Gifted loneliness is a painful reaction to not getting our real human needs for understanding and connection met. It is a feeling of being out-of-sync with the world around us. In this beautiful essay, originally written for our community's ebook Embracing the Gifted Quest, Lea Stublarec explores our need to feel 'In-Sync' as gifted people, and the many ways we can rekindle our connection to ourselves, to our fellow gifted human, and to all of humanity.
by Lea Stublarec
AN OUTSIDE-THE-BOX DEFINITION OF GIFTEDNESS
Mothers of gifted “plumb the depths of the gifted experience” (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Linda Silverman). This is from both personal experience as gifted individuals themselves (in most cases) and from their parenting experience. In addition to growing up gifted and experiencing life as a gifted adult, they are also loving caregivers, and later lifelong companions, to their gifted offspring. As a result, mothers hold a unique view of what it’s like to be gifted. This view is not focused so much on achievement and maximizing potential, but is more holistic and understands that giftedness can both positively and negatively impact all aspects of life.
The value of this unique perspective is demonstrated by the Indian fable about the blind men and the elephant. In this parable, the men touch the elephant to learn what it is like, with each feeling a different part and only that one part. When asked to describe what an elephant looks like, the one who felt the leg says the animal is like a pillar, the one who felt the ear described the elephant as being like a fan, and the one who felt the trunk said the elephant is like a rope.
It may be a bit of a stretch but it seems that many in the gifted field typically base their notion of giftedness on ‘the particular part of the elephant’ that they’ve experienced (i.e., as an educator, academic, counselor, therapist, psychologist, or researcher). Unlike these professionals, parents, especially mothers, ‘feel the whole elephant’ (literally, many having carried the baby in utero) and care for the whole child day in and day out. And, unlike professionals in the field, they have a deep emotional, physiological/hormonal connection to the child via a relationship that lasts a lifetime. In no way minimizing the value of professional insights and appreciating the fact that we are all members of the same tribe—sharing a passion to nurture the needs of gifted—I believe it’s critically important to encourage and empower those with primary responsibility for raising gifted children to include their voice in the giftedness arena.
As Stephanie Tolan noted in her blog, From the Deep End: “Parents are the ones 24/7 on the front lines of trying to meet the needs of their (gifted) children—not just educational needs, but social, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical.” Given the unique needs of many gifted children, this is no small task! And, sadly, because parenting gifted rarely receives support or sympathy from society, these parents often face this struggle alone.
In addition, for many parents, awareness of their own giftedness (and their related unmet needs) only begins to emerge after the realization that their child is gifted. In the process of responding to their child’s special needs, they often discover that many of the issues and challenges confronting their child are relevant to their lives as well. This new insight can evoke painful repressed memories but also shed light on struggles they are currently facing as gifted adults. This opportunity for growth allows for greater self-awareness, empowerment, enriched parenting, and, ideally, a deeper connection with all of humanity.
GIFTEDNESS AS ASYNCHRONOUS DEVELOPMENT
Not surprisingly, because of this unique perspective, three mothers of gifted along with two other experts in the field came up with a radically new way of defining giftedness in 1991. Unlike earlier characterizations of giftedness, this description was not based on external measures, such as IQ tests, achievement and eminence, or ways to identify giftedness. Instead, their definition focused both on the inner experience of the gifted as well as the impact being gifted has on the individual’s lived experience in society:
“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” (Columbus Group) 
Asynchronous development for the child means being out of sync…and for gifted, especially those who are exceptionally and profoundly gifted, this asynchronicity creates a very different set of experiences, both internal and external, than those of neuro-typical individuals. For the gifted child, this unevenness is often exhibited by the fact that their mental development outstrips their physical development and/or their social skills. Because one’s mental development impacts a wide range of abilities (such as the complexity and amount of knowledge a child can understand, her sense of humor, awareness of moral issues, and meta-cognitive skills), being so different from one’s age cohorts in these and many other areas causes the child to question herself (“what’s wrong with me?”) and to feel like an outsider or even an alien from another planet.
