Dr. Richard O'Connor
(860) 364-9300

Giftedness & Depression

A few years ago a colleague and I both noticed that among our depressed patients were a significant number who had been identified as gifted children.  Some of them used their gifts to become outwardly successful, while others seemed to struggle with the burden of their “potential”—but all were depressed.  We began the group with the hypothesis that perhaps there was something about the nature of giftedness itself that led to grief for our members; and though we did find that qualities like being highly intellectualized or "too intense" (see below) contributed to members' difficulties, in the end we believe that it was not giftedness itself that was the chief source of unhappiness.

Instead, we realized (as we should have known all along, since all the members suffered from depression and shaky self-esteem) that the problem was, for each individual member, that the pursuit of or expression of talents was being used in an attempt to relieve a sense of personal unlovability, inadequacy, or alienation. This attempt was doomed from the outset for two reasons. First, and most important, accomplishments, relationships, or recognition never heal deep-seated doubts about the self; rather, like an addiction, they provide temporary satisfaction but leave the individual craving more.  Second, the attempt to heal the self through external validation is inevitably self-defeating because the relentless pursuit of accomplishments, relationships, or recognition makes the individual unreliable and unsuccessful as a partner, friend, or employee. He swings between extremes of being overly enthusiastic, anxious to please or show off or otherwise win the desired validation, and being depressed, withdrawn, bitter, and self-centered when the validation isn't forthcoming or is inadequate (as it ultimately must be) to heal the self. Indeed, each new setback becomes a reenactment of a primary traumatic disappointment in the failure of the environment to provide the basic nutrients for development of a cohesive self, resulting in empty sadness and rage, a fierceness in disappointment. It was in the expression of this rage that giftedness could be seen to play a role, sometimes in withdrawal into "splendid isolation"—a kind of haughty grandiosity that others would inevitably experience as off-putting; sometimes in manifestations of "intensity"—being too needy, too demanding, too much the help-rejecting complainer. Sometimes the rage could be turned on the self, and feelings of excessive guilt or inadequacy would flood consciousness. Giftedness became the blunt instrument used to try to fix all problems—a way to gain attention, affirmation, and self esteem, yet never giving the person what he really wants. The gift never lives up to its hoped-for potential.

We felt that each member was living out a version of the same basic narrative. Each had been raised by parents who were critical, remote, or abusive. Each had discovered that expression of their individual talents was a way of temporarily gaining parental approval, or at least that in school, being bright, cooperative, or inquisitive won interest and approval from teachers. Each more or less settled early on this as a life script—to be smart and talented, to achieve success or recognition academically (and later, by extension, through financial or social accomplishment) became the primary strategy for relieving doubts about the self. But early experience of inadequate or destructive parenting had left weaknesses in the foundation of the self that could not be repaired no matter what the adult self accomplished.

In fact, some members also expressed that they themselves continued the critical/abusive treatment they received as a child by developing critical inner voices—no accomplishment was ever good enough. Also mentioned by some members was internal critical thinking that focuses on others—no relationship, job, or other person could be good enough. These types of criticism function like Teflon to keep people from internalizing the good in their lives. Positive accomplishments, good advice, and loving others all fail to sink in and heal—they slide off, leaving the person unfulfilled and angry.

Lest we be accused of merely blaming parents, we can point out that there are many reasons why parents may be unable to give a young child what he needs to develop healthy self-esteem. In our group, some parents were Holocaust survivors; one mother went through a severe post-partum depression; alcohol, poor health, and adverse economic circumstances played a role in other families. Birth order and the jealousy of older siblings can play a part. And there can be simply be a bad fit between a child who is by temperament active and inquisitive, and parents who are unable to provide adequate responsiveness because of their own emotional make-up. Some of our members had formed a loving and respectful bond as adults with their parents, and felt strongly that they wanted to be "over with" painful childhood memories. Yet attaining that understanding had not healed damage to the self, any more than being gifted or accomplished.

There were other themes that members mentioned as ways their narratives had played out. One recurring issue was disappointment in mentors; people whom members had trusted, depended on, and looked up to, in the end turned out to be unreliable or worse, fakes. Allied to this was the theme of overreliance on authority figures to the exclusion of peers; the theme of being the teacher's pet was carried forward into adult life and the workplace. Being overly eager to please the boss earns the distrust of co-workers, no matter how enlightened the workplace. Some members recognized that they were often seen as "earnest"—well-meaning but naive and somehow unlikeable, sometimes the butt of jokes or sadistic behavior. Sometimes this earnestness was exploited by others, and members developed a hypersensitivity to exploitation. Depending on whether members tended to blame others or blame themselves, the playing out of these themes could result in a cynical, distrustful detachment or a desperate redoubling of efforts to fit in (or a vacillation between the two extremes); but neither isolation nor ingratiation led to a better feeling about the self.

