What is giftedness?
Defining giftedness has been a topic of ongoing debate in the academic and educational community for decades. Initially, giftedness was defined as scoring greater than 2 standard deviations above the mean (over 130, in the top ~2%) on an IQ test, such as the Stanford-Binet or the Wechsler (WISC or WAIS). However, this simple measure of giftedness has several weaknesses, including the fact that a full-scale IQ score will average out verbal and mathematical abilities, may mask giftedness when there is a learning disability present, and fails to account for other forms of giftedness, including the arts or music. IQ tests also fail to identify giftedness in those who do not have the test-taking skills or cultural knowledge to score well.
The federal definition is based on the 1972 Marland Report to Congress, and emphasizes five areas of giftedness in considering students for placement in special programs: intellectual, academic, creativity, leadership, and visual and performing arts. Acknowledging that the environment in which a gifted individual is raised and educated has a huge impact on that person’s subsequent accomplishments, and that achievement test scores are strongly influenced by socioeconomic circumstances, many school districts now also assess for potential to excel not yet expressed in test results or accomplishments.
Learn about the shadow side of giftedness in this video of Dr. Beech presenting to colleagues at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:
The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.
– Dorothy Parker
Research shows that gifted individuals experience the world differently from the norm. They think more deeply about things, experience more intense emotions, and have heightened sensitivity to stimuli of all kinds. Their uncommon intellectual and creative capacities allow for outstanding contributions and accomplishments. However, this different experience often leads the gifted person to feel out of step with the world, which may be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of their experience by others.
Perhaps you already identify as gifted. You may have been tested as a child or have participated in special educational programs. The majority of gifted adults were not identified as such in childhood. Many gifted adults go through life feeling at odds with their environment without knowing why – socially ill at ease, feeling different from their peers, not understanding why others don’t see things as they do, or judged by others as being “too intense” or “too much.” This can lead to perpetual and corrosive feelings of self-doubt, confusion, frustration, disappointment, and existential depression, as well as more significant mental health challenges. I have spent more than 25 years in environments with gifted people, and have training in accompanying gifted individuals in psychotherapy. If you are gifted, I can help you develop insight about your experience, reach greater acceptance of yourself and the world around you, enhance your sense of purpose, and create more satisfying relationships.
Am I gifted?
A word about identifying as gifted… In our culture, some people view giftedness as a claim to elitism, which can make gifted individuals hesitant to acknowledge this aspect of themselves. Children in gifted programs at school may have been bullied or ostracized, causing them to try to hide their giftedness. It is important to remember that there is a difference between better at and better than: being gifted does not make a person superior to others, but the fact that they are gifted should not be a source of shame or rejection. We all deserve to live the fullest lives to which we aspire. Whether or not you feel comfortable identifying yourself as gifted to others, your experience in the world as a person of uncommon intellectual and creative capacities is different from that of your nongifted peers. Accepting this about yourself and learning more about giftedness may lead to greater happiness and fulfillment.
As discussed in “What is giftedness?” above, IQ is one commonly used, though not uncontroversial, indicator of giftedness. You may already know your IQ score or have scored in the top few percentiles on achievement tests, such as the SAT, LSAT, MCAT, GRE etc. You may be aware of possessing uncommon gifts or talents in creativity, leadership, the arts, or athletics. You may also find that some of these common characteristics of gifted people resonate for you:
Insatiable curiosity and sophisticated thinking
- Urgent desire to know and understand
- Asks many questions
- Learns very quickly
- Loves puzzles, paradoxes, words
- Sees patterns and generalizes or abstracts easily
- Puts very complex ideas together faster than others
- Sees many sides to an issue
- Concentrates for long periods of time when fascinated by something
- Advanced vocabulary
- Excellent memory and retains huge amounts of information
- Greater insight and intuition
- Quick-witted and offbeat sense of humor
- Deep concern with fairness and justice
- Highly values integrity and authenticity
- Sets high standards for and can be very critical of self and others
- To visual patterns, sounds, sensory experience (fluorescent light, smells, fabrics etc.)
- To beauty in nature or art, to horrifying world events, or moral wrongs
More intense emotions
- Feels more deeply; higher highs, lower lows
- Empathy and sensitivity to others’ experience
High energy, driven by internal creativity, passions, or goals
Pursues many different interests or careers
Other Concepts in Giftedness
Asynchronous development is the term used to capture unevenness in how a gifted person develops relative to the norm: they may be very advanced for their age in certain ways (such as intellect and conceptual abilities) and average or below average in others (such as fine-motor skills, emotional maturity, physical maturity, or social skills). While the gaps between areas of development tend to close some as a person ages, this asynchrony is likely to persist through the lifespan and can cause significant problems. For example, an intellectually gifted child might be able to contemplate the impact of global warming on the viability of the planet and the human race but not have the emotional capacity to handle the intense feelings of despair or fear this might produce. Peer relationships are difficult for a child with advanced cognitive capacities since their play interests are likely to be substantially different from most children their age. A gifted adult might have outstanding accomplishments as a solo violinist and have great difficulty in managing interpersonal relationships or interacting effectively with conductors, agents, and sponsors.
Multipotentiality refers to the ability to select and develop any number of career options because of a wide variety of interests, aptitudes, and abilities. Gifted adults frequently undertake serial careers in order to pursue several of their options over time (or follow their curiosity into new areas not previously explored). Gifted youth may face difficult decisions with regard to where to focus before and during college. For example, a child may be a talented gymnast and have very advanced mathematical abilities, with limited time to develop both in parallel. Gifted college students may have difficulty settling on a major, or pursue degrees in multiple majors and minors at once.
