Gifted? High Achieving? Pushy Parents? The Ongoing Debate

I’m old. Former students of mine are in their late 40s. I was a teacher in the 1970s. Old.

Granted, 63 is the new 53. But still.

OK. Maybe I’m just old-ish.

A lot has changed over all of those years.

One thing hasn’t changed.

People are still trying to define giftedness. 

Larry Halff Creative Commons Flickr
Larry Halff Creative Commons Flickr

They might ask–

Is everyone gifted? Is giftedness genetic? If someone isn’t achieving “greatness” can they still be gifted? If anyone deliberately practices something long enough will that make them gifted? Are all high achievers gifted? Are you smart because you were born smart or because your parents pushed you to achieve? Are there many different types of intelligences? Can you make yourself super smart when you realize that your brain has plasticity?  Does giftedness depend on how your brain is wired? Are you gifted because you’re awake longer than most people?

Those are just some of the questions.

Well, OK, I made up that last one.

You can read some of the different opinions here: Linda SilvermanDavid Shenk. James T. WebbPamela Price. Tamara Fisher. Daniel Coyle. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen. Scott Barry Kaufman.

And then you can make up your own mind. (if you haven’t already)

Whatever you decide, remember this:

Find your particular truth. Know who you are and become your whole Self.

You have a highly sensitive, loving, kind and radiant heart. You think deeply, quickly and constantly. Your complexity is mind-boggling. Just like the intense, lush, wild, lively, fragile and overwhelming rain forest.




To my blogEEs: Have I told you how much I appreciate that you’re reading my blog? I’d be delighted if you’d make yourself known in the comments. Tell us how you define giftedness. And let me know your questions.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

31 responses to “Gifted? High Achieving? Pushy Parents? The Ongoing Debate”

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  1. solopbrima Avatar

    I believe giftedness is a spectrum. There’s a lot of overlapping of abilities, attitude and sensitivity, but there are a lot of difference between to matter.
    When I was in elementary school, I would cry or throw a tantrum over every slight I received, while there was this gifted girl who was quite tough. Over the years I have successfully hidden this sensitivity, though some people tell me it shows in the eyes.

    Though different, a common quality amongst the gifted is passion. The passion to know, to love, to thrive. The desire to search and research. To dive in uninhibited. That’s giftedness. It’s innate. You don’t develop that.

    Most people tend to confuse giftedness with achievements. Being gifted doesn’t mean you’ll excel at everything. It just means you have much more potential to excel at many things; most times, simultaneously. Practice makes perfect, they say, but gifted individuals tend not to practice much. It comes easy most of the time. This becomes their norm and they then limit themselves when they see that it takes effort to do some things that don’t come naturally to them.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you solopbrima. You bring up many important points here.

  2. Nicolas Avatar

    I stumbled upon this website earlier today while I had my nose in my books – finals week is on the way. I felt an immense relief as I scrolled through the dozens of post. I felt this surge go through my head. I finally felt understood. Throughout my life, people have always commented on how complex, talented, smart, ambitious, and complicated I am. I seem to vary in personality when I am immersed in different groups of people, so I guess I am a little bit of everything. People believe I am this, and I am that; However, I always felt that I am not necessarily this or that. I want to be – I do. I just never know how to actually stay in one position because I live several different lives that demand so much of me.

    I began as a musically inclined child and knew I was meant to attend Juilliard. Consistent practice and love for music was my life, until I blinked. All the sudden a baseball rolled up to my feet on the way home from a recital, and seven years later I was sure that I was meant to play MLB, until I blinked again. I opened my eyes to trauma, only to cause me to run into a deeper labyrinth: photography and design. One photo I took of a dancer changed me though; all the sudden I was in the Hollywood industry a couple years later. I excelled in it all, but never in myself. Now I’m a premed student interested in surgery and learning two languages. I feel confident that surgery is where I have to end up. I tell myself everyday to stick with it. It is the only thing that will make me feel that I amount to this world. I have to stop with the self-sabotage personality trait that I despise.

    As I ran through that maze I met wonderful people that I call friends. My type of friend does not always last though. If I thought of them as so amazing, then why did I let go of them? Why did I grow bored? I still do not know. I did not judge, I did not see people above or below me, I did not get angry, I acted the way each niche expected me to. I felt that I had a good control of my emotional state, but one day I questioned if I even had any emotion. I went though so much that I actually grew numb to everything and everyone.

    I began to read and write like a maniac because I felt that it was necessary to stay in tune with myself. It helped me a little bit. Not much. A little is better than nothing though – so I accepted that little bit that I squeezed out of myself. I still felt scared. I still feel scared at this moment. That anxious feeling led me to the universal question in this world: what is life and who am I? I still don’t know the answer to either of those. All I know is that I want to actually be normal. I want to have a group of friends that are interested in the infinite amount of knowledge that surrounds them everyday. I want a relationship that does not expect an unbearable amount of attention (I’m 20 so people my age are stage 5 clingers, which is something that I cannot be associated with or else I will suffocate.) I want to be a neonatal surgeon, so I can can help life sprout with the least bit of complications because mothers and unborn children do not deserve any problems. I want to see the world and show the sky how adventurous I am. Most importantly, I want the world to see me.

