In a very real sense, everyone may be called “underachieving” regardless of whether they are gifted or not. One short definition is “Performance below potential.”
But high ability and giftedness are much more than advanced potential, high scores and notable achievements. What really matters in talking about underachievement is the inner experience of “falling short of potential” – how that impacts our identity, esteem, life satisfaction and mental health.
Many of us are “naturally” self-critical, and not fulfilling more of the wide range of talents we have can be yet another source of fuel for calling ourselves deficient.
[The above comments are also in the “Underachieving – or just selective” section of my book “Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression” – see the website for more info, reviews, and excerpts.]
The image is from this video – an excerpt from the 90 Minute Webinar Presentation by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) “Understanding and Treating Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Underachievement in Gifted Children, Adolescents and Young Adults” – presented by Jerald Grobman, M.D.
From the SENG Webinar Program info page: “Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and underachievement are common concerns of gifted children, adolescents and young adults and their parents.”
See related articles at his site Psychotherapy Services for the Gifted.
In one of those articles: Underachievement in Exceptionally Gifted Adolescents and Young Adults: A Psychiatrist’s View, Dr. Grobman writes:
“By mid-adolescence, these exceptionally gifted young people had begun to seriously and consistently undermine their gifted development. Each limited how he or she used his or her potential strengths and began to act in other very self-destructive ways.”
Dr. Grobman comes across as very helpful and sympathetic about his gifted patients – but many health professionals may be uninformed about gifted characteristics and challenges, and may tend to pathologize some behaviors.
Cutting, for example, is often considered a disorder. But it can be a temporary self-medication maneuver.
Angelina Jolie said of her self-cutting, “It was a release of some kind.”
In her article: Theory of Positive Disintegration as a Model of Personality Development For Exceptional Individuals [page 2], Elizabeth Mika writes:
“Dabrowski was keenly interested in self-mutilation as a phenomenon suggestive of higher than average sensitivity. His Ph.D. dissertation, first published in 1934.. showed the co-existence of self-mutilatory tendencies, creativity and strong developmental strivings in a select group of creative individuals.”
But one problem with cutting, or self-medication with drugs and alcohol, is that self-soothing strategies can interfere with recognizing and dealing with mental health issues that impact personal development and achievement.
[Also see my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted.]
In her post “Underachievement and the Gifted Adult” [from gifteduniverse.com – apparently no longer online], Elisa wrote, “Not working to your potential. How often have many gifted adults encountered that phrase in their life? How often do gifted adults say that to themselves?
“I think the problem with that phrase is how ‘working to your potential’ or ‘living up to your potential’ is generally understood in narrow terms.
“As a child it means getting exceptional grades. As an adult it means earning a lot of money and/or eminence in your profession…. ‘‘Performance below expectation’ – who’s expectation? And how do we understand ‘performance’?”
But another issue is self-limiting behavior patterns.
In his book Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement, Kenneth W. Christian, PhD defines how “Self Limiting High Potential Persons etch enduring pathways over time by repeating their characteristic self-defeating methods.”
For example, one pattern is “Sleepers. The style most often seen in people from families or communities without models or traditions of high achievement. Sleepers lack accurate information about themselves, the extent of their talent, and ways to express it.”
Read more of his patterns on the page Self-limiting.
Challenged By Being So Smart – Psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel says that ‘smart’ people often experience characteristic challenges including “difficulties with society and the world, issues at work, challenges with your personality and your racing brain, and special meaning problems.”