If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Feel So Much Guilt?

photo courtesy of STSci NASA
photo courtesy of STSci NASA

It started early. The other kindergartners were struggling to learn their ABCs. You were reading chapter books. The other second graders didn’t care about the photos from the Hubble Telescope. You obsessed over them. The other teens enjoyed stories about vampires. You adored Jane Austen.

At first, you may have felt confused, weird and lonely. As you got older, perhaps you felt guilt, too.

Guilt because learning came easily to you. Guilt because you could accomplish quickly what took others hours to finish. Guilt because teachers and parents praised your high grades. Guilt because you were held up as a role model for others. Guilt because you excelled at most things that you tried. Guilt because you hid your abilities and made mistakes on tests on purpose.

And now, as an adult, there may be more guilt.

Guilt because you daydream about the latest Dr. Who episode when you should be focused on the next mundane task. Guilt because you don’t always feel grateful for your intelligence. Guilt because you feel some boredom raising your child. Guilt because you aren’t living up to your potential. Guilt because you end up with extra time at work with nothing to do. Guilt because you’re bored at meetings and want to strangle your colleagues. Guilt because you procrastinate. Guilt because it’s easy for you to come up with creative ideas and implement them. Guilt because you’re smarter than your parents and siblings. Guilt because your home isn’t spotless. Guilt because you aren’t perfect. Guilt because you aren’t saving the world. Guilt because you’ve fooled people into thinking that you’re gifted.

Is that enough guilt?

Here’s the thing. Guilt is only helpful if you’ve done something wrong that you need to apologize for or that you need to repair. Then, guilt can be productive.

In this case, guilt is not productive. You were born with your rainforest mind. You don’t need to feel guilty about it.

It’s not your fault that you’re gifted.


To my blogEEs:  Tell us what you feel guilty about. Then, see if you can breathe out and let it go. And thank you to the readers who suggested this topic.

(Note: Added after publication: From a reader–Guilt for impatience with others’ slowness, Guilt for thinking that others are stupid, Guilt for not speaking up because you assume others won’t understand.)

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.

38 responses to “If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Feel So Much Guilt?”

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  1. Donnie Avatar

    I feel guilty for overestimating the intelligence of others – probably because I’m lonely in my own intelligence. I then proceed by building a friendship with them by complimenting their intelligence. However, soon after I tear it all down as we’re engaged in a discussion I’m passionate about; by picking apart their arguments and showing them why they’re flawed. To put it bluntly, I feel guilty for making others feel stupid, and for ruining any possibilities for a meaningful friendship.

  2. Learning Comes Easily To Gifted Kids And Adults — How Might That Be A Problem? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] You have to hide your frustrations and fears because people keep telling you how lucky you are. You feel guilty when you don’t always feel grateful for your […]

  3. j'adore champagne Avatar
    j’adore champagne

    But what about…..When you feel guilt because you also don’t feel as gifted as you once were? When you reach your 60’s and well, some things don’t come as easy as you think they “should” or when you haven’t fulfilled your “dreams” or you find that your ethics got in the way of what should have been easy money? And then you start to doubt the little things. And wonder if it was all an illusion.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      The aging thing can be tricky for sure around certain skills/abilities. But I know you’re read my other posts about “it’s never too late.” Right? I started this blog at age 62…

  4. Giftedness, Achievement, and Guilt | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] for more? Read this post. And this […]

  5. Eric Rowland Avatar
    Eric Rowland

    I am 17 year old and am passionate about being a doctor. I do not mean to toot my own horn here, but for 17, I think I know a lot. I sometimes find myself reading books that medical students refer to for help. The funny part is, I comprehend it all. I always make my presence known when around any type of Dr. I typically say something that Drs aren’t expecting a 17 year old to know. Take, for example, the time I explained in detail to my GP what Tetralogy Of Fallot is. Or, when I explained how Lithium tends to cause Nephrogenic Diabetes ( Kidneys unresponsive to ADH ) to my sleep doctor prescribing it to me. When this happens, I usually feel good for a minute, but then shortly after feel a sense of guilt or embarrassment for some reason. I don’t know why that is?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      This is exactly what I’m saying, Eric. Read the post again and how many of those reasons fit for you. Do you feel guilty because you’re so smart? Does the response of the doctors trigger guilt because you might be smarter than they were at your age? Do you feel like it’s not ok to “toot your own horn?” Have you been bullied or teased for being smart? Guilt and embarrassment can be similar here. Maybe you fear being seen as a “show-off” when you’re really just loving the learning? It’s great that you have that passion, Eric. It might be lonely because you’re so advanced. But hang in there! Keep reading my blog! (Thanks for sharing.)

