Posted on: Jan 30, 2011

Coming out Gifted™

Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC

The caller says they went to my website and started to cry. I have heard this reaction before. It isn't because they read the page on addictions or the one on depression. There is only one page that evokes this response. The caller has read about giftedness on my website. The information is new to them. Some people have always known they are gifted; this article is about those who have not.

The tears come from the shock of recognition, the personal "aha", the sense of relief, and the prospect of a new path. Who isn't drawn to a way of understanding themselves that seems to explain the sense of differentness, the longing for something more, and the sometimes painful comparisons with others? It is the awakening of something long forgotten or never named. It is the beginning of a redefinition of identity.

Understanding yourself as a gifted person can be compared to the coming out process for gays. The analogy is not perfect, but there are useful parallels. Both gays and gifted people are invisible minorities. Both gays and gifted people may come to this awareness at different points in life, and may have been unable to previously articulate the nature of their difference. Both gays and gifted people are born and not made. Both gayness and giftedness are fixed traits that last a lifetime. And the claiming of one's gayness or giftedness, be it publicly or privately, contributes to one's identity and capacity to function more fully in the world.

Has the caller been told at some point that they are too intense, too sensitive, too focused or not focused enough? Has their giftedness been pathologized? Or is it more complicated? After all, gifted people can have mental health diagnoses, too. Is the caller, starting a "coming out" process or something else?

Coming out for gays refers to the process of developing a positive gay identity. It is often described in stages-before coming out, coming out, exploration, relationships and integration. The before coming out phase for gifted people may be characterized by a feeling of isolation and loneliness, a sense of being different in some way or not fitting in. They may not know why they feel this way. The gifted person may compare themselves to others, questioning whether they are as smart as this person or that. Or they may be ostracized for not fitting in, for their persistence, or for their frustrations with the slower pace of others. They may feel the pain of mistreatment and life's injustices more acutely than their age-related peers. Their sensitivities and predisposition toward introversion serve to make it harder to find friends. All of these can contribute to a feeling of alienation from others and the belief that something is wrong—with them.

The coming out phase starts when a person begins to acknowledge their giftedness. The person may discover the concept of overexcitabilities and how it applies to them. This information may be eye-opening as they realize that there are some neurological differences that explain why they are the way they are. They can acquire an understanding of the benefits and liabilities associated with their unique set of gifted qualities, and begin to think about how they want to manage the downside while benefiting from the upside of their intensity. At this stage it is also useful to tell someone else what they have discovered. How the confidant responds will be important. After all, identity is not created in a vacuum. We identify ourselves though relationships with others.

The next phase is "exploration". Now the gifted person may experiment with giving full expression to their passions, collections and interests. If they used to believe that they had a hard time sticking with a task or topic, they may now understand it as an expression of their eclectic interests. What before might have seemed flighty can now be understood as sampling what life has to offer. Their curiosity, drive, and persistence are to be valued as an expression of entelechy.

The next phase reflects the fact that we are social beings. Our relationships may be changed as a result of "coming out gifted". Or we may seek new ones. We may come to understand the contribution giftedness made, if any, to previous relationship failures. There is evidence that too great a disparity in intelligence (one measure of giftedness) between intimate partners can have a destabilizing effect on the relationship. We may get a greater understanding of how our gifted attributes have made us a bit of a "tough customer" in relationships.

The last phase in the coming out process is an on-going one of integration. The gifted person incorporates their giftedness into their identity. They are accepting of who they are and can fully embrace the way their own unique set of gifted qualities has shaped their relationship with self, other and community. In the integration stage the gifted person moderates frustrating environments with beneficial ones, thereby making life more enjoyable. This phase of life is characterized by greater pleasure and expression of giftedness in an environment that is more custom built.

I return the call. We talk, and like any other experienced psychotherapist, I know that we are about to embark on a journey. All the usual truths apply; I don't know where the journey will take us nor how long it will take. What I do know is that witnessing and guiding the coming out process is deeply meaningful and rewarding.

Perfectionism: From the inside out or the outside in?

Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC

Published Apr 1, 2011 at

I've been thinking about varieties of perfectionism since having a discussion with a gifted trauma survivor. 

It became clear that some of their perfectionism was an expression of giftedness and some was related to family of origin issues.

Same outcome, different sources.

Does the source of perfectionism matter? I think it does.

By understanding the differences we can clarify what can be embraced and managed, and what can be healed. Different sources, different strategies.

Much has been written about perfectionism and its relationship with giftedness.

The gifted person is driven to express their interests and pursuits. Perfectionism is about passion, energy, and focus.

The person may feel exhausted, tortured and frustrated, but the process can be interesting and rewarding, too.

If their creative endeavor falls short, the gifted person pushes onward to get as close as they can to what they envision. Perfectionism is connected to developmental potential and entelechy. It is the determination to be the best one can be. This type of perfectionism is rooted internally in giftedness. It is intrinsic. It moves from the “inside out”.

Another type of perfectionism is rooted in having an impaired parent (or two).

This type of perfectionism is a response to outside circumstances.

It is a consequence of abandonment and neglect. Its source is external.

This perfectionism is an adaptation. It moves from the “outside in”.

Every child needs parents who are capable and healthy, especially psychologically.

A child's normal development is undermined if the parent is impaired, especially if the impairment is chronic, and minimized or denied.

The child will try hard to be who their parent wants them to be and fill in the gaps however they can.

The child hopes that their efforts will restore the parent to health. This is true of all children, gifted or not.

A gifted child may be particularly vulnerable to being exploited by an impaired parent, especially if their gifts lend themselves to caretaking, or to helping the parent realize the parent's own unfulfilled dreams.

The caretaking can take many forms. The child may become amusing when the parent is sad, responsible when the parent is incapable, accomplished when the parent is inadequate.

Gifted children can be a great source of “narcissistic supply” for their parent.

But in doing so, the child's development is compromised as their own needs become subsumed under the needs of the parent. These sometimes Herculean childhood efforts have profound and predictable effects on children, one of which is perfectionism.

If the child does not feel intrinsically loveable, they may decide unconsciously that love must be earned or won.

They might think to themselves that if they are perfect, maybe their parent's problems will be eased and love will be their reward.

Perfectionism appears to be a solution to their difficulties.

The child is unaware that this is unreasonable.

This notion is driven by their difficult circumstances; it is extrinsic. It comes from the “outside in”, not from the “inside out”.

This type of perfectionism can be linked to procrastination. Procrastination is an indicator that completing the task perfectly is not likely to produce the unconsciously hoped for result.

And shaming oneself into trying harder only increases the impasse.

Surprisingly, procrastination can be the voice of reason counteracting the unreasonable belief that perfection is the solution.

Procrastination is a natural consequence.

Perfectionism that is associated with parental impairment can be healed.

By focusing on claiming one's true self, this “outside in” type of perfectionism loosens its grip, and as a result, the tendency to procrastinate resolves.

Thankfully, giftedness is associated with resilience.

For the gifted person who grew up caretaking an impaired parent, both types of perfectionism are likely present.

Being able to discern the difference can help one be compassionate towards oneself.

Resilience and determination can help the gifted person heal and harness the power of their positive drive to enjoy life more fully.

The gifted person can use their resilience to live more from the “inside out”.



As an expression of giftedness

As a response to an impaired parent

Intrinsically motivated

Extrinsically motivated

Enhances the sense of self

Undermines the sense of self

An expression of developmental potential

Inhibits developmental potential

Can increase a sense of agency

Is not associated with agency

About fulfilling own expectations

About fulfilling others’ expectations

Not related to procrastination

Often related to procrastination

Needs to be managed to better serve self

Needs to be healed

Posted on: Sep 17, 2011

3 Things to Learn From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — A Gifted Trauma Survivor

Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC

Published Sep 1, 2011 at

Spoiler alert -- this posting may reveal plot information.

