Can Gifted Kids Become Ungifted Adults?

Heck no.

Just to be clear.

photo courtesy of joe ciciarelli, Unspash

But. Well. You may feel ungifted now that you are in your 40’s and you haven’t reached the goals you had at seven. At seven, when you were such a star. All that enthusiasm. Curiosity. Creativity. You knew all the answers. You asked all the questions. Everyone said you had so much potential. You were going to be an astronaut-poet-dancer-paleontologist-unicorn.

And now you are just a procrastinating, perfectionistic, ruminating, self-doubting, overwhelmed, unicorn mess.

So, what happened?

Is there a way to explain how you went from shining superstar to must-be-ungifted mess?

Maybe. I have a theory.

Life happened.

Many experiences, traumas, losses, rejections, prejudices, expectations, beliefs, pressures, illnesses, misunderstandings, or unicorn-killers may have intervened over the years.

Chain saws to your rainforest mind.

Here are some examples. In no particular order:

  • The pressure to be highly intelligent was enormous. You were constantly told how smart you were and how you would achieve great things. You felt you would only be loved and acceptable if you excelled at everything. And for a long time, you did. But eventually, the pressure was too great and you fell apart.
  • You were raised in a family with a history of serious trauma. School was your sanctuary and you did well but at home you had to use your rainforest mind to stay safe and sane. Because of this resilience, you are now a compassionate, sensitive adult. You are not passing the trauma legacy on to anyone. But dealing with your Complex-PTSD did not give you much time or energy to invent the iPhone.
  • You were bullied in school and rarely intellectually challenged. Being the smart kid was not appreciated so you hid your abilities and tried to fit in. In college, it was more of the same. And when you did find a class that was difficult, you did not have the study skills you needed to be successful. It didn’t help that your divergent thinking style, your preference for an interdisciplinary approach, your changing majors five times, and your tendency to question your professors, made you unpopular and labeled a know-it-all. You took your intelligence underground.
  • You were twice-exceptional. Your giftedness was complicated by a diagnosis of ADD or autism spectrum issues or sensory processing challenges or dyslexia or ??? The question, “If you’re so smart, why can’t you…” became all too familiar and debilitating.
  • You experienced racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, or other discriminatory beliefs/behaviors. You grew up in poverty and/or in an unsafe community.
  • You contracted a serious physical illness. You were in chronic pain.
  • You became a parent.

These are some of the reasons you may not have become the astronaut-poet-dancer-paleontologist-unicorn that you and everyone else expected.

But I have good news. It is not too late.

No pressure. Well, maybe a little pressure.

And, yes, I realize you might not have the time to go to astronaut school. But now that you know what has contributed to your self-perceived ungiftedness, now that you know your rainforest mind is still very much with you, you can start to find your true self again.

And do what you are here to do.

We need all the unicorns we can get.


To my bloggEEs: Do you remember your enthusiasm, intelligence, and curiosity as a child? Do you feel less gifted now? Ungifted? Which chain saws did you experience? Let us know. Your comments add so much. And thank you for being here. Sending you extra love this week. And this month. For the challenges ahead. Take good care of yourselves. Your light shines even when you think it doesn’t.

(And if you need a little more support, here is a Love Letter I wrote to you in 2018.)

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.

48 responses to “Can Gifted Kids Become Ungifted Adults?”

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  1. Still Gifted? – Embracing Intensity

    […] what to talk about for today’s podcast when I happened upon Paula Prober’s newest blog post, Can Gifted Kids Become Ungifted Adults? Hint: No but, read the full post for her […]

  2. ShiraDest Avatar


  3. Alice Coursier Avatar
    Alice Coursier

    I have a significant history of trauma. Yes, I had many big ideas as a child, and now find myself, at age 42, unemployed and wondering. I was labeled autistic, but never gifted. Adults loved to brag about my achievements, but I was never allowed to do the same. So, I find myself browsing this lovely blog and wonder if I’m just gifted. Throw away the past diagnoses that were “treatment-resistant” and maybe build some sort of self-esteem. What an idea! Thank you.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      There are cases where gifted folks are misdiagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome (there are a few traits that look similar). So, keep reading, Alice! 🙂

      1. ANON Avatar

        It’s best to be ungifted rather than be gifted so you would fit in.

  4. dw Avatar

    Awesome post as always Paula!

