What Does Gifted Look Like? Clearing Up Your Confusion

photo courtesy Marcus Dall Col, Unsplash, CC
photo courtesy Marcus Dall Col, Unsplash, CC

People are astonished by how much you can do. You think you’re lazy. There’s so much that you’re not doing.

People tell you how smart you are. You feel dumb. You know how much you don’t know and you still haven’t decided what you want to be when you grow up.

People admire your (musical, artistic, mathematical, linguistic, etc.) talents. You think they’re patronizing you. You notice all of the mistakes you make. Surely, they do, too, but they’re too polite to mention them.

How is it possible that you see yourself as a lazy not-so-smart slacker and others see you as so-lucky-to-be-gifted? How can your sense of yourself be so different from how others see you?

Like life in the rain forest, it’s complicated.

Maybe it’s your super high expectations. You don’t realize that others don’t have similar standards. Doesn’t everyone want to create beauty, balance, harmony and justice all of the time? Don’t all people value precision?

Um, no.

Maybe it’s your enthusiasm for learning about, well, everything. Isn’t everyone obsessed with reading and researching multiple disparate topics instead of sleeping, which is such a waste of time? Aren’t all people thrilled that MIT is offering classes online? Doesn’t everyone dream of changing career paths every 3-5 years?

Not really.

Maybe it’s your capacity for observing and perceiving and noticing. Isn’t everyone bothered by the buzzing florescent lights, the crooked pictures on the wall, the house in your neighborhood that was painted chartreuse?


Maybe it’s your extra sensitivity and empathy. Can’t everyone feel the distress in the room? Isn’t everyone overwhelmed by the news? Don’t all humans want to save the world?


So, if you’re confused by the difference between the feedback that you get and your own self-perception, time to get unconfused. Maybe it’s your highest standards, your zest for learning, your keen capacity to perceive, your intense sensitivity and your exceptional empathy.

Maybe that is what gifted looks like.


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.

There’s a new podcast interview of me. You can find it here. It’s a two-parter from Christy Harvey about gifted adults and parenting gifted kids.

And here’s an earlier podcast, if you haven’t heard it. This one is from Aurora Remember with a focus on me!

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.

34 responses to “What Does Gifted Look Like? Clearing Up Your Confusion”

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  1. Veronica Avatar

    I just stumbled on your blog and am in tears after reading a few posts. I suddenly feel seen, and perhaps it’s a starting point for me to begin to believe in myself again. Thank you.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Welcome, Veronica! So glad you found us!

  2. What Does Gifted Look Like in My World? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] How do we explain giftedness? Is it high achievement? Talent? Productivity? Eminence? IQ? Financial success? 4.0 grade point average? 10,000 hours of practice? […]

  3. A Nouveau Druid Avatar
    A Nouveau Druid

    Although I’ve been binge-reading your blog for hours today, I’ve finally chosen one under which to leave a comment. I’m 51 and just now learning I have a Rainforest Mind. All my life I’ve been told I was a worrier (age 4), I was smart (forever), I was artistic (also forever), and an over-talker according to my first teachers and my mother and sister, the latter of which still claim that today. Yes, I have perfect spelling and I want to correct others. My perfume collection doesn’t match my hyper-knowledge of aromatic plants and their notes only because I lack the funds, and just recently I accidentally made two perfume salespersons feel inadequate. All my life I’ve never felt that I fit in with anyone anywhere. I’ve moved 19 times as an adult and held a couple dozen jobs. Every day of my life I’ve been an over-thinker to the point of chronic anxiety and at times, frequent panic attacks. Unlike most others, all my life I’ve eschewed what was popular in favor of alternatives: choosing chiropractic and yoga over prescription medicines; watching the lesser known films and listening to the music never played on the radio; reading only non-fiction for long periods; studying multiple religions and philosophies and never choosing just one; liking the geeky boys in class and in life. And yes, I’ve had multiple relationships, though four of them were multi-year including a nine year marriage. On top of all of that I’ve never felt adequate because I’ve underachieved financially and even within my communities. Yet, I’ve overachieved with regard to reading and retaining, observing, loving, having sex, meeting new people, taking small risks (or sometimes large ones), and seeking to please others. Today, I seek balance and to love myself rather than expect others to love me. This is a scary new journey. And as I write this from my workplace I am fighting TEARS because finally, finally, finally, I feel like someone knows what it’s like to be me.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes! Yes! So glad to have you here. And thank you for sharing. You have a rainforest mind for sure!!

