together and produce a confused and tumultuous picture quite different from the apparently smooth development described by Bloom (1985) in his retrospective study of very talented adults, or the virtually untroubled development of a musical prodigy followed by Feldman (1986).

By midadolescence, these exceptionally gifted young people had begun to seriously and consistently undermine their gifted development. Each limited how he or she used his or her potential strengths and began to act in other very self-destructive ways. These patterns of underachievement and destructiveness went well beyond the withdrawal, distractibility, procrastination, and sudden loss of interest that were characteristic of their younger years.


Normal Developmental Forces Interact With Gifted Development

Social/Sexual Development. The feeling of urgency that all adolescents experience in their need for peer acceptance and in their desire to establish sexual identity and competence cannot be underestimated. In this area, no child wants to be left behind and these exceptionally gifted adolescents were no exception. Norbert Wiener (1953) was forced to postpone interpersonal and sexual intimacy in favor of the single-minded development of his scientific and mathematical giftedness. He described the excruciating emotional struggle in establishing an intimate personal and sexual relationship with a woman in his later years.

However, much as they might have liked to side step the tasks of gifted development, their gifted character still caused conflicts. Wanting to achieve their social and sexual goals often conflicted with their strict moral and ethical standards. Using their exceptional personal power and charisma to gain sexual and social advantage was tempting but felt unfair. Giving into the biological urges of sexuality often felt irresistible but also seemed to disregard the needs of others.

Struggles With Dependence and Independence. For these exceptionally gifted adolescents, a powerful internal drive, ongoing oppositionalism, and an artificially prolonged but necessary dependence on parents and teachers conflicted with their struggles for independence. Their impressive accomplishments, grandiosity, and charisma convinced them that they had good common sense and could make excellent personal and professional judgments. They fought against parental controls and objected to more advanced instruction from teachers and mentors. However, their repeated immature and impulsive behavior frequently left them on the verge of disaster. Parents and teachers had to frequently intervene to protect them from themselves. These contradictory pressures for independence on the one hand and the reality of their dependency on parents and teachers on the other caused tremendous conflict. A good cooperative relationship with parents and teachers could quickly change into one that felt like hostile dependency.


The Special Dynamics of Exceptional Gifted Development in Adolescence: The Effects of Personal Power and Charisma

By midadolescence, advancing neurological maturity enhanced precocious abilities and increased intellectual and aesthetic sensitivity and judgment. Hormonal changes turbo-charged an already powerful endowed drive. Writing became more insightful, artwork became more complex, and performances took on that special “on the edge of your seat quality.” The urge for deeper exploration became more appealing. More focused personal exploration might have reawakened earlier fears of isolation, guilt, and fears of envy, but it also was helping them arrive closer to their personal vision and destiny. At times they withdrew, hoping to avoid these anxieties. But, they could not stay away for long. Closing in on their personal vision, more personal power, and more charisma was too seductive.

In adolescence, however, personal power, confidence, and charisma were a mixed blessing. Intellectual or artistic breakthroughs could feel enormously exciting but they could also be confusing and frightening. Giovacchini (1960) reported these same fears in accomplished adult scientists. Succeeding could also yield unexpected results. Were these gifted adolescents ready to be the objects of awe and admiration? Were they ready to be the objects of sexual desire? Were they ready to be leaders? Could they restrain themselves from using their exceptional giftedness in hurtful, manipulative ways?

One gifted college freshman was overwhelmed by the aftermath of her theatrical success. Even though she was not an acting major, she landed the lead in that semester’s show. On opening night she was reviewed as a stand-out. Shortly thereafter, a handsome upperclassman pursued her with declarations of love. Initially, she was swept off her feet by the power of this experience. After several weeks, however, she began to doubt her capacity to respond emotionally and sexually. (Similarly, Miles Davis [1989], the gifted trumpet player, was only a high school graduate on the road with a famous band when one of the lead singers approached him sexually. He also reported feeling flattered, as well as inadequate.) She ended the relationship abruptly. Men continued to pursue her, however, and she slowly gained confidence. Now, she found herself dreaming up schemes to make all men on campus fall in love with her. Although she enjoyed these romantic fantasies, she was also appalled at her willingness to be deceitful and cunning. She began to hate herself and have serious doubts about her moral character.

The same conflicted feelings of grandiosity and self-loathing were experienced by an exceptionally gifted adolescent writer who, as he became more accomplished, began to elaborate sadistic fantasies of revenge. He relished the idea of punishing all those who mocked him in grade school. Having always thought of himself as a gentle, caring person, he was aghast that his increasing confidence as a writer led to these aggressive feelings.


Efforts at Conflict Resolution in Adolescence

Despite their growth in intellect and conceptual abilities, these exceptionally gifted adolescents were only dimly aware of the nature and content of their conflicts and anxieties. They were quite aware, however, of the great emotional discomfort that these conflicts and anxieties caused. Because they were unable to tolerate even the smallest bit of emotional discomfort—they could not live with anxiety, struggle with anxiety, or attempt to understand anxiety—they simply tried to eliminate it.

