By Sara Yamtich
Over the decades, education and resources for gifted youth have made significant contributions to the education and mental health fields.
Many thinkers have shed light on not just the intellectual differences of the gifted, but on the unique personality traits and social-emotional needs of this population.
And it’s been hugely liberating and beneficial to many youth, who with enough support, are empowered to achieve greatness in their lives and the world.
However, we know that giftedness doesn’t go away as we reach adulthood.
And the emotional complexities that accompany increased sensitivity and awareness are nearly impossible to detangle from the continued need for intellectual engagement and creativity as we enter higher education and the workforce.
Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, bless her, worked to bring the discussion of adult giftedness into mainstream literature.
In 1999, she published “The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating Everyday Genius.”
I imagine that for many who could identify with the word “gifted” and so bought the book, the read was life-changing. (It was for me).
Many gifted adults, regardless of whether they participated in gifted education in their youth, still don’t identify as gifted in adulthood.
Their awareness of their own difference either fades away or becomes repressed, with possibly devastating implications.
Experts in the field identify mental health challenges that may be associated with giftedness and high intelligence, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.
While mental health diagnoses can sometimes be accurate (after all, dual diagnoses and twice-exceptionality are very real things), for gifted individuals, there may be another root problem.
Gifted individuals are doing their best to cope in a world that doesn’t get what they’re going through.
High intelligence and perceptivity means that there’s an incredible amount of stimulation and internal processing.
Without accurate self-understanding and support, a complex interplay of boredom, overstimulation and seemingly excessive internal processing can look a lot like mental illness; gifted adults risk being stuck in misdiagnosis.
The clear need for recognition of giftedness points to the problem of identification of gifted adults. One issue is with the word itself; adults just don’t associate themselves with “giftedness”.
They were either never identified, assumed they “grew out of it,” or are so focused on their own gifted children that they don’t feel they can focus the giftedness spotlight on themselves.
Some thinkers argue that we can change the term to something that’s more relatable for adults.
Yet even when we use words like “smart”, “intelligent” or “bright”, we run into problems, including stigma in the name of egalitarianism, imposter syndrome (particularly for women), and gross oversimplification.
The words don’t even come close to capturing the gamut of characteristics that come with giftedness.
High intelligence is only a piece of the giftedness puzzle.
Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902-1980) described “exemplar” individuals who had finely-tuned nervous systems that resulted in five over-excitabilities — emotional, imaginational, intellectual, psychomotor, and sensual.
Dabrowski also conceptualized growth among these individuals as occurring through a series of broad-reaching transformations known as positive disintegrations. His description of developmental drive more closely resembles a gifted personality style than any specific cognitive ability.
Dabrowski’s metaphors of developmental steps partner well with the concurrent philosophical work of Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), American thinker and writer known for his comparative analyses of ancient mythologies and religions.
Campbell famously described “the hero’s journey,” a ubiquitous story of the man or woman who in spite of incredible obstacles and suffering, goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of their people, or society as a whole.
It turns out that Dabrowski points to a potential real-world manifestation of a deeply powerful metaphor; at the risk of overstating my case, there’s a lot at stake if we don’t identify and support the figurative heroes and heroines of our world.
And to try and reach unidentified gifted adults by talking only about intelligence runs the risk of missing out on an incredible population of adults with huge developmental potential (if only it is harnessed).
So, given how important it is to increase awareness of giftedness and the difficulty of identification of the “unknowing gifted”, what do we do?
The fundamental issue of gifted personality is critical to the identification of these people.
It’s important to know all the traits of adult giftedness, so that professionals can use that language (instead of “giftedness”) to market their books, articles, and services.
So that the unknowing gifted can read the cover of a book or the copy of a website, exhale a sigh of relief, and think, “Wow, for the first time, someone gets me.”
And once identified, gifted individuals need to sit through a momentary period of heightened self-exploration as they work through the role of their intensities in their life path.
They must stop repressing their exceptionality in service to an understandable but tragic sense of egalitarianism, so that they can do whatever it is that they’ve been holding back.
Mary-Elaine Jacobsen claimed that there were 20 million unidentified gifted adults in the United States when she published her book in 1999, nearly 10% of American adults at the time. Updated to today’s numbers in 2013, that’s approximately 31 million adults.
