The Trouble With Gifted Is That No One Understands What It Is

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Only super-intelligent, rational, high-achievers are gifted, right?

That’s certainly what I believed for most of my life.

Gifted people, I was sure, never let their emotions influence their judgement. Gifted people only believed in hard science – they didn’t waste their time in frivolous contemplation of metaphysical worlds. And gifted people were born with a clear purpose which they devoted their lives to achieving.

I knew plenty of those sort of gifted people. They were my classmates at Oxford, and my colleagues at the commercial practice where I trained as a lawyer.

Perhaps my fellow students and my colleagues thought I was gifted, too.  But they didn’t know the real me.

Sure, I was intelligent.

But I’d also been the child who snuck into the adult library to read about hypnosis, dream analysis, and graphology.

I was the teenager who read about meditating in a magazine and who’d chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo at her bedroom wall after school each day. (If one of my family happened to walk in, there’d be snorts of suppressed laughter as the door was hastily pulled shut.  Normal people didn’t meditate in 1985.)

I was the trainee lawyer who felt so overwhelmed at the thought of writing a research paper that she sat in her office, staring at a blank page, until hers was the only light on in the building.  Who cried with exhaustion in the bathroom when a client needed contracts signed urgently and she had to work all night. Who survived – just – by spending weekends ensconced in her favourite, new age, bookshop (England’s only, back then in 1994).

Yes, I had the kind of brain that could pass exams. But I was also clearly slightly loopy.

Why else was I the only person I knew who was into all this weird metaphysical stuff? Who was too sensitive to cope with life in a law firm? And whose meandering mind meant she took three times as long as her colleagues to get anything done?

On the outside, I was a successful twenty-something lawyer. On the inside I felt inadequate and desperately lonely.

I’d come to believe that the parts of me others considered frivolous were completely separate from my intelligence, detracting from it, even. A shameful secret to be hidden away.

It never, ever occurred to me that my quirkiness was a part of my intelligence.

By the time I became a parent, the denial of my own giftedness was so complete that when my 6-year-old’s schoolteacher described her as ‘the most naturally gifted child I’ve met in 30 years’ teaching’, I didn’t take in the meaning of her words.

When we started homeschooling, I’d occasionally come across blog posts about gifted homeschoolers. Even though much of what they said resonated with our experience, I put it down to coincidence. After all, we weren’t gifted.

My definition of gifted (rational, serious, focused) was watertight, and I was firmly outside it. If someone had suggested I go to a workshop to help with the challenges of living in a gifted family, I’d have laughed out loud.

Gifted or not – isn’t it just semantics?

So, I never realised I was gifted. What’s the big deal? Does it really matter whether or not we apply the G label to ourselves or our children?

I believe it does matter. It matters because until we understand what giftedness  is, we lack the means to fully understand and accept ourselves as the complex, multi-layered, beautifully paradoxical individuals that we are.

Turning gifted upside down

For me to begin that journey of understanding, someone had to turn giftedness upside down. She advertised a workshop to help parents of ‘intense, sensitive, over-anxious, easily overwhelmed and hyper-reactive’ children. Those words described my son to a T, and I signed up on the spot.

Throughout the workshop, I listened with tears in my eyes as I learned about the inherent character traits known as overexcitabilities. When Simone de Hoogh  talked about sensitivity, intensity and heightened awareness she wasn’t just describing my children – she was describing me.

And then I heard something that rocked my world. These traits, I discovered, are most commonly found in the highly able, and their intensity tends to increase with IQ.

Could it really be possible that my sensitivity, my meandering mind, and my curiosity about things beyond this world, weren’t signs that I wasn’t gifted, but that I was?

The vulnerability of the gifted

One of my favourite parts of the Columbus group definition of giftedness is this:

‘The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counselling in order for them to develop optimally.’

Two years have now passed since I acknowledged and began to embrace my giftedness. I can’t imagine my life now without the loving gifted community that supports me – even just by knowing it exists and that it welcomes me.

My heartfelt wish is for every other vulnerable gifted person to to have access to this kind of support.

The world won’t change overnight, but I hope that by writing posts like this and having my lovely readers share them, we can take a few steps in the right direction.

Further Reading

Blog Posts

High Ability and Society – PowerWood article with interesting observations about how gifted children adapt (often to their own detriment) to fit society’s norms.

‘Because of the significant different ways gifted children, teenagers and adults experience their inner and outer world they are part of a minority and have to find a way to express themselves appropriately without losing their sense of self in a situation with people who experience the world in a different way.’

