Gustave Courbet-Self Portrait (The Desperate Man) c 1843

Stratum Transitions: Why High Potentials Keep Having Emotional Breakdowns

Forrest Christian Coaching, Overachievers, Underachievers 8 Comments

The transition between one level of capability (cognitive complexity) to another causes a lot of problems for hidden high potentials (2HiPo) and many of them have to seek therapy. These transitions are so painful for many hidden high potentials that Julian Fairfled has flat out called many of them emotional breakdowns.

Why is this important? I’m saying that these transitions cause psychological problems that lead many to psychotherapies. The psychotherapist rarely has an understanding of what is truly wrong and so treats symptoms that will never change the underlying problem. The way that you think is undergoing a fundamental change, you are losing the ways that worked and yet have not yet gotten new ways. It’s being lost.

Psychotherapist often simply treat various irrelevant issues until so much time has passed that the analysand (the 2HiPo) has passed through the transition. He feels much better, hugs the therapist and everyone is happy. But nothing actually got accomplished and the at his next transition the 2HiPo goes through another emotional breakdown.

This is a complete waste because things can be done better.

If you’re just joining us, take a look at When Being An Underachiever Is Really Just Being Stuck, then read It’s About Time!. It will give you the absolutely necessary background to understand what I am talking about. Really. If you don’t understand that work can be measured, and that there are distinct breaks in it creating levels (as evidenced by whom people call their “real boss”), this is going to just be confusing.

Again, I need to say that I’m not against psychotherapies. I’m against wasting the time and money of people who are in real pain because they don’t understand that who they are. I’ve gotten some real value out of psychotherapeutic approaches, and believe that psychotherapists like the Canadian George Reilly

About the Author

Forrest Christian


E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps individuals and companies find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations at least as diverse. [contact]

who integrate these findings can be transformative.

First we should talk about what a transition feels like.

Someone — I’ve forgotten who — has described it this way:

When you are solidly in a capability level, it’s like you are standing on a solid island. You know what you believe and think. Sometimes this becomes so solid that you even forget that you are on an island. Solid. Sturdy. Bank of England type of thing, back when that meant something.

Then, something happens.

You barely even notice it, but the island that you are living on begins to crumble. Fall apart. At first, it’s nothing to worry about. But then it really starts sinking.

You’re alone. On a sinking island. With no one around to save you.

What happened? What did you do?

The island continues to disappear. Soon, you are struggling to tread water — it’s completely gone. As you go down for the second time, the tiniest bit of the next island appears. It’s barely there. Barely enough to grasp onto so you don’t completely drown.


My colleague, Andrew Olivier, assures me that transitions can be so well managed that you might not even notice that they have happened. I can’t imagine this. It does not seem to be true.

And the only thing that happened was that you came to that point in your growth trajectory. You went from one discrete level to another. Everything changed.

Transitions are rarely guided — and if you are a high-potential, almost never. You are more likely to be condemned as you change. You lose things. Friends. Faith. One of our colleagues who is quite religious described going from Level 4 to Level 5 as completely losing everything that he ever believed in. All the systems and structures seemed empty, devoid of the spiritual life that had so recently quickened them.

“And yet,” he told me, “my relationship with my God is stronger than ever.”

I pity people who make these transitions and don’t understand them. They think that they are simply going through a rough spot. Their family wonder when they are going to grow up. Their friends wonder why she is talking so strangely, why she has grown so distant.

Most people have a one, maybe two transitions of this type in their adult lives. You people have four or five. Each one can be devastating, causing a complete emotional breakdown. A complete failure of your life.

Let’s talk more about Quests, and why they explain transitions next time.

Until then, if you feel that what I’ve described describes you, take heart: you will get through this time. This, too, shall pass.

And remember that you’re the killer app.

Image Credit: [Clearly going through a transition.] Le Désespéré (Self Portrait) by Gustave Courbet, ca. 1843

Comments 8

  1. Great stuff. We should really have plenty of personal stories of transitions written down. It would help others going through them to have some understanding of what might be going on and that there is an end to it.

  2. Yes I would really like to hear some success stories, and what eventually caused the uphill swing to occur, fullfilling the transition period.

  3. I might support the idea that people who go through more transitions are more exposed to the risk of internal turmoil. However, the notion that ‘High potentials KEEP having emotional breakdowns’ seems to be a bit strong.

    Life transitions come in many forms, and a change in level or (as I suspect to more significant) domain, will bring all the normal risks. So does moving house, being made redundant, death of a partner or child, facing serious illness, getting divorced etc etc. This is not to diminish the impact of changes experienced by people who grow quickly, but to remind our community that many folk suffer.

  4. Jack, I agree that the header sounds a bit dramatic. It would be interesting to have an impression of the variety of transitions that people go through. My early transitions were mainly self-depreciating, believing that my thinking was muddled and I was not all that bright. My latest was more informed, so it has been a period of waiting – “when will this blow over, so that I can get my thinking organized again”.

  5. I wonder if the maturation of complexity of mental processing occurs as a consequence of, or in the presence of, some stimulus?

  6. That is a most interesting question Al.

    On one hand the development curves are considered as absolute and deterministic. However, they are probability distributions, each curve is a bellcurve-mountain ridge. So one would appear to be stuck on one’s particular ridge.

    Since most development curves cross levels, some transition is implied. Since the curves are probabilities,, any transition will be passed over time.

    However I have seen both Elliott and bioss people showing charts indicating that people might not be using their capability, working at a lower level. What I have heard said at such presentations is that having a manager with requisite capability above you can and will give you tasks that will help you to transition and will coach you in that process.

    The implication of that would be that the transitions are there but a requisite stimulus might aid the transition.

  7. Post

    Jack, I took the title from something that Julian said awhile back over the phone. If transitions such can indeed cause emotional breakdowns, then someone who will go through more of them is more likely to have them (holding other variables constant). Yes, there are a variety of things that can cause disruption, and I’ve had a good deal of these events in the last two years, as my risk numbers show. Even wonderful things can be quite stressful and shocking, as my baby daughter will remind me! Still, they are recognized stressors: transitioning to another level is not and is treated wrongly.

    It’s like medical doctors treating stomach ulcers for years by telling you it was stress. Turns out that most of them are caused by a bacteria (Helicobacter pylori). Stress made things worse after you got infected, and maybe contributed to not being able to fight it off in the first place. But it wasn’t the cause. Doctors spent years hurting people. Even after Barry Marshall and Robin Warren found the bug, doctors refused to believe them. (They later won the Nobel prize.)

    I’ll also confess that the title made good copy and I couldn’t resist. 🙂

    To answer Paul’s and Dawn’s requests, Andrew Olivier has written several case studies about people going through transitions.

    I think that Paul could elaborate more on the ideas of the requisite stimuli (hint! hint!). You may go through the transition but not master it.

    Andrew has also written quite eloquently about the metaphor of the transition, comparing it to a Quest. I’ll talk about that in a later post.

    I’m glad this sparked some thoughts.

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