The Hazards Of Praise And Too Much Smartness

Flickr Creative Commons Brad Flickinger
Flickr Creative Commons Brad Flickinger

Perhaps you were a curious, effervescent 8 year old. You adored your books and your teachers. You excelled at academics and got straight A’s. Your parents were thrilled by your accomplishments and told you how smart you were. Teachers appreciated your helpfulness and praised you for your grades. The attention was well-meant but excessive. It felt good, and yet, you questioned the truth of it; you felt that there was so much more you could do. As the years went by, you got used to being at the top of the class and good at everything you tried. It was easy to excel. You could wait until the last minute on any assignment and still get an A.

Then things changed. Here are three possible scenarios. Do you find yourself in one of them?

• You became increasingly uncomfortable. The pressure to achieve was overwhelming. The praise continued. You didn’t believe it but you relied on it. You felt like a fraud. Some day it’ll all come crashing down. And it did. You attended a high-powered college. Suddenly, you weren’t the smartest one in the room.  You had to study. You didn’t know how. Your worst fears were realized. You started to lie about your grades and identify as a loser.


• You hit high school and started to question the meaning of life more often. School seemed pointless. You stopped handing in homework. Your grades dropped. None of your peers seemed to care about the melting ice caps; they stayed glued to their iPhones. (Actually, this was probably before iPhones. Maybe even before the internet. You’re how old? But you get the idea.) You became lonely and disillusioned. You were appalled at how you were disappointing your parents and teachers but you didn’t know what to do or how to explain what was happening. They wondered why you were suddenly “lazy.”


• All went well through high school as you continued to achieve but were terrified of failing. So far you’d never failed at anything but you feared the inevitable. So you chose a safe college. One where you knew you wouldn’t be challenged academically. And you weren’t. You could procrastinate and still get A’s. But you felt shame at your choice and wondered what would have happened if you’d chosen the university that frightened you. Where would you be today? You worry that your anxiety will always control you and it’s too late to change your future.

Do you recognize yourself in one of these scenarios?

OK, then.

You aren’t a loser. You aren’t lazy. It’s not too late.

These are the hazards of praise and “too much” smartness. It’s what can happen when we don’t understand how to help our precocious kids navigate through the school system and through life.

But it’s so tricky.

There isn’t a simple solution when you’re talking about a rain forest. How could there be? All of those thick, tangled vines and flying monkeys.

Well, OK, the monkeys aren’t flying.

Flickr Creative Commons Lars-Goran Hedstrom
Flickr Creative Commons Lars-Goran Hedstrom

But still.

It’s complicated.

The things you need to know: Your worth as a human is not based on your smartness or your achievements. You are lovable because of your kindness, your compassion and your sensitivity. Your you-ness.

Don’t believe me?

Take a moment. Sit down with your child self. Look at his or her eager, idealistic, adorable face. Breathe. Hold this child close and say: No matter what you accomplish or don’t accomplish, you are a dear, kind, sensitive soul. No matter what you achieve or don’t achieve, you are loved. Achievements may come. Achievements may go. Love is the point.

Now embrace that child’s tender sweetness. And know your own heart.


To my blogEEs: Let us know in the comments if you’ve had similar experiences, how they’ve affected you and how you manage your fears. What are your questions, feelings and thoughts? And thank you, as always, for reading.




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.

46 responses to “The Hazards Of Praise And Too Much Smartness”

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  1. The Pressure To Always Be The Smartest One In The Room | Your Rainforest Mind

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  6.  Avatar

    The third one is me. I rationalized my choice as more affordable and realistic. I’m so bored, but I have such a difficult time fighting my fear of being unsuccessful because it’s not “me”

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      This is quite challenging and often hard for others to understand. I hope to write more about it and help you figure out what to do about it. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Being Told That You’re Gifted — Good News And Bad News | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] how to study or apply effort to solve a problem. It’s bad news if you become dependent on praise and believe you always have to be the best at […]

  8. Douglas Eby Avatar
    Douglas Eby

    Thanks – this issue can continue to impact our development as adults. “This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve…Praising children’s innate abilities…reinforces this mind-set…” – From article: “Raising Gifted Kids: Carol S. Dweck on the Impact of Mind-set”

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks for providing the link, Douglas. Your websites are such a great resource for parents of gifted kids and for rainforest-minded adults.

