Hyperfocused, yet scatterbrained

I’m reblogging an old post of mine from another blog, Raising Smart Girls where I blog about raising my daughters, two of whom are in the gifted program in their respective schools.  This post is in line with a few threads of thought that I have for this blog, though I’m not sure which direction I’m going to take the upcoming posts (creativity, ADD/ADHD, giftedness, mental health struggles, misdiagnosis of gifted adults, moods and addictions).  Since part of this blog is devoted to creativity, talking about what I’ve learned about myself and how I’ve come to understand myself as a intelligent, creative person is something I want to share with others that might help them understand themselves.  I’m reprinting it for a couple of reasons.  I have come to the belief that there are a great many unrecognized gifted adults who end up addicted to drugs and alcohol as a way to manage their intense internal experience because they were never trained to understand just how their minds and emotions work, perhaps didn’t get the proper understanding and support, and what they need to understand their gifts and how to manage the challenges that come alongside these gifts.

I wrote this originally in 2009, so my children were a lot younger.  It still is relevant today, for the most part…with the exception that I’m thrilled to say my middle daughter, while still highly sensitive and prone to anxiety (as I am), is no longer selectively mute.


I don’t know whether it’s a gift or a curse to be a highly intelligent person sometimes. If it’s a problem for gifted children to be placed in under-stimulating environments, what problems does it pose for the gifted adult in under-stimulating environments?

I often wonder if I have ADD-like symptoms because I’m now a stay-at-home mom and left the challenging field of biotechnology. I often zone out on the computer, trying to feed my brain while the kids are doing what they do best – you know, being kids.

On Thursday, because I was on a quest to obtain some information, I wasn’t paying attention to the time and forgot to get my middle daughter off to her afternoon class. Oops. That’s not the first time I’ve been driven to distraction in this manner. The internet is a wonderful and slightly dangerous tool for an information junkie highly curious gal like me.

In seeking to understand myself a little better, I did a quick google search and found this Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and an article called Misdiagnosis and Missed Diagnosis:Giftedness and Disorders written by Linda Kreger Silverman, PhD.

In their popular book, Driven to Distraction, Hallowell and Ratey (1994) explain the creativity of individuals with ADHD in a manner uncomfortably descriptive of most gifted people:

A third element that favors creativity among people with ADD is the ability to intensely focus or hyperfocus at times. The term ‘attention deficit’ is a misnomer. It is a matter of attention inconsistency. While it is true that the ADD mind wanders when not engaged, it is also the case that the ADD mind fastens on to its subject fiercely when it is engaged. A child with ADD may sit for hours meticulously putting together a model airplane. An adult may work with amazing concentration when faced with a deadline. (p. 177) This ability to hyperfocus heats up the furnace in the brain. The intensity of the furnace when it heats up may help explain why it needs to cool down, to be distracted, when it is not heated up. A fourth element contributing to creativity is what Russell Barkley has called the hyperreactivity of the ADD mind. Cousin to the traditional symptom of hyperactivity, hyperreactivity is more common among people with ADD than hyperactivity is. People with ADD are always reacting. Even when they look calm and sedate, they are usually churning inside, taking this piece of data and moving it there, pushing this thought through their emotional network, putting that idea on the fire to burn, exploding or subsiding, but always in motion. Such hyperreactivity enhances creativity because it increases the number of collisions in the brain. Each collision has the potential to emit new light, new matter, as when subatomic particles collide. (p. 178)

Inconsistent attention, the ability to hyperfocus, and hyperreactivity of the mind, are just three of the many traits shared by both the gifted and AD/HD population.

I tend to hyperfocus on a lot of issues, partly due to the fact that I’m wired to do so. I’m also an active problem solver. If it’s broke, I have to fix it. And consequently when things go slightly off-balance, I tend to want to do something to bring things back into harmony again. I also tend to hyperfocus on the girls’ development, and need to learn to step back from it and let them figure things out. That’s incredibly hard for me to do so. I have an analytical mind, and sometimes it doesn’t let me rest.

The hyper-focus on acquiring knowledge and the analysis and synthesis of ideas is also understood as a component of overexcitabilities. Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician, (1902-1980), developed a theory of advanced development of the person called the Theory of Positive Disintegration. To him, advanced development were preceded by conflict and inner suffering. This conflict and suffering and ultimate higher level development were caused by innate ability/intelligence combined with something he called overexcitabilities. Not all gifted or highly gifted individuals have overexcitabilities, nor are they exclusive to the gifted population (for instance, individuals who are not necessarily gifted do have sensory processing disorders that cause sensory overexcitabilities).

According to this article by Sharon Lind at SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) called Overexcitability and the gifted.

