By Linda Kreger Silverman
Giftedness creates a different organization of the Self. Cognitive complexity, emotional sensitivity, heightened imagination, and magnified sensations combine to create “a different quality of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding—a way of being quiveringly alive” (Piechowski, 1992, p. 181).
An unusual mind coupled with unusual emotions leads to unusual life experiences throughout the life cycle.
Gifted children and adults feel cut off from the rest of society—out of sync. A gifted mind is a relentless idea generator that creates more things to do than there are hours in the day.
And creative ideas tend to show up at the least convenient times… Highly capable people are asked to assume the lion’s share of responsibilities, and life can quickly deteriorate into an endless list of tasks to be accomplished.
Gifted people often wear many hats and try to juggle more than is humanly possible. All of it seems interesting and worth doing…if only there was an infinite amount of time.
And the gifted set standards well beyond those of others. They’re never satisfied doing a “good enough” job; they want to do everything to the best of their ability.
Giftedness creates a different worldview. Impossible dreams are realized, unrealistic goals achieved, insurmountable obstacles surmounted, by people whose vision is a more powerful reality than the limitations that most of the world accepts as “real.”
Peak experiences and devastating lows often come with the territory. Rushes of energy at unpredictable times drive gifted adults until they find “that note,” as Dustin Hoffman so aptly described it during the 1996 Golden Globe awards.
Gifted adults are often driven by their giftedness. Gifted individuals do not know what creates the drive, the energy, the absolute necessity to act. They may have no choice but to explore, compose, write, paint, develop theories…conduct research, or do whatever else it is that has become uppermost in their minds. They need to know; they need to learn; they must climb the mountain because it is there. This “drivenness,” this one-track-mindedness, may keep them from sleeping or eating, from engaging in sex or any other normal behavior, for the duration of their specific involvement. (Roeper, 1991, p. 90)
Is this a drive to achieve? Not necessarily.
“They need to know; they need to learn; they must climb the mountain because it is there.”
The gifted Self is driven by both curiosity and the need for expression—in words, art, music, dance, visual models, mathematical formulas, whatever.
Sometimes this drivenness results in accomplishments that everyone admires, but more often it concentrates on mundane activities that have significance only for the individual: an exquisite flower arrangement, a brilliantly executed chess move, a fabulous idea, a to-die-for chocolate sauce…
The elation that comes from finding “that note,” that word, that move, that brush stroke, that solution, is indescribable. It’s pure magic. At that moment, no external rewards matter. There is only the delicious appreciation of now. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls it “flow.”
Controlling an unmercifully creative mind is like trying to lasso a bull in an open field: It basically goes wherever it wants! It rarely stops to listen to what it already knows. However, when engaged, it has the capacity to observe or reflect with profound concentration.
The emotions of the gifted person are just as unruly. Anything worth feeling is worth feeling intensely. Nothing is simple, bland, or colorless. Everything is electrically charged with rich, multicolored layers of meaning.
We are not “normal” and we know it; it can be fun sometimes but not funny always. We tend to be much more sensitive than other people. Multiple meanings, innuendos, and self-consciousness plague us. Intensive self-analysis, self-criticism, and the inability to recognize that we have limits make us despondent. (American Association for Gifted Children, 1978, p. 9)
The Cost of Being Different
The gifted are the only group with special needs who can pretend to be like everyone else.
But this is not without cost to the Self. When too much emphasis is placed on the child’s fitting in with others, being normal is elevated to the number one goal in life. And the only alternative to normal appears to be “abnormal.”
The dread of abnormality can be so overwhelming that the gifted may feign normalcy, deny their differences, and hide their rich inner worlds from ridicule.
Some gifted children learn very early in life to play the game. They sacrifice their authenticity and pretend to be someone they are not so that they are more acceptable to others.
In Elizabeth Drews’ (1972) words, “Our children are taught to don masks before they recognize their own faces. They are made to put their tender, pliable forms into prefabricated shells” (p. 3). Trying to fit in at the expense of the Self leads many gifted people to feel like aliens from a different planet (Wallach, 1995).
When I was little I used to stand and stare up at the stars and wonder which one of them held the solar system that was my real home… Hey, up there on Home Planet, time to beam me up! Joke’s over. Experiment’s done. I want to come home now. Do you hear me? (Tolan, 1996, p. 13)
But what is normal? Do these phrases sound familiar to you?
* “Why do you make everything so complicated?”
* “Why do you take everything so seriously?”
* “Why is everything so important to you?”
Patty Gatto-Walden calls these “the terrible toos”: The gifted are “too” everything: too sensitive, too intense, too driven, too honest, too idealist, too moral, too perfectionistic, too much for other people!
So they live with the great secret, instilled from early childhood on, that there is something inherently wrong with being who they are because they don’t fit in.
Many of the problems that beset the gifted can be traced to the lack of awareness, understanding, and acceptance of the differences inherent in being developmentally advanced.
It is emotionally damaging to be unacceptable in the place one must spend 6 hours of every day for 13 critical years of one’s development.
For the gifted Self, life can be very lonely and complicated.
But it need not be that way. With greater societal awareness, understanding, and acceptance, much of the pain and isolation of being gifted can be healed.
Continued in longer PDF, with references:
The Universal Experience of Being Out-of-Sync: An Expanded View.
The original text of this presentation was the inaugural keynote address at the Eleventh World Conference on Gifted and Talented Children in Hong Kong, July 31, 1995.
It was published in Advanced development: A Collection of Works on Giftedness in Adults [edited by Linda Silverman, Denver: Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, 1995, pp. 1-12].
This updated version contains excerpts from “Through the Lens of Giftedness [by Linda Silverman, Roeper Review, 1998, 20, 204-210], and “Why Do We Need Gifted Education: A Millennium Approach” by Linda Silverman [unpublished speech].
Linda Silverman, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and Director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado.
You can also read the older version of the article: The Universal Experience of Being Out-of-Sync.
“The natural trajectory of giftedness…” quote by Linda Silverman, Ph.D. is from her book Counseling the Gifted and Talented.