Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A gifted person's guide to therapy

If you are gifted, what should you look for when searching for a therapist?

And when should you run the other way?

Once you have decided you would benefit from the help and support of a psychotherapist, the next step is finding someone you trust. Since misconceptions about therapy are widespread, gaining an overview of the basics might help. Most of the same guidelines apply whether you are gifted or not, with a few exceptions. Here are some tips:

1. First and foremost: Trust your gut

Your best friend, sister, minister, or yelp reviews rave about a therapist. But you meet the person and your stomach turns. Then that therapist is not the right one for you. Yes, it takes time to build trust, but if there is not a good fit, then go elsewhere.

2. You are part of the process

Don't expect your therapist to tell you what to do. You probably wouldn't like it anyway. Therapy requires your input, ideas and contributions. Therapists are not mind-readers and cannot magically solve your problem. You need to be honest, share your thoughts and feelings, and be willing to address concerns you might have avoided for a long time. On the other hand, therapy is interactive and not just a place to unload your stress; there needs to be room for your therapist to offer ideas and feedback. Therapists also comment on your interactions with them to help you improve your relationships outside of therapy.

3. Therapy is hard work

While therapy can be a tremendous support and even a lifesaver, it is also hard work. You will need to think about what you have discussed between sessions and try out new behaviors. You might even need to do a little digging into long-buried family issues to rid yourself of entrenched patterns that influence you now. You won't always walk out of a session feeling great - sometimes you'll feel sad or angry because of emotions that have been stirred up. But the awareness and understanding you have gained is worth it. So be prepared to roll up your sleeves and dig in.

4. Your therapist is not your friend

Don't expect your therapist to share how he might have recovered from addiction, lost weight, or weathered a rough patch in his marriage. Whatever worked for him will not necessarily work for you, and his presumed success might spur envy or comparisons that block your progress. Don't ask your therapist about her vacations, medical problems, or where she bought her new outfit. She cannot become your friend, even if she really likes you a lot. Your therapist's job is to help you understand yourself, change behaviors, and improve relationships. Learning too much about your therapist will interfere with that goal and can be confusing and overwhelming.

5. Therapy requires some flexibility

While most therapists adhere to a particular therapy perspective, it is beneficial for all when a therapist understands and can use a range of techniques and approaches when necessary. Most experienced therapists have a toolbox of ideas for how to treat various concerns, and will tailor what is offered to the individual's needs. They are collaborative, empathetic, and creative, can shift from an exploratory approach to problem-solving with ease, and will incorporate a variety of ideas or refer you to additional resources when these might help. Flexible therapists hold firm when it benefits your long-term success, but will change when it is needed.

6. Therapy takes time

Whether due to the cost, time commitment or emotions that get stirred up, many people want to rush through therapy. Or they place constraints on the process, such as insisting on meeting infrequently. This limits the effectiveness of therapy. You wouldn't take half of the medicine your physician prescribed or study part of a textbook and expect a successful outcome. Yet, many clients assume they can cut corners with therapy. If you have been in therapy for a while and think it's time to scale back, discuss this with your therapist. But if you are starting out and expect to improve, don't place restrictions on regular participation.

7. Google is not the best way to find a therapist

Finding a therapist is not like researching a good restaurant.
You are better off asking a trusted referral source. Check with your family physician, pediatrician, school counselor, school psychologist, or member of the clergy for referrals. Friends can be a resource, too, although what works for your friend may not be best suited to you. You could check with your state psychological or social work organizations, or national lists of therapists who specialize in giftedness, such as HoagiesGifted. Some online sites have information about therapists, but check through these carefully, since they typically only offer information the therapist provides. The most glossy websites don't necessarily reflect quality services, and many therapists don't even have an online presence. Referrals through your insurance company are not the best source either, since they usually provide a list of therapists with little regard to your needs or preferences.

8. Sometimes you get what you pay for

Many people assume their health insurance will come through. Sadly, it may provide little help. Sometimes therapy is (wrongly) viewed as a luxury, and some people feel guilty even paying a meager co-pay for each visit. Many therapists do not necessarily work with managed care contracts either. While some people are limited by their financial situations, others may have the means to pay for therapy but don't feel that it is a necessity. A supportive, transformative, and sometimes life-changing experience is certainly worth the cost, and it may be time to re-evaluate priorities and spending decisions. Not to sound harsh, but that's the reality.

9. Competence, credentials and ethics matter

Competent psychotherapists have received comprehensive training in psychotherapy techniques, psychological assessment, personality theory and ethics, and continue to update their training and skills Many therapists develop areas of specialization and expertise; however, breadth of training and experience is even more essential. Competent therapists also recognize their limitations, adhere to ethical codes of conduct and are clear about the limits of what they can offer in therapy.

Psychotherapists should be licensed in your state. Most are licensed as psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, or professional counselors. Be careful about therapists who list an alphabet soup of certifications after their names, or those who use the title of "dr" without a doctoral degree. When in doubt, check with your state licensing board to ensure that your therapist is licensed and in good standing. Be cautious about therapists who promote their expertise based on personal experiences, or claim a greater understanding of your concerns because or recovery from addictions/eating disorders/trauma/depression or any other problem. Yes, the "wounded healer" moniker is a well-known label and sometimes there is some merit to this. But having endured personal suffering has no correlation with skill or expertise, and the therapist's personal struggles and recovery have no place in your therapy. 

Ethical therapists adhere to a code of ethics, including maintaining confidentiality, boundaries and integrity. Therapists separate their own personal needs from yours in their attempts to help you. Unlike some portrayals in the media and film, therapists should never cross boundaries. This means that they cannot become your friend, have lunch with you, ask personal favors, and should not share a lot about their personal lives. In other words, the therapy is about you - not about them. They might share some information about themselves - but only to enhance the work you are doing in psychotherapy.

10. Try to find a therapist who "gets" giftedness

Most therapists do not have much training in giftedness. Those who specialize in giftedness typically have thorough training as psychotherapists, but also understand the social and emotional effects. If you find a therapist you like and respect who does not know a lot about giftedness, he or she may be willing to learn more through reading and workshops, particularly to offset any misunderstanding related to inaccurate diagnoses. What is most important is your rapport with the therapist and perception that he or she truly understands how your giftedness interacts with and affects who you are.

Some therapists specializing in gifted issues promote themselves because they have been identified as gifted. While they may have personal understanding of gifted issues, this does not mean they are experts in "treating" people, or in understanding your unique concerns. Some gifted people without credentials as psychotherapists or training as personal coaches also identify themselves as "gifted coaches." You might find some of them online. Being gifted does not justify promoting oneself as a credible coach or pseudo-therapist. Since there is no formal credentialing for personal coaching, anyone can claim authority as a coach. Be very careful about seeking advice from these sources.

Go get some therapy!

Psychotherapy is not a luxury, an indulgence or for those who are weak. Unfortunately, these stigmas and stereotypes have prevented people from seeking the support and guidance they need during times of stress. Psychotherapists are far from perfect, but they can help you gather the insight, understanding, motivation and self-compassion to move ahead on your chosen path.


  1. This is excellent, Gail. I don't know what I would add. I will be sharing it!

    1. Thank you, Paula. I really appreciate your feedback.

  2. Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D.May 24, 2017 at 11:11 AM

    Thank you, Gail, for this exceptional summary that hits all of the necessary notes! My wife and I just retired from our 40-year psychotherapy practice, most of which was with gifted and talented kids and adults. One thing I would add to your important point about trusting your gut: there are some professionals who feel threatened by gifted kids. The stomach turning some clients may feel in these cases may have to do with a feeling of being disrespected, or demeaned, as though a child's thoughtfulness is something to be ashamed of. If this is the case, as you say, go elsewhere.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Thomas. You raise a good point. Sadly, this can happen with gifted children and adults. It is always important to trust one's instincts to ensure that you feel respected and understood.

  3. I am going to be honest... I was rather taken aback by number four. I ask too many questions for it not to seem like we would be friends. However, I usually just ask then in my head, but the one-sided perception is often still there.

    1. Anonymous, Thanks for your feedback. It is understandable to want your therapist to be your friend. After all, you end up liking and trusting this person, so these feelings can develop. But if the boundaries of the relationship were to change, it would have a negative effect on the therapy. It might not seem that way, but it would. So most competent therapists - even those who share some information about themselves - are able to maintain clear boundaries while still being present and available to you.