Your Rainforest Mind

Support for the Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive

Pressure, Paralysis And Your Great Potential


photo courtesy of Unsplash Jayakumar Ananthan CC

photo courtesy of Unsplash Jayakumar Ananthan CC

Have people repeatedly accused you of not living up to your potential? Were you called an underachiever when your grades in school were not A’s? Are people shocked and disappointed that you didn’t become a Nobel prize winning neurosurgeon? Are you convinced that all of the talk of giftedness was not meant for you and your real IQ test must’ve been eaten by aliens?

Yes? Then, you must be suffering from High Potential Deficit Disorder. (HPDD)

HPDD is a common malady among humans who are super smart but don’t perform up to a standard that society decides equals greatness or eminence. Onset of the condition is usually during early school years when paralysis sets in from an overdose of dullness due to too many worksheets and not enough actual learning. HPDD worsens if you were told, directly or indirectly, that your accomplishments were what made you lovable and worthwhile. 

HPDD can be particularly intense when accompanied by other conditions such as ADHD, SPD (sensory processing disorder), anxiety or depression. Symptoms include: extreme pressure to be smart or right at all times, eventual avoidance of situations that might be intellectually challenging, chronic loss of curiosity and effervescence, FDE (fear of disappointing everyone), FBM (fear of being misunderstood), and FOB (fear of boredom).

What can you do if you suffer from HPDD?

Decide for yourself how to define achievement. Write your own treatise on what makes a human successful. Record in your journal your memories of what was said about your potential and feel your feelings as you write. Then, design a plan to live according to your own assessment of a life worth living.

If your HPDD feels overwhelming, unmanageable or destructive, there may be another co-existing condition. You may have GUCP. Growing Up with Chainsaw Parents. In that case, find a therapist– One who loves rainforest minds and understands the predicament — the pressure and paralysis of your great potential.


To my dear blogEEs: Were you told how much potential you had and how you weren’t living up to it? What was that like? What did you do? Does it still affect you? How have you dealt with it? Thank you, as always, for your insight, sensitivity and kindness.

This post is part of a collection of great posts on “other achieving.” To read more click on the link.  12642533_10207269014896228_7155678351495096720_n

Author: Paula Prober

I'm a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in counseling gifted adults and consulting with parents of gifted children. The label "gifted" is often controversial and confusing. I use the metaphor of the rainforest to describe this population. Like the rainforest, these individuals are quite complex, highly sensitive, intense, multi-layered, and misunderstood. They're also curious, idealistic, highly intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, and they love learning. I've been an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I've written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, and Advanced Development Journal. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, was released in June 2016 by GHF Press and is available on Amazon or at your independent bookstore. 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, was released in June 2019.

60 thoughts on “Pressure, Paralysis And Your Great Potential

  1. What can be a great achievement for one person, is a cinch for another; even between two people of similar intelligence. We all have different life experience and different challenges to face. Personally, I appear to be a woeful underachiever. Find out what I’ve lived through and you might perceive things differently. Then again, there are people who’ve lived through worse than I’ve experienced, and they are successful by societal standards. Underachievement and success are complex ideas. Like you say Paula, perhaps in the end what matters most is our own personal definition of success. My current successes mostly focus around stepping out of survival mode and enjoying life. I often feel like I ‘should’ have more to offer the world, but I simply don’t. I have vague fantasies of one day waking up and suddenly knowing the unique way in which I can contribute to society at large. I’ve a heavy sense of responsibility, so the question of what I’m contributing to my family & others is never far from my mind. Much of what I currently contribute is intangible, or else very practical domestic stuff. My ego wants outside recognition for the meagre yet hard won achievements I attain – but the wiser part of me knows it’s a foolish and empty desire. Knowing that I do my best, has to be good enough for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You made up HPDD didn’t you? Very exact label! Very clever you! Love your blogs!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paula, All great points. Such a well-written description of how so many young people get boxed in by expectations and boredom, and the importance of breaking free of it. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I suffer from ISHAFTO syndrome. I should have already figured this out. It is accompanied by ANIATL. And now it is too late.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Wow really good Paula as per usual. Especially good. Yes I’ve had that most of my life but then I thought about what you said and the way I was raised and what the people did who were supposed to help me and instead injured me so desperately and I think about who I am and what I do and I know I that am already a star …who sets the heavens ablaze!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was never cut out to be an academic which is where the emphasis on grades leads. I’m more a MacGyver.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is especially hard for children, because they don’t have the depth of experience to critique (or criticize) their teachers, their parents, or their society.

    The thing they will eventually come to understand is that our society — in particular — has an extremely narrow concept of “success,” that creates natural routes to success primarily for sociopaths, confidence artists, and salesmen.