    2. Jessie Avatar

      Hello, Nouveau Druid! I related to so much in your message. I’m looking for a chiropractor for the first time right now myself….

      In particular, today, someone I was working with got angry at me in a way that I thought was unfair…but, perhaps overthinking it, am aware that most people think people who are mad at them are being unfair…so I went over all the relevant correspondence…and then figured maybe she was misdirecting anger at me…and otherwise generally felt compelled to figure out just how guilty I should feel…because obviously I have to please others, and definitely not rest if someone is (gasp! the horror!) mad at me.

      Sure, I was a little self-mocking there, but really related to what you said about trying to seek balance and not expect others to love me. We can only follow our own ethical codes and do our best to be decent human beings. But there is still no expectation that others will love us if we do so. Self-compassion is also a value worth upholding.

      Paula, maybe there’s an idea for a post for you: perfectionism in relationships (whether romantic, friendship, or professional) and holding oneself responsible for everyone else’s feelings. The key again, is striking the right balance. Do right by them, and do right by yourself, too. It’s hard enough without a tendency for overthinking.

      Wishing you the best in your efforts to seek balance, Druid!

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        That’s a great idea for a topic, Jessie. I was thinking I hadn’t written about perfectionism in a while but didn’t think of that angle. If you could share more about this either here or in an email to me, I can include more from your example. (paula at rainforestmind dot com)

        1. Jessie Avatar

          I just sent you an email, Paula. I’m honored that you would ask, and I hope it’s useful fuel for your muse!

  4. The Trouble With Gifted Is That No One Understands What It Is – Laugh, Love, Learn

    […] What Does Gifted Look Like? Clearing Up Your Confusion – Your Rainforest Mind […]

  5. Heather Boorman Avatar
    Heather Boorman

    Another great post! I know it was such a relief to realize that not everyone experiences the world with the same intensity, sensitivity, deep-diving into topics and projects, etc. Definitely helped me feel more tolerant and understanding of other people and more comfortable simply claiming myself and who I’m wired to be. Like Lucinda, I’ll definitely share with my nearly 12 year old, as I know he bumps into many of these thoughts, too.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Heather. I hope your son finds it helpful!

      1. Elizabeth Weisman Avatar
        Elizabeth Weisman

        I realize that in the course of raising a 2E daughter and 2E dyslexic son, I became so overwhelmed with researching and supporting them that my natural tendency towards introversion and even hyper-focusing on topics of interest to me was put by the wayside. Now, anxiety has taken hold. It is scary sometimes to spend time alone or even figure out what I’d want to do. Like I literally fell of the rail of a fast moving train and can’t figure out how to get back on. I am trying to take a little quiet time daily to reconnect w/ myself but it is very hard for me to get started. I encourage moms to keep some focus on themselves for their present and future health, and looking to others for similar experience or suggestions.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Elizabeth. Keep looking for others for support. I’m sure you’re not alone in this. Taking quiet time sounds so important. Maybe you could consider that you don’t have to get back on the train. Maybe there’s someplace else to go. A different vehicle? Nature? Give yourself time to figure it out. It’s a big change. Breathe! Thank you for being here and for sharing.

  6. medleymisty Avatar

    So is this a sort of guide to normal people by way of explaining how we’re different from them? 😉

    I am dealing with a situation in the Sims community (my icon is a silly picture of my favorite Sim, and writing Sims stories is the thing I love most in the world) and this is very useful. I’ve been a target for stalking and harassment and having my blog posts regularly screenshotted and posted in the Sims anonymous hate community for everyone to point at and talk about and hate on, and this has been going on for about seven and a half years. Yeah, by now I have complex PTSD pretty bad. 😉 Still not gonna stop doing what I love though.

    But this is helpful because I could never understand why people just went along with it, why they didn’t seem to care about believing lies, about engaging in incredibly cruel and hurtful gossip, about constantly violating boundaries. I guess…well, based on tests when I was a kid and how people have reacted to me all my life, I’m pretty sure I’m profoundly gifted. But I’ve also always thought of myself as normal, and I’ve expected other people to think and feel like I do. So as far as I knew they were reading and comprehending my blog posts about my terror and isolation and pain, and then they were consciously deciding to continue engaging in toxic abusive behavior.