Just imagine what would happen if a critical mass of about 30 million brilliant and driven adults were able to release the shackles of misdiagnosis and loneliness, own their gifts, and set loose on starting their own world-changing revolutions.
Sara Yamtich is a self-proclaimed multipotentialite, which basically means that she’s had multiple careers and is an unapologetic dabbler. She has undergraduate degrees in Anthropology and Gender Studies and a Masters in Social Work. She’s been a social worker, policy wonk, non-profit marketer, writer/ editor, and yoga instructor.
Having lived on both coasts and on another continent, Sara now resides in Fayetteville, AR, where she blogs and works as a life coach to help unconventional individuals turn their dreams into real-life revolutions. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter, @saralizer.
Additions by site author Douglas Eby:
Resource book: Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth by Paula Prober.
From an Amazon review:
“The rainforest is Paula Prober’s fresh and apt metaphor for the abundant internal ecosystem of the gifted child or adult.
“Like tropical forests around the world, the gifted are both fragile and powerful, surrounded by threats but full of world-changing potential.
“Prober does not settle for shallow or simplistic answers; she explores and finds inspiration in places that other researchers and practitioners haven’t considered…”
~Tom Clynes, author of “The Boy Who Played with Fusion”
The ‘road’ image at the top of this article reminds me of “the hero’s journey” concept and also the book “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond” in which author M. Scott Peck noted, “Many who are truly superior.. are reluctant to consider themselves ‘better than’ or ‘above’ others, in large part because a sense of humility accompanies their personal and spiritual power.”
He describes his interview with Jane, a young business school student: “‘I don’t want to be a whiner’ [she said]. ‘Then you’ll need to learn how to accept your superiority’ I retorted. ‘My what? What do you mean?’…”
From article: You may be gifted – Are you denying it?
Photo of Juliette Binoche, Jeff Bridges, Viggo Mortensen and Jessica Lange – quoted in my article: Multitalented Creative People [an excerpt from my main book]. Also in the article: more high ability, multitalented creators including Julia Cameron, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Seymour, Natalie Portman, James Franco, Mayim Bialik and others.
Adult Underachievement: Living Up to the “Gifted” Label – Or Not — “I don’t think I’m even close to fulfilling my potential.” Actor Kerry Washington
Addressing gifted adult underachievement: Acknowledging our own abilities – One aspect of high ability, and being able to do many things well, is a tendency to discount those abilities.
Growing up exceptional: ‘Some thought I had rare insight, others thought I was crazy.’ – Actor Diane Lane: “I got that whole precocious thing [as a child]. I had no reason to doubt my own abilities or not share my opinion. The adults were offended, and the kids were resentful. I was persona non grata in both camps for quite a while.” [Photo: 1979 TIME mag.]
Adult Underachievement – The ‘gifted’ label & the pressure to deliver
Unrealized talent, unrecognized giftedness – “Unrealized talent does not make a comfortable chair, unless you’ve sat on it your whole life, then it makes it a dangerously comfortable chair.” Actor Eric Roberts
Didn’t you used to be gifted? – “The natural trajectory of giftedness in childhood is not a six-figure salary, perfect happiness, and a guaranteed place in Who’s Who.” – Linda Silverman – in her book Counseling the Gifted and Talented.
Page on Dabrowski / advanced development – quotes, articles, books
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Two of many articles on being a multipotentialite:
That term “multipotentialite” comes from Emilie Wapnick. Like many multitalented people can say, she notes her “resume reads like it belongs to ten different people…”
She designed her program Renaissance Business “specifically for the Multi-Passionate Entrepreneur” read more and see videos in article Resources For Multipotentialite Entrepreneurs.
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Psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel notes how intelligence – one of the key qualities of giftedness, though not the only one – is such a central aspect of our identity:
“Smartness is a smart person’s defining characteristic. Everything she thinks about the world—how she forms her identity, how she construes her needs, how she talks to herself about her life purposes and goals—is a function of how her particular brain operates.”
“Living in a society and a world that does more than disparage smartness, that actually silences smart people (because the power and privilege of leaders is undercut by smart people like you pointing out fraud, illogic, and injustice).
“Doing work day after day and year after year that fails to make real use of your brainpower…”
See more in article: Brainpower and The Smart Gap.
One of his related books: Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative.