Giftedness, Therapy, and Your Dysfunctional Family — Diving Into the Abyss

photo courtesy of Frances Gunn, Unsplash, CC
photo courtesy of Frances Gunn, Unsplash, CC

What happens to your sensitivity, empathy and intellect when you grow up in a seriously dysfunctional family? How does your perceptive mind and open heart survive the alcoholic parent or the emotional abuse? What beliefs or patterns set up in your childhood follow you into adulthood? When is it time to find a good psychotherapist and dive into the abyss?

In this post, I’ll begin to answer these questions. (more in future posts) And, disclaimer, I’m only speaking to my experience with my particular clients and myself. OK? I don’t speak for all psychotherapy everywhere. (But you knew that.)

Here’s what I see: Even though you’re super-sensitive, emotional and aware so that you can be easily hurt, you’re also terribly resilient because you’re super-sensitive, emotional and aware. You’re likely quite affected if you grew up in a chainsaw family system. And yet, there’s also something gorgeous-powerful deep inside you that was untouched. Your self-esteem is what’s been damaged. You have a distorted sense of your true self. That may look like lack of self-confidence, getting into abusive relationships, self-hatred, underachieving, anxiety and depression.

As a child, you were so vulnerable, that you had to believe what your parents told you. It was inevitable that you’d misinterpret their dysfunction to mean that something was wrong with you. Even though you were smart, the intensity of parental shame, fear, rage and who-knows-what got transmitted to you. So this is what needs to be dismantled: Your misunderstanding of who you are.

And that requires diving into the abyss. Poet Adrienne Rich calls it Diving into the Wreck.

Yeah. Abyss. Wreck. Oh boy. You’ll want a guide. Someone who’s been in their own Abyss and is very familiar with it. Someone who has explored their Wreck and found the buried treasure hidden inside.

It can be a scary proposition. It can take time. Even though you’re a fast learner, this process is slow. You’ll get impatient and think you’re doing it wrong. You’ll have times when you’re feeling overwhelming sadness. You’ll wonder why the hell you thought that hanging out in an Abyss was such a grand idea.

But, eventually, you’ll find that it’s worth the time, money, and tears. You’ll notice changes in your inner and outer worlds. You’ll start to discover your gorgeous-powerful self.

That doesn’t mean that the Wreck will disappear, by the way. You may fall in every now and then. Get lost. Flounder. Cry. Shriek. But it’ll be less scary, more familiar, smaller. You’ll add a cozy chair or hang a piece of art.

And, while you’re there. Well. You’ll find the jewels.


To my bloggEEs: I wish I could be your therapist. But I’m only licensed to counsel in Oregon. But here’s something that you can give to the therapist that you find. It will help him/her understand your giftedness. And, of course, you can give her/him a copy of my book! Let us know in the comments how you’ve dealt with growing up in a dysfunctional family. And thank you for being here and for your courage. (and for putting up with my on-going and shameless self-promotion)



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.

58 responses to “Giftedness, Therapy, and Your Dysfunctional Family — Diving Into the Abyss”

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  1. Jennifer Avatar

    ❤️ this. so true!

  2. My Quirky Journey From Introverted Psychotherapy Nerd To Introverted Psychotherapist Tango Dancing Blogger Author Nerd – YOUR RAINFOREST MIND

    […] lifestyle. I get to put my experience as a client to good use. I get to guide brave souls into their abyss and show them around. So they see what they need to see. Feel what they need to feel. Find out who […]

  3. Joan Avatar

    Thank you so much for this! It is so rare to see this subject addressed.