Overexcitabilities are inborn intensities indicating a heightened ability to respond to stimuli. Found to a greater degree in creative and gifted individuals, overexcitabilities are expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity, and represent a real difference in the fabric of life and quality of experience. Dabrowski identified five areas of intensity-Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. A person may possess one or more of these. “One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multi-sided manner” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 7). Experiencing the world in this unique way carries with it great joys and sometimes great frustrations. The joys and positives of being overexcitable need to be celebrated. Any frustrations or negatives can be positively dealt with and used to help facilitate the child’s growth.

I know myself well enough that I have four of these overexcitabilities – that of intellectual, sensual, imaginational and emotional overexcitabilities.

With five blogs, participating in two message boards (one for gifted adults), researching information regarding selective mutism, child development (social and emotional development in particular), psychology, and anxiety disorders, I often have a relentless intellectual drive to understand what’s going on inside people.  Currently this is focused on finding an understanding of my child’s anxieties and selective mutism and how to help my girls find their way in the world in ways my mother was not able to, for me.

My sensual over-excitabilities have come into play most of my life as a sensory-seeking highly sensitive person, which means I tend to seek out enjoyable sensory experiences and I have a great appreciation for the nuances in art, music, language and I love touching and hugs.

I have imaginational overexcitabilities, which can be both good and bad, because I can write creatively from my imagination, but I can also imagine worst case scenarios and I’d almost prefer to live in my imagination than in the real world sometimes.

The emotional overexcitability helps me to be empathetic, but all too often prevents me from having the needed objectivity at times that is required (someone needs to be the calm and collected one and it’s not going to be my 5 year old).

I know that all these factors play a role with how I’m in tune with my children’s experience and how overwhelming it can be for me as well.


It’s been 5 years since I wrote that post.  I’m still dealing with intense hyperfocus alternating with scatterbrained moments.  I still have not returned to work full-time (I substitute teach right now), and still have really not a clear direction where I want to go in my life; however, I’ve certainly been spending a lot of time developing other talents – writing, making art, photography.    Since that time, a lot of problems arose in my personal life, which I think are now resolving, though I have residual problems of low-grade anxiety.   And it’s winter-time, so I am pretty much hibernating which doesn’t help said anxiety.

I’m hoping 2014 will bring me a little bit more clarity as to where I might go on a professional level.  I’m eager to work, but I haven’t quite decided where to apply myself that won’t conflict too much with my children’s schedules or my values.   I want to use my abilities in ways that enhance the earth and it’s inhabitants, not help to destroy it.


Update 3.25.14

For the folks coming over from Facebook…. I decided to add this to my post.  There are personal reasons why I have not responded to the link on Facebook, so I’m adding this to the post here.

I was fortunate to have attended the World Conference for Gifted and Talented Children in Kentucky last year. I was thrilled to be able listen to and speak with James T. Webb and attend some amazing presentations (for example from the Columbus Group – Linda Silverman, Stepahie Tolan, et al.) and hear some perspectives from gifted educators around the globe. I still plan on blogging more about that on my blog Raising Smart Girls (but there’s been a lot of difficulties in my life that have caused me to get behind there).

Someone made this comment

This is such an interesting article. I wish that there was a paper that delineated example of “normal people see/feel/react to xyz in this fashion. Gifted with overexcitabilities see/feel/react to the same xyz in this or that fashion”.

.I think those who are gifted and those who are not tend to still feel that “everyone feels or experiences like I do”. That leads to confusion and rejection and consternation when “the obvious reaction” is not shared or understood.

Isn’t there ANY psychologist who can give examples of how a neurotypical person and a gifted/overexcitable person reacts differently? Are there no functional MRI studies of two different brains reacting to the same stimuli?

Let’s start quantifying, characterizing, differentiating the whole experience. That would help both sides understand each other.”

And here’s my response.  I would have left it on Facebook, but I REALLY hesitated to do so.  I have family I do not wish to know I keep these blogs (if you come from a family of narcissists who just don’t understand the gifted experience…at all, you’d know why this would be an unhealthy thing to do).  I apologize for the roundabout way I’m handling this.  I’m trying to protect my anonymity.

I’d have to say that even within the gifted population, there is still a wide range of internal experience. I do not think any two gifted individuals feels or experiences or expresses their feelings and experiences in the same manner, and for good reason.

I’ve been a moderator for a message board for gifted adults for 5 years, and found quite a bit of variation – due to personality, type of parenting one has had (there’s a lot of vignettes of gifted individuals with abusive childhoods in Alice Miller’s work), life experience (good experiences or traumatic experiences – and at what age traumatic experience happens and if there is support for those events), whether or not one was fortunate enough to have the educational and financial support, whether or not they found meaningful work or were stuck in dead-end, soul-sucking jobs, or experienced job loss, etc.

My husband and I are both gifted, yet, we failed, quite frequently, to understand each other. He was a mechanical engineer, I was a scientist before I became a SAHM (I’m a substitute teacher now). We had a lot in common in college, but our views about almost everything diverged as we started raising a family – that’s when our differences in sensitivities, values surfaced and clashed.  We also think at different rates.  I’m a fast processor, and he’s a slower processor – I see connections quickly, and am rather free in my expression and don’t mind where the conversation ends up, but he takes a little longer because he’s considering his options like a chess player considers his moves.

Within my own family, my brother and I (both gifted while our sisters are not), do not always understand each other.  Such is what happens when one is a bit divergent (me) and the other not (my brother).

Between my experiences as a moderator and in my own personal life, there are no guarantees that gifted individuals will understand another gifted individual’s experience.

I don’t particularly know what people are thinking when they read this post.  I certainly hope that it may help.

A couple of book resources I’ve found to be very helpful are Dr. James T. Webb’s Searching for Meaning:  Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment and Hope and Eric Maisel’s Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative.

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
This entry was posted in ADD, anxiety, Gifted Adults, Intensity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Hyperfocused, yet scatterbrained

  1. Marty says:

    Interesting and you are a tremendous mother it seems.

    May I share a mindful look at this situation. In my opinion, not by any means an expert of add/ADHD could you direct that skill,the ability to focus, towards the breath, letting go of cognitions?

    If so many things are possible.

    This is an interesting subject and may I ask the need you feel to run all the blogs and do all the rest, is there a spot or some balance where you can do nothing, be not overachieving, or busy all the time?

    I am a type ‘A’ driver and always had to do more, doing nothing, being vulnerable, not needing to accomplish anything was near impossible for a while.

    One last thought, intelligence is great but does not preclude happiness, peace of mind or fulfillment, in my humble opinion.

    • Casey says:


      Hello, there. I’d been following your blog for a little while now, glad you stopped by to comment on this post.

      I originally wrote this post in 2009 and modified it at various points.

      Thank you for saying I’m a tremendous mother, however, I don’t really know that I am. I wasn’t trying to be “super mom”. I came from a dysfunctional family of origin…and my husband ended up having a drinking problem. I can say with a fair amount of certainty (at least now, not before, when I wrote this article) that my intensity, complexity and drive comes out of the need to be in control of some very uncontrollable and traumatic experiences.

      I have had no healthy modeling for parenting. But I had some basic instincts and the first parenting book I’d ever picked up was Dr. Sears The Fussy Baby book. From there, I have set out to do my best to learn how to nurture both my children’s emotional and intellectual development knowing I did NOT have the skills to raise children in a healthy manner from day one.

      I’m working through a lot of Al-anon and adult children of alcoholics literature. I’m reading Claudia Black’s It Won’t Happen to Me book right now. I was both a placater (constantly counseling and trying to fix my family’s emotional wounds) and an acting out child (when it was clear my family didn’t support my intellectual aspirations, I started acting out). I know my driven-ness in part, stems from a need to control things.

      I’m not a type A personality. I’m actually type B. Though I’d been moderately successful in my professional life, I am a HUGE procrastinator.

      And…I find being a housewife is really boring, the laundry and dishes never end and I grew really incredibly depressed when I saw how constricted my life was after I quit my job.

      I lost a lot of my intellectual peers when I quit my job. All of my husband’s friends were big drinkers, and, well, they were smart but they kind of grew up to be dysfunctional, and all my friends were too far away to connect with. I tried to make friends with the neighbors, I joined mother’s groups, but I disliked their materialistic, mainstream, shallow values and boring conversations or their kids were abusive to mine, so I cut ties with them.

      I spent many, many years trying to connect with my husband, to increase our emotional intimacy. But between his binge drinking and puking and his suicidal gesture with the gun a few years ago…my problems now have less to do with my intelligence and more to do with the dysfunctional people I tried to love and had to live with and my dysfunctional ways of interacting with them.

      I know what you are saying that intelligence does not preclude happiness, but I have to tell you, if it wasn’t for my intelligence and my drive, I would not be here right now (the loneliness and depression have been crippling). It’s been an enemy of mine at times, but now I’m putting my focused attention to good use, on my healing. I have C-PTSD and PTSD…but I think both are improving (I still have guilt/shame issues and inner critics to contend with).

      I do meditations and focused breathing now, and I’m working through Al-anon and adult children of alcoholics materials, and I’m learning to develop a compassionate witness/loving Inner Parent.