  6. Mikhail Avatar

    Bit later to respond but I am so glad someone wrote about this! I struggle with a lot of guilt around feeling bored and subsequently unhappy. At all my jobs, I end up with a lot of free time, and I find I catch on to the learning curve really quickly. As soon as that happens, I dread work and then I feel bad. Often, I end up feeling overwhelmed and empty and I end up quitting. I think things like “I have such a great job, why am I so ungrateful?” “I’m helping people in this job and I find it boring? Am I a bad person?” “Am I just lazy and not seeing work that should be done?”

    I think it’s because my parents didn’t nurture my giftedness. I was tested and placed in a program, which was the best thing for me as a child. I had teachers who didn’t know what to do with me, but they cared about me and would give me books or allow me to go to the library to read and study on my own. I was happy. But when the program ended my parents grew resentful of my giftedness. When I complained that I felt bored or understimulated they would get angry at me and tell me that I thought I was better than everyone else and that I needed to get in line with the “real world.” I started to believe that this was true and so I started hiding it. I dropped out of the advanced classes in high school. I spent most of my university years just messing around rather than really applying myself and became self-destructive. Even today, at work or in life, I feel I have to dumb myself down. 6 months ago I gave up at a job (emotionally anyway), and I stayed because the pay was good but I was bored to tears. They hired me to improve one of their programs and it turned out they had no interest in actually doing so, they just wanted a yes man. I tried to be that person but I just couldn’t pull it off convincingly and they fired me. When they asked for feedback from me during my exit interview and I said I didn’t feel challenged in the role, they scoffed at me and said this shows it wasn’t a good fit because “plenty of [my] colleagues find a lot of satisfaction and challenge in this field.” I guess there’s a point we can agree on, it was a poor fit.

    I couldn’t figure out why I felt so depressed all the time and why my self-esteem was plummeting. There’s probably other reasons for that too but I really think having to suppress the qualities associated with my giftedness is a big factor in that. I even feel guilty saying this – as if it comes off as “oh boohoo I’m so smart” but I honestly just wish I was challenged in more areas of my life. I feel a lot of relief now looking at things written by and for gifted adults and realizing that I’m not the only person who has struggled with these sorts of feelings.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you so much for writing about this, Mikhail. It’s never too late to respond to my posts. Many others reading my blog will relate to what you say here. It’s why I started the blog so that you all can speak about the challenges of being “so smart.” Good to have you here.

  7. Paige Judd Avatar
    Paige Judd

    I have struggled a lot with being okay with living an average life and not changing the world. At the end of the day, I am happy with my choices, but feel a bit of guilt for not trying harder to be a professional success. A few times a week I check in with myself and ask: Am I happy? (yes) Am I a good mom? (yes) Am I doing something meaningful with my life? (yes, but on a very small scale).

    My daughter turns 12 next week. She struggles with a bit of guilt and a lot of ennui. I am trying to teach her to nip her guilt in the bud and to let her know that is her choice to become whatever she wants to become. She may be able to cure cancer or she may be able to be a brilliant politician and make real change in the world. But if she chooses to be an interior designer or a professional cook, well that’s okay, too. As long as she is happy most days of her life, that’s what I want for her.

    As for me, I am still checking in. I am still happy most days. I will stay the course.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like a good way to frame it, Paige. And I wonder if raising a loving, compassionate human might be a pretty big contribution.

  8. Sarah Avatar

    Thank you! This is exactly how I feel. Every day. It feels so good to see it validated. Through the tears, of course.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m glad I can help, Sarah.