    I’m just not sure of myself. How can I want such specific things if I don’t know who I am? I sound like a dangerous mess, not gifted adult.

    Then I found this site today. It doesn’t have many answers for me, but it makes me feel less alone. It’s nice. Thank you for all of this. Thank you so, so much. I hope I can find others similar to me in this ridiculously beautiful hodgepodge.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Welcome Nicolas. I’m so glad you found us. Thank you for sharing some of your story. I hope my blog can continue to help you learn more about who you are. Many a gifted adult has felt like a “dangerous mess” and a “ridiculously beautiful hodgepodge” at some point in his/her life!

  3. caitlinfitzpatrickcurley Avatar


  4. CA Avatar

    Holbart wow. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it expressed better than that. That might be why I am so lonely at times because I am not only extremely quick and bright I am excruciatingly sensitive so I loved what you wrote because we are a select few and I love how generous you are with average people. I wish I was but I am angry about it…way. Well done a beautiful expression…well done

    1. holbart Avatar


      Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot to have my words received. Please know that I am way angry, too (see biting satirical video above, LOL). Your anger helps me to feel anger on my own behalf. Thank you for that.

      1. CA Avatar

        Well you are most welcome 🙂 we tribespeople we need to stick together right 🙂

  5. holbart Avatar

    So, here are some of my first draft thoughts. . . When I think about giftedness, I think of three related but distinct constructs: 1. Intellectual Ability, as assessed through traditional IQ testing, 2. The traits of the Highly Sensitive Person (Sensory-Processing Sensitivity), as described by Elaine Arons, and 3. Emotional Capacity, which I define as the capacity to be present with someone without being a jerk (i.e. becoming defensive, jealous, or critical, etc). You get the picture.

    The Highly Sensitive Person traits seem to be similar to what Silverman describes in the gifted personality, to what Susan Cain describes in her book on introversion, called Quiet, and to what Dabrowski describes as over-excitabilities. I’m sure that there are significant differences between these three authors as well, but that’s for another conversation.

    I want to use a metaphor that moves my mentally forward a few steps. As a lonely, sensitive person, I am lonely because there aren’t many people in my life who seem to “speak the language of my people”. The people who seem to speak the language of my native tribe are those who have the traits of the Highly Sensitive Person. I happen to be “bilingual” but I feel more comfortable relating to others who speak the HSP language. Arons says that 15-20% of the population have the HSP thing going on, which means they aren’t all intellectually gifted, as far as the current standards of IQ testing go. Some people speak my native language fluently while others speak it with refined eloquence. Generally speaking, I’m just happy to hear my language spoken at all, no matter how well it is spoken. The truth is, however, my closest tribe members are going to be those who have HSP traits AND who have an IQ in a similar range as mine. When there is too much of an IQ gap, things start to break down. I wish that wasn’t true.

    As far as Emotional Capacity goes, I choose to not be a jerk when I am relating to someone with a significantly lower IQ than mine. I will make adjustments to allow them to feel comfortable around me. Yes, that means that I have less freedom to spontaneously express my “Authentic Self,” but I think it is the loving thing to do, and love, in fact, IS an expression of my Authentic Self, or, at the very least, the Self I want to become. An HSP might notice this and appreciate it; it might be lost on a non-HSP, and that’s okay. I think one of the most treasured friends you can have in life is someone who has the emotional capacity to feel so at ease with themselves that they can allow you to be at ease in expressing aspects of your own true self. I’ve had friends who have lower I.Q.’s than me who have significant emotional capacity (more than me) and I have had friends who have equal or higher I.Q.’s who do not have much emotional capacity. If I had to give up 15 I.Q. points to have the emotional capacity that some of my non-gifted friends have, I would do it in heartbeat. That might be the greatest gift of all.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      You’ve given us a lot to think about, holbart. I hope you’re finding some of your people here and that we speak your language.

      1. holbart Avatar

        Yes, I do (here and on other sites too), but it is still hard to identify as gifted in public. It seems so brackish and unnecessary. That’s what my inner judge says, anyways. I feel much more comfortable identifying as HSP than I do gifted but neither feel comfortable.

        1. paulaprober Avatar

          holbart, I think identifying as gifted to others who might be critical or dismissive is not a good idea, actually. And it can be unnecessary in most situations. My aim is to help you and others see it in yourself so that you find self-understanding and acceptance and then you can share what you’re learning about yourself with people you trust. (I do believe that it’s important to identify gifted children in schools so they can get their needs met but that’s a whole other complicated topic!) If there are other blogs that you read that you think rainforest minds might like, let us know!

      2. holbart Avatar

        I very much agree with you. When I say “public,” I mean here in this forum. Sorry that wasn’t clear. With unsafe people, I become like a taproot in the tundra. I try to stay low to the ground and find my resources from underground, so to speak. My mantra is “just a dab will do.” I just do what i have to to manage them. I like Pia Mellody’s idea that, at the very least, it is important to offer others respect. I try to hold onto that, but otherwise, try to not waste too much of my energy on unsafe people. This has been really hard to get to because, as you mentioned in your last blog, I have had to deal with the whole, “I’ll be like my narcissistic mother” thing. It takes awhile to feel the edge between what is narcissistic and selfish vs. what is truly wise, healthy self-protection. I’m getting better at that, after 3 years of counseling, LOL. 🙂 I very much appreciate you giving us this space to work through these things. You are truly a blessing.