    I think there is a closely related (and implicitly present) question: can RFM kids become non-RFM adults? I think the answer is still “heck no!”, and many of your reasons for apparent ungiftedness also explain apparent non-RFM-ness. But then there is the weird edge case of RFM kids who grow up to look like gifted-but-not-RFM adults. They can enjoy professional and academic success, maybe even invent the next iPhone, but something about their focus and achievement has deadened them, and the crazy multicolored unicorn dreams of childhood with it.

    For most of my adult life, I’ve identified as intellectually gifted, but that giftedness has been arid, focused, and conditioned on losing the unicorn. With help, I was able to find it again. Given how overwhelming all that crazy multicolored energy can be, I wonder how I ever lost it! But this brings me to the point: to go from RFM kid to a seemingly gifted-but-not-RFM adult, the chainsaws are subtle. They do not necessarily belong to loggers, coming to cut down the towering kapoks. Instead, they belong to the practitioners of bonsai, who place the kapoks in small pots and carefully prune the roots and crown. This could mean institutions which filter for and reward certain sorts of giftedness (like you and Dr. Dad discussed above), but often they are people – parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, even therapists – who encourage us to succeed, but up to this point only, or on these terms, or by reflecting the virtue of this or that admirable system and not letting our own light shine out. They turn a kapok into something small, focused, and “perfect”, but according to rules they, and not the kapok, lays down. I think gifted RFMs need to beware the tray planters.

    I realize that for people who are still coming to embrace their giftedness, but happily identify as RFM, this may seem to put the cart before the unicorn. But I wanted to mention it in case there are others out there who felt that the same mild variation of circumstances applied.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      🙂 Ah yes, the cart before the unicorn theory…Thank you for this, dw. I appreciate this subtle variation along with your extension of the metaphor!

  5. Dr. Dad Avatar
    Dr. Dad

    One of the things I wonder about is environment. I knew many extraordinarily gifted people in college. Many of them have gone on to great things, and are leaders in difficult fields like AI, finance, game design, neuroscience, and journalism. This was not my path. I wonder what it’s like for these people. I bet they enjoy their colleagues and feel like they fit in.

    I have a general theory about high-IQ societies: that the people who do amazing things and fit in professionally don’t tend to join them, and they’re mostly for people like me who don’t find like minds in their environment.

    I enjoyed college perhaps too much, and I enjoyed graduate school, but, like many of the people you call rainforest minds, I had to put up with not fitting in for a terribly long time, and with people telling me that I was too intense, or that they were afraid of me. Yes, even in Academia. I veered away from Academia and enjoyed a career in international logistics, but one of the best things about that was being an expat. You don’t really have to fit in as an expat; it’s not one of the expectations for you. If you don’t really fit in with your coworkers, it’s fine, because half of them are from a different country and the other half are just temporary. Once I moved back to the States, it was back to people expecting they should understand me and being unable to, and to being bored by the people around me, who I felt I understood too easily.

    I have never worked in a highly intellectual environment (and, yes, I include Academia in that). There are superstars in Academia, but a lot of academics are simply superannuated graduate students who lacked the imagination to go farther, or the ability to get out of a dead end. I worked for a Fortune 500 company, but my colleagues there were mostly not very interesting. Perhaps the lack of a professional group whose intellects I appreciate has to do with being such a dilettante. Perhaps you have to work at a career for a long time until you get to the top tables. I never had the patience. My wife talks about how brilliant her colleagues are, and I’ve never had that experience, but then I’ve never stayed in the same career for more than a decade either.

    Oddly enough, since I left undergrad, the most interesting bunch of people I’ve known are my daughter’s friends’ parents, so I’m glad I get to spend some time with them these days. Sure, they probably think I’m a bit much too, but they take it with a better sense of humor. If I do something like sew Airbender themed halloween costumes for me and my daughter and go so far as to shave my head and paint a blue arrow on it, they don’t think it makes me frightening, just funny. (For the record, do not shave your head for a Halloween costume – it was cold out there without a hat!) If they’re over for quarantinis and I show them the frankenturkey I’m cooking for dinner (deboned and filled with lamb pilaf), they just chuckle and we agree we’ll have a proper dinner together once Covid is over. No fear, no stigma, just divergent paths that converged in a little knot of good humor.

    We never stop being who we are. We may run from it, but it won’t stop running behind us. If we’re open, and patient enough, we will notice, and eventually collect, like minds.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for this, Dr. Dad. I have had clients in different levels of Academia and they report that they haven’t found RFMs there. I’d be curious to know if you talk to your college friends, if they actually have found places where they fit. I probably have a skewed perspective because I hear from the people who are in pain. But I wonder.

