Counseling Gifted Adults — A Quick Guide for Therapists

photo courtesy of Christopher Lemercier, Unsplash

What do you do with the clients you suspect are super smart? Clients who talk fast, think fast, and ask probing questions. Who are so articulate and high functioning, you can’t understand why they say they are depressed and anxious. Who are paralyzed by fears of failure and the pressures of their “great potential.” Who have exceedingly high standards and expectations for themselves and others. Who change jobs frequently and express frustration, impatience, and confusion with slower thinking coworkers. Who feel a deep, unrelenting loneliness even if they have many friends and are in partnerships. Who have been bullied and bored in schooling situations while they clearly have an enormous passion for learning. Who have an unusual number of sensitivities to sounds, textures, visual stimulation, chemicals, and emotions. Who feel a responsibility for making a difference on the planet, have extraordinary empathy, and feel despair and idealism about the future. Who have experienced serious trauma in childhood but appear to be unscathed. Who can sense when your attention is drifting, are afraid of overwhelming you, and who, in fact, do overwhelm you with their intensity, depth, intuition, and levels of awareness.

These are some of the contradictions and confusions that therapists experience with their gifted clients.

Who is gifted?

Defining giftedness is difficult and controversial. Concerns over justice and equality can make this discussion tense and uncomfortable. Here is one way to think about it: All humans ought to be valued and appreciated. All humans are worthy of love and respect. All humans differ in their strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, intellectual capacities, sensitivities, curiosities, preferences, talents, temperaments, experiences, and desires. It can get tricky when we talk about intellectual differences. And yet, intellectual differences exist. Giftedness exists. Awkward, I know. But true. 

That said, you don’t actually need a clear, concise, undisputed definition to serve clients who fit into this category in one way or another. You just need to understand what they may be dealing with if they have some of these traits. 

And just to add to the confusion, there are also many differences among these humans. I am writing about a particular variety of gifted that I call rainforest-minded. You may run into highly intelligent clients who do not fit my description. But there will be many who do. I promise.

Why do you need to know this?

You may be using all of your very effective methods with these clients and yet something is not working. You know you are missing a very important piece of their puzzle. But, what? Giftedness is a phenomenon that has its own set of complications. These clients desperately need you to see all of who they are and all of who they want to be. They need to be able to feel safe to be vulnerable and to trust that you can handle their exuberance, intense emotions, questions, contradictions, complexities, fears, intuition, sensitivities, and, yes, their brilliance. 

What can you do?

Get familiar with the traits that often accompany giftedness. Learn to differentiate the issues that come with giftedness from the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Look for ways your clients are masking their pain because they are used to practitioners who assume they are just fine and friends and family members who rely on them but don’t reciprocate. They may need to talk a lot without being linear or chronological; take notes if it helps you keep track. Be authentic and sensitive. Get your own therapy. Be careful that you don’t misdiagnosegiftedness can look like ADHD, Aspergers, OCD, and even bipolar disorder. (Note: Some clients can be gifted and also have a mental health diagnosis or learning disability, called twice-exceptional or 2e.) Know your limits and refer if you are frequently overwhelmed.

What resources are available?

These blog posts provide an overview for you and your clients, along with the rest of my blog. Use this quiz with your clients as a light-hearted way to explore the issues. And as luck would have it, my books are the easiest way for you to educate yourself. Your Rainforest Mind is filled with case studies and detailed descriptions of clients, their traits and issues, and the therapy process. Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind is a collection of my most popular blog posts and can be used as a workbook for clients as well as a quick guide for you. And, here are a few more excellent resources. An organization supporting the gifted. A documentaryAnd, a blog on gifted children.

What else?

If you can identify who among your clients has a rainforest mind and grasp their particular challenges, it will make a big difference in the power and effectiveness of the therapy. You will be seeing and understanding them in a way that very few others, if any, have.

And that will change everything.


To my bloggEEs: Share this post far and wide and anywhere you feel therapists might be lurking. And, of course, share it with your therapist, if you’d like, and let us know how it goes. Let me know what else I ought to have included here. Tell us your therapy experiences and let us know any questions you have. Thank you, as always, for being here.

Oh, and, I am part of a free online event coming up March 9-13, 2020. The Shift Network is an organization promoting personal transformation to “help create a sustainable, peaceful, healthy, and prosperous world for all.” I am one of the speakers! Here is a link for more information. It is called the Evolved Empath Summit. Cool, eh?

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.