    Scientists must be primarily salesmen: I’ve been watching my stepson and his wife establish themselves in the university system as tenure-track research biochemists, and what they have to do — more than anything else — is sell their research to the grant committees, followed by managing (hiring, firing, reviewing) their employees (grad students), etc. Actual research is very far down the list. Musicians must sell themselves. Artists must sell themselves. Writers must sell themselves. And to “sell themselves” means — primarily — to catch the attention of those who already have a functional monopoly on the marketplace. The primary goal of these monopolists is to make money, and they people they employ/contract are merely a means to that end.

    The public school system was originally designed to produce industrial workers for factories. It is still a system designed to produce “employees” and feed them into the existing market system. Listen to all the high-minded talk about schools “preparing our young to compete in the twenty-first-century economy.” Not create beauty. Not understand our place in the universe. Not even create new business models.

    People don’t actually want any changes to the economy, they just want employees that will make the existing businesses “more successful.” My first job out of grad school was in a research division of a large company, and I realized after a few years that what they wanted was for us to improve bottom-line profits without changing any designs, processes, or materials. It was quite demoralizing, even as an adult.

    I remember walking in a public park in northern Spain a number of years ago, and came across a bust of a mathematician. Imagine walking around any public park anywhere in the US and finding a bust, or a statue, of a mathematician. What you will find, instead, are monuments like “Pepsi Center” or “Coors Field” or “Rockefeller Plaza” or “Carnegie Hall.” Mathematicians are not heroes in the US.

    So the truth is that almost ALL of us are “underachievers,” because we aren’t sociopaths, con artists, or master salesmen. To be “successful,” we have to painfully learn skill sets that often don’t come naturally to us, and which — for rainforest minds — actually seem unethical, if not outright evil. Then, when we “underachieve,” the blame comes back on us, and we don’t quite understand why or how we failed.

    This is far too heavy to dump on a bright-eyed rainforest six-year-old, of course. But it provides a basis of understanding for adults who are the first definers of “success” for the rainforest child. Our society is what it is, and it is not particularly friendly or welcoming to the rainforest mind. It’s why we need to have these kinds of conversation.

    I don’t like to end on a downer like that, and the thing I told my kids is that the world is changing very quickly, and a lot of the old structures — the monopolies — are falling apart. As they fall apart, they create opportunities. Their task, should they choose to accept it, is to endure the collapsing structures only as far as it makes sense, and spot the opportunities and adapt to them. They both matured slowly, and caught plenty of “failure” language from people around them: but not from me. They are now adults, and are both very successful, self-motivated, and are learning to be happy — which is something that only comes late to most people.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I always appreciate hearing your thought-provoking perspective. I hope to hear more from readers of the blog outside the US to see what other differences there might be in perceptions of success and achievement. Thanks, as always.


    • I spoke with my sons this weekend, and brought this up with my oldest, just to see if I was blowing smoke with what I wrote above.

      He said that his HS class (2000) was marinated in both the “go to college or you’re doomed” pepper-rub, and the “you are all gifted and can be anything you want” secret sauce. The crash-and-burn they experienced when they got into college and their professors expected them to work hard was not pretty, and it was even worse when they hit the real world after that. They all expected to be rock stars or CEOs of their own companies by the age of thirty. Pretty much all of them “failed to live up to their potential.” It wasn’t just the rainforest minds.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As a class of ’97 graduate, we were fed the same spiel, with a bit of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps – no one needs to help you” thrown in. I’ve still never owned a house. I’ve switched careers 2, maybe 3 times (depending on how you look at it). My husband is the same. I still want a PhD in something, I’d love to go back to science, I want to understand the world and help others do so, but economics of it make no sense and it’s just not a reality I can afford to indulge.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Maybe a PhD isn’t the best route to understanding the world, particularly if it’s more about jumping through hoops or competition. I’m not against higher ed, certainly, but I’ve heard many stories about academia being more pressure-status oriented. I’d be curious to hear others’ opinions on that. It’s confusing because I’m thinking that there ought to be many gifted folks in PhD programs. Perhaps, they’re the more cognitive/linear/competitive types and the less rainforest-y? Then again, I haven’t seen any studies on this so I’m just speaking anecdotally. What do you all think?


          • I have a B.A. (psychology), and M.Ed. (math and science education), an M.C.S. (computer applications to biology), and I am A.B.D. (all but the final thesis revision and signatures) in biochemistry. I love taking classes and learning stuff. But Ph.D.s are very specialized and academia is VERY competitive. Publish or perish isn’t a joke – it is often the only way to get funding. It was too much for me, though some people thrive on it. Instead, I went back into teaching. I enjoy how you get to be interested in a wide variety of things in education. My biggest disappointment has been the inability to get full time positions. Yes, they say that there is a great need for math/science/tech type teachers, but they don’t want older, expensive teachers; they really want a 20 something with the life experience of a 50 something, but who will be at the bottom of the pay scale.