  9. Ro Avatar

    I feel guilt for not being capable of healing my PTSD nor my neurological condition, despite having the very best reason to do so – my daughter. Within 5 years she’ll have left home I imagine and I’ll still be mostly stuck in bed. During childhood it became the norm for me to analyse/think my way out of things; so I often wonder if I have ‘tried hard enough’ to heal what ails me. Usually, obsessive consideration of a problem would end with me figuring out a solution; though obsessive cogitation is a component of my PTSD, which will likely have lead to the development of the neuro condition.
    I’m not the mother nor wife that I wish to be. I’ve never had a proper job. My ‘great brain’ has gone to waste.
    I’m learning to be ok with all of it. I have to let go of a lot of ego and desire to ‘leave something behind’ — including accepting that my daughter is not ‘something I leave behind’, but rather her entirely own individual self. There is no redemption via my daughter.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, Ro. There’s so much here. I can’t begin to respond adequately. The part about thinking your way out of things is likely common among the gifted and so your disappointment in not being able to heal your neurological condition makes sense in that context. That said, how could that be possible?? The complexity of that plus PTSD. Oh my gosh. So much to handle. Sending you love, Ro. You still have that “great brain” plus a great heart. I’m sure of it.

  10. Atlas Educational Avatar
    Atlas Educational

    Can you add “Guilt for thinking of myself”?

    As a kid I lived a very internal life because external was much more difficult. Because of that, I was often accused of being selfish. As an adult, though I homeschool one child and am a stay at home mom right now, I feel guilty more often than not for doing anything just for myself- from purchasing a coffee (why didn’t I pick up a donut for my child) to watching a movie (why did I get a movie the whole family could watch).

    Yes, while I was working I felt even guiltier because my free time deserved to all go to my family; right?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, “Guilt for thinking of myself.” I’m sure many others also feel this. And I’m guessing that you know that it’s important to model self-care for your child because it’s healthy and necessary to take breaks and recharge your batteries.

  11. frenchc1955 Avatar

    I am not sure if this fits what you need, but I will still offer it. I no longer feel guilt about it, but I did for many years. When I was a youngster, I discarded the chance for a free education at a fine college at which my mother worked as a secretary because I didn’t see the point in it, and I felt different from the others around me. Just to clarify, I did eventually finish my education and earn a Ph.D., but I made that path very difficult and deeply disappointed my mother, for which I did feel enormous guilt.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      The issue of guilt around parents is a complicated one and something that many people feel, I’m sure. Good to hear from you. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    Yes, that whole my home isn’t spotless and I haven’t saved the world dynamic. The micro scale and the macro, pulling different ways, and that persistent, sneaky thought that if i was really clever I’d be able to figure out something that would save the world and tidy the flat all at the same time 🙂 Thank you for this, and thank you other people talking about recognising limitations and the need for rest. we are none of us infinite resources, it doesn’t matter how good we are, we cannot be all the things all the time, and its so much easier to see that when looking at someone else.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      “if i was really clever I’d be able to figure out something that would save the world and tidy the flat all at the same time…” Ha! I’m glad my blog is helping you, Nimue, to see that you’re not alone and that you have a right to rest and to have limitations!

  13. Mark V Avatar
    Mark V

    Being highly sensitive or empathic with accompanying high moral standards often means you feel compelled to be of service in some way. The idea that “with great power comes great responsibility” is a big enough burden. However along with the burden of feeling responsible, one’s conscience may also compel them to disregard or break many of society’s imposed rules and the paradox of being a conscientious deviant can be extremely anxiety and/or guilt provoking. I have yet to find a reliable way to gracefully walk this tightrope.

    P.S. This is an interesting read on the origins of the saying “With great power comes great responsibility.” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/23/great-power/

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for the link, Mark. I’ll check it soon. Keep us posted if you come up with ideas on how to “gracefully walk this tightrope.” I’ll be thinking about it, too, for a future post.