  9. jesslovespete Avatar

    I’m so glad I found your blog! I would say that scenario three describes my high school and college experience in some ways, and more recently I’ve been experiencing scenario one in my job.

    I’ve been involved in music and theatre all through my school years and majored in musical theatre in college, but my fear of failure made it exceedingly difficult to try new things or take risks as a performing artist. There are certain areas where you can’t afford to be so uptight and stiff and uncomfortably afraid of failure or you WILL fail. I think I’m less self-conscious in some areas of my life now and would do so much better in those areas given the time or opportunity (in this season of life it isn’t something I can afford to dedicate time to and that is ok).

    I work in banking, and as a very conscientious and hard-working employee was on track to move up in my company. They cross-trained me in many things, praised me often for my efforts, and started talking to me about being ready to move up and accept a lead or assistant manager position when the opportunity arose. Things were going well, but then the stresses of my job built- somewhat fueled by the sky-high standards that I put on myself and the unhealthy expectations I had of perfectionism (and nobody is perfect). Sometimes I would be performing just fine at my job but feeling as if I wasn’t meeting expectations and sure enough, recently my quality of work has declined significantly. I think that many of my challenges might actually be tied to some of my gifted tendencies- being extra sensitive, thinking too deeply about things that there is not enough time to be concerned with, and also the distracting open-concept architecture of the building. I am no longer being considered for these positions (or desiring them at the moment due to the level of stress it would bring me) and my managers who care for me quite a lot on a personal level have been concerned that something serious is going on in my personal life. Although it has been a transitional time in my life and I’ve experienced some personal changes, the primary concern for me has honestly been the stress at my job. We are looking at the possibility of me going back to another branch that I previously worked at where I would have different work dynamics and a more enclosed work space with less distraction and a bit less multi-tasking. I think the key is for me to be more self-aware in how some of the traits I posess could be hindering me on the job and learn how to manage it better. At the same time, I am also eager to seek other options that may offer greater creativity day-to-day on the job.

    I’m seriously so glad I found your blog! I hadn’t thought much about my “giftedness” since middle school or even considered ways that it could negatively affect me, like in the scenarios you mentioned.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      I’m glad you found my blog, too, Jessie. Perhaps other posts will give you more insight into some of the complications (from your “gifted tendencies”) at your job. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Caitie Avatar

    Oh I am a number three. Coast, coast, coast and dabble in other things all the while. I spent high school reading a book in the back of the class, and I spent college having fun. It’s interesting to think about what could have been, but here I am 🙂

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks, Caitie!

  11. catchingmyapples Avatar

    Paula, thanks so much for this post! Your first words really caught my attention, a bit eerily. My son is 8, and saw that “curious, effervescent 8 year old” fade out before the end of school this past spring. I was the #1 category you listed… when challenge hit, I didn’t know how to study… luckily for me though, that happened in high school, not college – I was in an IB program and learning Russian and Calculus both hit me hard… fortunately I have a really supportive mom who recognized that I was struggling and kept encouraging me and not letting me give up when it got hard. I learned how to ask for help, and learned that it was OK to not know everything. By the time I got to college, I knew I didn’t know everything and that was OK. I knew kids in high school that definitely fit the #2, barely finishing school because they didn’t see the point in doing the busy work.

    Now that my little boy is learning at home, I can walk him through challenges and help him learn how to learn and study, and guide him down his path, whatever it may be. In public school he didn’t have to deal with challenge… he was definitely doing the wait until the last minute approach on his assignments…

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      I’m so glad that you had a mom who helped you through and that you’ve found a path for your son. Do you know about the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum? They’re a great resource for parents. If you don’t know them, they’re at I see that you have a blog, too. I’ll check it out.

  12. Reese Avatar

    I’m the second one all the way. But I don’t think I waited until high school. I checked out sometime in middle school. In fact, my parent’s separation and subsequent divorce when I was 11 and in the 6th grade was probably a catalyst. My mom still has a box full of all the awards I won in elementary school – “Highest Social Studies Grade”, “Highest Math Grade”, “Highest Reading Level” – every single reporting period (6 weeks back then.) I remember being really embarrassed to receive them all actually. I could feel the other kids glaring at me every time I had to walk to the front of the class to get my little certificates. Kinda like being that one kid who aces a test and ruins the curve for everybody. (I was always THAT kid, too.)