  4. There Is No Better Time To Step Fully Into Your Rainforest-Mindedness | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] all these years. There is still time to find yet another career path. There is still time to dive into the abyss of your past trauma and find the buried treasure that is you. There is still time to learn how to […]

  5. My Quirky Journey From Introverted Psychotherapy Nerd To Introverted Psychotherapist Tango Dancing Blogger Author Nerd | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] lifestyle. I get to put my experience as a client to good use. I get to guide brave souls into their abyss and show them around. So they see what they need to see. Feel what they need to feel. Find out who […]

  6. Gifted In The Netherlands | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] meaningful lives — for themselves, their communities, and for the planet. They know that “diving into the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich called it, will lead to the discovery of the hidden treasures that have been […]

  7. What Are The Challenges Gifted Adults Have In Common? — A Therapist’s Perspective | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] On Relationships, Sensitivity, and the Abyss […]

  8. dw Avatar

    My pleasure! It’s a wise and wonderful read. I love the RFM metaphor – a rainforest feels big enough to encompass all the messy, strange and beautiful aspects of who I am, including trauma. Part of me did want to change it to “mind-like-a-flock-of-colorful-noisy-birds”, but they can hang out in the rainforest too 🙂

    I’ve found that the conventional giftedness literature tends to focus less on the experiences you write about, and more on the milestones/raw cognitive power that abuse significantly complicates. How can you race through milestones when you’re hobbled by developmental trauma? Or ace standardized tests when your HPA axis is rewired to treat them as threats? I bombed tests, failed classes, etc, and was never identified as gifted (let alone pg as subsequent developments seem to indicate). It took me a long time to get out of the wreckage and into life.

    I think labels would have been unhelpful for me at the time, and to some extent are unhelpful now – part of why I appreciate the broader “ecological” view of RFM. Labels would have given me another performative cross to bear. But finally, I’m learning to live and understand myself differently, and professional help – that structure of holding and reassurance – has been essential.

    Your book also helped me think bigger! It helped me see how abuse was part (though not a determinative one) of my RFM ecosystem. It helped me see that my range of interests – from doing a PhD in string theory, writing a book, learning multiple languages, making weird art, “deep scanning” literature/philosophy/baroque music/computer science, etc – was probably not manic, and my difficulties settling on a career probably not flakiness. It helped me contextualize my idiosyncratic way of feeling/seeing/thinking, my often unreceivable intensity, and the loneliness that results. But most importantly, it gave me hope to know that there are other people out there going through the same thing, living life with an intensity that is sometimes painful, but never dull 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, dw. Thank you so much for this comment. It is always so gratifying for me to hear more details about the impact of my writing. I love seeing your range of interests. Not mania! Not flakiness! Might I quote you in a future post?

      1. dw Avatar

        Thank you 🙂 Of course, I would be honored!

  9. dw Avatar

    Hi Paula. I stumbled onto your blog earlier today, read most of it, and just finished reading your (first) book. It’s been a revelation! In my own therapy, I’m diving into a wreck produced by years of childhood trauma. I have an excellent guide, but out of curiosity (I guess this is an RFM trait) I’ve been trawling the web for resources on abuse and the g/RFM experience. This little blog post said everything I needed to hear, in warm, simple, and compassionate terms. Thank you.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for letting me know, dw. I’m glad you’ve found an excellent guide. And thank you for reading my book!

  10. Anna Avatar

    Dr. Jonice Webb is a therapist getting the word out on emotional neglect. Her book is called “Running On Empty”. It was the last and most profound puzzle piece I didn’t know I was missing from my self journey of healing!! Please give it a look, my fellow chainsawed RFMs 💞

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      A few people have mentioned Jonice Webb on my latest blog post. I will have to look her up!

  11. My Life as an Introverted Psychotherapy Nerd | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] counseling. Somatic experiencing. Massage. Soul collage. Meditation. Mindfulness. Yoga. Dreamwork. Diving into the abyss. […]

  12. What Do Political Activism, Giftedness, and Your Dysfunctional Family Have in Common? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] can be a scary proposition. Diving into your wreck. It can take time. Even if you’re a fast learner. The process is often slow and complicated. You […]

  13. “…Your Fierce and Unbreakable Light…” | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] you’ve been raised in a seriously dysfunctional family or your compassionate, smart, sensitive, rainforest mind has experienced other chainsaws over the […]

  14. (Almost) Everything You Need To Know About Psychotherapy And Giftedness | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] Giftedness, Therapy, and Your Dysfunctional Family — Diving Into The Abyss  […]

  15. RainySunshine Avatar

    Hello mrs Prober. Thank you so much for keeping this blog. I’ve been exploring it a bit and got onto this page and I cried so hard as I read your words. I’m excited and curious to read the rest of your blog and perhaps your book too. Thank you for your dedication and compassionate and witty nature. I love it!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Good to have you here, RainySunshine! You can call me Paula!