An example of asynchronicity is demonstrated by a profoundly gifted individual named Joseph Bates. In 1968, Joseph was so far ahead of his classmates in mathematics that his parents arranged for him to take a computer science course at Johns Hopkins University. But even that wasn't enough. Having leapfrogged ahead of the adults in the class, he kept himself busy by teaching the FORTRAN programming language to graduate students. By 17, he had earned bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and was pursuing a doctorate. He later went on to become a pioneer in artificial intelligence. His description of this experience is a classic example of the asynchrony experienced by highly gifted children:
“I was shy and the social pressures of high school wouldn't have made it a good fit for me,” says Bates, now 60. “But at college, with the other science and math nerds, I fit right in, even though I was much younger. I could grow up on the social side at my own rate and also on the intellectual side, because the faster pace kept me interested in the content.”
By including the reality that giftedness presents its own unique struggles in their definition, the Columbus Group helped to destroy the cultural myth that giftedness guarantees success and provides the individual with a huge head start in life, as many mothers of gifted know only too well. As Linda Silverman put it, “asynchrony is not a competitive concept. More asynchrony is not better.” This more realistic view helps underscore the fact that giftedness is, in fact, a mixed blessing offering a myriad of gifts as well as challenges, and that, in many cases, highly gifted individuals need special care, parenting, and support. For those who view success as a zero-sum game, this perspective helps to minimize the negative reaction of those who believe that they are denied equal opportunity in the competition for fame and fortune because gifted folks are supposedly born with a leg-up. As a result, in many societies, there’s a general belief that gifted children shouldn’t be given extra encouragement or help because they’ll do just fine and that resources should be focused only on lower-performing students.
Because many mothers of gifted are also gifted individuals, they themselves have experienced the pain of growing up feeling out of sync and with unmet needs, and, consequently, their deepest fear is that their gifted off-spring will share the same struggles. These moms try desperately to spare their loved ones the psychic pain that results from being different in a world that prizes conformity and to frantically not miss an opportunity to minimize this potential pain, which may in fact sometimes make it worse. And, for some, their anguish over what their child is going through can be even more traumatic than what the child herself is experiencing. One mom shared this:
“There was a great painful time (when my daughter was in middle school) that I don’t think I did a good job of dealing with and I think maybe that’s because it reminded me of the pain I had gone through of being a shy scholar-type myself growing up, dealing with meanness in kids. When my daughter was rejected for being too bookish by the popular kids, it was the one thing I prayed would not happen. I saw my daughter having problems and I did not respond well…I had some real strong reactions from my own childhood, which made me overprotective.”
Unfortunately, because being out-of-sync does not decrease with age but typically increases throughout the life of the gifted individual, gifted mothers of gifted children experience a ‘double whammy’ from the struggles related to giftedness—they feel vulnerable not only for themselves but also for their children. And often strategies they may have resorted to in an effort to fit in “pre-kids” fall by the wayside as they find themselves forced to speak up and advocate for the special needs of their gifted offspring. For these women, coming to terms with their own giftedness, while at the same time attempting to nurture their gifted child, creates an intense, emotionally-charged parenting journey. But also offers opportunity for growth.
FEELING OUT-OF-SYNC: THE EXPERIENCE OF GIFTEDNESS IN ADULTHOOD
For the gifted adult, differences related to asynchronicity, far from lessening as the individual matures, are likely to grow larger and continue to create a different experience of life. Like the inner lives of gifted children, gifted adults continue to hold a different world view, think and feel differently, have unique problem-solving styles, and experience a complex and intense inner environment. These out-of-sync life experiences can sometimes be positive for gifted adults although they can also be upsetting or even destructive. Stephanie Tolan states that the experience of giftedness in adulthood is especially problematic when the individual denies or does not understand her own giftedness. “Blind to their unusual mental capabilities, they may go through their lives fragmented, frustrated, unfulfilled and alienated from their innermost beings.”