      Would you be OK with me quoting you in a post? Your last paragraph? It may be time to write more about finding meaningful relationships. Let me know.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        I should add that I heard from a bloggEE who has been in Academia where she has met some RFMs. She suggested they are good at hiding or trying to fit in and that one of the challenges may be their multipotentiality. There can be an emphasis in Academia on staying within one field of study. I also wonder if there is often a highly competitive atmosphere that would discourage RFMs from participation. I realize that I have made a pretty broad generalization based on a small anecdotal sample! Another point is that not all intellectually gifted folks are RFMs, but all RFMs are intellectually gifted! Thank you to the bloggEE who wrote to me. 🙂

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Oh, and Airbender (I had to look it up) Halloween themed costumes sound fabulous, Dr. Dad.

          1. Dr. Dad Avatar
            Dr. Dad

            We used to watch Airbender with our son when it first came out. He’s sixteen now and away at college. Airbender has seen a revival this summer, and our daughter’s set of fourth graders are very into it. My son’s college even had a cultural lecture about it and social justice themes, such as imperialism, genocide, and resiliency. I think it’s a great show for kids and very funny.

            Fabulous costumes? You be the judge:


            I think my Tenzin costume came out a little better than my daughter’s Toph costume. Maybe it’s because I’m better at posing (I’m a poser from way back).

            In re: Academia, one of the issues I found there is with structural orthodoxy. Departments are run like little baronies. Someone fights to the top and then wants eternally to be praised and never disagreed with. If you don’t parrot the boss’s line, you can’t work. Some people’s minds work naturally to find flaws in ideas; I call it the agonistic method of learning. This can be uncomfortable in Academia, where each orthodoxy fought its way to dominate a prior orthodoxy. And when you bring in ideas from outside the discipline, some people just go haywire; their self-concept is based on knowing everything, and you’re outside their knowledge base, causing them fear. Just remember Sayre’s law, and it all makes sense: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

            Yes, finding meaningful relationships is crucial. It would be a great thing to write about.

            1. Paula Prober Avatar
              Paula Prober

              Yeah, Dr. Dad, fabulous sounds about right. 🙂

  6. Clara Fernandez Avatar
    Clara Fernandez

    I love your posts so much! Thank you for what you write, it helps a lot!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You are welcome! Thank you for writing!

  7. renovatio06 Avatar

    The fact that tears stream down my face – no matter, how hard I try to do the “stiff upper lip” or “manly man” thingy – tells me, how accurately you hit bull’s eye again! Thank you! I particularly love you for saying this:

    “You were raised in a family with a history of serious trauma. School was your sanctuary and you did well but at home you had to use your rainforest mind to stay safe and sane. Because of this resilience, you are now a compassionate, sensitive adult. You are not passing the trauma legacy on to anyone. But dealing with your Complex-PTSD did not give you much time or energy to invent the iPhone.”

    Spot on, I was. Not sure, though, whether I’d have ACTUALLY invented the iPhone, helped build a manned/mannable Tesla–shuttle to Mars or eradicated the disposition for getting cancer from the the human genome. But … I’d have had more resources to go about any of these things, true (or more modest, potentially also self–serving ones…). Going to treat myself to your “It’s not too late” post soon, when I found kitchen tissue to wipe down my cheeks, glasses and…ok.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It’s a sign of strength when a man can allow himself to cry.

      1. renovatio06 Avatar

        Thank you, Paula.

      2. renovatio06 Avatar

        Maybe it’s not too late to do what I think I’ve been dreaming of doing all along: (I won’t stand a chance in hell to actually stand up against the other contenders, but finishing it – or at least getting to some sort of completion – and getting to participate was the idea and maybe a first … step toward eventually finding a vocation).

        Thanks for all your wonderful blog postings and insights, empathy and compassion, Paula! You make a difference, in my world you do.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Did you create this animation renovatio06?

          1. renovatio06 Avatar

            Not the animation, but the music; it was a crowdfunding scoring to picture competition (#scorerelief2021) to relieve the impact of covid-19 on related branches of the music industry, like e.g. lighting, sound engineers, production crews, transportation etc. I’ve been seeking to get my toes wet with all things film score for some time now; this here gave me another incentive to actually go about something.