            Liked by 2 people

            • They should really want a 50 something with the enthusiasm of a 20 something, which I bet would describe you, Lauralynn!

              Liked by 1 person

            • So true, Lauralynn! I am in my 20s, and I think they also want the 20-something to have the confidence and goal-driven-ness of 10-year-old, maybe (no disrespect to that age group!)? The second you act like you know something, have ideas, or might be moving at a faster pace that than the slow crawl up the ladder, earning your stripes that is expected, you’re “getting too big for your britches.” It makes me nervous about further study in academia and potentially pursuing higher-ed teaching–I’ve been plonked on the head so many times to get back in the young, know-nothing line that I don’t know if I can take it in a doctoral program or the academy again.

              The kicker is, I haven’t even officially had my own classroom yet! I’ve only part-time taught, subbed, and been a teacher in training as a part of a Master’s program so far, and yet the teaching establishment has been merciless in its stop-sticking-out message! GAH!

              Liked by 1 person

    • ^^^^^^THIS^^^^^^^^ a million times! Thank you Themonthebard – I really could not have articulated it better.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. FABULOUS article – best I have read in a while. Hits at the root cause of many mis-understandings about giftedness. I am giving two talks next week to teachers and am going to include this (giving credit where due of course).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Another great post, Paula. I plan to immediately begin including the use of HPDD in my discussions of underachievement!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well – not sure what i think of another label, another self-definition that suggests a deficiency. That’s the last thing needed.

    But I like your suggestions. Once I was on my own, I began looking at what was important for me, what my goals where, and began exploring careers. Took a little time as the options where rich but did end up accomplishing in several fields. And now in yet another.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. HPDD… Yep, I’ve got it. It runs in the family. All my life, my mother would tell me about all my brilliant genius ancestors who ended up living in a shed in somebody else’s backyard. From her descriptions, it sounds like most of them were on the autism spectrum.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Paula, I love this! Thank you for describing something that so many of us struggle with. I so enjoy reading your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. High Potential Deficit Disorder (HPPD)… I absolutely love it! So true! And such a shame that so many people feel squelched by the pressure. Thank you for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow. What a nail on the head kind of post. I have always read very quickly, and I remember my dad (who wasn’t much of a reader and would sometimes give me books to read and summarize for him ) saying to me at various points growing up :

    If I could read like you, I would be doing so much for people. You have a responsibility!

    It would male me feel kinda bad, like I was doing something wrong just enjoying books and absorbing information.

    I don’t know how I was supposed to be able to use all that stuff–at some point one’s knowledge simply may be out of step with the breadth of one’s experience, and that was certainly the case for me.

    Now, as a teacher in training who runsacross the occasional (seemingly) or test-score-vouched-for gifted kid, I try to monitor my expectations and hold in balance what I believe to be possible for the child and what they believe about themselves. Sometimes we meet, and sometimes we dont, but I know if I pull too hard it’s usually not good. And sometimes we’re both wrong.

    I hold on to that too, that the funny thing about development is that you never know what is going to emerge out of someone over time, even your very self!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. All so true! I was marked as a gifted underachiever at a young age, and by college realized I was probably also ADHD. I almost got kicked out of my 10th grade gifted program because I wasn’t performing up to their expectations. Ironically, that was the only grade in which I actually finished a novel in time (I was a slow reader), and I got marked down because my presentations partners took over the presentation and didn’t let me get a word in (hard to believe if you know me well :-P). Anyway, rather than try harder to fit into their box, I just resented those who did and it took me years to appreciate the value of hard work. Fortunately my son is more academically inclined than I was – I just hope to keep that love of learning alive!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I think the problem that I dealt with was continually criticizing myself for not living up to my own potential. I was the salutatorian of my high school (but didn’t have to work that hard for it, queue imposter syndrome). After that it was a pretty rocky road. My whole identity was based around my intellect, and my chainsaw parents didn’t have the ability to fathom it or value it. It was my guidance counselors and teachers who cemented this identity for me. I was extremely touchy when anyone threatened my intellect. I was told at times that I was pedantic, standoffish and argumentative. I used a rarified vocabulary and would frequently point out errors in the judgment or reasoning of others.

