The Origins and Causes of Underachievement and Self-Destructive Behavior

From their earliest years, these exceptionally gifted children did not have the discipline, frustration tolerance, or emotional maturity to make full use of their potential. As young children, they were accustomed to high levels of achievement with minimal effort. Even as they grew older, the focused, hard work required by more demanding situations never came naturally. It actually seemed astonishing to them that some of their less gifted peers actually enjoyed the struggle of a difficult challenge. Inadequate frustration tolerance and poor self-discipline both formed the backdrop for all other causes of underachievement.

Their early emotional development varied from immature to age appropriate. Although they were unusually sensitive, none were emotionally precocious. Regardless of their level of emotional maturity, they were rarely able to handle the complex emotional conflicts and anxieties that developed along with their gifted traits. Despite their precocious intellect, they resorted to various forms of disengagement and withdrawal to avoid the emotional pain of these conflicts.

What then were the conflicts and anxieties that accompanied the stages of gifted development? How were these conflicts and anxieties managed? Why did underachievement and self-destructive behavior occur? How did psychotherapy help gifted development get back on track?


The Early Conflicts and Anxieties That Accompany Gifted Development

Periodic Feelings of Strangeness and Isolation. In this group, the individuals’ unique ways of perceiving the world, seeing relationships between superficially unrelated things, their very personal senses of beauty, and off-beat, quirky senses of humor all left them feeling socially isolated. It was hard to find soul mates even among their very smart peers. Others envied their “natural” abilities, but to them, “natural” felt bizarre. Empathy for the emotional pain of others and concern for the spiritual well-being of their peers made them feel peculiar.

Feeling Controlled Rather Than Being in Control. Additionally, they often felt taken over by a powerful internal drive force. On the one hand it was fun to give into what seemed like endless curiosity or the demands of their extra sensitivities. On the other hand, it felt as if they were being ruled by forces beyond their control.

Guilt. Instead of feeling proud, effortless success made them feel guilty. It seemed unfair to be so well endowed compared to their siblings, peers, parents, and even teachers. Greenacre (1956) referred to a boyhood memory of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s: One day during a euphonium lesson he became overwhelmed with guilt when he realized that his natural abilities to transpose and improvise meant that he was more accomplished than his teacher.

However, as they got older these exceptionally gifted children often used their giftedness to extract special considerations from their teachers. They claimed to have special needs because of their quirky intelligence, or they tried to see how little effort was required to get the highest grades. Although they secretly took delight in these manipulations, they also felt guilty and ashamed of their behavior.

Fears of Envy and Retaliation. Generally, the peers of these individuals were supportive and encouraging. Some of course were jealous, but not in deliberately destructive ways. Although they were sensitive to being teased, these exceptionally gifted children and adolescents complained more about being placed on a pedestal. Rather than believing that others admired them, they worried that underneath awe was malicious envy. Sometimes this worry could border on paranoia. Although none of their peers complained of this, these gifted children were convinced that others were automatically hurt and diminished by their giftedness. In psychotherapy, the fear that giftedness was innately destructive was found to be a projection of their unconscious sadism.

Feeling Like a Failure. These highly gifted individuals also struggled with their own internal criticisms. Repeated frustrations in trying to perfectly reproduce what was in their mind’s eye often made them feel like failures. Even precocious ability could not make up for lack of discipline, poor frustration tolerance, and little capacity to delay gratification. Rather than face their limitations when they attempted to achieve something in the real world, they were often tempted to give up and withdraw into their own private world where there were no efforts and no failures. Success could simply be imagined.

Irrational Fears of Defectiveness or Disability. As they approached adolescence, a different type of anxiety emerged. This anxiety had less to do with pressures for acceptance, conformity, or internal and external demands for excellence, and focused more on worries about the basic structure of their gifted endowments. In addition to feeling like failures when their best efforts fell short of perfectionistic goals, they began to worry that particular aspects of their gifted endowments had developed flaws. Just as they were beginning to develop more confidence, believe in their personal power, and accept their charisma, they began to fear that they were developing a disability in the strongest area of their endowment. No one else agreed with or found objective evidence for their concerns. But, despite assurances, they held onto these anxieties in an almost irrational way. They rejected offers of emotional support or remediation, preferring to remain angry and pessimistic. What began as a worry in latency became an almost delusional conviction in midadolescence.

As adolescence progressed, these contradictory aspects of gifted development—confidence, power, and charisma on one hand and fears of developing disabilities on the other—evolved in tandem. It was only in late adolescence and young adulthood that either extreme began to modulate. For example, one gifted trumpet player began to suspect that his upper register was beginning to crack. He became convinced that his embouchure was slowly weakening and would soon not be strong enough to support what everyone else felt were his unusually clear and vibrant high notes. During his first summer in music camp, he insisted on giving away the solos that came with his first chair position. By midadolescence, his worry had become an unshakable belief. Band leaders, teachers, and fellow students all disagreed with him and attempted to reality-test his fears. But, he could not be talked out of them.

Another preadolescent began to worry that he was having small memory slips. To compensate, he forced himself to listen more carefully to conversations. By midadolescence, he had become a gifted actor—easily capable of memorizing his lines. But, he had also convinced himself that, when it came to social situations, he simply could not remember people’s names. He became gripped with anxiety that the “hard wiring” of his brain was unraveling and that he was developing a serious neurological disability. He felt that becoming a social outcast was inevitable.

A circumscribed obsession could mushroom into a pervasive feeling of inadequacy and lead to depression. One preadolescent, an exceptionally gifted writer, slowly became convinced that he was losing his critical edge. He reduced his writing time feeling it was a “waste.” He withdrew from his friends. Refusals to make even small accommodations of dress and hairstyle made his social isolation a self-fulfilling prophecy. Subsequently, he became depressed.