  16. emergingeve Avatar

    Have you had any experience with a RFM person who has D.I.D. as well?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I have very little experience with D.I.D. I’m pretty sure the person I worked with briefly had a RFM. What I’d suggest is that you share this information with your therapist so s/he knows this about you. You can share which posts have particular meaning for you and that could be helpful in deepening an understanding of you.

      1. emergingeve Avatar

        Thank you. I will do just that.

  17. I’m Not Gifted, I’m Just Weird | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] family into the mix, it gets even more complicated. I’ve written about that here and here. With more to […]

  18. Sensitivity Is Your Superpower | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] In that case, get them out of your life, too. ( If that sounds harsh, it is. Most certainly, try therapy first and blunt discussions, if you’re so inclined. But for the truly toxic, you may need to say […]

  19. Cat Payen Avatar
    Cat Payen

    Paula I have my own children in this situation as I left a violent marriage of 27 yrs and only then did I realise it was sour from the get go – but as a rainforest child I was head over heels and nothing else mattered!!
    But my little ones (all 4 of them rainforest children) are having a hard time getting out of the nest to fly on their own but they are tainted by this violence… Needless to say I am now and he is still raw, bitter and unchanged…. We try very hard to remain on good terms for the children’s sake of course.
    How best to help them – would EMDR do the trick?
    PS There is a Google plugin that is brilliant for translations – your work needs to go out to the world Paula <3 Just being bold 😉

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I think that there might be a few things that can help your kids. Certainly, your willingness to acknowledge what they’ve been through and then listen to them share their pain with you, is a big thing. Therapy for you and them. Within therapy, EMDR is one useful tool but chances are there will need to be some long term deep work to heal from the violence, that includes EMDR, possibly, but is much more than that. Make sense?

      And thank you for your support for my work. I hope that my book is getting out into the world!

  20. auerbach48 Avatar

    My upbringing would make a great book……parents who met in an institution ; both having had breakdowns; my sister conceived there……
    We would win the dysfunctional award 😏

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober


  21. What Does Gifted Look Like? Clearing Up Your Confusion | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] To my bloggEEs: Thank you to the reader who suggested this topic. Let us know if you’ve lived with this confusion and what you think and feel about it. I appreciate hearing from you! By the way, there’s another factor that might contribute to your confusion: Growing up in a dysfunctional family. Find out more here and here. […]

  22. Change The World By Galvanizing Your Giftedness | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] outside job. I specialize in the inner realms. The introspective. The neurobiopsychospiritual. The diving-into-your-abyss methods. The facing-your-demons plans.  My theory is that by doing the inside job, you become more […]

  23. If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Need Psychotherapy? Part Two | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] fears, doubts and despair. What if you take a trip into your past to understand the legacy your dysfunctional family handed to you. Locate your true Self. And pull her/him out from under the rubble. Think about it. […]

  24. telperion1214 Avatar

    I have some diving experience.
    It was one of the darkest periods of my life.

    For the first few months there was no light in that dive.
    If not for the love and trust I had for a dear friend (retired therapist), I could not have persisted.
    She had been through it herself and she helped me through that painful and depressing journey.
    I was able to follow her guidance through the darkness until I began to see some light of my own.

    Coming through that time created a shift in my life: my self-confidence began to operate again.
    I began to explore a few things I’d always wanted to try that had been ridiculed by the chainsaw operators.
    I began to decline the outside contributions.
    I learned to shed them and to not take everything so personally, as I’d been so well trained to do.