23 responses to “Counseling Gifted Adults — A Quick Guide for Therapists”

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  1. Gifted And Lonely In Belgium | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] need to be adapted. And if you have a therapist who needs help understanding your rainforest-ness, share this post. And my books. Sending you all much love and […]

  2. Faith Currant Avatar
    Faith Currant

    “Defining giftedness is difficult and controversial. Concerns over justice and equality can make this discussion tense and uncomfortable. Here is one way to think about it: All humans ought to be valued and appreciated. All humans are worthy of love and respect. All humans differ in their strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, intellectual capacities, sensitivities, curiosities, preferences, talents, temperaments, experiences, and desires. It can get tricky when we talk about intellectual differences. And yet, intellectual differences exist. Giftedness exists. Awkward, I know. But true. ”

    This paragraph troubles me so deeply, and part of me wants to ask why you’d write it, when you’d know how painful it is for gifted people to read. The implication that my very existence is unjust? Or just that anything that might support the development of an intellectually gifted person is unjust because… what? It’s taking away something from someone else? In the same way that giving a talented athlete or musician special lessons is… taking something away from a less talented athlete or musician? Scratching head in confusion.

    But perhaps it’s useful in that it shows that even among people who are conscious of the challenges of giftedness, there is an implicit sense of unease at the idea that some people really are smarter than other people. The part that flummoxes me is, why is this is a problem? Why is this awkward and uncomfortable? (And how crappy that feels, to feel like a pariah even on a gifted webpage). We know that some people are more physically beautiful, more athletically or musically or artistically gifted. Some people have a knack for plants and growing things, others are mechanically inclined — I have a friend who can take apart and put together anything, and she’s not shamed for it. Why is it awkward and uncomfortable and some kind of violation of social justice to acknowledge differences in intellectual ability? And why would it be controversial? I’m a bit lost on that one.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I hear what you’re saying, Faith. I know how painful this is. I think you may have misinterpreted what I was writing in that first paragraph and the rest of the post. My work is all about supporting the gifted. Sorry to be confusing.

  3. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Paula, I really appreciate how well you summarize the subtle yet profound differences that emerge when working with gifted individuals. I have found that giftedness comes to play in therapy sessions in a variety of interpersonal, interactive, and content-oriented ways. Without at least some understanding of giftedness, therapists can feel like they are working with one hand tied behind their backs. But more importantly, clients can feel misunderstood. Thank you for this important, much-needed piece.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Gail. You may not have seen one of my links in the post is to you. You have an excellent website for parents of gifted children!

  4. Mrs W Avatar
    Mrs W

    What suggestions do you have to for me with dealing with my teenage son and the extreme stress he experiences before writing a test. He is an A+ student and will regularly experience upset stomach, and sometimes even vomits before he writes a test. The morning of a test, he won’t eat and I honestly haven’t figured out what to say to help him deal with these feelings of stress.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Mrs. W. There may not be a simple answer to your question. You might consult with someone who works with gifted teens. You can try Aimee Yermish, who commented above. You can also talk to other parents via a Facebook group. Parenting Gifted Children or Hoagies Gifted Discussion Group. There are also groups for parents of 2e kids. I have posts here on anxiety if you type “anxiety” or “perfectionism” into the search engine, you will find them.

  5. Ellen Avatar

    Thank you, Paula, for describing this colorful tapestry of traits! I have opened a school for 2e learners, a refuge from the onslaught of those who travel down a more linear path with many fewer divergences, convergences and options. Yes, choosing one path for us means ” dischoosing” something of equal savor and purpose. I love your title of rainforest minds. My students thrive in our lush, nurturing space and we evolve as a learning community, every day feeling bolder about how we are choosing to live our lives.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Those lucky kids to have someone who understands them!! Thanks for being here and sharing, Ellen.

  6. Aimee Yermish, PsyD Avatar
    Aimee Yermish, PsyD

    Therapists who wish to work effectively with gifted clients might also wish to review my dissertation research, which was on precisely this topic. The entire dissertation, as well as a short summary with recommended clinical guidelines, is available for free at

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks, Aimee. You are a therapist for gifted clients, right? What if you tell us your location and your website.

      1. Aimee Yermish, PsyD Avatar
        Aimee Yermish, PsyD

        Thanks! Yes, I am a clinical psychologist specializing in work with folks who are gifted / twice-exceptional. My website is I am located in Stow, MA, but I do consultations all over (including internationally).