  14. Antarmukhi Avatar

    Thank you for this post Paula! I can add a few.. Guilt for using shower instead of a bucket of water, not saving water; guilt for using air conditioning, aiding to climate change; guilt for not contributing enough to help alleviate suffering in the world; guilt for wanting to rest; guilt for saying no to someone in need even when you are exhausted, so on…

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh yes. So much guilt. No matter where you are in the world. Guilt. (Perhaps there’s another blog post here about how to balance our guilt about suffering in the world with action that is appropriate, necessary, and possible for us. I’ll start thinking about it.)

  15. Stephanie Avatar

    Guilt for feeling guilty and apologizing for everything, especially when its because of my rainforest mind.

  16. telperion1214 Avatar

    Yes, I identify with all those varieties of guilt. Funny how no one ever said anything directly to me about it until now! 🙂
    That guilt can become a tremendous burden, actually. And it was for me for many years.
    My guilt was covered up by a lot of other concerns, and it was toxic by the time I addressed it.

    However, there is hope to separate what is useful, healthy, appropriate guilt from what is toxic, useless guilt.
    It takes a lot of attention to sort through the threads, to discern the varieties.
    Then to heed my own voice and those of my true support team, and to listen to the healthy guilt while setting aside the useless guilt.

    I am a person with physical limitations so for me, I needed the energy that I was wasting on guilt.
    I need it for healing.
    That was a great motivator for me to continue to keep it up.

    Years later, it has all been worth every bit of effort that it took.
    I have developed an entirely different approach to being gifted, and guilt is not a part of it.
    I accept this gift today, because I know that there is no difference between me, the person with the gift who gets to share it, and the person who accepts the gift and shares their self with me.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, telperion1214, for sharing your wisdom:
      “It takes a lot of attention to sort through the threads, to discern the varieties.
      Then to heed my own voice and those of my true support team, and to listen to the healthy guilt while setting aside the useless guilt.”

  17. Marianne Kuzujanakis Avatar
    Marianne Kuzujanakis

    Thank you, Paula! If I were to pick one emotion that is extraordinarily present in gifted individuals, it would have to be guilt. Your post is a beautiful articulation of this emotion for which there is little positive value. Guilt? Yes, I too am “guilty” of it.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yep. Me, too! Thanks, Marianne.

  18.  Avatar

    Your post helped clarify a lot of things for me about the guilt that I constantly feel. It came at a time of intense frustration, so I cried when reading it. For some of the things you list, I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty because I am quicker at understanding things or completing work (although I do get frustrated when it takes other people longer to reach the same conclusions). But I feel guilty because I’m bored nearly all of the time. I feel guilty because I hate doing mundane chores and tasks, so they get left undone (including housecleaning, paying bills, etc.). Even though I love my kids more than anything, I feel guilty because I don’t get very much satisfaction or happiness out of the day-to-day routine with them. I feel guilty because I tell people at work that the project is going well even though I haven’t even started it. I feel guilty because I am serious most of the time. I feel guilty because I don’t feel a part of my family’s conversations, and the things they think are funny are not funny to me.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for adding to the list. I’m sure other readers will relate to these items as well.

  19. findingsherrie Avatar

    This resonates on so many levels. I often finished things quickly (and correctly) at work only to get reprimanded for it. I grew up that way, and my children are well on their way to be the same. Both my children are reading well above their grade levels. The first couple years were hard on my oldest for being picked on for being smart. (Cue the name calling and ‘teachers pet’. I feel guilty as a parent in a way, because although I admire these traits that I handed down to my children, I’m worried what impact it will have on them if they are already getting teased starting at age 4. This is such an inspiring post!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  20. Alissa Booth Avatar
    Alissa Booth

    Oops. Great post. Meant to forward to a friend. Please disregard last email!😊

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Deleted it!

  21. Kristi Avatar

    Ugh . . . yes, I feel guilty I’m not doing something brilliant and important (I’m a stay at home mother, and I know that is important — and I feel guilty I am not better at it, more patient, kind etc. as I know I should be). When I was growing up I heard from my parents, “You’re so smart! You can do anything! You can be president!” etc., and really all it did is make me think that whatever I am doing is not enough.

    Thanks, Paula.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for sharing, Kristi. Yes, that message from parents who are often well intentioned can feel like pressure on the child.