    Over time I realized how my own insecurities were alienating people and eventually turned all of this around. I’m now 46 and finishing a PhD dissertation which I am not that enthusiastic about for many of the reasons that themonthebard cited. I am so far beyond needing this degree to validate myself at this point, and I don’t want to be a salesperson in an environment where less than one percent of PhD students become tenured professors. Independent research is my thing so I’ll use it for “street cred”, so to speak. I define achievement as using my gifts to the best of my ability in order to have a positive impact on my environment.

    I’m a long-time reader and first time commenter, so I just wanted to thank you for providing this resource for gifted adults when there are so few out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is prompting a bit of a rethink for me. Thank you. I’ve realised there are other ways of looking at my back history. As a child and young person, anything short of 100% always seemed like failure, and it wouldn’t be ‘hey, 87% is a great score well done’ it would be ‘so where did you go wrong on that 13%’. I felt it in terms of achievement being the measure of my value as a person, but I also knew it couldn’t be done, I couldn’t get 100% on all things so by my early teens I felt like i was being set up to fail and that the point was that I’d just never be good enough. It wouldn’t matter how hard I tried. Mostly, I kept trying, but I’ve had a lot of self esteem issues along the way. I was never allowed to feel comfortable or good enough, never allowed to be pleased with my own achievements, and actively discouraged from thinking well of myself, no matter how well I was actually doing. I was to get 100% in all things but not to get ‘too big for my boots’ at the same time, so the being good was all about pleasing other people, never myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I love it! So true about HPPD, it may be made up but it speaks the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I admit I am frustrated with my lack of worldly success given my potential, so it is nice to be reminded that there are more ways of defining achievement than we often allow ourselves. Still, it seems like there will always be some kind of inner tension that is always gnawing away at me, compelling me to think I should be shooting for the stars, perhaps for fear of wasting my gifts if I do not.

    I always test as an INFP on the Myers Briggs tests. One description of this “Healer” archetype said that we are often on high alert, looking for any evil that lurks within us. Yep — sigh. When I was younger I was a daredevil. I didn’t think I would make it out of my 20’s to an age when I would start to slow down a bit. Perhaps those dangerous stunts were my way of keeping my perfectionism at bay. After all, there is no time for being perfect when merely surviving is the goal.

    These are far from any complete thoughts, but nevertheless I will stop here and leave it in all its imperfection. 😉 Thanks for another thought provoking but also comforting post!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Two part reply:
    Do you have any references to someone I could talk to? Someone who understands giftedness?

    Also – because for most of the first half of my life I was not understood and brought down by constantly being treated like something is wrong with me, I have spent years working against the stereotypical letters and images of women. It scares me that here you are creating another one. I know it is helpful to some, but I experience it as damaging and have watched so many get damaged by it. I know problems exist but I really have issue with the labels and much of the ‘treatment’. Like slaves who got labeled with drapetomania for running away before they were freed, we have a long way to go ………Just had to say that, but want you to know I really appreciate your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This is a great post on an important topic. For me, redefining success has been liberating. I encourage my children to create and work toward their own definitions of success.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Paula, I just found your site and have been binge-reading all of your posts. Thank you for writing this blog. My son is highly academically gifted in math and science. He just turned 9 and is taking high school algebra and middle school chemistry and LOVES it more than I can ever understand. But my whole life I have felt like how you described above. I never ever thought of myself as “gifted” in any way because I barely got through algebra and physics, and I have had quite a complex about that since I was young. My parents were incredibly supportive; I was most definitely the cause of my crippling self-doubt and criticism. However, as I’ve gotten older and done more research on giftedness for my son, I’ve begun to realize that there is another side to it that I may belong in. Your other post “You’re Not Crazy. You’re Gifted.” made me cry! I am right-brained and incredibly artistic. I was a music major for awhile. I love to paint. I’ve written two books (this is my greatest passion). And I get very frustrated when I can’t create something or get interrupted when creating. Reading these posts has been like an awakening for me. Thank you so much for this. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Pingback: If You Haven’t Achieved Greatness, Can You Be Gifted? | Your Rainforest Mind

  24. Pingback: To Achieve Or Not To Achieve — That Is The Question | Your Rainforest Mind

  25. It may very well be more common amongst those of us in our 60’s+. As I recall so well, when I was a child there were no classes or programs for gifted students and, though my mother told me that my IQ was higher than that of my sister’s, nothing else was said or done about it. Now I know why I felt so out of place, alone and unfulfilled as a child and why I never knew what to do with myself. I only knew that I couldn’t live a “normal” life, however, what that might be was ever-changing and quite amorphous. Too many possibilities, not enough direction or guidance.
    By the way, Paula, I remember your name from when I lived in Oregon many years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Pingback: Gifted Children and Adults — Why Are They So Misunderstood? | Your Rainforest Mind

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