    Things snowballed then. I insisted on being in every honors, advanced, and/or gifted class/program I could, but some of them were more challenging than anything I’d ever taken before, and I had no clue how to study or take notes (never had to). My family was convinced I turned lazy, and they’ve never veered from that. In fact, on Thanksgiving this year I was telling a few family members about how my son, 6, has chores around the house, and their response was that I was “just being lazy and making him do them”. I’m in my 30s and sometimes I feel as though I’m never going to be anything but a lazy know-it-all who gave up and failed. I know this isn’t true, but it’s hard to deprogram after all this time.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      That is so typical in families, Reese. If we get labeled as something early on, they can’t seem to let go of it, no matter what we do. So one idea is to work on knowing who you are, in spite of their assumptions. This isn’t easy, but it’s possible! And it is like you say, like deprogramming–the hard wiring. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I imagine that other readers have dealt with the embarrassment of being singled out for the certificates/ awards, too, and will know how difficult that is.

  13. KtCallista Avatar

    Scenario #2 is the closest, except I was so mad at everyone that I didn’t care that I was disappointing them all and I just wanted them to hurt because I was hurting. Then I went to college and didn’t have a clue what to do. My second year I asked a friend to show me how to take notes and we sat side by side through a soil science class and I copied everything she wrote, until I could take my own notes. I still procrastinated (because I didn’t get into a challenging university – and did well enough), but I still feel lazy….. all the time, like I could do so much more if I just stayed on task – stay in one field – show more than what is expected.

    I also worry about my kids, now that they are in a public school where their peers really aren’t held to the standards they were at our previous school, it’s so much worse and it’s so hard to explain why people don’t care and why the kids behave the way they do. I worry about the damage to their rainforest minds.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      I hear so many people talk about how they feel lazy because they don’t achieve what they think they should or because they do so many different things. And, I’m sure it’s hard not to worry about your kids and their sensitive rainforest minds. Just remember that they have YOU and you get it. That makes all the difference.

  14. holbart Avatar

    Scenario 3. I’m from a town that had a stoplight that didn’t work. I’m the first person to graduate from college on my mom’s side (dad left when I was six months old, so I don’t know much about them). The praise from teachers growing up, though ultimately detrimental, was a step up from what I was dealing with at home; it allowed for at least some positive emotional contact.

    I spent most of my twenties conscientiously separating my worth and value from achievement. I was very fortunate to have had a highly gifted therapist in college, VERY fortunate. My battle cry back then was, “I just want to be plain, old Holbart!” I HATED the pressure, but it was so linked to my survival instinct and fear. I studied Adlerian Psychology and applied concepts like, “having the courage to be imperfect,” and focusing on, “WHAT you’re doing rather than HOW you are doing,” I remember intentionally putting down wrong answers on tests just to prove to myself that I would still survive (and even get into grad school) with a B+. Unfortunately, desiring so much to be plain pushed me into further denial about my rainforest mind. I just wanted to fit in.

    The sense of fraudulence came in grad school when I realized that I didn’t have to read the books and I could still get A’s. Up to that point, I was so driven by fear that I had no idea I could put so little effort into something and still get an “A”. I ended up not finishing my doctorate because it felt too fraudulent. I definitely wish I had chosen a different doctoral program, but even if I had, I would still have had to deal with the guilt of “rejecting the family” in favor of higher education. My life has been riddled with double binds.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      So many layers of complexity in that rainforest mind of yours, Holbart! Thank you for giving us a little insight into your challenges.

      1. holbart Avatar

        So many layers of complexity to my darn life. LOL I would really like to allocate less of my rainforest mind to merely surviving and more of it to thriving. I’m getting there, one day at a time.

        This particular post really seems to draw out the things we feel we lost, either because of unfulfilled potential or lack of support or missed opportunities, etc. It is a challenging post to interact with, emotionally, but I’m thankful for it. I can see how I need to let go of some things that will never be in order to more clearly see and value who I am here, today, just as I am.

        If you are taking requests for future posts, I would love to hear your thoughts on loss and letting go and the rainforest mind. I hope I’m not getting too long-winded; I just feel really impacted by your blog. Thank you.

    2. paulaprober Avatar

      Holbart, It’s the nature of the rainforest mind to have a lot to say so don’t worry about being “long-winded.” I’m sure your comments are benefiting others. Thank you for the suggested topic. I’ve got it on my list.

  15. ARY Avatar

    I remember in junior high or tenth grade, dissembling in the face of praise. My big sister turned to me and said, “Stop that. You’re not good enough to be humble about it.” It took me awhile to understand what she meant, but I learned from it that it’s more polite to say a simple “thank you” than to say something that implies one gets so much praise it’s uncomfortable (even if true). I did have to work hard in school for my grades and it wasn’t until graduate school that I met something I really didn’t know how to handle. I switched from a doctoral program to Masters, partly because I failed comps after putting in as much as I understood and was willing to do, partly because I looked at the future from each and decided the Ph.D. track wasn’t worth it to me. Motherhood also presents many opportunities to fail, but now I don’t have the option of switching to an easier program. Separating self-worth from success (and distinguishing self-worth from self-esteem) is important to me. I’m working on it. Believable praise still makes my heart sing, and I’m still very quick to discount praise that doesn’t seem to fit. I also have grave temptations to neglect necessary but “thankless” tasks for those that will be noticed and bring praise. My family did think it was their job to keep me well grounded despite external praise so I wouldn’t get a “big head.” Praise wasn’t absent within my family, but the standards were much higher than those of most teachers.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, Ary. It’s fascinating to hear everyone’s different takes on the topic.

  16. telperion1214 Avatar

    I am none of the above. I got lots of praise from teachers all through grammar and high school but very little validation at home. This continued through high school, only the lack of validation turned into obstacles being thrown in my way. I wanted to go to college but other things intervened and I was yanked out after a semester. I tried to go back as an adult but it was too much. There was no one to offer support, child care, etc. The lack of college is a big regret for me.
    The one thing that I was truly interested in, no one thought to point out as a potential for me; it was treated as a hobby. I love to sew and create garments, and had no idea things like that were taught in colleges. Too bad! I’ve taught myself incredible amounts and created some pretty remarkable things.
    Part of the problem was that there was so much jealousy in my family, not just of me but by everyone for each other. Praise was regarded with skepticism, and praise from teachers fell into this category. So when I pull out my 3rd grade picture and tell that little cutie what a sweetheart she is, she feels a bit shy. But she loves hearing it.
    Thanks for the reminder, Paula!

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks for your insights. I know that in many dysfunctional families, too much praise isn’t the problem. There can be so many other issues including, like you say, no validation at all. Looking at a photo of your little cutie self is a great way to make the connection to her. And can be so healing.

  17. bamcnichol Avatar

    This gives me a lot to think about. I don’t fit any of the scenarios but I had a long rebellious period where my motto was “I am not a brain I am a person.” Now I need to make sure I find the balance for my girls — so they don’t need to drop out to feel human.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thank you for sharing even though you didn’t fit into these scenarios. There are so many possible others! Like the commenter below said, in many families, there can be no praise or validation at all, which creates its own set of problems.

  18. Christine Avatar

    This blog has truly been eye-opening for me. I’m a newbie to it, and BOY do I wish I’d found it sooner. It’s not only a glimpse into MY head and thoughts, but it’s GOLD for my husband and 2 daughters, both of whom are fellow rainforesters navigating puberty at the same time (my poor husband!). This blog I regularly share with them and have found it helpful not only as an adult, but as an adult parenting my virtual mirror image! I fell into scenario #3 and had NO doubt that I’d do well, until a life event happened and I’d never had to deal with anything hard up until that point. This is HUGELY helpful introspection as a parent to a 15 year old and an 11 year old girl (both rainforestors in slightly different ways). I’m hoping sharing the blog will help both of them not identify their self worth in the poorly thought comments and empty praise from others. THANK YOU so much for this resource, really!!

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      I’m so glad I can help you understand yourself and the rest of your family. I appreciate the comment.