            1. Paula Prober Avatar
              Paula Prober

              Glad you went for it! Good luck!

              1. renovatio06 Avatar

                Thank you, Paula!

  8. ellabirt Avatar

    I see me in those bullet points. I was needing this comfort.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober


  9. Marregn Avatar

    Sometimes I think, “Why am I even reading these posts when I’m not even gifted?” But then all of a sudden you write about things that truly hit home and help me remember that somewhere in my mind of gears and cogs there’s a languid yet hyper world (the irony!) where everything flows with raw energy. At times it feels like I’m too different to fit in but not unique enough to shine, however your poetic, relatable, and reassuring articles spark within me hope. Thank you for hope, Paula.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You are exactly the person I’m writing for, Marregn. <3

  10. Eliette II Avatar
    Eliette II

    Not fitting in with other people’s framework can really make me feel un-gifted. To the point it causes so much confusion. I think, it’s really important to know yourself for who you are, this way you won’t be hurt from rejection or any other issues. because you understand of what’s really happening. Just speaking from my experience 🙂 love you all, rainforestminded people.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Love you back, Eliette II!

  11. Deborah Nam-Krane Avatar
    Deborah Nam-Krane

    Love this post. Life happened, indeed. Best part was becoming a parent. It wasn’t the mental energy that my little fellow rainforest dwellers took from me, it was the physical energy, primarily sleep. Plus growing up with two chainsaws and (for a while) being married to one. Thank you for the reminder that it’s not too late to be the person I was when I was younger.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes. Never too late. Thank you, Deborah!

  12. Cornelia Avatar

    This post… Thank you Paula.

    I was a highly sensitive, creative child who loved to learn. But no one knew I was highly gifted (or maybe someone did, but I sure didn’t. It wasn’t until just a few years ago I myself realized that I am, and when I later found your blog… Well, I’m so happy I did!)

    But then life happened.

    When I was 13 my father almost died from a stroke, and just a few years later my mother survived cancer. And the pressure from school at that time was huge. My teenage years were all lived in survival mode.

    In my mid-twenties, not surprisingly, I hit the wall, and all my energy was depleted. I was totally exhausted.

    Now I’m 31, compassionate and sensitive. And tired. Oh, so tired. It feels like my rainforest has burned down, it’s all foggy and silent. Most of the time I feel ungifted. But from time to time I can see a glimpse of light. Some days I don’t feel dumb. Some days I even feel some enthusiasm and creativity. And I still love to learn.

    Your blog post gave me hope. Maybe some day I can be the unicorn I was meant to be. 🦄

    Thank you, Paula, for the love and inspiration! ❤️

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Absolutely, Cornelia! You can be that unicorn!! 🙂

  13. Danielle Avatar

  14. veroniqz Avatar

    I would love to believe there is stille a chance to prove my worthiness… But I am one of those who feels it’s too late, the moment has passed, the decline has started, I have failed to find my purpose.
    Although your post gives me a sparkle of hope…😊

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      First, veroniqz, your worth is not based on achievements. Our worthiness is about who we are as humans. And I’m guessing that you are a compassionate, kind, and loving person! That’s where your worth lies! That said, it’s never too late to find more meaning and purpose and to take action. I didn’t start blogging until I was 62!! Sending love. <3

      1. veroniqz Avatar

        Thank you, Paula! I am trying to find enough confidence to decide which action to take, but I do have a little love left to send back…❤️🌹😊

  15. Evangelina Camborda Avatar
    Evangelina Camborda

    Thank you for this from the bottom of my heart.

  16. Siobhan Avatar

    Bullseye! Thank you for this. I’m learning to be unashamedly gifted again.

  17. Elke Campforts Avatar
    Elke Campforts

    Hello Paula,

    Because I gathered my courage to write a (late) review for your book this afternoon (which I read 3 years ago), and now you are writing about unicorns I thought I should reply to your post.

    I don’t want to use your blog for advertising, but would like to share the drawing I started to draw all over again the moment I opened your blogpost (it needs some changes).

    *Unicorn carries you. He teaches you how to increase your inner space and let heavy emotions be there, but not be swallowed by them. Your inner landscape is rich and unlimited. He teaches you to run through it. There is no reason to dwell on something for too long.*

    [image: image.jpeg]

    I still doubt whether I can call myself gifted.

