Adult underachievement – not living up to our high potential


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.]

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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.”

Whose standards?

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.


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Related posts:

The DSM and pathologizing human experiences and giftedness

Misdiagnosis of gifted adults

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Angelina JolieCutting, 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.]

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In her post “Underachievement and the Gifted Adult” [from – 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’?”

Good questions.

But another issue is self-limiting behavior patterns.

Cover of "Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking ...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.”

Originally posted 2013-07-26 13:27:10.


  1. wichitarick says

    I saved this from a former search because I was “obsessed” with an answer and a ? and a ? and an answer? The flow of information turned into. “where do they go”? gifted adults – I.E. the gifted garbage man the gifted waitress etc etc. I have an 11 yr. old in 8th grd.
    I,m 47 and over the last 7,8 yrs have come to realize some of the reasons for why I have behaved certain ways all my life and my mom and gma are off the charts “gifted” folks who never even saw why, they were the way they were?
    I do not like “tags” but I am the poster child for adhd, I have epilepsy,easily addicted,(15 yrs sober)just ALL the keys for this stuff ,it is funny to realize thei now.
    I came here because a question is raised by kids to WHY they stay in school ? and I want to show real facts on what can happen to “gifted” adults” . thanks Rick…

  2. Arturo says

    viriditas’ issue illuminates a painful reality for gifted individuals actualizing part or all of their potential. Painful because it involves our personal need to be connected, to be appreciated, and yet we can cleary see the distance between us and those who are important to us. It is a lonely place. A place where we feel seen but not understood. It is the place where many chose to lower their goals so that they can experiance loving and being loved—two concepts that can be difficult to achieve for the gifted individual.

  3. viriditas says

    here’s a problem: can anyone relate?
    if you have reached a certain level within your gifts, but you are frustrated by some sort of block, and feel itching to go farther, and you complain about it, but half way through your complaint people who are supposed to be your mentor are so awed by what you have already achieved that they actually congratulate you, and your complaint is as incomprehensible to them as a google map of outer space, how are you supposed to feel??? talk about being a social misfit!!!!!!
    Well, I just wanted to say that even tho I haven’t watched the movie yet, so I will watch it and comment again later.


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