Your Rainforest Mind

Support for the Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive

Giftedness, Achievement, and Guilt


photo courtesy Samuel Zeller, Unsplash

How are giftedness, achievement, and guilt related?

I’m glad you asked.

Here’s how:

People find all sorts of ways to define giftedness: High IQ, exceptional talent, 10,000 hours of practice, task commitment, academic achievement, high test scores, straight A’s in school, Nobel prizes, eminence, etc. Typically, high achievement is the main requirement.

If you don’t fit into the high achiever category, your teachers, relatives, therapists, and pets may not think that you’re gifted. And you may agree with them.

Not so fast, sweetie pie. Can I call you sweetie pie?

In my humble opinion, based on my many fabulous years communing with gifted kids and adults, high achievement may or may not be part of the picture.

And what is high achievement anyway, I ask you. Wealth? Awards? Good grades in school? Celebrity? iPhones? But I digress.

The gifted humans that I know were born with their rainforest minds. Whether they’re creating masterpieces or not, they’re highly: sensitive, intuitive, empathetic, curious, perfectionistic, analytical, creative, smart, and emotional. They’re obsessed with learning when they’re interested in the topic. And, their interests are many and varied. They’re fast, deep, and wide thinkers.

So far so good?

Here’s where the guilt shows up:

Pressure. Expectations. “If you’re so smart why aren’t you…rich, famous, like Elon Musk?”

Feeling like you’re disappointing your parents and teachers. Being impatient with slower people and excelling at everything you try. Changing jobs every 2-5 years.

Not living up to your own high standards. Not living up to your potential. Not saving the world.

Those are just some of the reasons for guilt.

Looking for more? Read this post. And this one.

And, yes, even gifted “high achievers” can feel guilt. Such as: When is your achievement high enough? With all of your success, why are you still depressed and anxious? If you’re so smart, why are you so lonely?

See what I mean?

The achievement-thing, the guilt-thing. They’re tricky if you have a rainforest mind.

So here’s one idea:

Having a rainforest mind, being gifted, may involve designing energy-efficient electric cars and sending rockets into space. It may involve intense compassion, empathy, intuition, and generosity.

That all sounds like high achievement to me.

And, I promise not to feel guilty about it.


To my bloggEEs: How do you define achievement? When do you feel guilt related to your smartness? Can you describe how you deal with pressure to achieve “greatness” because you’re “so smart?” Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts and feelings. I’m writing a little less often (I’m feeling guilty!) because my body has been tweaking out a little from all of the sitting/typing. But know that I’m still thinking about you.

For those of you who’ve read my book, I’d be so grateful if you’d write a review on Amazon. It doesn’t need to be long or perfect, ok? And you don’t need to feel guilty if you don’t do it… 🙂

If you want to read posts from other bloggers about giftedness and achievement click here.

And, finally, please know that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t find your work/purpose in the world or you needn’t make a significant contribution. I’m just suggesting that your giftedness isn’t dependent on what you do. It’s much more about who you are.




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.

49 thoughts on “Giftedness, Achievement, and Guilt

  1. I’m glad to see more and more people talking about this high achievement thing. I recently stumbled across the 2011 monograph that proposes re-defining giftedness as “eminence” and high achievement, and found it so disheartening. I’m grateful that there are people out there talking about the reality of having a rainforest mind. We do exist, no matter what name is applied to us!

    Thanks for the GHF blog hop link, too. I rambled on about this over in my blog, if anyone’s interested: I already do Hoagie’s hop; looks like I should get in touch with GHF, too!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paula, I can talk forever and ever about guilt. A friend of mine who is also a Rainforest Mind turned me on to your blog some time ago and I love reading it. I have turned 60 recently and am just feeling like I can come back into my own style of smartness after years of being “not good enough” – but returning to guilt let’s say that it is high on my list of issues. When I was working full speed (before my daughter was born and let’s say for the first 10 years of her life) I often had “imposter’s syndrome” feeling like although I was doing the work…I didn’t have the right to be doing the work and if I didn’t do it all the time and perfectly I would be found out to not be very smart. So I had guilt about success and guilt that I wasn’t good enough at the same time. Gulp.

