March 2014 - Eating Disorders in the Gifted


Are Individuals with Eating Disorders More Likely to be Gifted?
Mindy Solomon, Ph.D.
The term “gifted” implies getting something desirable – a “gift.”  However, the experience of being gifted does not always feel that way.  Being gifted definitely comes with certain advantages, but it also sometimes comes with hidden vulnerabilities and potential liabilities.  Being gifted is not just being intelligent or “smart.”  The experience of having a brain on overdrive may mean being good at memorizing or understanding math, but it is not as if you can turn it on and off at the end of the school day, or between classes. 
The experience of giftedness is a 24/7 gig – it’s not only the way you think intellectually, but the way you see, think and feel about everything.  This can make it very difficult to tune out. You can never make yourself “un-see” what is between the lines, or “un-feel” the vibe you might be getting from your friends or your family, nor can you “un-perceive” the indescribable feelings that no one else seems to perceive.  Well-meaning people will often tell you to just “lighten up” or stop being so sensitive.  If you could, you would, but you can’t. So you start to feel that it must be something you are doing wrong and you spend your energy trying to figure out how to change how you see and perceive the world.  This can lead to feeling self-conscious, as well as potentially confused and insecure.  It certainly makes you more emotionally vulnerable. 
My career in Colorado began as a psychologist at the Gifted Development Center.  The experience of working with the gifted has served me well, helping me to recognize giftedness in my clients. There are many traits of giftedness that I have seen in my work with individuals and adolescents with eating disorders.
Although there is very little empirical research on the relationship between giftedness and eating disorders, it appears to me, and to my colleagues who work with anorexia and bulimia, that vast numbers of young people with eating disorders demonstrate traits of giftedness.  Why?  It is certainly conceivable that it takes high intelligence to hold onto all the nutritional information of all the food you ever eat, to be simultaneously counting calories while doing your calculus homework – but I think it goes beyond that, psychologically, as well as physiologically.  
How might giftedness play a role in eating disorders? To the gifted individual who filters both intellectual and emotional information to the depth he/she does, trying to process the largely unseen, indescribable felt sense of the world can create an experience of intense emotional turmoil.   And it is isolating, because it seems that most others either do not see or feel at the level you do, which can make you feel quite anxious, lonely or depressed.
Dieting or “eating healthy” might seem innocuous enough as a way to feel better about yourself.  But as you begin to add in cultural and family influences that focus on thinness, perfection and dieting as a way to attain this, you can see a ripe breeding ground for an eating disorder to take hold.  Combined with certain brain chemistry and personality traits, this appears to be the perfect storm of ingredients, which can lead to the tornado of eating disorder destruction.  The eating disorder becomes much more than a way to lose weight.  It becomes the prospect of a simpler world with more well-defined rules and structure and less emotional uncertainty.
I recently heard a lecture about eating disorders and the brain.  I learned that people with anorexia are one of the only sub-groups who will consistently choose to delay immediate gratification in favor a long-term, more desirable reward.  They have over-active cognitive circuits, which contribute to their enhanced ability to inhibit rewards. They do not physiologically experience pleasure or rewards the same way others do.  This can be experienced as not being excited when you receive an “A” on a test because it was not an “A+.” Or if it was an A+, it is not a big deal because the test was too easy (inhibition of the reward).  We describe this as perfectionism – a trait often seen in both gifted and eating-disordered individuals.  These traits appear to be hard-wired in the brain and are not easily altered. Eating disorders may be the destructive extremes of perfectionism and the ability to delay gratification.
A common saying to describe the stuck, narrow focus people often experience in life is “not being able to see the forest through the trees.”  The over-inhibited individual is not interested in the trees at all, but instead is focused on the thought of a more fulfilling forest.  The trees instead become limiting and the source of confusion and isolation.  The eating disorder promises a world where the individual can escape the mundane, ordinary, flawed maze of proverbial trees for the hope of a beautiful, perfect forest of greatness, by paradoxically having you narrow your focus on only the tree immediately in front of you.  The task then becomes to simultaneously broaden and narrow your focus.
Recognizing, accepting and understanding giftedness can be essential to the healing process of a gifted young person with an eating disorder.  Treatment that takes giftedness into account focuses on how to help these individuals better adapt to their internal world and their unique way of processing the world. Their giftedness may not be wholly adaptable to society’s rules. Understanding that the gifted mind is so much more than just intellect provides the context for how we might be able to help young people find this balance and achieve an inner peace with the gifts they have been given.
Mindy Solomon

Dr. Mindy Solomon is a child clinical psychologist with 15 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families.  She is originally from Los Angeles, California and moved to Colorado 9 years ago where she began working with gifted youth at the Gifted Development Center. She currently works at Children's Hospital Colorado as the Clinical Program Director of the Eating Disorders Program and holds an Assistant Professor faculty position at the University of Colorado, Denver.  She is an active board member of the International Studies for Advanced Development.  She lives with her husband and 2 daughters (ages 3.5 & 6) in Denver, CO.