Sensitive people and gifted people can find themselves paralyzed by constant overthinking. So how do you stop?
Are you bright, smart, nerdy, creative, full of potential? Does your brain seem to run nonstop? What Paula Prober calls a rainforest mind? If so, there’s a good chance that you are a gifted adult. And if you are gifted and a highly sensitive person, you probably know a thing or two about overthinking.
Being gifted has both benefits and challenges. As a psychologist who specializes in working with HSPs who are also gifted adults, I routinely see the struggles that come with having a temperament that’s outside the mainstream. The single most common complaint that my clients have is that they cannot get out of their heads.
And it stands to reason: sensitive people are temperamentally wired to process information more deeply than other people — which explains the link to giftedness — and giftedness itself comes with strong interests and spending lots of creative brainpower on them.
There is a way to stop that overthinking (without giving up your brilliance). To understand how, it’s helpful to first understand what giftedness is — and is not — and why it’s related to high sensitivity.
The Truth About Giftedness
Contrary to popular belief, being gifted is not necessarily about your intellect, IQ score, or academic performance. In fact,intelligence itself is far more than any of those things. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences revolutionized our definition of intelligence to include the many forms it takes.
According to Gardner, there are eight types of intelligence:
- Spatial intelligence: The ability to intuitively conceptualize relationships of objects in space — like how to pull off a perfect Tokyo Drift in a racecar, or how the components of a machine will fit together.
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: The ability to use one’s body fluidly to solve problems or accomplish things — like the movements of a dancer, or an athlete’s performance on the field.
- Musical intelligence: The ability to intuitively grasp meter, pitch, rhythm, and other aspects of music and sound to weave together a musical performance or compose stirring music.
- Linguistic intelligence: An intuitive grasp of the meaning, connotation, and rhythm of words, and how to organize words for maximum impact — like a writer a greater orator will do.
- Logical-mathematical intelligence: The ability to conceptualize logical relationships between numbers, values, symbols, and concepts, as seen in advanced mathematics or the team that cracked the Engima code.
- Interpersonal intelligence: The ability to effectively interact with other people, including awareness of others’ emotions, temperaments and motives. (Closely related to emotional intelligence.)
- Intrapersonal intelligence: The capacity to notice and understand your own feelings, hopes, fears, and goals, and to make decisions or take actions that support your goals and traits. This is a trait seen in many meditation masters, but also used to make day-to-day decisions in everyday life.
- Naturalistic intelligence: The ability to perceive distinctions and patterns in the natural world, such as distinguishing one species of frog from another, or understand what the weather is doing based on a change in the wind.
All of us have varying levels of these intelligences, and most of us are not equally proficient in all areas.
Giftedness in any of these types of intelligence reflects a person’s potential to excel in that area compared to others. This potential is often seen from a young age. Importantly, this potential is accompanied by creativity and a deep commitment to areas of interest. If encouraged, these traits can drive a virtuous cycle where the gifted individual gains more and more practice in their type of intelligence by pursuing their interests. However, this potential often goes unrecognized in children from marginalized groups or in cultures where a particular kind of intelligence is not valued.
When I have clients who wonder if they are gifted, I often ask, “Would you have excelled as a child, if the adults in your life had recognized and supported your potential and development?”
For instance, I worked with a woman who discovered during the pandemic that she has the ability to master new languages with minimal effort. But, due to her socioeconomic and cultural background, she had no exposure to language classes in high school (and she did not attend college). For her, it was clear that she had untapped potential giftedness as a child, which she is choosing to develop as an adult. She finds it helpful to self-identify as gifted, as do many adults whose giftedness was not formally acknowledged earlier in their lives.
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How Is Sensitivity Connected to Giftedness?
Studies have found that the majority (77-87%) of gifted people are also highly sensitive. Many people who identify as gifted report having some of the same qualities as HSPs, like thinking more deeply than other people, being overwhelmed by sensory input, having high standards for themselves, and being very perceptive about other people. (All of these qualities can, of course, contribute to chronic overthinking.)
Does that mean that giftedness and high sensitivity are the same thing? Not necessarily. HSP expert Elaine Aron argues that the two traits are distinct phenomena. For example, a key feature of giftedness is “precocity,” or early development in comparison to one’s peers. HSPs, on average, show a more typical developmental trajectory. HSP traits also tend to emerge regardless of the conditions a person encounters in childhood, whereas giftedness can be more dependent on the context in which someone is raised.
Interestingly, Aron invites people to “equate your sensitivity with giftedness if it helps.” In other words: Don’t get caught up in definitions and labels, or determining what parts of you come from your sensitivity versus giftedness. Instead, recognize that you can use these qualities to serve you as an adult.