    That training kept me hostage.
    Doing the dives set me free.
    Now I am an experienced diver!
    Life continues to provide opportunities to dive. 🙂

    Occasionally I share with another about my experience.
    More often I suggest professional help. I think that is important.
    A caring professional can do so much good, and there is knowledge and a skill set.

    I am no professional, I have only my experience.
    I doubt I’d attempt a deep sea dive with an amateur.
    I would not attempt a metaphorical deep sea dive alone either.

    I am thankful that there are people like yourself in this world and this community, Paula.
    The positive forces that balance the chaos out there are quieter.
    Here in this quiet space we get to share about the merits of deep sea diving! 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Beautiful, telperion1214. Thank you. Your description of your experience will give others courage. I’ve told people that there are types of therapy: water skiing, snorkeling, and deep sea diving. I think diving is the most beneficial for the rainforest-minded.

  25. Mary Avatar

    Thank you for describing and framing my life experience so succinctly with this post. I have been diving into the abyss for 6 decades now. Each time I surface with a bit more understanding and self acceptance. I appreciate the contribution you are making to this journey.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Wow, Mary, that’s great! I think for many rainforest minds there’s so much to explore. So many layers. It requires lots of diving over time. We need to accept that as a positive thing and not as a sign of illness or weakness. Thank you.

  26. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    One of the things I’ve found helpful is holding space for my own feelings – even if I have to hide in the bathroom to do it. Just letting myself feel what i am feeling and not allowing anyone to censure or criticise that, and not to let the long history of being told how ridiculous and over the top I am stop me from feeling my own feelings. It’s funny, I’ve not done anything weird or melodramatic as a consequence. I’m not out of control or acting irrationally or any of the things I’ve been afraid would happen if i did not keep myself tightly under control.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, there’s often that fear of losing control if we allow our emotions. Instead, it often calms us down! Validation is so important. Thank you for sharing your experience, Nimue.

  27. the glimmering girl Avatar
    the glimmering girl

    Truth!! Yes yes yes. And never a better guide than you, Paula.

  28. themonthebard Avatar

    Love this. And so true.

  29. Laura Black Avatar
    Laura Black

    I was really touched by this. Thank you.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Appreciate hearing from you, Laura.

  30. Katherine Avatar

    I just love the balanced and thoughtful way you go about describing how things are in these quirky rainforest minds of ours! Being reminded about resiliency made my heart do a happy skip. One of the best things I ever did for myself is to examine my life though the lens of some truly confounding emotions. In my youngest years they felt like something to be ashamed of, in addition to the sheer terror of revisiting “the wreck”. Agreed, that’s where the jewels are, and yes, it is a process. If you don’t mind I’d like to add that coming back to supportive therapy throughout life can continue to be a truly insightful way to put a thoughtful even beautiful frame around painful, confusing, and way too bumpy experiences. I just love receiving your posts, Paula! Sometimes blogs can feel kind of dangerous when deep feelings are discussed, but it feels really safe here, and I enjoy the virtual community. 🙂

    Now, I’m looking for a block of quiet undisturbed time to get cozy with that new book!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, yes, Katherine. Supportive therapy throughout life. Yes! Maybe it takes different forms with different people but I’ve found for myself and other rainforest-y types, there’s always that desire to explore and deepen the connection with the Self. I’m so glad that you feel safe here. Let us know how the book goes!

  31. KtCallsita Avatar

    Wow, I feel like every time I think i’m ready to go in there, I get distracted. I find other more pressing things. In truth, I know this is going to be long painful and ultimately lonely. It is so much easier to push aside myself to take care of others who need the help. I get on well with my parents now, even my sister… but growing up it wasn’t that way. Growing up was ugly and awful. There was so much pain and isolation. And yet, sometimes I miss who I was. Before I cut out that voice, the one that was just curious what would happen if. The one that always seemed to land me in more trouble. I know she was bad, but I miss her because when it all comes down to it she was me too. It’s like she was this noisy colorful monkey that has gone extinct inside my forest. I don’t remember when I last heard her call, but it was a long time ago.