    Sorry, I know that’s a lot to dump on a stranger, but well, I figure someone who blogs about giftedness is used to it. No small talk, immediate diving into the ocean, right?

    But this does help a lot. I guess I’ve been expecting moral concern and empathy and observations from them that they’re not capable of.

    Been working on not taking it personally and letting it go for years. It’s hard, because I already had anxiety and trauma issues from my childhood when this harassment started, but I’ve made a lot of progress. And this will help make me some more progress, I think. Thank you!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes. No small talk here. Deep diving. Glad to hear that you’re making progress. One idea, if you’ve experienced trauma in childhood, have you tried counseling? Thanks for commenting.

  7. Lucinda Leo Avatar
    Lucinda Leo

    So, SO beautiful, Paula. Thank you. I should read this every day. Sharing it with my 13yo daughter, too. So often I find myself wishing she could see herself as I (and others) see her. But perhaps I should stop getting frustrated and begin accepting that this is part of who she is – just as it’s who I am. We will both always keep reaching for more, and better, and that’s okay.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, Lucinda. You and your daughter are so beautifully rainforest-y!!

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    What does gifted look like? This has been a very recent topic of engagement for me. It has become quite clear that I had some ‘other’ understanding of giftedness for most of my life; different to a lot of what is written about online. And sometimes similar.
    You see, I grew up in a family (mostly credited to my father) that valued intellectual prowess and academic and medical-related science. By an official test on intellectual capabilities, my older sibling was/is officially gifted and I was/am not. Though significantly more successful academically than my older sibling, I’ve never had the self-worth to match it. Still, she was supposed to be the clever one and I, the stupid one.
    My life, until recently, has been spent trying to make it in an academic science field. I’ve succeeded as long as I remained in it (with a genuine interest and aptitude stemming from seriously good intuition, understanding and observation of my natural environment) until extreme anxiety has diverted me. Invariably I’ve ended up filling the bulk of my days in the arts and creative fields – always planning and hoping to “get back into” the (natural) sciences. I’ve dumbed and numbed my deeper intuition and empathic traits to serve a more practical and intellectual facade – often laughing off the more emotional, creative and intuitive parts of myself.
    I have half a science degree and a full degree in the Arts. I’ve often felt reluctant to share with people the latter fact, preferring to be recognized as half-as-good in science instead of qualified in the arts. I’ll even go out on a limb and confess to being an amateur, self-taught player of the piano; not very skilled, but I get a deep and meaningful kick out of composing my own small melodies. I refuse to play in front of anyone because artistic ability, though appreciated, is not necessarily ‘enough’ in my family. Sadly, I’ve believed this for a long time too.
    My need to make it in the eyes of my family and their idea of ‘giftedness’ has always been an obstacle in the way of connecting with parts of myself that time and time again prove to be the most prominent features of who I seem to be – evidently. I’m still trying to learn how to value my obvious (to me) intuitive, empathic, intensely-feeling, creative self. I mean, how do you scientifically and mathematically explain to anyone what deep, profound inner-knowing and intuition is? I’ve habitually hidden this for fear of looking unintelligent or even loopy. C’est la vie. At least I’m beginning this new journey of self-discovery.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It’s a huge task to see who we really are and to value who we are in spite of how family members have seen us all our lives. And in spite of the ways they value a type of intelligence. For sure, academics and scientists can be gifted. There’s value in logical linear thinking. But also, the artists, the intuitives, the empaths can also be gifted!! And there’s great value in creative random nonlinear thinking!! And, yes, it may not be possible to explain profound inner knowing in a scientific mathematical way. Some people say that science hasn’t yet caught up with intuition yet. So, it’s a big job to accept it in ourselves in spite of not being able to logically justify it to others. I hope that my blog can support you in your journey!