  6. holbart Avatar

    Public Announcement: Women, Know Your Limits!

    This is my favorite satirical video by the British comedian, Harry Enfield, on social stigma, gender and intelligence, which Silverman names explicitly.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Oh my. 🙂

  7. paulaprober Avatar

    Barry, I actually don’t know much about dyslexia so can’t answer your question. I wish I knew more. I appreciate hearing your view.

  8. litebeing Avatar

    If you are lovely and you know it, clap your hands!

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks for the nomination, Linda! I appreciate it.

  9. Barry Avatar

    As a teacher of very gifted students who has taught special education and general education that there is a qualitative difference between high achievers and very gifted students. There are many features that are more profound. It isn’t that they have faster regular brains, but each has different cognitive strengths that are very powerful. How is it that almost all of my students are dyslexic?

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks for sharing, Barry. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts based on your experience with gifted kids. Do you have a theory about the dyslexia?

      1. Barry Avatar

        Hi Paula,
        First, it was nice to meet you at SENG last year.
        I like the idea of Dyslexia as not being a disorder, rather it is a marker for a different brain orientation.

        My sense is that “gifted and dyslexic” people form different parts of their brains at different stages than others. Somewhere along the way their brains find primacy for other cognitive abilities before symbolic identification and manipulation in 2 dimensions. My guess is that these other skills have the room to develop faster and wider than typical development skills.

        What do you think?

  10. holbart Avatar

    Thank you, Paula, for consolidating all the main viewpoints in one blog. This is very helpful. I have limited time this week but hope to have more time to read them over the next couple of weeks. Thought I would name some of the emotionally-driven half-truths that tend to keep me frozen. I have been challenging them for 3 years, but they seem to stick around. Maybe I will name a few each day, if that is okay. I just want to expose the demons in public. . .

    1. My “overexcitabilities”really stem from trauma and have nothing to do with genetic disposition. My biological family members are also intense because they have been traumatized.

    2. I’m not really gifted. I just had a greater need to achieve than others because I didn’t have anything else to go to to prop up my self-esteem. I’m not gifted; I’m pathetic.

    3. They didn’t put me in the gifted program because I had real ability but because I was really motivated.

    4. The gifted program wasn’t a “real” gifted program. I was just a big fish in a very small pond. (I grew up in a very small, rural community where education was/is not valued).

    5. My unique way of perceiving the world is really pathological, from growing up in a dysfunctional family system.

    6. My unique way of processing the world is the result of being legally blind with congenital cataracts until I was four. My brain just formed differently.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      I think listing your “demons in public” will be helpful to you and to many who are dealing with their own versions of demons related to misunderstanding their giftedness. Thank you for sharing. I’ll be curious to know, as you read the different opinions, which ones are most helpful.

  11. helenjnoble Avatar

    I have three highly creative children, one of whom(the youngest) has been formally assessed as ‘gifted’. The three are equally as complex and intense, the youngest being the one to habitually speak aloud about her thoughts and feelings. So in addition to Stephanie’s comment I would also add that individual behaviour and expression and the nature of interaction with others can also be ‘different’. And that’s OK. 🙂

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Yes, indeed. It is OK. (I’ve found that many gifted children are not identified in school and so not formally labeled.) Thanks, Helen.

  12. Stephanie Avatar

    I have one of many many definitions, and it’s not the best I’ve ever seen, but this one has worked for me and stuck with me for quite a while. When I was in 4th grade I was in a pull out program at my school, and our teacher explained to us what gifted was. She said, “You think differently.” It wasn’t you are better, or worse, or more, or less, it was just different. I still have to remind myself of that. I sometimes don’t get things because I’m looking at them completely differently than everyone else. When you’re gifted your brain just works differently.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks to your teacher who understood!

  13. Corrina Avatar

    Your complexity is mind-boggling! ❤️!! I can’t define it to others, I just accept it and hope others do. It’s mind boggling.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks for reading, Corrina.

  14. CA Avatar

    This I know for sure…yes I borrowed that from Oprah 🙂 gifted people are born not made…yes you can make the most of what you have and people do. And yes the brain is plastic and yes upbringing makes such a huge difference to who you become but gifted people are gifted because of the way God made them or nature did or whatever you believe! Nobody would ever say would they? That if you take basketball lessons you can be Michael Jordan or Bobby Orr I am after all Canadian 🙂 or you can work harder and be Michael Jordan dating myself here…or believe you already are Michael Jordan because everybody is didn’t you know that…etc etc…No…no no no…we would never say that…but people feel so comfortable saying that to gifted people…which is beyond offensive and insulting and then proceed to malign and injure us…way wrong…I know I am unique and wonderful in many ways and giftedness is one of them and that is who I am…so I cant know what a average person’s mind is like anymore then they can know mine. What I know for sure

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks, CA. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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