Positive disintegration is a theory of personality development put forward by Dabrowski.Dabrowski, K. (1964). Positive disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown. An important aspect of this very complex and rich theory is the idea that evolution in personality is not simply additive to the existing personality structure, but rather comes about through a disintegration or fragmentation of the existing structure and replacement with a new, higher level of personality development. Such disintegration might be prompted by internal psychic processes or external events. Dabrowski believed that each individual has an inherent maximum potential for development, given an optimal environment, and that the majority of people would not tend to evolve in personality following disintegration, but rather retrench to a similar level of development. Disintegration is positive (although it may be emotionally painful and difficult to navigate) when it leads to a higher level of development, in those with high development potential. Gifted individuals’ capacity to reflect on their own thinking and experience and to perceive conflicts between their goals/values and current experience tend to create internal psychic pressure for positive disintegration, with the possibility of a higher level of personality development.
Individuals who are gifted and also have one or more learning disorders or psychiatric diagnoses, such as ADHD, anxiety, OCD, and autism spectrum disorders, are referred to as twice exceptional or 2E, for short. The emotional and educational needs of these individuals are more complex and all too frequently are not met. In some cases, a person’s giftedness can mask mental health challenges. In others, too much emphasis is placed on the mental health challenge and the person’s giftedness goes unseen or undeveloped.
Challenges of Giftedness
Many believe that gifted children and adults have everything going for them, and don’t need any help or particular support to succeed in life. In fact, gifted children whose educational and emotional needs are not met growing up can become depressed and develop behavioral problems, with negative longterm consequences. Since the qualitatively different experience of giftedness is so little understood by others, gifted individuals are vulnerable to a number of problems:
- Isolation and loneliness, due to feeling different and not seen or understood by others.
- Low self-esteem. Persistent feelings of not fitting in (and potentially having been bullied or ostracized when younger) can lead to poor self-image. Gifted individuals report wondering what is wrong with them because they seem so at odds with those around them. They may also compare themselves to others, and their perfectionism and inner critic may lead them to beat themselves up as falling short or judge others harshly.
- Social awkwardness. Gifted individuals may find others’ interests or conversation boring or superficial, or not understand why others don’t see the world as they do. They may find it difficult to participate socially or make friends.
- Difficulty with partnering. Finding potential mates who meet them on enough dimensions to provide for a satisfying relationship can be very challenging for gifted people. Highly gifted individuals tend to be more androgynous, which can challenge social gender role norms.
- Existential depression. Gifted adults’ idealism, expansive awareness, and intellectual capacity to consider the world’s most significant problems, and questions of death, freedom, and the ultimate aloneness of the human condition, can lead to feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness. These can be persistent and recurrent through the lifespan.
- Disappointment and frustration, with others’ inability to keep up with them, apparent lack of caring about what gifted individuals see as moral imperatives, or with the world not making sense.
- Substance use or addictive behaviors. Attempting to manage the intensity of their emotions and heightened sensitivity or to deal with painful feelings of loneliness or depression, gifted people may find ways to “numb out.”
- Difficulty prioritizing paths. Gifted adults’ multipotentiality means that there is a constant sense of urgency about wanting to pursue many interests at once, and it can be difficult to foreclose options or commit.
- Difficulty tolerating periods of lack of direction or boredom. Once a domain or avenue of personal growth has been explored to a certain level of mastery, gifted adults may feel bored and ready for the next challenge. It may take some time before a new focus emerges. Boredom may lead to underachievement.
- Lack of fulfillment. Many gifted adults have an impressive list of accomplishments and talents, yet may still feel unfulfilled. Sometimes, finding meaning is difficult when the gifted person can see so many problems around them, see how they could be addressed, and feels unable to make an impact.
- Misdiagnosis. Since many psychologists and educators are not aware of the different experience of gifted individuals, they may misinterpret and pathologize thoughts, feelings, and behaviors typical of the gifted. In some cases, this leads to inappropriate diagnosis of mental health disorders.
- Unmet needs as twice exceptional individual. Gifted individuals who also have a learning disorder or other psychiatric diagnosis have additional challenges in being understood and supported in their development as kids, which may set them up for further challenges in adulthood.
How I help
Before becoming a psychologist, I spent more than 25 years in environments with gifted individuals in business, economic policy, and academics. My personal experience, combined with special training from the organization Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted, allows me to directly appreciate the challenges of my gifted clients and provide a safe, nonjudgmental, compassionate, and collaborative setting for therapy. I understand the vulnerability that gifted individuals may feel in sharing what’s not working in their lives when their external accomplishments may be so visible. Or painful feelings at not having actualized their potential to their satisfaction. It can be quite a relief to talk unreservedly about the experience of giftedness with someone who understands. If you have tried therapy in the past with a clinician who did not specialize in working with gifted clients and found it disappointing, I hope you will give yourself the gift of trying again with someone who will “get” you and meet you where you need to be met to make progress on your goals. If you have never identified as gifted but find what you have read here resonates deeply for you, I encourage you to come in and see whether learning more about yourself may relieve suffering or offer insight to open new options for feeling more comfortable with yourself and relating to others.
I would like to help you fully embrace and appreciate your giftedness, develop more resiliency in dealing with the challenges of being gifted in a world that frequently misunderstands you, and attain professional and personal fulfillment.