In order to accomplish this, they resorted to primitive psychological mechanisms of defense. Avoidance, withdrawal, sudden loss of interest, and procrastination were similar to the anxiety-avoidance methods used when they were younger. Projecting blame onto others, arrogance, provocative behavior, and deliberately inflicting pain and injury on themselves, however, took maladaptive conflict resolution to another level.

All of these methods were quite self-destructive, and had the effect of seriously disrupting high levels of achievement and further gifted development. Jacobson (1959) has discussed how certain exceptional people unconsciously arrange for their own self-punishment.

Arrogant Attitudes and Provocative Behavior. Unlike the compensatory narcissistic behavior of children who were exposed to abuse or trauma (Gedo, 1996b) the provocative, arrogant behavior of these exceptionally gifted adolescents had other origins: In their immature minds, healthy grandiosity, personal vision, and charisma could lead to entitlement and contempt. A part of their grandiosity no longer seemed healthy. Instead of providing inspiration, it had become a defense against fantasized flaws in their gifted endowment and was now, in addition, a rebellion against the prolonged dependency on parents and teachers.

Rudeness, disrespectfulness, entitled arrogant attitudes, and provocative behavior were all very self-destructive. They seemed like open invitations for censure and punishment. Unchecked, they had the potential for destroying all of the support and admiration these exceptionally gifted young people had earned in their earlier years.

The most common expression of their provocative behavior was in the negativistic use of their intelligence. Those perceived to be incompetent, including parents, were the most frequent targets of their merciless criticism. However, contempt could also be directed at their teachers and mentors, all of whom had been consistently helpful and supportive. These gifted adolescents would seize on one of their teacher’s small flaws and magnify it into a global imperfection.

Because those who came in contact with these exceptionally gifted adolescents deeply cared for them and valued their gifts, parents were often given an opportunity to intervene and forestall disasters. Managing the problem of provocative adolescents and soothing exasperated teachers was a source of ongoing tension and disagreement between parents; how much should these adolescents be rescued from the consequences of their self-destructive behavior? On one hand, perhaps preventing disasters would allow gifted growth to continue. As they got older, perhaps the process of normal maturation would bring more responsible behavior. Conversely, parents worried about accountability. Should their children be punished and forced to “pay the price and suffer now?” Would pain, deprivation, and humiliation “teach them a lesson” and help them “snap out of it”? Or, would it simply feed their masochism and confirm their convictions of inadequacy?

Acts of Physical Self-Destructiveness. In order to manage their conflicts and anxieties, some of these exceptionally gifted adolescents deliberately inflicted pain and injury on themselves. They engaged in random acts of self-mutilation. For example, one gifted adolescent began to cut himself after winning a national science award. Another adolescent caused continuous infections under his thumbnail just when his reputation as a gifted instrumentalist began to soar. They overworked or neglected their bodies so that injuries began to occur and peak performances were not possible. They dangerously neglected their nutrition or personal hygiene. One gifted singer refused to brush her teeth, even though her dentist repeatedly warned her that the enamel on her teeth was starting to deteriorate. They could become immobilized by psychosomatic illnesses that had no physical basis.

Passive or active self-destruction took place in a semi-fugue state of denial. They remained only dimly aware of their behavior even after having it repeatedly brought to their attention. On those rare occasions that they could accept responsibility for their self-destructive behavior, this acknowledgement was not accompanied by a capacity to stop it. Instead, they flagellated themselves, insisting that this irrational behavior was further evidence of their stupidity and inadequacy. Preoccupations with pain and injury, the compulsion to cause them, the apparent helplessness to stop them, and visits to doctors and therapists were all distractions that eroded the single-minded dedication necessary for the highest levels of achievement.

Besides limiting higher levels of achievement, self-inflicted pain and injury also served to expiate the guilt that these exceptionally gifted adolescents felt for having unfair advantages over their peers. Flaunting self-destructive behavior guaranteed them pity from their peers: a welcome relief from admiration and awe. Destructive acts could cause physical handicaps that “evened up the score” and brought these exceptionally gifted adolescents in line with their less gifted peers. Mastering subconsciously created obstacles was difficult but apparently more gratifying than effortless success that never led to a deep sense of self-esteem. When asked if he derived self-esteem from his dancing, one dancer replied,

“Dancing has always been just a part of me. I really don’t have to work at it, it just happens. It’s a natural aspect of my being, like drinking a glass of water or breathing. Should I be getting self-esteem from breathing?”

Ambivalence about separating from their parents was another reason these exceptionally gifted adolescents acted self-destructively. Recognizing that their self-destructive acts were also requests for control, parents had to occasionally force their children to withdraw from commitments that might stretch them too thin or limit them from accepting opportunities that might cause too much anxiety. These confrontations often led to blazing battles that enraged adolescents and left their parents feeling emotionally drained.

Rather than resolve conflict and reduce anxiety, arrogant, provocative, and self-destructive behavior made matters worse. These exceptionally gifted adolescents became depressed, more anxious, and even suicidal. Some worried they were losing their minds.