Lisbeth Salander is the fictional heroine of Steig Larsson's trilogy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. As the heroine, Lisbeth Salander embodies certain characteristics of giftedness, and these characteristics help her survive terrible, long-term physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

What helps Lisbeth Salander survive her ordeals?

Good problem solving skills mediate trauma.

Lisbeth Salander survives traumas that might lead to addiction or the suicide of a less resilient character. Giftedness contributes to her resiliency by aiding her problem solving, which increases her ability to cope.

Her giftedness provides a supportive mediating factor to the experience of trauma.

It allows her to hold on to the knowledge of what was done to her without questioning, minimizing or rationalizing away the reality of what happens, or internalizing a false belief that she has done something to deserve it.

She is able to squarely face the truth, and not be broken by it.

If you are a gifted trauma survivor, trust that your problem solving abilities will help you.

Use your giftedness to hold on to the truth of what happened.

Resist the urge to internalize what is done to you.

Claim resilience as part of your nature.

To learn more about this, read Drama of the gifted child by Alice Miller. This short but emotionally powerful book has become a classic and may help you view your childhood from a different perspective.

Integrity helps maintain self-respect.

Gifted people tend to put a lot of thought into determining the right course of action -- a course of action that serves the greater good and is consistent with a sense of personal integrity. These moral codes may not always match cultural or legal norms.

Lisbeth Salander is victimized under the guise of a legal authority, but her treatment is immoral. More than most, she understands that what is legal is not always moral, and that what is moral is not always legal. One is not a guarantee of the other.

Lisbeth Salander acts in defense of the underdog while meting out harsh judgment to those who wrong her and others. She takes care to support those that help her along the way, and makes amends to those intimates that are harmed by her enemies.

She finds solutions outside the traditional legal channels that, in some instances, prevent further abuse by her perpetrators.

While we may not approve of her harsh actions or the nature of her integrity, there is an internal moral consistency to what she does. Maintaining personal integrity and morality in the face of trauma and abuse can mitigate some of the harmful effects.

If you are a gifted trauma survivor, please know that I am not advocating that you take harmful actions against those that have hurt you, after all Lisbeth Salander is fictional. But I am suggesting that you act in accordance with your highest moral values. Living life with integrity, even if others do not, can contribute to a healthy sense of self.

For more information about this topic, I recommend Don Ambrose's article, "Morality and high ability: Navigating a landscape of altruism and malevolence" in the book, Morality, ethics and gifted minds.

Be responsible for your own destiny.

Gifted people tend to be independent and place a high value on autonomy and self-determination. They have the capacity to think outside the box and the drive to be the best they can be. Some people call this entelechy.

Lisbeth Salander spends much of her life institutionalized or under government supervision. Rather than succumb to the dependency and learned helplessness that is a common result of extended institutionalization, she fights to develop her own life and escapes the abusive control of those who try to subjugate her.

Once she attains her independence, she guards it fiercely. She finds a way to access resources that allow her to live an independent life.

If you are a gifted trauma survivor, your life may depend upon your independence and capacity to develop your own skills, even within the constraints of your situation. Harness your drive and energy to help yourself feel better physically and psychologically. Healing the effect of trauma can help you live the kind of life that you want.

For more information, check out the article, Encountering the gifted self again, for the First Time by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen on this website. She has good sections titled "Independence and Perceptivity" and "Driven Goal Orientation".


Lisbeth Salander is frequently believed to have Asperger's Syndrome.

The character that knows her best and is most kind to her, Holger Palmgren, describes her as having some Asperger-like qualities, but not enough to warrant the diagnosis.

He also states that she does not fit the diagnostic criteria of any particular diagnosis despite many psychiatric assessments.

He describes her as answering correctly every question on a Mensa intelligence test and having a photographic memory.

In creating Lisbeth Salander, Steig Larsson was inspired by Pippi Longstocking, the iconic child character with red braids and super-human strength. Pippi lives alone and has many adventures, alone and with friends. She is not a character that is associated with Aspergers.

For more information about Asperger's Syndrome and giftedness, check out Misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses of gifted children and adults, by James Webb, et al.