    The other type of guilt I have felt ever since I was young was feeling guilty whenever i was doing something that I loved and enjoyed. Something akin to it not being fair that I was having fun even though I was accomplishing something? That I was only good enough for drudgery….even though I could, and liked to shine? I hope that within the framework that you see people about that somehow you understand this as it is really only recently that I have come to the realisation that I have this kind of guilt as well.

    And I would be curious to know if this is more common in Rainforest Women then Rainforest Men?

    Thank you. Blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for sharing these. And, yes, guilt for doing something you love. Yes. Important to add that one to the list. I’ve seen this guilt issue in both genders but let’s see what others have to say in the comments.

      Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an interesting question. I’m about the same age as you, so I’ve lived a long while. I’ve experienced a lot. And it’s been my observation that, women struggle with inferiority feelings, almost all women. But men, hmmph! They have a ‘superiority’ complex, in my observation. This last statement will raise the ire of some males, but nevertheless, I observe it all the time. Although women have accomplished more in the sphere of work and ‘out there’, male accomplishment still receives the most attention and accolades (from other males) than does female accomplishment. So, it’s only normal to feel we’re somehow inferior. Even though we are as smart or smarter than a certain man, say for example, in a work setting. I’ve read about studies which have found that men commonly overestimate their aptitudes or accomplishments, while women (of course!) underestimate theirs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting, Beth. I’ll be curious to hear from others. The gifted men that I’ve worked with over the years struggle with similar issues of guilt. Sometimes, they can feel more pressure to be “successful” because of the traditional views of masculinity.


      • I observe similar and studies back it up. But I have worked in financial services where I don’t see as many “gifted” men. I read the book “Quiet” which talked a lot about this phenomenon and how us “quiet” and dare I say, gifted? people are not the ones to toot our horn or talk the loudest and most often.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. This… ^.. Hits the spot. I’ve been feeling a little down of late. Questioning myself, my job, my ambitions. Feeling guilt for not trying to reach for the highest… And today I enrolled for a mindfulness practioner course, hoping that, if not others, I can at least learn to help myself. Reading this post, made me focus on me, and who is driving my bus!

    Thank you so much, your posts (and your book) always enlighten my day!

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Hi Paula –

    Thank you for the lovely (or should I say fabulous) blog entry!

    I have a couple minor disagreements, not with the core points concerning “high achievement” as the appropriate measure of giftedness, but side bits in this paragraph:

    The gifted humans that I know were born with their rainforest minds. Whether they’re creating masterpieces or not, they’re highly: sensitive, intuitive, empathetic, curious, perfectionistic, analytical, creative, smart, and emotional. They’re obsessed with learning when they’re interested in the topic. And, their interests are many and varied. They’re fast, deep, and wide thinkers.

    I do understand that you’ve phrased this as about those you’ve known, but I also know that some folks reading this will take it as a definition, just as they take the “high achievement” benchmark as a requirement when it isn’t.

    I know gifted humans who are not highly sensitive, who are not intuitive, who seem to lack much empathy, who exhibit little or no perfectionism, etc. And some of them are highly narrow and singularly focused, with next to no interest outside of the specific area of their obsession.

    Further, there is a substantial group within our gifted community for whom “fast” is almost never the descriptor. They are deliberate in their thoughts and slow to come to conclusions. Deep, they are. Fast, they are not.

    And, again, I *do* know that this is a blog entry, not a text book, so there is only so much time or space for writing, but I thought these were important distinctions to make (obviously).

    As for your writing frequency and your health, thank you for taking care of yourself… and, if you have not already, consider getting one of the small electronic recorders and a headset and talk out your columns as you walk, for later voice-to-text transcription! That way we would continue getting the flow of your thoughts without your needing so much sitzplatz!

    Or, you could always just post them as audio blogs (podcasts, I suppose), though I know the lack of a good chance to edit always annoys me! (Of course, I ‘should’ be writing more, myself. But I mostly don’t do guilt!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, please not audio! I am loving having a blog to read rather than following links to podcasts … I need to see things in print! This rainforest mind needs print, to see, to be able to mull over thoughts rather than have to keep going because the speaker keeps going. (I know, pause buttons, but I want to respect the speaker and hear the flow, too.) Plus, kids in the house.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I so appreciate what you’re saying here Josh. On this blog, I’m focusing on what I call the rainforest mind type of gifted person. And that type has all of those traits. I totally agree that there are other types of gifted folks as you describe. And thanks for the tips for writing. I’ve actually been getting some bodywork that’s helping: acupuncture, massage. And reading Katy Bowman’s work. Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Josh, this is quite interesting. I recall talking to Paula in previous comments about the gifted people out there who are not rainforest minds. It does seem like there are several different gifted “tribes,” if you will. I’d love to hear Paula’s take, perhaps in another post, about how RFMs fit in the broader spectrum of giftedness, perhaps so we don’t measure ourselves against others who are admittedly also gifted but from a different gifted tribe.

      (Though I just now saw Paula’s note about why she’s writing less frequently. Paula,I can relate! Sitting in front of a computer has done a number on my muscles and I’ve been writing less, too. Do take care of yourself!)

      Back to Josh’s comment: I also am one of those deep-not-fast people, so thanks for the shout out!

      Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve raised some really interesting questions regarding exactly how ‘giftedness’ is defined…. kind of tricky, isn’t it. There’s this nebulous region, in which the distinction between a gifted person versus a highly intelligent person, is blurry. A person can be ‘gifted’ but of course being human, perhaps they’re quite self-preoccupied, narcissistic. Maybe they hate the world, or have a chip on their shoulder, and so seem to lack sensitivity. So then the question is, how does one measure this trait, ‘sensitivity”? Is it based on something that’s objective and quantifiable? Like, oh, she gives lots of money to the humane society. Or, he is such a talented painter. Or is strictly defined in interpersonal terms. Is that your basis? I was wondering.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The question of who is gifted is a huge one for sure and has been debated as long as I’ve been in the field. What I’ve seen is that there are people who are cognitively advanced, say in a particular academic area, so they perform at a gifted level in that area. But they don’t necessarily have all of the RFM traits that I list here. I don’t spend much time in the controversy around definitions of giftedness although I did step into it in this post. I think we can probably agree that it’s “tricky” and “nebulous” like you say, Beth.


      • And the question, Beth, of how one measures sensitivity or what we mean by that. That’s another good one. I suppose there could be a whole blog just about that. I wonder if Elaine Aron defines it in her work about sensitivity.


  5. Such an important message about guilt. So many gifted people feel tormented with guilt over supposedly not achieving what they think they should achieve. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There’s also the thing of moving the goalposts on yourself. Write a novel. No, write a bestselling novel. No, write a best selling novel that gets made into a blockbusting film…. no, one reviewer didn’t like the film and now everything I have done is worthless…. and it’s hard to get started when that kind of thing lives in your head, and when it’s so easy to be derailed by negative feedback. I try to focus on what good I can do for individual people. if I write a blog post and one person finds it useful, if one person likes my book or my song or whatever it was this week – then it was worth doing. there’s something magical about only having to touch one person to make it worth trying to do something.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yep. Moving the goalposts. It sounds so painful, Nimue. Whatever it is, it’s never quite good enough. It’s a complex issue because there can be many reasons including the highest standards for one’s work and also growing up with lots of criticism. It sounds like you’ve found one way to cope. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure others will relate.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I guess success or achievement or results can be interpreted doing a distinction between a inner scorecard and an external one.
    This concept comes from Warren Buffett actually!
    What may be success for someone may seem as useless for society -or easy-… but for this specific person it may be a great success.
    Imagine a agoraphobic going to a rock concert, it may be an incredible success! For some, just a concert.
    So trying to balance success more from an inner perspective may be a soothing practice for a lot of RFM!

    And for achievement:
    I guess it’s a time dependent, context dependent, possibility depend concept.
    For someone from a slum, just being able to go to university may be an achievement.
    For an oversensitive adult, being able to handle and accept his emotions may be a phenomenal success.
    A couple of month ago, here down in Argentina, a picture of a boy crying with his grandpa become viral. He would walk many miles to go to school each day, in a very poor region of the north of Argentina.
    They cry together because the kid was the first in his family to finish school and was awarded as the best student.
    I guess that’s achievement!

    On a practical level, i guess learning to design goals is an underrated skill. I love personally the NLP and Tony Robbins books because they help me to understand my inner scorecard.

    On a more scientific level, RFM may work mostly from their right hemisphere who really don’t get what time is in a linear fashion.
    So what is achievement without time? Present ? Being connected? I don’t know 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the perspective of an inner or outer score card. And how achievement or success depends on who you are and the conteXt. (the small X on my laptop doesn’t seem to be working!) Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alex.


  8. Back again!

    Paula, I’ve been teaching an online course for a few weeks on Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration.

    Today, we were discussing the Dynamisms and I spent more than a little time discussing Feelings of Shame and Feelings of Guilt in a Dabrowskian context.

    The focus there is not on eliminating guilt/shame, but on using those feelings as part of one’s growth process. That doesn’t mean one must embrace the mission of curing cancer (or whatever world-changing exploit one feels one has fallen down in), so much as it means figuring out how you need to change to live up to the values you aspire to.

    Authentism is, of course, another dynamism, largely at the next level, but I think very much tied to the determination of just who one means to me and how one can best be that person.

    Part of that, for me, means having guilt/shame tied to honest assessment of the mix of effort and aptitude. Honest assessment ties to both the above discussion around Imposter Syndrome and to knowing when things *are* outside one’s scope.

    Meandering thoughts and maundering commentary. I *think* I had an idea or two here, somewhere…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. If one grows up in an atmosphere in which everything is compared and potential is assumed to be unlimited, and one finally learns that perfectionism and comparison with standards (attainable or unattainable but not written by me) are happiness killers, it becomes a lifelong struggle to “succeed,” to live up to expectations, no matter whose. Sometimes I envy those who grew up thinking or being told they would never succeed because at least the goal line can be seen.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. The focus on achievement has always seemed very classist/racist/sexist to me. Because who has the easiest time and the best chance of “high achievement” and “success” as our current society defines those things in our current social setup? Sure ain’t me, what with my ovaries and uterus and my rural working class background.

    Focusing on it also keeps the whole controversy and stigma about giftedness going, because defining it as achievement in our society as it currently is ends in things like giftedness being an entry on the blog “Stuff White People Like”, and a lot of people start assuming that if you even just mention the word gifted then you’re upper middle class, white, prejudiced, arrogant, and ignorant of how things actually work. And then people start cutting gifted education programs in the name of “equality”, and all the upper middle class white parents homeschool, move to another school district, hire tutors, etc., and it’s the working class and minority gifted kids who get left without a chance of an education suitable to their abilities.

    This attitude is so insidious that I have actually seen people argue against gifted programs with “who’s to say that the children of hairdressers and cashiers won’t contribute to society?”, because apparently it does not occur to them that the children of hairdressers and cashiers can be gifted.

    I used to work in fast food. I know for sure at least two of my coworkers were gifted. One grew up living in cheap hotels with his mother, who was addicted to drugs. He’s trying to make it as a stand up comic now. But he wasn’t identified in school and he definitely didn’t go to schools with a decent gifted program, because people like him can’t be gifted, right?

    I know my own chances of achievement and success as defined by mainstream middle class American society are slim. I mean, my mother boarded socks in a sock factory when I was growing up, and it’s not like I had any mentors or contacts or entry into any creative fields, or the money and opportunity to go to a creative writing college program. Actually the other week my mother was texting me about how she likes to read, and I told her about the research on reading and increasing empathy, and she asked me “What’s empathy?” But sure, she trained me with flash cards and gave me an enriched environment and got me into the best preschools and that’s the only reason I scored higher than most high school seniors on the verbal part of the SAT in 7th grade. *rolls eyes*

    So, my definition of success is this: I am very happily married, I am co-caretaker to many beautiful lovely cats who needed a good home, I have a job I can emotionally tolerate, and I’m good at writing, and the writing I share online helps people, like the young girl who told me that one of my Sims stories helped her get through her mother’s dying from cancer.

    Oh, once I had my half-brother read one of my stories, and he said “That was different. I ain’t never read nothing like that before. I hope you’re writing for more educated people.”

    It takes a good deal of luck, from being born to parents with a lot of resources to getting enough lucky breaks, to achieve the mainstream idea of success. It has very little to do with giftedness.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Wow, I’d never considered this connection. It’s made me think.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: A Gifted Kid’s Conundrum — Part Two — Anxiety and Perfectionism | Your Rainforest Mind

  13. Hi Paula,

    Thank you very much for the invaluable support you provide!

    I wanted to ask whether you have observed any relationship between rainforest mind and fear of commitment. Or do you know any resources exploring the relationship between the two?


    Liked by 1 person

    • What comes to mind, Rand, is perfectionism, procrastination, and difficulty with decisions. These are often issues for RFMs. If you’re talking about commitment in relationships, I don’t know. I write about these in my books and there are blog posts on these topics but I haven’t expressed it specifically as “fear of commitment.” When it comes to career paths, changing jobs due to multipotentiality might look like fear of commitment but it’s really having multiple interests and abilities and losing interest because of lack of intellectual stimulation. Those are some quick thoughts!


      • I can comment a little on this. My mother is gifted and quite possibly a RFM, though she would not even classify herself as gifted at all. She comes from a family of highly intelligent and divergent thinkers (artists and creative people on one side, bankers and artists on the other) but is the youngest and thus grew up feeling less. Rough school experience. Discouraged from attending college. But … SUPER smart at figuring things out, exploring new ideas, trying new things. She’s had more careers and jobs in her lifetime than most people watch on TV … LOL. (Seriously. From interior decorator to stock broker to Nestle sales rep to activity director at a retirement home … totally across all fields! She didn’t stick with stock broker because it would have meant long hours and it bored her … but she was the only one in her training class who could keep up with all the data!) She ended up having two RFM daughters, so continued the feeling of overwhelm across her life, though we keep reminding her that she taught us half what we know, and showed us how to learn the rest of what we wanted to know. (My sister and I are half-adopted, and I sometimes wonder how our Dad put up with the three of us … he was much more laid back and less intense, though plenty smart in his own separate way. Loved him dearly.) Anyway, my mother’s varied jobs over her life sometimes looked like lack of commitment (and I wondered at it myself, sometimes, growing up) … but she herself would tell you that it was because she’d learned all she could in one position, she was bored, and it was time to move on and learn something else. Now that she and my current stepdad (my adoptive dad passed away years ago) are retired, they travel a lot … plenty of world to see and not enough time to see it all! I would say that I have a lot more trouble with decisions than she does, but she might see it differently. She seems pretty decisive to me. Amazing and formidable woman … survived and accomplished so much.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much for your reply Paula!

        I definitely agree that multipotentiality does not help with decisions and fear of commitment. I was thinking of commitment phobia that is spread over all areas of life including romantic relationships, friendships, career, etc.

        I ordered one of your books yesterday and will be looking for connections while reading it. I recently read the book “Yes, No, Maybe” from Stefanie Stahl, which was very helpful for understanding commitment problems and their causes. I have a feeling that personality traits of RFMs (high sensitivity, indecisiveness, and others) make them specially vulnerable to developing commitment problems.

        Thank you again for your reply, and for all your amazing work!

        Liked by 2 people

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