Your Rainforest Mind

Support for the Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive

Paralyzed By Your Great Potential


photo courtesy of Josh Marshall, Unsplash, CC

When you were a child, you were praised for your abilities. You did most things earlier and faster than your peers. You scored well on tests. Everyone was impressed. And they told you so. They said that you had so much potential. So. Much. Potential. You determined that you had to keep performing at that highest rate to keep the attention and accolades coming. Before long, it turned into pressure. Your self-worth depended on it. It was something that you had to live up to or you would no longer be the superstar, the golden child, the winner, the prodigy.

Maybe you kept achieving in spite of the pressure. Maybe you didn’t. Either way, this great-potential-thing? It had an impact. A significant impact.

So now, in adulthood, you may ask: At what age do I no longer have potential? Am I no longer precocious because I just turned 30? If I actually achieve something, does that mean that I lose my potential? How do I live up to these expectations? If I have to work hard to achieve something, does that mean that I never really had potential? If I don’t reach my potential am I a shiftless, sluggish, slothful slacker?

So many questions. So little time.

Potential becomes a burden when we see it as a predestined calling to impressive accomplishments. Both parents and children can become seduced into focusing on performance rather than growth, on being The Best rather than making progress, and on accumulating external awards and accomplishments as the primary measure of worth. Worst of all, this one-dimensional perspective on potential creates a terrible fear of failure.”   Eileen Kennedy Moore

What if we rethink great potential? What if it includes impressive failures along with outstanding accomplishments? What if great potential means resplendent mistakes along with notable achievements?

And here’s a revolutionary thought: What if great potential has very little to do with specific accomplishments?

Potential is not an endpoint; it’s a capacity to grow and learn. Nurturing children’s potential, in the broadest sense, means cultivating their humanity. It involves supporting their expanding abilities to reach out to others with kindness and empathy, to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to find joy and satisfaction in creating a life that is personally meaningful…and so much more.”   Eileen Kennedy Moore

So, go ahead. Cultivate your humanity. Reach out to others with empathy. Find joy.

Live up to your great potential.


To my bloggEEs: Do you feel pressure to live up to your great potential? What does that mean to you? How have you been impacted? What do you think of this new way of looking at it? I appreciate hearing from you. Your comments add so much. And, thank you to the readers who inspired this post.




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.

37 thoughts on “Paralyzed By Your Great Potential

  1. Dare I be the first to comment on this one.

    Ah, potential; that word with all the misguided connotations.
    If I child is rewarded for something, it will do anything, at any cost, to achieve it again. It’s biological/neurological wiring.
    “Oh, they like me because I have potential!” And so it asks, “how can I achieve potential again?” The terrible paradox.
    It’s a painful exercise in disillusionment that is only ever truly achieved in adulthood.
    When the adult has been told all his/her life that they have potential, it subconsciously should be enough, and yet they’re not acknowledged like they used to be and an underachiever; a recipe for self-doubt and depression. Or at best a really tough lesson.

    Don’t tell your kids they have potential.
    Ask them to simply try it; do it; see if they can achieve it. ‘It’ being anything they are curious about or want to try. When they do it, acknowledge them for doing it and ask them to keep going…

    That’s just my humble opinion. Or st least the way I wish I was supported by teachers and parents.

    Thanks, Paula, for making this a less inconspicuous topic! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • This topic is a complicated one, for sure. It can be hard not to over-praise children for their achievements or to not tell them “you have so much potential!” I think it’s important to talk about the impact of these responses and what to do instead. Thanks for sharing your views, Anonymous!


  2. Agreed! BUT when we don’t create/support environments that allow children’s potential to flourish, failure happens not through their own struggle — a growth opportunity — but through the inability or refusal to meet their needs — an “opportunity” for shutting down and disinterest. We’re continually engaged in battles with our kids’ schools to provide differentiation and flexibility (no, homeschooling is not an option). And we focus constantly on indicating that they can’t conflate performance with potential (we have one who performs poorly because he’s bored crazy). Yet the school is so obsessed with bringing kids UP TO standards, that they have little interest in providing resource or training personnel to help those with potential cultivate their abilities. And, of course, the “standards” focus is 100% about results, scores, performance …. “failure” is a bad word in that mindset.

    I truly loathe the current educational focus and test-driven, standards-based curricula pervading our public schools. It doesn’t actually help those struggling to reach grade level, and it does nothing for those above grade level. A shift to focus on *potential* for all kids (not just those gifted) and to create environments where the quest for knowledge allows for failure would help everyone and build greater resilience (a life skill critical for all adults).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know that that should be a “BUT”.

      Potential SHOULD be used as an indicator for more encouragement, a more supportive environment, more depth, more expertise… it SHOULDN’T be “the endpoint” – which is sadly so often the case in the minds of many talented children.

      These kids initially achieve by no or very little effort on their part and so they think potential is the ‘thing’ that gets them the reward, not the action.
      And the parents are so chuffed that their child has so much potential that the child becomes intellectually (if not emotionally) neglected because “he/she can take care of him/herself”.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “A shift to focus on *potential* for all kids (not just those gifted) and to create environments where the quest for knowledge allows for failure would help everyone and build greater resilience” Yes! “Potential” has a different meaning when applied to all kids, so that the pressure on our rainforest-minded might be lessened. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Andrea.


    • As a scout leader, I often see the scout-led ‘let them learn, let them fail in a safe environment’ concept misapplied this way. As if all failures are the same. Yes, the kids should be allowed to fail in a way that they can learn from, and definitely better now when they can be coached than when they are older and the stakes are higher. But failure for failure’s sake is all wrong, when a word of advice at the right time could prevent the error (if the advice is heeded, anyway). Drives me nuts. I’ve taken to roving about during some meetings with the older boys, occasionally dropping hints or ideas (which the boys are free to ignore and they know it), and it seems to help. They want to learn and to succeed. And when they do fail, they can usually figure out why … if someone did give them guidance and they ignored it, it gives them clues about what to do differently next time. If no one has told them anything about how to run an event, they have no idea what went wrong or how to improve it. That’s not a useful failure. (Yes, I do let them fail, I promise, even when the cost is my own schedule or personal annoyance. But if all it takes is a bit of guidance … I’m going to offer it. That’s better leadership and mentoring.)

      Failure is another word like potential that falls under my ‘Princess Bride’ motto of “I do not think it means what you think it means” (as in the general public).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think both the topics of potential and failure are huge and so our discussion may cover a lot of ground and, yet, we may not be able to draw any strong conclusions one way or the other. But it’s so helpful to hear everyone’s thoughts. I can imagine a whole discussion around “all failures are not the same.” Thank you.


  3. That is a fantastic perspective, I’m beginning to tap into my sense of ‘can do’ & I can say, without rainforest mind and especially the support and the book [did I tell you how amazing you are yet?] I would always have been shy of making the correct effort, the kind that gets past the ‘but its *me* hurdle. Beautiful ❤ Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, the ‘P’ word which I have ALWAYS hated! We don’t use that word in my house much. 🙂 Or, to quote from The Princess Bride, the words I long to say to the general public, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    I want to encourage kids who do have potential in certain areas … but I also want to encourage kids who simply have an interest in certain areas. And I want to encourage kids to try things in areas they hadn’t even considered before. (As a scout leader, I see that as one of my jobs, actually. And one of the fun parts.)

    Me, I have absolutely no ‘potential’ in tae kwon do. I stink at it. 🙂 But perseverance and a patient coach (and a few bonus points for sticking it out through cancer, broken bones, and other severe health issues) have gotten me all the way to my second stripe black belt. I love it, even without the ‘potential’ demonstrated by the youngsters on the tournament team. And sweet kids that they are, they’ve never once laughed at my inabilities (unless they see me laughing too). That’s in an atmosphere of mutual respect for what everyone brings to the table. They bring skill and coaching, I bring some wisdom from age and a great deal of cheerleader-ship for all my friends there. It’s all good. And the whole experience has been good for my soul.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s it! I love that. I love that you persevered at something you didn’t think you were too amazing at. I love that it’s the message you give to kids.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I recently read an article that suggested that someone who feels enormous pressure to achieve intellectually so they procrastinate or avoid challenges might do what you describe here. They should try a sport or other activity out of the intellectual realm where they have to work hard. It could be a good way to learn how to struggle at something and persist over time. Thank you for this example, Kristen.


      • I think Martial Arts are really great for this. I started Kendo some years back, and because it requires both physical and mental concentration, it was quite hard. Despite being physically adept and having good timing, I was pretty average at simultaneously remembering the Japanese, the highly specific moves and coordinating it all. Being young and naive then, I quit because it didn’t come to me easily enough.
        I had completely forgotten about this wonderful activity.

        Liked by 1 person

        • A great example, Kath. Thanks.


        • See, that’s exactly WHY I started tae kwon do … I’d always wanted to learn a martial art, and I know I’m terrible at anything kinesthetic. Plus I’ve got ADD to go with it, and the group setting messes with my concentration. I went for a dream knowing it’d be hard for me. (I am so weird.) But I did go about it a sneaky way. I’d already lost some of my best scouts to this particular studio, so I figured it had to be a good one to get their full-time commitment. I signed my kids up for classes, and signed me up along with them. (At the time we didn’t even have an adult class … I suppose it might be my fault that we do now … I do tend to drag folks along in my wake when I get a new hobby going.) I was a little tall for those early classes, but my klutzy level was just right. 🙂 Then I got my husband interested. The kids quit around green belt, but we’ve kept at it, and even though there are nights where I literally weep in despair and frustration, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for me. I mentioned it was good for my soul … it’s because of the welcoming environment and nobody using that P word in regards to me. I can be myself and that’s okay. Very refreshing.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. How do you know my life? lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh yes, I do feel the pressure of having to live up to my supposed potential! Combined with the equally felt utter lack of power to do so, it seems hard to believe that I am still alive. And still I just can’t embrace the idea that accomplishments would not matter, or that they would even have nothing to do with potential. The latter maybe depends on what is counted as “accomplishment”, but still. If there is potential, is is only real when it can, at least under possible circumstances that might or might not actually present themselves in reality, result in something that it is the potential for. Now the “potential” we all seem to think we have on this blog, in my perception does include the possibility to turn into “accomplishments”. So saying it does not have anything to do with accomplishments is, I think, just a way to self-sedate in hope the crippling anxiety that is hindering the accomplishments, may go away. However, this of course will hardly work as long as you are aware that this is what you are doing.
    Especially when “feeling part of something bigger”, I cannot resist the tendency to think that greater potential also means the ability to make greater contributions to this “something bigger”. So I think you are more likely living up to your potential when developing a new line of philosophical thought, technology or inspiration that can influence many people to better harmony of humanity with itself and nature than when you are just being nice to your neighbor, have your house and garden nice and neat and maybe even have some creative expression in that area, and keeping your intellect satisfied by reading all kinds of challenging stuff and solving puzzles, or something, but never truely putting your potential into the greater good, i.e. never making anything out of it that could be known as “accomplishments”.
    To not mistake me, I do agree that there may be ways to realise your potential that do not include the kind of accomplishments society is most aware of and approving of. However, realising your potential will always be an accomplishment, which may include mastery over the anxiety, and hard work, and other things that may not be among the first thoughts you have about it.
    I also think most people will fail to live up to their potential, in general, regardless of their level of giftedness. For me, that thought might even be the most effective one I am able to produce for reduction of the otherwise crippling existential anxiety, even though the anxiety is still not reduced sufficiently. But I can accept that in this regard, nature is hard, and not every living being can in reality have the best life that it, based on what could be thought of as its intrinsic potential, could have had. So I can only try to live up to my potential for as far as reality allows me to, which has long departed from and probably never even been anywhere close to the lofty ideal I might try to imagine when told I am “gifted”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m not saying that accomplishments don’t matter. I’m just suggesting that we might consider that they matter less and that the measure of our worth as a human isn’t in our achievements. Perhaps we can expand the idea of what an achievement is or what it means to have potential. My purpose here is also to suggest to parents of gifted children that they put less emphasis on potential and achievement and that they avoid praising their kids for accomplishments but instead encourage their kindness, their empathy, sensitivity, etc. That said, our world definitely needs people who are creative and highly intelligent and skillful problem solvers. It’s a complex topic for sure and I appreciate that you’re reading and commenting and adding to our discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Paula: As always thank you for such a gracious shift in perspective. My focus has been on cultivating my humanity and yet I was carrying a paralysis and guilt around accomplishment as defined by our current culture. I can feel that your post has sparked the start of letting that go and allowing my unfolding to occur from that space of wisdom and inherent potential. With heartfelt gratitude.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for quoting my book, Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, Paula! Your readers might be interested in seeing an excerpt:
    Best wishes,


    • Oh yes, Eileen. We definitely want to know about your book. I quoted you from an article I read. Maybe I saw it on Facebook? Not sure. But it was excellent. Are you a psychotherapist? Where are you located? Good to know you’re out there!


      • Yes, I’m a psychologist based in Princeton, NJ. I’ve written a bunch of book about children’s feelings and friendships ( I’m also a professor for The Great Courses (

        Smart Parenting for Smart Kids is my book for parents of gifted kids. Chapters include: Tempering Perfectionism, Building Connection, Developing Motivation, and Finding Joy.

        I love your metaphor of a “rainforest mind”! I will check out your book.

        Warm wishes,

        Liked by 1 person

        • I just ordered your book, Eileen. I’m so glad I found you. I’ll definitely be sharing your work with parents. Glad you like the metaphor! Welcome to my blog.


        • Hi Eileen, generally speaking, the advancement of one’s potential is subject to opportunity. Facts are, the vast majority of intellectually gifted persons are unaware of their true-potential. Therefore, we should be discussing the advancement of awareness as a first step towards discovering one’s true intellectual potential opposed to just catering to those who are intellectually acknowledged. As a trained psychologist holding higher education credentials, your potential abounds. But for the millions (the majority) of those living in a corner of their true-lives, potential is hampered due to a lack of social and educational opportunities. Intellectual giftedness can be an insidious condition opposed to a blessing if their intellectual prowess is left undiscovered! On another subject, let us begin discussing the real and mostly over looked issue of the chronic child abuse endured by millions of undiscovered intellectually gifted children living in dysfunctional environments. Hope too see you at the Seng conference. I will be speaking on this subject matter. Thank you, Richard

          Liked by 1 person

          • You raise excellent points, Richard.


          • You bring up some great topics for further discussion, Richard. As usual, this topic has many layers. I haven’t seen much written on giftedness and child abuse other than what I’ve written about my clients in my book. Do you know of any articles? Will look forward to hearing your experiences at SENG.


            • Exactly Paula, where are the article’s, studies etc..? Please excuse the departure from my normally positive postings. That being said, the care and education of gifted children has become a for profit industry! Advancements in detection or identifying all gifted persons are nearly nonexistent. Sorry, but there is little commercial value from discovering a gifted child living in poverty, poorly educated or in a rural geographic location. Those who provide vital service to the minority of gifted children who have been discovered early on and thereby catered to, have little if any interest in locating that gifted unacknowledged truck driver, handy man, mechanic etc. The professional community tends to cling to the warm and fuzzy side of intellectual giftedness opposed too harsh realities face daily by the undiscovered majority. If you are an undiscovered intellectually gifted person, you have been abused in some manner! I deal directly with the relationship between intellectual giftedness and child abuse within my (yet unpublished) memoir “Against the Wind”. We need Clinicians, Counselors, and Phycologists to compile this valuable date (with permission of course) in a central and assessable location so further studies can be implemented. I mean no disrespect to those who counsel the minority, but we need to expand those efforts in the direction of awareness. Thank you Paula, write the book!

              Liked by 1 person

              • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Richard. There is so much that needs to be done to discover and help our gifted kids and adults. Do you know about Joy Lawson Davis? She writes about gifted kids of color and is a strong advocate. Do you know about the documentary that’s being made by Marc Smolowitz? It sounds like he’s interested in presenting a more wholistic picture of giftedness. I hear your frustration and am glad that you’re writing about your experiences. Maybe YOU should write that book!


  9. I think gifted kids (and adults) can be so confounding to others because, while many endeavors appear to come to them easily (most obvious ones being intellectual performance, being ‘smart’ in that way), other aspects of their mind and soul, which are not so easily measurable or obvious, may actually be a more integral part of who they are. For example I’m thinking of artists (musical, visual, dance) and writers. But our culture, especially pop culture which is massively consumed, doesn’t particularly value these gifts (oops I mean ‘accomplishments). Well I mean some of these artists, to be sure, become financially well-off due to sales of their products, etc. But when you stand in front of a magazine rack, what do you see on the covers? Beautiful, model-type women, men with business suits and briefcases or their arms folded, and plenty of (male) athletes. You don’t see chess players, or scientists, or grandmothers as much. The message is in the medium, … ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, sadly, physical “beauty” and financial wealth seem to still be the predominant values. At least in the USA. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Beth. Always appreciate hearing from you.


  10. I understand that having everybody rave about your potential can be cripling at an older age. But having your elementery school teachers tell your parents “sure she is smart but to lazy, so why try anything difficult just send her to household school”( where you learn to boil water and stuff).
    or highschool where a teacher refused to teach me because why would I take math,physics and chemistry, when Frence economics and geography where so much easier for girls, all I was going to do was get married and have kids”. This was during the 80’s not in the fifties.
    So I never got the potential speech, but the smart but lazy, or girl so no good to study routine.
    every step of the way teachers where trying to hold me back. I never even really realized what I had was potential. I just didnt feel like going to work yet so i kept at it at school. Now I am an Medical dr.
    sometimes I would like to look up all those old teachers and tell them.

    I think my life would have been better if somebody somewhere saw a bit of potential in me. and helped me get it out.

    Liked by 1 person

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