Psychotherapeutic work with this group of exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults revealed how their gifted traits evolved along with a corresponding set of conflicts and anxieties. Because they had supportive and appropriately involved parents, generally admiring peers, and a reasonable educational environment, the usual social, parental, and educational conflicts were less intense. They did, of course, worry about their capacity to manage the increasing demands that came with each level of success. They were equally concerned about how advanced development might preclude them from important age-appropriate experiences. However, their most troublesome conflicts and anxieties arose not from fears of ostracism, fears of failure, or lost opportunities, but from fear that giftedness had distorted and twisted them as human beings. Would their developing power, grand ambitions, and charisma turn them into self-involved narcissistic destructive people?
Because these deeper conflicts were largely out of their awareness, they could not grapple with them effectively. Instead, to escape from their anxieties, they resorted to primitive psychological methods of denial, avoidance, provocative behavior, and projection of blame onto others. The usual result was depression and anxiety, as well as self-destructive behavior and underachievement.
After psychotherapy provided some initial relief from symptoms of anxiety and depression, the process evolved into a model for other collaborative relationships. Although they were initially suspicious and resisted this—fearing their giftedness might be invaded or compromised—they began to rely on the therapist for education, insight, and guidance. With more trust in the therapist and the therapeutic process, they could begin to express and experience the emotions they previously had to deny or repress. Now, instead of avoiding these confusing feelings, they could be used to enhance intellectual and creative discovery. As they became less defensive, self-observation and introspection became possible, and their more troublesome conflicts could now reach conscious awareness and be examined in a useful way. They could make more use of their excellent intellect and self-destructiveness and underachievement became less necessary. Integration of giftedness with the other more “normal” aspects of their personality slowly began to occur.
Although this is a clinical report that describes psychotherapeutic work with a group of exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults, I believe it adds to our knowledge of the nature of giftedness and provides some of the missing pieces to the puzzle of gifted underachievement. My hope is that educators, counselors, parents, and clinicians will find these insights useful in their work with these wonderful young people.