      It totally makes me happy to blog, to create, to read, to develop myself both emotionally and intellectually. I’ve learned to respect both my driven nature AND build in plenty of rest. Now, I take a LOT of naps!

      I am learning to live more mindfully. As we speak, I’ve been creating a little meditation corner in my bedroom closet, so that I could retreat there as often as I need to, so that I may ground myself more.

      I love that I’m driven. I love that I have intense periods. I love that I am prolific in my writing. As long as I balance these out with activities that keep me connected to my body and to the world around me, I’m quite happy. I am learning balance and self-care.

      I have to sign up again for my meditation yoga class. but I thoroughly enjoyed that when I took it before.

      Thanks so much for commenting here. Oh, I wanted to tell you…one of these days I have to show you the thing I picked up at the thrift store that looks remarkably like your breathing track. It’s actually a wooden casserole dish holder. It’s got an X in the middle and a rounded top and bottom. It’s a little bigger than your breathing track…but I think it might work for me…maybe. I’ll have to take a picture of it for you. I’m going to try using it and see if it works.

      • Marty says:

        Excellent, nothing wrong with intelligence, the drive is the larger asset by far, my humble opinion.

        One day while meditating and pondering life, I realized that our goal is to live in this moment, without judgment, or grasping the distractions, results are not our concern.

        We are responsible to effort, attitude intention and awareness, period. Took a big weight off of me.

        As far as prolific before I pass any judgments on you in three years I have written almost 2500 posts

        Writing has become a special space where ideas flow.

        That drive you have will serve you well, it is all that is needed with daily practice.

        • Casey says:

          Thank you so much…

          “I realized that our goal is to live in this moment, without judgment, or grasping the distractions, results are not our concern.”

          I get like that when I am outside, walking in the big woods, or even my neighborhood watching the birds play. It’s just when I’m stuck indoors alone that can be problematic.

          I am learning different things, trying to set a more positive intention without wanting to force the outcome to be what I want. I know THAT never worked for me.

          There’s just one area that’s really, really hard. I’m still clinging to one particular outcome my heart thinks it wants, but I know isn’t possible, nor even good for me. I try to remember that 5 years ago, this wasn’t even something I even had in my life…I lived without that for so long…and there’s no reason why I can’t live without it now.

          Except, to quote Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

          Thanks for your 2500 posts. I like that they are short.

          Mine are a little way too long sometimes, but it’s therapeutic for me. No one has to read my stuff…the process helps me a lot.

          • Marty says:

            The big issue for us is to know if that is really the heart, our soul or the ego.

            The ego knows us so well and tugs continually at us, hard to tell what is reality.

          • Casey says:

            I’m ASSUMING it’s my ego. It’s just easier/better that way. It requires me to do nothing.

  2. Marty says:

    Love to see that casserole dish holder please

    • Casey says:

      Sure…just as soon as I remember to take a picture of it…gotta get some dinner for my oldest, before she goes to softball practice.


  3. dweezer19 says:

    Yeah…now I am rethinking my previous idea that I was simply brilliantly creative and am really ADD. The same thing? :)) Thanks for the post. Glad you stopped by my blog. It is nice to meet you.

    • Casey says:

      Well, I wouldn’t necessarily base your self-diagnosis on my essay. You probably are brilliantly creative. Whether or not you also have ADD is up to you to decide and ONLY if your distractiblity is causing you problems in your life.

      It’s nice to meet you, too.


      • dweezer19 says:

        Well no it doesn’t cause me problems other than I cannot seem to pick one thing to be devoted or dedicated to. I have to mix it up or I feel I am wasting my time on only one thing. But I like the things I do. I am more concerned about my son who has difficulty finding his focus. His mind is full of worries so he does other things to distract himself rather than focused tasks. Yep. He can do video games for hours. He is 25 now. He is ver functional and works but his creative endeavors are overwhelmingly difficult for him to focus on.

        • Casey says:

          First off, I’d recommend reading some of Barbara Sher’s books.

          She talks about some people being ‘scanners’ and some people being ‘divers’. Some of us are meant to be more Renaissance men/women, while others specialize. Those scanners who try to be divers won’t be happy because they have to exclude things they like.

          But in her book I Could Do Anything I Wanted, If I Only Knew What It Was, might be helpful to you. Or Refuse to Choose! Maybe somehow he could find a career that combines all the elements you like, or find ways to incorporate your interests on a part-time basis.

          That might help both you and your son.

          And, I hear you on the video game thing. My husband and his friend Greg lost a few thousand hours of their lives to gaming. It’s a terrible waste of life.

        • Casey says:

          Marty, I thought you’d like that. LOL.

          Yeah, I keep thinking about taking that picture. Sorry, been lax about that.

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