When Abilities Become Liabilities

The Double-Edged Nature of Creative Aptitudes

In order to bring clarity to the process of accurately naming and effectively working with the challenges that automatically accompany creative abilities, I find it helpful to recognize that the majority of these challenges seem to fall into two major categories, which I have termed root influences and derivative effects.

Root influences  

Root influences are emotional, psychological and physiological challenges that stem directly from an aptitude itself.   Examples include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by a high flow of ideas (high ideaphoria) and the complexity of non-linear thought patterns (divergent thinking).
  • A malaise caused by a lack of creative or intellectual fulfillment, i.e., environments or activities that feel creatively or intellectually under-stimulating.
  • Frequent sensory ‘overload’ due to the existence of strong sensory abilities and insufficient practices, which can rebalance our nervous system.

Significant questions in making an assessment of root influences might include:

Am I obsessive-compulsive, or do my finely-tuned visual abilities call upon me to respect my aesthetic sensibility by creating an environment of visual beauty and order?

Do I actually have a biochemical depression, or am I an imaginative person living among a plethora of concrete thinkers?

Do I really have attention deficit disorder, or am I attempting to keep up with my numerous ideas, interests and activities in a way that is indiscriminate rather than mindful?

Do I have an actual anxiety disorder, or am I suffering from the natural effects of repressed creative expression and behavioral avoidance?

In my observation, the mental health diagnoses most frequently ascribed to creatively-gifted individuals include: 

Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder (particularly in children), Social Anxiety Disorder and the Adjustment Disorders.

On occasions when we appear to be faced with challenges posed by creative abilities or those that may stem from a specific mental health problem, care needs to be taken in making a differential diagnosis so that each facet of experience can be accurately identified on its own terms.

In order to make an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis of the root cause of our difficulties, various specific aspects of experience need to be considered simultaneously. These aspects include:

Challenges that Arise from Creative Aptitudes – Creative aptitudes can be challenging to deal with, especially when one experiences the ‘layering effect’ of more than one aptitude. However, the challenge is normal and not necessarily reflective of a mental health problem or inherent weakness per se.

Differences that Arise from Strengths – Those of us that are creatively gifted often ‘see the world differently.’ The difference is not only normal, but may stem from being acutely perceptive and highly accurate, while holding vantage points that may not be readily apparent.

The Impact of Pre-existing Medical Conditions – An undiagnosed medical condition can give rise to symptoms that have a mental health component, as when, for example, a hypoglycemic condition (low blood sugar) triggers anxiety, depression and mood swings.

Maintaining an awareness of these aspects can increase the likelihood that all aspects of our experience will be named accurately and responded to effectively.

Derivative Effects

Derivative effects are the negative cascades of experience that can derive from the influence of one or more unmediated creative aptitudes.

Derivative effects begin to appear when root influences are not effectively dealt with, where the fallout from an unmediated creative aptitude causes a undesirable ripple effect in one or more aspect of life.

Derivative effects most frequently appear in the form of personal identity issues, adjustment difficulties (a lack of ‘fit’ within a relationship, career or physical environment), and medical conditions.

Personal Identity – Many of us have accepted mistaken notions about ourselves after having been told that we are “too sensitive,” “too intense,” “too emotional,” “too much of a perfectionist,” that we “think too much,” or have “too many ideas” etc. These types of characterizations can cause us to internalize erroneous beliefs that, although objectively untrue, can begin to erode our self-confidence and self-worth, circumvent our opportunity to identify an aptitude that may remain hidden under an apparent observation and impair our ability to function effectively in the world.

The word “too” is a relative term. Just as we understand that it would be inappropriate to tell someone they are “too intelligent,” since we usually respect the value of I.Q. intelligence, creative aptitudes deserve equal respect.

Based on an accurate understanding of our abilities, mistaken beliefs can be reframed in the correct direction. For instance, if we are “too sensitive,” we may have acute sensory skills, if we have “too many ideas,” we may have high ideaphoria, and if we are considered “too much of a perfectionist,” we may possess keen visual or visionary abilities.

Rather than being seen as weaknesses, a “too” can signal the presence of an exceptional ability that can be parlayed into a satisfying activity or career. For example, with strong visual aptitudes, we may excel in graphic design, empirical research or other occupations that require keen observation.

Adjustment Difficulties – A lack of clarity about our capabilities can result in the experience of going from job to job or relationship to relationship with a sense of wandering through life while trying to find a true psychological and situational home. I know I am an intelligent person, why have I not been able to make more of my life than I have? With the passage of time, the existence of high ability and a relative lack of success can result in severe disillusionment.

The use of the phrase, adjustment disorder, often puts ‘the cart before the horse.’   Many adjustment ‘disorders’ occur merely because a person is in a situation that is not a good match for their aptitudes, interests and values. On these occasions, adjustment disorders need to be recognized as a symptom of a different fundamental cause:

Because I do not recognize who I really am, and/or lack the strength to stand up for myself, I continue to make choices and accept situations that are not in alignment with my authentic aptitudes, interests, values and needs.

On the academic front, many of us have aptitudes that lie outside the realm of standardized tests and the abilities most emphasized by conventional academic programs. Standardized tests and most traditional curricula stress linear, deductive and ‘part to whole’ thinking while neglecting non-liner (mistakenly referred to as ‘random’), inductive and ‘whole to part’ thinking. A predominantly ‘left-brain’ emphasis can therefore place us at risk for poor academic performance and the unfortunate conclusion that we may not be as intelligent as our fellow students.

Without appropriate intervention, difficulties experienced in school may follow us after graduation where we, by default, fall back upon a costly ‘trial and error’ approach to life and work.

On the relationship front, many of us notice ourselves feeling bored, dissatisfied or unfulfilled. We may notice that people frequently come to us for advice, where we meet the needs of others successfully, but peers and mentors of our own are hard to find. We may give up on relationships entirely if we cannot find others that nurture us and offer a sense of community.

Medical Conditions – A highly sensitive nervous system can allow us to recognize important subtleties in the inner and outer environment that others might miss. However, along with a sensitive nervous system we can be inclined to develop certain medical conditions as an effect of the following stressors:

  • Longstanding, unresolved personal identity issues, i.e., living with a sense of feeling ‘different,’ but not understanding the true cause.
  • ‘Making do’ with environments or relationships that do not match one’s actual needs along with an appropriate inability to ‘adjust.’
  • Effects of sensory overload, particularly when mind and body are not adequately protected from environmental stimulation and/or one is without practices that can release the physiological states of ‘fight, flight, or freeze.’

Predominant medical conditions include:

  • Allergies, skin disorders
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Neurotransmitter imbalances, particularly those not remedied by SSRIs
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Thyroid, and other hormone imbalances
  • Autonomic nervous system dysfunction – the root of numerous emotional, psychological, physical and functional impairments.

In order to resolve adjustment difficulties in the right direction, it is important to recognize who we are relative to our abilities. We can then learn to develop the internal and external resources necessary for tackling the unavoidable challenges that remain.

For a description of how these challenges can be addressed, please go to the Services link.

The root of both abilities and liabilities can be found within the creative aptitudes themselves.