The Role of Psychotherapy

Setting the Stage

All of these exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults were referred for psychotherapy in a state of crisis. They and their parents were frightened, angry, and desperate for interventions that would provide quick relief. Frequent and extended sessions were arranged. In a short period of time, developmental, family, social, educational, and medical histories were obtained. The initial assessment included a detailed developmental history of each person’s giftedness. What were their gifted traits? How had they evolved? How had they failed to evolve?


Arriving at a Formulation

An understanding of the dynamics of underachievement, self-destructive behavior, and other serious symptoms evolved after an exploration of their conflicts with family, friends, and school. Conflicts about their internal sense of giftedness were explored in great detail.


Establishing a Working Alliance: Initial Interventions

At first, these exceptionally gifted adolescents and young adults were quite open about their problems with family, school, and friends. Simply talking about them with a supportive, experienced therapist brought some early relief. When suggestions for managing some of these more obvious conflicts worked, the intensity of their anxiety diminished and they began to feel more hopeful and trusting.

Reduced anxiety also meant that their increasing capacity for self-discipline and frustration tolerance, as well as their precocious intellect, could all be used to help understand the causes of their conflicts and anxieties. Slowly and reluctantly they began to accept that anxiety and conflict were not signs of an inadequate or weak constitution but were normal aspects of all growth and development. As they began to tolerate some degree of emotional discomfort, they could face rather than avoid their conflicts.


Deeper Explorations

Gradually, they came to understand that their need to avoid the emotional distress that was a part of any psychological conflict was at the root of their psychological symptoms and their compulsion to act out destructively. Avoidance and denial had forced them to restrict their accomplishments and propelled them into acts of self-destruction.

A milestone in therapy came when they finally could admit that they had lost control of themselves and needed help with problems they couldn’t solve. Depending on others had never been easy, so when they could rely on the therapy and therapist without feeling humiliated, it set the stage for a deeper type of work.

Becoming less defensive and less suspicious allowed them to place more trust in the therapist. Little by little they could absorb advice, guidance, and insight without feeling invaded or controlled.

Over time, they realized that their most conflicted feelings about being gifted were not about their struggles with family, friends, or school. Their deepest, most intense conflicts and anxieties arose as they became more powerful, felt more independent, had grand visions, and allowed themselves to feel charismatic. They were deeply ambivalent about this phase of their gifted development.

On the one hand, they were thrilled by fantasies of controlling situations and people and of being superior and independent. On the other hand, they felt a deep sense of shame and fear. They hated their competitive and ambitious desires for control and domination. They hated themselves for feeling superior to their friends, parents, teachers, and mentors. What happened to that sensitive person who wanted to “belong” and was concerned about everyone’s spiritual well-being? They also knew that deep down inside they were not ready for true independence and still needed to rely on others.

For those who continued in psychotherapy, a deeper examination of both sides of their conflicts became possible. Could they feel powerful and strong and yet be sensitive? Could they compete without needing to completely dominate? Could they become leaders and inspire rather than control? Could they work toward independence without being reckless? Could they engage in a mutual process without feeling compromised? More discussion and collaboration, admitting when they needed help, and actually taking it allowed them to exercise more control over their conflicts and anxieties about their gifted drives and sensitivities. Finding a more comfortable place for giftedness within themselves became more possible. Giftedness did not have to dominate them or others in negative, destructive ways. They began to feel less shame and guilt. Their developing adolescent abilities and special sensitivities began to feel like a more natural part of themselves instead of bizarre freakish qualities that had become undesirable personality traits. Their powerful internal drive began to feel less dangerous and less destructive. More gifted endowment could be used with less conflict (Corbin, 1974), less restriction, and less self-destruction.