  9. Jonquil McDaniel Avatar
    Jonquil McDaniel

    I keep wondering when you’re going to cover the “you’re crazy” topic, Paula. For the creatively gifted, this is a daily challenge. And I could really use an article on it right now, myself. I’m in another one of my anti-social phases, inspired by a complete lack of understanding/ability to connect with others. Some of them gifted as well. I got too comfortable being myself again.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

  10. Dragonwyst Avatar

    Banged my head against this last week. I switched on a PC in our recovery unit, which allows the recovery staff to see the monitor screens of the different operating theatres. Small thing. I was thanked. I said (knowing it would invoke a response) that I had previously been a mainframe programmer, so yes – I knew how to switch on a PC (I’m currently an anaesthetics nurse)
    “Get out!” exclaimed my colleague, with widening eyes. “You’re not a nurse. You’re different. Like all this sustainability stuff. You’re not a nurse. Nurses don’t care.”
    Well, I am a nurse – I just happen to be a nurse who has this bunch of other stuff going on – past history of computer programming, collecting diplomas – counselling, business management, journalism, short courses on weird things like starting NGOs, dealing with troubles kids….and now all the passion and everything going into my M.Ed(Social Ecology). I’m a nurse who gives a damn about how health care impacts the environment. Nurses do care. Nurses who think they don’t are the ones waiting for me to hurry up and figure out how best to create an inviting and inspiring narrative.

    For the younger folk here – I’m turning 52 this year. It’s now that everything is coming together. All those years of searching through things, doing different courses, seeking the “one thing” that mattered most….Often – very often we Rainforest Minded sorts are late bloomers. Don’t despair. the journey is what matters in all it’s parts and terrains.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Love this, Dragonwyst. Thanks for the encouragement.

    2. Jessie Avatar

      Dragonwyst, thank you for sharing that story! I’m 34 and I feel like I’ve still not quite bloomed yet. It’s so encouraging to hear the stories of other intense multipotentialites. And my younger sister is a nurse, but she’s also talking about wanting to start a bed and breakfast….

  11. Maggie Brown Avatar
    Maggie Brown

    Paula, wonderful as always. Dare I add “Maybe it’s your frequent physical and mental exhaustion when the human nervous system you were born with simply doesn’t seem to match your velocity. And your determination and perseverance anyway!”.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, please dare, Maggie! Others have talked about the nervous system not being able to keep up with the mental velocity. It’s a real challenge! Thank you.

    2. Jessie Avatar

      Oh my goodness, Andrea and Maggie, I can really relate. My nervous system cannot keep up with all the things I want to do, and today I’m really paying the price for that. I’ve recently discovered the relaxation power of Epsom salt baths. It’s always wonderful to read the comments here and see kindred spirits echoing my experiences….

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Thanks for the tip, Jessie. I also so appreciate the kindred spirits here!

  12. Andrea McDowell Avatar
    Andrea McDowell

    All. The. Time. — plus add the overwhelming *guilt* about being a “slacker” and not doing all the things I see that “need” doing (and doing *well*!). It’s exhausting. I have a great therapist who reminds me, “Do what you have the energy for.” But it seems I bounce back and forth between going at full throttle (and doing it all “correctly”), then — overwhelmed by exhaustion and what I didn’t get done — I simply collapse and zone out … which leads to more guilt. And so very few of my friends truly get it. Because they’re not bothered by all those things, or they don’t see them. (Of course, they may not see the joys and thrills quite so clearly or feel them so deeply either … but that’s hard to remember when I’m trying to surf through these ups and downs constantly.)

    Thanks for your posts. They’re so reassuring.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      This is a great description, Andrea. I’m sure readers will relate. And, yes, the benefits are the “joys and thrills.”

    2. Gabi Avatar

      Hi, I love the response of your therapist. “Do what you have energy for” I need that to be my new mantra. I have another one, “Don’t forget to rest.”

  13. Elizabeth Avatar

    Engaged in all these thoughts and inspirations I got overwhelmed and burnt out. I’m trying to climb my way back- how have people found their way back? Did they get back to similar levels of inspirAtion?

    1. Dragonwyst Avatar

      Take a break and do something else. It’s cyclical. In time you learn to ride the waves and notice the seasons of your mind. There will be times that are extremely stimulating and ideas pour forth, and then you may find that you have no idea which one you are supposed to pay attention to and all becomes too much and seems to just fade away. Go read a book or do something practical for a while. Go for a nature ramble if you can. Sometimes all those thoughts and inspirations just need to lie, and integrate and you’ll find your way back to them in a completely different way at another stage of your life. 🙂

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for the question Elizabeth. Dragonwyst has a lovely response for you!

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