    I know I’m an underachiever. People tell me I do so much, but I don’t feel so productive. I know that there is this weight, and darkness, and all these locked away things that no one else believes could possibly be there.

    In a slightly unrelated revelation. We were at a funeral for my husband’s grandmother and I realized how giftedness travels in his family. I never saw it in his parents, until I realized that his father is/was rainforest minded, but has been through the aggressive chainsaws to the point where you barely recognize the forest from the plantations. I saw the destruction and fallout. The man has been a wreck traveling from one disaster to the next for almost the entire time I have known him (and for many years before). The real tragedy is in seeing how this is affecting all the children and grandchildren – pulling back to see the damage rotting away at everyone. Broken families and broken people litter the landscape. I sometimes feel my husband only escaped as much as he did because he is profoundly hearing impaired and oblivious to much of the chainsaws, decay, and disaster that surrounds (not completely immune or unaware, but as a child more-so than his siblings).

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, you’ve said so much here, dear KtCallsita. One reason many people enter therapy is so that they don’t hand down the legacy of “broken families, broken people” to their kids. I wonder about your “noisy colorful monkey” and if it would be safe for you to get to know her. I always appreciate what you share with us.

  32. dmstauber Avatar

    Yes yes yes yes!

  33. Me Avatar

    I have just become aware of the various “Insecure Attachment” syndromes. Although my childhood was very good compared to many, it seems that I have come away with the anxiety version. I am wondering if a lot of things I’ve struggled with may be Insecure Attachment issues and not necessarily attributed to my giftedness.

    Frankly, it scares the willies out of me to think of diving into this abyss–there are a lot of nasty monsters in there. But I know I need to do it, so I will.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Attachment issues are important to know about. And to sort out what’s giftedness and what’s insecure attachment. Well said! You don’t have to have an abusive childhood to be dealing with attachment problems. And, you take your therapist with you into the abyss and she’ll help you befriend the nasty monsters! Good to hear from you!

      1. Me Too Avatar
        Me Too

        “You don’t have to have an abusive childhood to be dealing with attachment problems.” Thank you! That opens so many possibilities. I am very slowly coming to the realization that my first family & childhood experiences were not as “perfect” and “storybook” as the people around me in that time insist they were. From a quick bit of reading, “attachment problems” fits the story of my life–from my earliest memories there was a wall that kept close friendship out. Only started seeing that as a problem when I did it to a partner who has enough damage of his own to recognize it, and enough patience to help me try to get beyond it.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Sounds like a sweet partnership. Yes, and there are degrees of attachment issues for sure. And it’s interesting how siblings often report different experiences and memories of family life. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  34. Christy Croft Avatar
    Christy Croft

    This is huge. Such an area that needs support, because those wounds slice in a uniquely deep way when you’re as skilled at overthinking as so many gifted kids/youth/adults are. Thank you. <3

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, Christy, I’ve found that there’s so much misunderstanding of giftedness among therapists. Important to get the word out. Thank you for sharing.

  35. Lisa Swaboda is Atlas Educational Avatar
    Lisa Swaboda is Atlas Educational

    This is definitely getting pinned in the Facebook group, Gifted Adults. ♡

    Loved the cozy chair and I actually giggled when you mentioned the jewels!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you always, Lisa, for reposting.

  36. maggiebrown2015 Avatar

    Beautifully put. I hope you don’t mind if I pass this along to some of my clients. I suspect it will be incredibly affirming. And encouraging. Thank you as always. I have also downloaded your book. Exciting!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Of course, Maggie. Please, pass it on. And let me know what you think of my book! I appreciate hearing from you. And, Maggie, you’re a therapist? Where are you?– just in case some readers are looking…

  37. helenjnoble Avatar

    Reblogged this on helenjnoble.