How to Harness Your Sensitivity to Beat Overthinking
For HSPs, the deep-thinking mind is both a blessing and a curse. Accepting that you are predisposed to overthinking is the foundation for overcoming it. Fortunately, there are clear strategies that can make it easier to beat overthinking.
These strategies tie neatly into the four main of highly sensitive people, which Aron represents with the acronym DOES: depth of processing, overstimulation, empathy, and sensitivity to subtleties.
Here’s how to use each component of DOES to beat overthinking:
1. Depth of Processing
Depth of processing means that sensitive people tend to process information very deeply and reflect on it. You can use your depth of processing tackle overthinking by recognizing when overthinking is happening and interrupting the process. Here’s how to do that:
- Challenge your thoughts. Draw on your deep thinking to challenge your assumptions about what is happening (and, in particular, about how much you should personalize things). In a way, overthinking is anxiety-ridden shadow side of deep processing, and you can use the one to defeat the other by by being intentional in choosing which thoughts you believe or invest energy in every.
- Use narrative. Another way to harness your processing skills is to use narrative approach that help you create a new story about what it means to be sensitive and gifted. You can begin to reclaim those identities out of the swamp of misunderstandings, negative judgments, and stigma that have been applied to them. This is part of the process I encourage in in my book, Wander and Delve: A Journal for Bright, Creative, Highly Sensitive People Forging Their Way. When you learn to tell a positive story about your giftedness and sensitivity, it will be easier to dismiss unproductive thoughts and stick to a plan of action.
With our highly active brains, gifted HSPs spend a lot of time on the edge of overstimulation. Learning mindfulness skills can help you monitor your arousal level. As you develop skills to be an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you gain greater knowledge of how to prevent and deal with overstimulation. You may even be more able to get yourself into a state of flow, where creativity and energy seem to move naturally through you. Flow states are powerfully supportive of the sense of authenticity and congruence in their lives that gifted HSPs crave.
Another benefit of cultivating mindfulness skills is that they can lead you to greater acceptance of what it means to be a sensitive person in the first place. Learning to observe yourself without judgment is at the heart of mindfulness — and gifted HSPs can certainly do with a lot less self-judgment.
All humans thrive within community, and being connected to others is a powerful way to stop ourselves from dwelling in our minds. Yet many gifted HSPs struggle to find deep and meaningful relationships — particularly if you don’t have other gifted and sensitive individuals in your life. One way to fix that is to plug into existing groups like InterGifted or Gifted Mindfulness.
Likewise, you can channel your natural capacity for empathy into recognizing others that share your traits and building your own friend group of like-minded people who support and value each other. Just remember, you’re unlikely to find one person or group that meets all your needs. Embrace the beauty of having a small circle of relationships where you can express and receive empathy.
4. Sensitivity to Subtleties
Sensing subtlety means that HSPs are keenly aware of small nuance and tiny sensation, including in your own body. This can be a great tool to combat overthinking, because awareness of bodily sensations is a great way to get out of your head. (This is part of why somatic therapy is so effective, especially for HSPS.) Here’s how to put this tool to use:
- Use grounding techniques to be more aware of what is going on outside your mind. Good grounding techniques can stop overthinking, calm your system, and help you deepen your mindfulness practice as well.
- Use positive sensations. Remind yourself to consciously cultivate pleasurable sensory experiences, since that will make it more appealing to get out of your mind and into your body.
- Play more. Setting an intention to laugh and play can be a great way to be more attuned to sensory subtleties. For example, choose to find humor in your surroundings, engage in games with other people, or make time to savor the natural world. All of these activities help you put the brakes on overthinking.
Leaning Into Your Sensitivity
Overthinking is problematic in so many ways, and gifted HSPs are pros at getting utterly lost in our heads. But we also have the tools to overcome it built right into our sensitive, deep-thinking nature. Leaning into your sensitivity is the best way to break free. As you practice these strategies yourself, you will start to convert your brainpower into a holistic force for a life well-lived. And that’s something to think about.
My book, Wander and Delve: A Journal for Bright, Creative, Highly Sensitive People Forging Their Way, can help you lean into your sensitivity and let go of overthinking as part of building a Singularly Sensitive life.
You Might Like:
- 16 Ways to Calm the Heck Down When You’re a Highly Sensitive Overthinker
- Why Do So Many Highly Sensitive People Struggle with ‘Gifted Kid Syndrome’?
- 12 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person with a ‘Rainforest Mind’
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