Simone de Hoogh

What Does Gifted Look Like? Clearing Up Your Confusion – Your Rainforest Mind

Laugh Love Learn posts about giftedness

Podcasts

How to Embrace Your Beautiful Rainforest Mind – 2 part interview with Your Rainforest Mind author Paula Prober on The Alchemist’s Heart podcast

Embracing Your Fire – weekly interviews with strong, sensitive, intense women (including me!)

Groups

PowerWood –  for sharing ideas and support about intensity, super-sensitivity and hyper-reactivity (in particular raising children with overexcitabiilties)

Intergifted – ‘coaching, connecting and inspiring gifted people around the world’

League of Excitable Women –  for ‘intense, sensitive, dynamic and spirited women to come together and help each other ignite their own power and balance their highly sensitive need for extra self-care and TLC with their strong drive to push forward with their passions’.

Books

Your Rainforest Mind, Paula Prober

The Gifted Adult, Mary-Elaine Jacobson

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To read more about the difficulties of being gifted,  head over to this month’s GHF Blog Hop.

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Main graphic: BellaOlivera

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24 thoughts on “The Trouble With Gifted Is That No One Understands What It Is

  1. I love your post so much… and can completely relate to sensitivity and perfectionism in a legal career. Thank you for sharing all of this!! I am looking forward to reading more of your writing.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this story, Lucinda. I really relate. Reading about overexcitability was a breakthrough for me, too. I was fortunate in that I’d been given the gifted label as a kid, but I still thought that I was somehow failing to live up to that, rather than living up to it fully, in all senses.

    1. That’s interesting, Jessie. I guess imposter syndrome will always find its way into the mind of an over-thinking, over-feeling gifted person, somehow! I wonder the degree to which the experiences of the next generation will be different? One never knows how much is the world changing, and how much is one’s own experience and growth. Either way, I trust that my children will find their own unique paths towards expressing their authentic selves. 🙂

  3. I can relate so much! In fact, if I hadn’t had a twice exceptional child, I would still be firmly believing that I wasn’t gifted, I was just … weird.

    I completely agree – we have to understand it to deal with it effectively, both for us and for our kids. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Lucinda,

    I’ve been thinking about giftedness a lot recently. It’s a new idea for me. I’m reluctant to think of myself as gifted. But what about my kids? The other day, I asked one of my daughters if she thought she was gifted? She said she had no idea because she doesn’t know how she compares with others as far as abilities go, never having been to school. She said, “I’m just me.” Unschooling allows all of us to be who we are, gifted or not.

    I asked a second question: “Do you think it’s valuable knowing if we are gifted or not?” Perhaps we are just being curious wanting to know? The answer was, “Oh yes, if we are gifted, it’s important we know because, otherwise, we might think there is something wrong with us. Gifted people are different from most other people.” Then my daughter told me all the ways she is different from the people around her. I think she is also reluctant to label herself as gifted. Would some people think she is saying she is better than everyone else?

    Thank you so much for your post which has added to all the thoughts that are spinning around inside my head!

    1. Sue

      How lovely to hear from you on this subject. (Sorry for my late reply – we’re in Spain this week.)

      It sounds like your daughter has a more accurate idea of giftedness than I did until very recently. I understand your reluctance to think of yourself as gifted. I’m the same. When we describe ourselves or even our children as ‘gifted’ it sounds as though we think we’re better than other people somehow, doesn’t it? But that’s not how we feel at all.

      Sometimes I find it helpful to think of giftedness as something completely separate from the intelligence aspect. That’s why I like the Columbus Group’s focus on ‘qualitatively different inner experiences and awareness’.

      I’ve enjoyed reading your recent reflections on learning about ourselves. Understanding the inner workings of our minds and how that motivates our behaviour in the world has always fascinated me. (That’s probably why I became a cognitive hypnotherapist!) The more I understand myself and others, the happier I am and the better I’m able to serve the world. Learning about giftedness has been a huge contribution to my self-understanding. (And yet I still feel awkward using the word!)

  5. I loved reading more about your own experiences, Lucinda. And, I certainly relate to the metaphysical meditator! Thank you for including my blog and book as resources.

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Paula. Your book was the second big piece of the puzzle for me – the final convincer, perhaps! I’m so happy your book and blog are there for me to point other people towards.

  6. We have a ‘gifted’ child in our home but, I hesitate to use the word as most people think you are bragging as they simply do not understand that many gifted people come with their own set of issues. In one way it opens so many doors for her but, on the other hand she is kind of lost and has no clear purpose of what she wants to do as she frankly wants and needs to do everything she possibly can. Frankly, I love her to death but, find her exhausting and sometimes feel like I need help learning how to deal with her. I could go on and on but, I will spare you.

    1. Lisa, your comment expresses perfectly how I often feel! Never a dull moment with these children, eh? Always so lovely to hear from you. 🙂

  7. oh my goodness, this is me! I thought I was really quite bonkers and just weirdly good at passing exams. it wasn’t until I started looking into my son’s sensitivities and abilities that the penny started to drop!