    As a child I was very eager to learn, wanted to learn to read and write as quickly as possible and then read everything I could find, I always had a great hunger to understand as much as possible. I never found that I had all the answers. On the contrary, everything I learned just raised more questions. I drove my mom crazy with all my questions she couldn’t answer. I believe that I have always been a procrastinating, perfectionistic, ruminating, self-doubting, overwhelmed, unicorn mess, also when I was a child :).

    I never really felt safe at home, meanwhile know that my parents are suffering a serious trauma and that because of that I did not receive the emotional support I needed. I felt a huge responsibility towards my mother and like a burden to my father. I find it difficult to speak about ‘chain saw’ because it gives the impression that they have deliberately neglected me emotionally. Sometimes it is life itself that causes trauma.

    Studying and getting good results was something that was stimulated and for which I received recognition. I studied easily and got good grades, but what I liked most and where I could lose myself completely was writing, reading, listening to music, drawing and painting. My greatest desire as a child was always to become an artist. Preferably with a life like Gauguin’s: alone, far away, in a jungle on a tropical island :).

    But since I was a good student, going to art school was not an option, not for my parents because they wanted me to study something with guarantees for a job, and not for myself because I was too anxious and socially insecure. I am very introverted and saw art school as a place where you had to learn to promote yourself.

    Second choices were literary history, psychology, antropology or philosophy, but finally I chose a scientific study (forestry, hoping I would end up somewhere in a rainforest :)) at the university, mainly because exact sciences don’t require you to reveal much of yourself.

    A few years ago I got stuck and got a burnout. I was bored to death in my 9-to-5 job, where I counted the minutes away, feeling that I had too little time for my husband and three children and no time at all to do things to recharge my own battery. I realized I have always chosen out of fear. I stopped working (luckily my husband supported me in that) and started drawing again. By way of self-therapy.

    You could say that I reached the goal I had as a 7 year old, except that I`m not living isolated on an island, but in a house with my husband and 3 loud and attention-needed children :).

    Sometimes I still feel that I have failed because I have a high degree which I did not validate with a good job. I am not (yet) able to earn an income for myself. I still need to find out a way to earn money in a way that will not break me again. In my art I am not technically able to do what I want to be able to and have the feeling that I have to make up for many lost years.

    But what I have received in return is immense. I feel like I own my life, and I realize every day that it was not an obvious choice, but the first one that I really made consciously and I am willing to bear the consequences.

    Thank you for your posts. They give courage, also for the-maybe-maybe-not-so-gifted 🙂


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Hi Elke. The drawing didn’t come through. I don’t know why. And thank you so much for the book review! Those are always appreciated. Thank you for sharing your story here.

  18. Kalpana Gowda, PhD Avatar
    Kalpana Gowda, PhD

    I love reading your posts but this one is AMAZING and so thorough!!! Thank you…. means a lot to me and also I share these ideas with so many of my gifted clients who show up to my office discouraged and disheartened. I deeply appreciate the way you put all of these thoughts together, included becoming a parent (that’s usually how I find gifted adults…they have questions about their kids!), and your overall blog and work.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Glad you like it, Kalpana. And thank you for sharing my work with your clients.

  19. hksounds Avatar

    Hi Paula, It’s sad to learn that this can happen to gifted folks. I have not, so far, had that happen to me. I guess at 75 there’s still time, but I am doubtful. It would be interesting to know why only some of those who experienced those factors you listed, as I did, seem to lose it while others do not.

    I wish you well in these difficult times. I look on in horror at what my old homeland has turned into.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      At 75, hksounds, you probably don’t have to worry! 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

    2. Kristen Shields Avatar
      Kristen Shields

      Sometimes “losing it” is in the perception. I don’t look like much to outsiders, but to those who know me well (coincidentally, also rainforest minds) I’m still that same kid inside, showing on the outside. Traumas and all. As for being 75 and still having it … good for you! There’s a strong gifted thread in our family tree … my grandpa will be 104 this December, and he’s still got it … most of it, anyway, 2020 having been a heck of a year for all of us and him landing in the hospital 3 times due to medical neglect … but he’s still plenty sharp underneath what everyone sees. (He’s got them all fooled that he’s not dealing with dementia, he’s THAT sharp still, he’s gonna keep ticking forever! It all runs in the family.) My grandma’s hit her century this year and also still plenty sharp underneath the issues that cloud her day-to-day. Love ’em dearly.

      1. Someti Avatar

        I am so glad to read this! Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece of your family history! 🙂

      2. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Wow, Kristen. Love hearing about your gifted family tree!