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Living up to your potential as a gifted adult

Written by: Lori L. Cangilla, Ph.D.


Are you living up to your potential? Does that question make you shudder?

As a psychologist with a specialty in working with gifted adults, I’ve seen how the issue of “potential” is a charged topic for most of my clients.

Does it stir something in you?

Many gifted adults share poignant accounts of being confronted about the extent to which they are living up to their potential. These messages may come from well-meaning parents, teachers, and other adults, often carrying into adulthood in messages from employers or peers.

At the heart of these messages around a gifted person’s potential are idealized notions about what it means to be gifted, such as a person who:

· Reaches the pinnacle of achievement in all areas of their life.

· Articulately communicates at all times and on all subjects.

· Shows leadership in any setting.

· Brings creativity and novelty to solving any problem.

· Effortlessly accomplishes anything they try.

Is it any wonder that gifted adults can end up feeling some combination of resentful, inadequate, and hopeless when confronted with these impossible standards?

If you are wrestling with the issue of potential, I invite you to consider exploring two complimentary strategies that have helped my clients. I see them as being in a feedback loop, where progress with one approach often leads us to use other.

Practice acceptance.

We cannot control how others view us, what narratives about potential they possess, or how we have internalized critical messages about what it means to live well as a gifted adult. We can choose, however, to practice radical acceptance of things as they are in the present moment. In doing so, we acknowledge reality as it is, including the painful, undesirable parts, rather than denying, avoiding, or minimizing the difficulties of how things truly are. We accept that there are expectations about living to one’s potential as a gifted adult and that we have been impacted by those expectations.

Acceptance does not mean condoning or necessarily agreeing with reality, only that we concede that things are as they are. Acceptance allows us mental space to step outside our suffering and make a conscious choice about how to proceed: do we continue to live according to society’s messages about potential, or do we choose to make a change?

Change your story.

Narrative therapy approaches invite us to give fresh language to our experiences. We might begin by reflecting on how potential is not the same as an obligation to perform or a guaranteed result. We might explore ways that we have put expectations on ourselves or have had them placed on us by other people, without regard for who we are, what values and preferences we have, and what factors besides giftedness might be impacting our lives.

By creating a new narrative that sees the focus on our potential as ambiguous and potentially problematic, we empower ourselves to step outside the confines of the old narrative. We more easily choose what aspects of potential we endorse and which we reject.

You Potential is Not Your Worth

Gifted adults deserve to free ourselves from unhelpful messages about our worth and value, regardless of where those messages originated. Your potential is not your worth. You are worthy, acceptable, and valuable, exactly as you are.

Give yourself plenty of space, support, and a community of people around you to let yourself experience the distinction between your self-worth and your potential. As you work toward building greater self-acceptance, you will find yourself building a life that reflect your unique needs, values, and desires. And building a life that genuinely fits your authenticity is the best way to live up to your potential as a gifted adult.


About the Author:

Lori L. Cangilla, Ph.D., is licensed psychologist and gifted adult who specializes in working with adults who are gifted, creative, and highly sensitive. She created the Singularly Sensitive approach to empower clients to embrace their full identity and find creative, holistic, mindful ways to build lives of meaning, purpose, and contentment. Her book, Wander and Delve: A Journal for Bright, Creative, Highly Sensitive People Forging Their Way (2023), is available to help you build your own Singularly Sensitive life. You can join Dr. Cangilla’s mailing list on or follow her on Instagram (@singularlysensitive).

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