  8. Another thought provoking article, thank you Lucinda. Despite my daughter being assessed as gifted 3yrs ago, it is only now that I am really coming to terms with the idea that I too am gifted. I mean it was obvious to me (once I started reading about giftedness) that my husband and dad were, but me…? I grew up knowing I was bright and ‘different’ but in my family that was ‘normal’! And it has really been through understanding my OEs that I have started to accept that the ‘G’ label might just apply to me too. (And to my sister and mother!) It iscduch a shame that there is such a stigma to and lack of understanding of giftedness in the U.K. Thank you for doing your bit to help change that.

    1. And thank you, for all you do, Kirsty!:) I wonder if those of us who think and feel deeply will always be a little susceptible to both imposter syndrome and the fear that others will think we think we’re better than them*? Perhaps by focusing on the qualitatively different way we experience the world, we can overcome those issues and open the way to greater self-understanding and appreciation, both for ourselves and our children. I guess that’s what PowerWood does by teaching us about OEs and the benefits of neurodiversity.

      *I like knowing you’ll be able to make sense of this convoluted sentence! 😉

  9. I’ve forgotten more about astrology than most people will ever know. I also began law school when I was 19, but left after two months because I knew that wasn’t going to make me happy, which still gets me looks a quarter of a century later. I always knew I was different, but I thought if I could adjust myself just so I’d finally be normal. It’s a constant struggle lately to make sure my children can learn to accept who they are. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding us that we’re not alone.

    1. I was the same with astrology, Deb! When I was a kid I used to fantasise about getting hold of an almanac so I could do my personal chart, and every year on my birthday I’d walk to the public library to read the ‘If today’s your birthday…’ horoscope section in all the newspapers. (I wonder how many pre-teens consider that a birthday treat?😄) Well done you for having the self-awareness and courage to get out of law school when you did.
      Thank you for reading and for sharing some of your story, too.

  10. Yes! This is exactly why I’m so passionate about educating others about gifted needs…I knew I was pulled for “smart kids classes”, but never really understood myself or the impact of giftedness until I started trying to understand my kids. It really shouldn’t take until we’re adults before we get it.

  11. Many thanks. I found out about giftedness through my children too. Acknowledging that I am gifted has been a huge step towards my self acceptance, specially that is not only ok to be so sensitive but that it is what gives me such an enormous capacity for love.

    1. That acknowledgement is powerful isn’t it, Juan? I can feel, through your words, your appreciation for your gifted traits. 🙂

  12. Sorry if this posts twice. I think Giftedness is a different form of what is labeled as ADHD. Like FKA Asperger’s as a subset of the autistic spectrum, giftedness has many characteristics of ADHD, with a more sensitive context and higher achievement potential than most. It is the heart of creativity and intuition, the ability to see further and draw connections that others may not see. It is curiosity, dreams, possibilities, all things difficult to bring to fruition without help and structure. I was labeled as gifted at the age of 6. That being said it took me 2 decades to complete a bachelor’s degree, trying to figure out what I was interested in. I started out as an artist, a writer, a singer, a photographer, and ended up at the end of 20 years with a scholarship to medical school despite a past of hard knocks, depression, and self-esteem issues. However, the paradigm of fast food medicine and algorithms was not what I expected in medical training. I wanted learning, understanding, healing, and had difficulty with attending physicians because they could not follow my reasoning in 10 words or less (I couldn’t do that), even though I was right and my patients had great outcomes. I was too slow and thorough. I’m the doc who finds the tumor, the diagnoses others have missed. I see the complexity of the world and of human beings and seek to understand it, to build connections. I was diagnosed with ADHD for the first time at the age of 43 in residency, which is odd in itself. I have often wondered if it is the other side of giftedness. What makes the intensity and vibrance of the world a deep personal experience which is overwhelming sometimes. The only thing I can do for the future is to continue to encourage my bright children to work hard, focus, and follow their joys so that they can actualize their talents into their lives.

    1. Thank you for your fascinating and thought-provoking comment. I’m so glad you persevered and qualified as a doctor. I like to think that people like you are the future of the medical profession. Certainly if someone I loved was sick, I’d want them to be cared for by someone not just with medical training but who could see the whole picture and took the time to do so.

      I’ve also often wondered about how ADHD fits into giftedness (and have some ADHD traits myself). I’m currently reading Scott Barry Kaufman’s book, Ungifted, which is a fascinating exploration of how different aspects of intelligence have been studied, measured and applied over the last century. In particular I’m looking forward to researching openness to experience in more depth.

      Thank you again for sharing your story!

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