  7. Rosie Avatar

    yep very fascinating…especially when you supposedly, maybe have a 2E wired brain as mentioned when I went overboard in the last blog post…it’s hard to therapise this kind of mind even harder impossible to medicate…so to scream over all the shouting yep I know medication is not the be all and end all and definitely not a solution I want to follow and there are gentler methods out there…but what do you do when the anxiety and panic attacks are so overwhelming and debilitating you can’t get your brain to think straight and put in place those DBT skills you learned, that the sensory overwhelm is so enormous devouring you can’t set foot in the yoga/meditation studio, too many people, too loud, too bright, too noisy, what do you do when your brain is sending out information trains every five seconds and they are all crashing into each other as they run out of track or go down the wrong track and resultant can’t get into a healthy sleep cycle cause your brain is jam packed with thoughts and ideas and phobias, when you sit in congealing silence in the therapy space cause you can’t get the words out cause there just are too many of them and they’re all jammed tight in the doorway between your brain and your vocal cords – medication should be a last resort to calm all this down but I metabolize it all too quickly and end up with ineffective meds and lotsa side effects – so tell me how do you therapise and medicate a rain forested, possible 2E mind that’s scarred with a back story of severe trauma and sprinkled with mental health disorders taking into account that this rain forested mind is highly suspicious and doesn’t trust people, medication or therapists and has learned over time to “fake it” to such an extent that people think nothing is wrong at all

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m so sorry to hear about your suffering, Rosie. There are times when medication is a part of the answer for sure. Sometimes the combination of serious trauma, mental health disorders, and 2e issues, need bio-chemical support as an important foundation to just be able to manage life, to be able to have therapy work. And it sounds like it’s hard to find just the right type of medication. And, basics like getting enough sleep are important as well. Many complexities.

  8. Michael Gray Beckett Avatar
    Michael Gray Beckett

    Fascinating…I just mentioned in my blog today a performance psychologist who was flummoxed by me years ago. I hoped she would help guide me towards a suitable new career path — but after several sessions she said she had never worked with someone who had so many varied interests and was capable of doing so many things. She essentially waved the white flag and gave up. I sort of took comfort in her noting my broad range of capabilities — but I still had no clarity on where to turn for a new career. I wasn’t aware of my “rainforest” status then, and she clearly could have used some perspective on it as well.

    Luckily, years later, I’m just taking all my interests and values and skills and putting them out there to find multiple roles that fit ALL of who I am. Scary, but exciting to finally be setting out on my “next act.” And yes, my new career will be as vibrant and vital and varied as a rainforest.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds exciting, Michael. I will check out your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  9. dalewebster Avatar

    Thank you for this article. I have tried to explain this type of giftedness to a number of counsellors and they just don’t get it. You absolutely nailed what they need to know. Particularly the line about their previously effective methods not working – I find schema therapy interesting but I could have told my psychologist every one of my “life traps” if she had just asked me without spending $500 on sitting through the process over a number of months. Thank you again. You have made my day.Dale.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      That’s a great point, dalewebster. Certain tools/techniques can be learned very quickly. Especially the more cognitive/behavioral ones. Hopefully, you can share this post with her.
      I do tell my clients, though, when we’re working through childhood trauma, that the process takes much longer than they are used to. Healing deeply on emotional, mental, physical, relational, and spiritual levels can be slow going. Very frustrating for someone used to easy and fast learning.

  10. litebeing Avatar

    Hi Paula,
    Awesome about the summit. How does Rainforest mind differ from “general ” giftedness? I would think giftedness in this society would make it likely gifted people would at the very least have struggle with relationships, self esteem, and a tendency to isolate,

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Good question, litebeing! Not all intellectually advanced folks have the creativity, sensitivity/empathy, intuition, and multipotentiality of the rainforest mind. Someone can have, for example, a very advanced mathematical or scientific mind and have a single lifelong career focus. This person would be gifted in these areas but not RFM. Over the years working with this population, it’s become clearer that i need to make this distinction. Make sense?

      1. litebeing Avatar

        Yes it does. I do know of people who would fall into the latter category.

      2. marcieb08 Avatar

        Paula, I respectfully disagree. Someone who is achieving a lifelong career focus can also be struggling in other areas of their life. I’m my opinion it’s not about the career choice or the success, it’s about finding balance, harmony from within and self contentment. Attainment of these goals is a lifelong challenge for most individuals. Finding success in one area means giving up in other areas of interest. Focus in one area means letting go of something else. It’s about how we cope with these conflicts. I think that RFM’S have more difficulty coping with all of these choices.
        Love you! MCB.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Oh yes, marcieb08. I didn’t mean to suggest that finding a career focus means that there are no struggles! Thanks for bringing this up. If you have multipotentiality and choose one career focus and are successful, like you say, there are losses where you have to give up other possibilities. And even if someone is gifted without the additional RFM characteristics, say, without multipotentiality, they can be struggling as well with loneliness, pressures to achieve, perfectionism, and many of the other topics I write about. Thanks for the clarification. Of course, you are welcome to disagree!

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