  19. poprice Avatar

    I was so lucky that my parents conveyed that I mattered more than my smarts–but my own perfectionism chewed on my sense of self-efficacy for decades. I wonder now not what “might have been” if I’d reached higher academically and more about what “might have been” of my spirit if I’d been able to pull the plug on my anxiety-prone mind.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Interesting how we can be hardest on ourselves at times. Maybe a lot of the time. I’m curious to know what you mean by “what might have been of my spirit”…maybe a topic for a post? Pulling the plug on anxiety to get to spirit? Tell us more!

      1. poprice Avatar

        I think my anxiety about my every move derailed my personal relationships. If I’d trusted myself a little more, I wonder what that would have looked like.

    2. paulaprober Avatar

      Oh yes, perfectionism can be so terribly debilitating.

  20. Jade Rivera Avatar
    Jade Rivera

    I received praise for all the wrong things and no praise, and mostly criticism when I had to work hard. It’s so clear to me how my sense of self could have benefited from a different approach. Thank you, Paula. Not only is this post great for adults to hear, it’s sort of cautionary tale for those who currently have gifted children.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks Jade. Yes, I do think adults could apply these ideas to raising their children. I appreciate your sharing it in your group.

  21. shylohzmom Avatar

    Thank you so much for this! This topic is one of those many intangibles I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around since childhood. Too much praise. It should have made me feel good, or so I thought, but instead it made me horribly uncomfortable. Not because I was hard on myself or put myself down, but because I knew I was just a regular old flawed human and getting too much praise made me feel like people didn’t really know me or see me as a real person. I was ok with my many flaws but other people overlooking them in favor of the shinier qualities of giftedness put a distance between me and them. Then when I’d hemm and haw in response to praise, they’d think I was either A) being modest, or B) too hard on myself. Over the years I’ve noticed that the expression “We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their flaws” has a lot of truth to it. People naturally feel closer to people who have flaws because you feel like you are getting to know the ‘real’ them and you’re in good company. The people I’m closest to in my life and most comfortable around are those who know my faults and I can be imperfect around them. Happily. 🙂

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Interesting to think of it that way: “…people didn’t really know me or see me as a real person.” Sounds like a good idea, to be happily imperfect. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Atlas Educational Avatar
    Atlas Educational

    I was the kid who always wanted to know WHY something worked in school. I struggled with nonsensical rules (& still do), teachers who sent me off to follow algorithms without the depth of knowledge of the proof behind it, and developed my own algorithms (some of which I was not allowed to use due to the face that they were different and unusual). I got to a point where if I couldn’t understand how it worked; the rote memorization without depth was meaningless and therefore . I’m still that way and face obstacles when superficial knowledge will suffice.

    My intellect is still a huge part of my identity. It’s something I’ve always struggled with and am finally coming to terms with as an adult. Your reminder at the end about finding the “worth” in our children has nothing to do with their intellect and everything to do with who they are as people we love. Thanks for the reminder that we owe the same to ourselves.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      I wonder how we can allow ourselves to appreciate our intellect without becoming so dependent upon it for our sense of worthiness. I think many gifted folks also want to know the whys like you do. Makes it so hard to tolerate the rote work at school. I always appreciate hearing from you!

  23. lauralynnwalsh Avatar

    Scenario Number One Incarnate. In addition, you let other people tell you what you were good at. Any time you weren’t very good at something with little effort, you stopped pursuing it, even if you were interested in it. Obviously, if you had to work hard at something, it wasn’t one of your strengths. You were good at almost everything, so you let people and grades tell you what things you were interested in. You still did well, but not as well as you expected. Maybe you weren’t so smart after all.

    Years later, you discover that learning to work hard at something is actually important. People who are tops in their fields work hard at them. Who knew.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Lauralynn, thanks for adding more about your particular experience with this. I’m sure readers will relate.

    2. David Avatar

      Perfect response for my wife and I also. We are watching our son go through it now. For him the point was being thrown into a Chinese immersive environment – he had no ability at all to just sit down and study, as he had totally coasted through school without any challenge at all for the previous ten years. Naturally he wanted to give it up and it was very rough for him when we said that he couldn’t and that he needed to learn that effort is actually often required to learn new skills, even when you are very smart.
      Hopefully he has learned this lesson earlier than I did.

      1. paulaprober Avatar

        Your son is learning such an important lesson. It will serve him well.