Another theme that did not attract so much discussion but seemed to be active for some of our members was what we called the "wise child" adaptation. Children who grow up in a chaotic or unpredictable atmosphere may develop exceptional observational skills, heightened empathic attunement, and a detached, self-contained demeanor. They stay out of trouble and don't attract attention. But because they've learned that asking to have their needs met can be dangerous, they grow into lonely adults.

In our last meeting discussion turned to the metaphor of "Vitamin K," a hypothetical nutrient the need for which drives behavior much like an iron deficiency is supposed to result in a craving for leafy vegetables, without conscious awareness of an iron deficiency. Members considered the idea that some of their behavior might be motivated by a powerful and unconscious need for a magical nutrient that could heal the basic fault within the self. One wondered aloud if Vitamin K might not even exist, which brought up the notion that the members were all aliens, fundamentally unsuited for life on earth. Given the depth of members' striving, and the string of bad luck and disappointment if not outright abuse and exploitation that many had suffered, such a feeling was very understandable.

But, as we've implied, we felt that the real problem was that members had been looking for love in all the wrong places—looking outside, to success, accomplishments, or to other people—when they had to begin to look inside and learn to love themselves. Time did not permit us to go very far down this road; and unfortunately a great deal of talk on the subject of learning to love oneself amounts to fatuous self-affirmations with little demonstrable value. We will return to this subject in the last section, however, when we consider writing a new narrative for the self.

Other problems, ways in which giftedness complicates things:

  • Disappointment in mentors
  • Earnestness, eager to please—but hypersensitive to exploitation
  • Overinvesting in authorities, indifference to peers
  • The wise child adaptation—detached, observant, heightened empathic attunement—but lonely, depressed, lacks confidence
  • Tolerance for ambiguity & complexity leads to difficulty making decisions, difficulty with career path
  • Becoming one-dimensional. Brain on a stick as one example
  • Intensity—too needy, too sensitive, too friendly, too excited, too driven, too disorganized, too fast, too competitive, too arrogant, work too hard Anti-procrastination disease
  • Desire for high stimulus situations--mischief, smug, bored, know-it-all; or procrastination, risk taking, need to make life difficult in order to feel like a hero
  • Thinking too much, can't turn it off, obsessional style
  • Not having goals or never being satisfied; perfectionism; confusing exhaustion for accomplishment
  • Being smarter as a way of expressing anger

Creating a Responsive Environment

  • (Like this group)—a place to brag, expound, be serious, bitch, gain sympathy and support
  • Intentional community (Hope's group)
  • Book groups
  • Success team (Barbara Sher)
  • Learning to ask for help
  • Special issues of singles
  • Didn't get to:
  • Dealing with your family and friends
  • Work environment
  • Finding a boss
  • Being your own boss
  • Alone time

Learning New Skills

  • First of all—accepting our basic needs for love, respect, validation. Maybe this is the biggest problem of giftedness
  • Social skills
  • Assertiveness skills
  • Being aware of "spilling"
  • Learning to follow the thread—the unspoken but understood subject matter of a conversation from which digressions are frowned on
  • Learning to read the response accurately—nonverbal communication
  • Learning how to ask for feedback
  • Slow down, engage brain before mouth
  • Develop "buy in"—give others a chance to ask their questions, express their doubts; and then don't take these as personal criticisms but as helpful suggestions
  • The quirky sense of humor, love of irony, complex jokes, obscure references—respect your context!
  • With intimates—work on clear ground rules for communication
  • "I" statements
  • Making it clear what you want—I want understanding, not advice (or vice versa)
  • Metacommunication—what's being expressed about the relationship by the music, not the words themselves. Learning to talk about this.

Self-observation skills

  • Excessive self-blame and excessive self-consciousness—learning to "cut the tape" of obsessive thinking. Learning to be more forgiving of any perceived "mistake"—just how important is this really?
  • Excessive responsibility—learning to question whether everything is your fault, whether you are the center of attention (the universe)
  • Conducting a continual, objective moral inventory—what really is your responsibility—remembering the twin poles of excessive guilt (everything is my fault) and victimhood (nothing is my fault)
  • The value of doing something—as opposed to obsessing forever about finding out the "right" thing to do
  • Learning to distance self somewhat from mood and emotions—they won't last forever, they don't have to control your decision making, you can usually do what needs to be done despite them (and often feel better as a result)
  • "Cool my head and warm my heart"—paying attention to intuition, hunches, inner feelings. Not thinking too much
  • Mindfulness, or compassionate curiosity
  • Learning to suspend judging the self
  • Mindful observation and investigation of the self—freeing self from expectations and preconceptions


The word mindfulness is used in a variety of ways. Used in the context of the group, mindfulness is just one more tool that can be used to increase self awareness. Emotional healing, healing that is deep and lasting, usually requires a better understanding of oneself. This only makes sense, as it is very difficult to make needed changes, mourn losses, and move on without first understanding what one's emotional reality is.

What mindfulness can offer is the ability to observe oneself without the usual judgment or criticism. Negativity has a way of shutting people down. Criticism and judgment awaken all one's defenses—denial, projection, or that foggy unfocused feeling that stops you dead in your tracks.

Mindfulness is the process of simply trying to witness and observe one's thought processes, behavior, and reactions to others without judging. It is the ability to see oneself with an increased clarity; and most importantly, with compassion or a lightness. A kind of, "Wow, I'm seeing a pattern in my behavior of rejecting others—it's subtle but it's there" vs. "I can't believe what a jerk I am being, no wonder I have no close friends" or "People really can't be trusted, they're always pushing me away." By kindly observing ourselves we have a better chance of learning to adjust and change. It is much easier to make changes based on compassion or more positive means instead of negative—like the feedback we get from others. It's a lot easier to accept when it's presented in a loving or productive way. Doesn't it make sense that the feedback that we give ourselves needs to be provided in the same fashion?

Mindfulness doesn't come easily to the gifted. It involves deliberately trying to suspend operation of the part of ourselves we're most secure about—our logical minds. Most gifted people have highly developed skills in analysis, problem solving, and critical thinking. These abilities are indeed valuable, but when they're applied too intensely to the self they backfire. Willingness to accept the value of mindfulness implies a recognition that one's point of view has been skewed for a long time, and that it's necessary to look at the self from an entirely new perspective. To use another metaphor, it's a recognition that we've been trying to bake the cake with all the ingredients but sugar; mindfulness supplies the sweetness and flavor we need to add to our understanding of ourselves.

Lastly, mindfulness takes practice. It is not a process that comes easily or naturally to most. It is a process that can be learned and incorporated into daily living with support and practice. There are numerous books and articles written about how to use this tool. An excellent resource is Emotional Alchemy, by Tara Bennett-Goleman.

Correcting for mood as an archer corrects for the wind—your perception is distorted

When you're depressed, your chances of success are probably better than you think. But when you're off on a tear, maybe you're being overconfident

Taking responsibility for your gifts—if your arms are longer than others, be careful how you swing them

Writing a New Narrative

A narrative is the "story beneath the story" that we live out on a daily basis. There is the story we tell the world about ourselves, for example what we have chosen for work, our lifestyle choices and the persona we present to others. Underneath this layer of our personality is another story, the story that drives much of our emotional life, the deeply ingrained beliefs that color how we view the world and how we react to it. It is this story we refer to when we use the word narrative.

A narrative is a recurring theme, our character rather than our conscious self, the unconscious assumptions and distortions in how we perceive reality, the "tragic flaw." If The Odyssey is about exile and return, it's Odysseus's own overweening pride that banishes him in the first place. If Hamlet is about betrayal and revenge, it's Hamlet's own character—the combination of hesitation and impulsivity—that leads to tragedy. If The Catcher in the Rye is about a grieving adolescent, it's Holden's character—his moral outrage and deep distrust—that makes it hard for him to heal. Character is the force that drives the story. We're fascinated by narratives in literature because we have some unconscious awareness of how our own tragic flaws lead us to grief.

A narrative is often a sane reaction to an insane or difficult childhood. It is our mind and being trying hard to adapt and survive emotionally and sometimes even physically. Often these narratives are a double-edged sword, helpful to us at times and damaging at others. Consider someone who learns to become extremely self-sufficient as a result of a neglectful childhood. Self-sufficiency is a wonderful trait, but taken too far it can create a person who cannot accept the help and support of others. A person with this narrative carries into the world a story that says "I can only rely on myself." As a result they never allow themselves to trust others completely, and create an isolated lifestyle. Many times this is not done consciously, but a pattern emerges where the person always ends up alone. They pick the wrong partners, they leave relationships too early, they pick occupations or interests that make close relationships difficult, etc. Rather than focusing on the environment or the "string of bad luck," narrative work looks at the patterns or behaviors that help create these situations over and over again.

It is impossible to create change in one's long-standing habits without first understanding what they are. Understanding one's narrative can be another tool to help one grow, change, and heal the emotional wounds of the past and the present. It is also a way of preventing the creation of new loss and pain.

Cutting a new path through the jungle

The old, worn path through the jungle is habits, expectations, automatic responses to familiar stimuli, established neural circuits. If we want to cut a new path it will be very hard at first and our progress will be slow. It would be much easier and quicker just to follow the old established trail. But the old path is what creates our unhappiness.

  • Use the power of positive expectations
  • Develop awareness of evidence that disconfirms negative expectations
  • Beware of entitlement
  • Positive entitlement
  • I'm really smart, so I don't have to prepare, work hard, etc.
  • People who don't understand me are dumb
  • People who don't do things my way are dumb, stubborn, jealousÉ.
  • Negative entitlement
  • I'm too much (too sensitive, too needy, too demanding, too picky. . . )
  • I'm so special I wasn't meant for this world, will never be happy
November 2, 2011

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Undoing Depression

Dr. Richard O'Connor maintains an office in Sharon, Connecticut. Call 860-364-9300 or email rchrdoconnor@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation.