Monday, September 24, 2018

Is it obsessing or just overthinking?

Many gifted children and adults are overthinkers. They can debate an idea, concept, or theory, dissect the meaning of a sentence, and critique a casual comment like nobody's business. But when does gifted overthinking morph into obsessiveness? How does deep, meaningful thinking transition from something that absorbs and amuses a busy mind into worry, self-recrimination and sleepless nights?

Is obsessive thinking the same as OCD?

Struggling with obsessive thinking does not necessarily indicate obsessive-compulsive disorder, a biochemically-mediated psychological disorder that involves repetitive, intrusive and sometimes disturbing thoughts, often accompanied by compensating behaviors that are used to quell the anxiety evoked by such thoughts. OCD symptoms can range from mild to disabling: however, when the OCD label is used casually in daily life (e.g., "his desk is so neat - he's so OCD"), it both diminishes the seriousness of the diagnosis, and inaccurately mislabels the many people who do not have OCD.

Obsessive thinking is often less intense than OCD obsessions, and may include any of the following: worry; anxiety; ruminating, repeatedly thinking about and trying to solve the problem; sorting through and reliving situations from the past; and planning and predicting the future, what other's think, and the outcome of an event. Obsessive thinking can stem from various triggers, including a genetic/biochemical predisposition, but is often grounded in insecurity, difficulty with uncertainty, fear of vulnerability or failure, and high expectations. It can be situation-specific (such as worrying before a class presentation), or a more global response to anxiety.

(Note: if you have concerns about whether you or your child have OCD, though, please seek an evaluation with a psychologist or psychiatrist. There are treatments available that can address this condition.)

What about "obsessions?"

Many of us are acquainted with gifted children who become "obsessed," especially when we can't tear them away from their newest preoccupation. Whether it's learning all about dinosaurs or solving global warming, gifted children and teens might seem obsessively attached to their interests and ideas. And you don't have to be gifted to become obsessed with a pop star or doggedly pursue the latest tech device or fashion trend. Although these "obsessions" might be emotionally intense and sometimes costly, they are fairly common. They involve a desire, a preoccupation, an outlet for one's passion, and are quite different from obsessive worry and rumination. Unless the "obsessions" are excessive (e.g., result in social isolation, infringe on another person's rights, cause financial ruin), they are usually short-lived and are developmentally common among children and teens.

Gifted people and obsessive thinking

Gifted people are no more likely to have psychological problems than anyone else. But a highly active mind, and some of the traits associated with overthinking that affect some gifted people - perfectionism, a tendency to critique everything, and a whirlwind of thoughts (sometimes mistaken for ADHD) - might tip the balance toward obsessive thinking or rumination. This is even more likely to occur when a gifted child, teen or adult is experiencing underlying anxiety, insecurity, low self-esteem, depression or family/school/work/relationship stress.

Even in the absence of psychological issues or distress, if a gifted person possesses any of the following traits, they might increase the likelihood of a spiral into obsessive thinking:

1. Perfectionism

While not all gifted people are perfectionists (and gifted people are no more likely to be perfectionistic than anyone else), this burden takes a toll. They may strive to achieve at all costs, berate themselves for any real or perceived failure, and base their self-worth on their achievements. Obsessing may include worrying about everything and anything that might go wrong, mastering every detail, overstudying and overpreparing for tests or presentations, and ruminating over flaws or missteps in performance. Learning to risk failure and imperfection is an important and necessary challenge.

2. Need for control

Similar to perfectionism, obsessive thinking may be fueled by an attempt to control for all factors in a given situation. To alleviate worrying, control-seekers will take charge of every project, hoard resources and information, learn everything they can about a topic, and devise seemingly fool-proof plans in an effort to eliminate any chance of failure. They don't need to be perfect - they just need to get it right and avoid surprises or derailments. Repeated checking, researching every aspect of a situation, and avoiding risks become their norm. Learning to trust and rely on others, chancing failure and less than perfect outcomes, and weathering roadblocks that emerge along the way as part of any project are their challenge.

3. Critiquing everything

Some gifted people become the self-appointed watchdogs for all that is wrong in the world. This, of course, includes school, family, relationships, and friendships, along with film, books, politics, and even how well the local supermarket organizes its shelves. They don't mean to be judgmental; they just can't stop scrutinizing everything around them. While deconstructing the details, theory, strategy, vision, and meaning of what's at hand might be intellectually entertaining, it can rob them of joy - like the film critic who no longer enjoys the show. Some become obsessed with finding the "right" answer, and fixated on seeking the truth - or convincing those around them of their findings. Letting go of this drive to scrutinize and uncover the correct answer is difficult, but also liberating.

4. Lightning fast thinking

The fast-paced minds, thirst for knowledge, and need for intellectual stimulation common among so many gifted people can sometimes fuel obsessive thinking. Gifted children and teens may not know how to manage their very busy minds, and when bored, stressed, insecure, or overwhelmed, their thoughts might spiral into obsessive or repetitive thinking about something that is not easy to resolve. Gifted children and teens benefit from tools such as healthy calming techniques, mindfulness, appropriate distraction skills, and how to stop their thoughts from taking over.

5. Setting sky high goals

Some gifted people feel compelled to achieve at an exceptional level. For some, perfectionism is part of this process; for others, the drive is targeted toward a specific goal, and does not reflect a generalized approach to life. Whether stemming from a need to please others, meet real or presumed expectations, or arising from a burning passion, some are driven to be the best. They push themselves to the brink of exhaustion, eschew other interests or activities, and ignore pleas to find balance and perspective. Sometimes their achievements are staggering - they receive acclaim and recognition, excel in sports, science or the arts, master a new invention, or become recognized as the best in their field.  While some find great joy and a sense of creative flow when delving into what they love, an obsessive drive can quickly go awry, leading to social isolation, burn-out, and even health problems when self-care is neglected. Pacing and balance are critical for high achievers.

What can you do?

When you or your child are plagued with obsessive thinking, when overthinking spirals out of control, the first step involves understanding what contributes to these thoughts. Sometimes it can be fears, expectations, and low self-esteem; other times, unrealistic beliefs and assumptions about what might occur. Uncovering what drives these thoughts can start with some basic questions:

Understanding obsessive thinking

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What is driving this obsession?
  • Is it consistent with what is important to me and to my values?
  • Can I feel good about myself even if I am not perfect or the best?
  • What are the drawbacks of being so driven?

Challenging obsessive thinking

  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • How likely is it that the worst could happen?
  • Where is the data? If I were a scientist or detective or attorney, what facts would support my beliefs?
  • Will this matter five years from now?
  • How can I focus on the present - on what is happening right now, rather than the past or future worries?

The above questions are a start. They can help you or your child challenge obsessive thoughts and gain perspective on what is truly meaningful. But when obsessive thinking becomes an entrenched pattern, or is associated with psychological distress, such as low self-esteem, body image concerns, heightened anxiety, depression, or even irrational thinking, additional help is needed. While self-help efforts and support from family and friends are an essential first step, when obsessive thinking spirals out of control, therapy with a licensed mental health professional can help you manage and quell these thoughts.

What have you found helpful for challenging obsessive thoughts?

This blog is part of the GHF Blog Hop on Gifted People and Rabbit Holes. To see more blogs, click on the following link.

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Saturday, September 1, 2018

When gifted students feel disconnected from school

There is a widespread assumption that gifted children love going to school - a place for indulging their intellect and where their talents can shine. But far too many become disengaged, frustrated and bored, as they endure watered-down instruction, and wait while their classmates learn information they already know. They often mask their abilities to gain acceptance from peers, and count the days until graduation.

In other words, many gifted students feel disconnected from school.

Of course, they don't start out like this. Most gifted children burst onto the scene with enthusiasm to spare. Eager to learn, explore, create and engage in meaningful dialogue, their intensity may be too much for teachers or other students to tolerate. They receive both straightforward and covert messages to quell their excitement, slow their pace, and conform to their peer group. Inherent in this is the painful awareness that the school culture does not fully accept them.

Parents sometimes intervene when their child's motivation lags. They attempt to advocate within the schools, pleading for some enriched or accelerated learning options, or supplement on their own with extra-curricular activities. While this might rekindle some of the spark, it cannot fully repair the trust already breached by the school.

Gifted students who believe they have been marginalized and ignored, who realize that they can coast through school and remain "under-the-radar," and who lose respect for teachers and administration, often become cynical and angry. When students feel disparagingly toward their school, they may lose all motivation to achieve.

Engagement with school is essential

Siegel and McCoach (2005) highlighted this dilemma among underachieving gifted students. Their Achievement Orientation Model outlined several factors necessary for success, and included: 1) a "positive valuation" of the school's goals; 2) viewing the school environment as supportive; and 3) finding academic tasks meaningful. According to this model, unless these factors are present, students are unlikely to feel motivated to achieve. Landis and Reschly (2013) also identified the importance of student engagement in the prevention of gifted underachievement and dropping out from school. It would follow, then, that finding a means for engagement with school, and some connection with teachers and the school community is essential for gifted students.

How can gifted children develop a sense of connection to their school?

With some changes in how they are treated, disengaged gifted students may start to feel more connected and involved. Matthews and McBee (2007), for example, noted that gifted underachievement is "relatively malleable and may change rapidly following a suitable modification to the academic and social environment (p. 176). Some options for increasing engagement with school might include the following:

1. Allow gifted students to work and play together

Gifted students benefit both academically and socially from ability grouping, or at least clustering with gifted and high ability peers. Vogl and Preckel (2014), for example, found that gifted students who attended gifted classes had better relationships with their teachers and more interest in school than those placed in regular classes. Ability grouping lets gifted students engage in like-minded dialogue and creative exchange, without the fear of criticism for being "too smart."  Even though they still may view themselves as different from most of the school population, they can identify with and relate to a niche of peers who understand and accept them. And they can invest their energy into challenging academic work.

2. Engage their need for meaningful learning

While all students deserve an opportunity to discover their passions and interests, gifted students, in particular, will quickly resist the meaninglessness of rote learning. Siegle and McCoach (2005) have emphasized the importance of helping gifted students find what motivates and interests them. McCoach and Siegle (2003) found that students had little motivation to exert effort if they could not find any value in the identified academic goals. Gifted students are too "smart" to buy into learning that seems pointless; they need to believe that it has some value, purpose and greater meaning. When rote learning or a routine task is necessary, though, they will cooperate if they understand its value. Gifted students will readily work on memorizing multiplication tables, for example, if they appreciate that it serves a greater purpose.

3. Appeal to their commitment to social justice

With their strong sense of social justice, gifted students long for a meaningful expression of their caring nature. Help them identify a cause, interest, concern or volunteer activity at school where they can invest their energies. This will not only help them feel pride in their efforts and their school's commitment to change, but mitigate any lingering disengagement from the majority population of the school. For example, while most students are attending a pep rally for the big game, your child might feel more engaged working on the school newspaper or planning a fundraiser for an environmental issue.

4. Encourage their social-emotional imagination

Gottlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang, and Kaufman (2016) have combined psychology, neuroscience and education research to propose a model emphasizing the importance of social-emotional imagination as an educational tool. They point out that:
"students' social-emotional imaginations - their capacity to consider multiple cognitive and affective perspectives, courses of action, and outcomes for themselves and others - are an essential, yet regularly omitted, component of identifying and educating gifted students" (p. 2).
 According to Gottlieb and colleagues, students become more intrinsically motivated when they feel personally engaged with their learning, are able to imagine their futures, see themselves within a social context and can empathize with others. When they see an association between what they are learning and a larger purpose, they will feel more excited and engaged. The authors emphasize a "shift from knowledge transmission and regimented evaluation to creative exploration, intentional reflectiveness, and mindful switching between task focus and imagining" (p. 1). In other words, gifted students thrive when schools tap into their creativity, imagination, empathy and social awareness.

5. Ensure that the Five "Cs" of learning are present

In a case study review, Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) identified five factors that are necessary to alleviate the disengagement underachieving gifted students experience: control, choice, challenge, complexity, and caring teachers. It makes sense that these five factors would benefit all students, but they are particularly relevant for gifted students. If your child is struggling, try to identify which of these five factors might be missing. Does he feel that he has little control over his social interactions? Are there few class choices available? Does she feel that her teachers don't care much about her? Are classes lacking sufficient challenge and complexity?

What gifted students need

It seems clear that gifted students need to find a reason for learning beyond the acquisition of grades or awards. They want to feel engaged and proud of their school - but they often don't have any reason to care. As I commented in a book chapter about gifted underachievers:
"Gifted students learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, passionate, challenged, inspired, curious, and believe that what they are studying is meaningful and useful... If they feel truly 'seen' and understood, believe the school is investing its energy into their education as much as it does for other students, and wants them to excel, it will garner their respect" (Post, 2017).

What have you found that helps increase engagement with school?


Gottleib, R., Hyde, E., Immordino-Yang, M.H., & Kaufman, S.B. (2016). Cultivating the social-emotional imagination in gifted education: Insights from educational neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1-10.

Kanevsky, L. & Keighley, T. (2003). To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honor in underachievement. Roeper Review, 26, 20-28.

Landis, R. & Reschly, A. (2013). Reexamining gifted underachievement and dropout through the lens of student engagement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 36, 220-249.

Matthews, M. S. & McBee, M. T. (2007). School factors and the underachievement of gifted students in a talent search summer program. Gifted Child Quarterly, 51, 167-181.

McCoach, D.B. & Siegle, D. (2003). Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high-achieving gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 47, 144-154.

Post, G. (2017). Gifted underachievers under-the-radar. In R. Klingner (ed.), Gifted Underachiever. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.  

Siegle, D. & McCoach, D.B. (2005). Motivating gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Vogl, K. & Preckel, F. (2014). Full-time ability grouping of gifted students: Impacts on social self-concept and school-related attitudes. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58, 51-68.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Just the Facts. To read more blogs, click on:

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