Despite re-framing giftedness as asynchronous development and attacking the myth that giftedness is only demonstrated by outward success (like eminence and wealth), society’s continued obsession with achievement rather than the gifted individual’s unusual mental processing makes recognizing and understanding giftedness difficult if not impossible. As a result, many gifted adults have no idea they are more intelligent than the norm and, therefore, must deal with problems related to being out-of-sync without realizing why, often wondering, according to Nancy Alvarado, if they’re “insane or…have serious social and adjustment problems.” Alvarado shared an example of this in her article, “Adjustment of Gifted Adults” when she described a running joke at Mensa meetings where members feel they should take a retest, reflecting their uneasiness with considering themselves highly intelligent. In addition, if an individual does eventually accept her giftedness, society’s overemphasis on the positive benefits related to high intelligence discounts the personal struggles the gifted individual may experience and places a burden on them, similar to what the gifted child encounters—the assumption that self-actualization and achievement should come easily to them, and that the gifted are in little need of help or support. 
Psychologist Deirdre Lovecky addresses some key social and emotional characteristics related to adult giftedness in her powerful article, “Can You Hear the Flowers Sing? Issues for Gifted Adults.” Specifically, Lovecky found five traits of gifted adults that vary depending upon the individual’s unique personality characteristics as well as physiological factors.The author shows how each of these can impact an individual’s life in both positive and negative ways.
The first of these is divergency. Divergent thinkers are often innovative, independent, intrinsically motivated, and able to see all sides of a situation. They frequently challenge the status quo, and, per Lovecky, “bring color to the lives of others.” Conversely, they may be frustrated when others in the group disagree with them. They struggle to support fatuous ideas and, because they often fail to adhere to common social conventions or mandates, may find themselves as misfits in social situations, facing pressure to conform at the cost of maintaining their unique identity. Lovecky describes the highly divergent thinker as “often a minority of one,” which may lead to a sense of alienation and even existential depression.
The second trait, excitability, is manifested by a high level of emotional reactivity, energy and nervous system arousal. Lovecky notes that unlike individuals with hyperactivity, gifted adults can focus and concentrate for long periods; they function well and productively, enjoying challenges and taking risks. This characteristic allows them to thrive in whatever field captures their interest, although because of their high energy level they may be competent in a variety of areas. However, it may be hard for them to self-regulate, needing constant activity and stimulation to ward off boredom. For some, their passion for novelty may find them abandoning projects that become stale, leaving others “holding the bag”, who may reap the rewards for the gifted individual’s innovative ideas. Lovecky believes this lack of gratification may lead to chronic depression.
A third trait is sensitivity, described as a deep sense of identification with others, causing the gifted to form intense attachments and pick up on the emotional tone of interactions. “They think with their feelings.” As a result, gifted adults are often dedicated to various causes, getting their social/emotional needs met by responding to the needs and rights of others, no matter what the personal costs. Unaware of their own shortcomings, these folks are highly moralistic, focused on doing the “right” thing. As a result, they may fail to understand why others don’t share their passion, leading them to feel intolerant of those whose concerns they judge to be superficial.
A fourth common trait for gifted adults is perceptivity--the ability to appreciate the different aspects of a person or situation and quickly get to the heart of the problem. Thus, they are able to help others understand themselves although, paradoxically, they are typically unaware of their own gifts. Because they can see ‘behind the curtain’ in most situations, they are able to recognize the truth, resulting in a distaste for ambiguity, deceptiveness and hypocrisy. Lovecky holds that these folks have ‘a touch of magic about them’ because of their intuition and insight. They also tend to be highly self-aware, able to evaluate their own behavior, needs and motivations and, as a result, determine what’s in their own self-interest, irrespective of what others may think. However, others may feel intimidated and threatened by their ability to so quickly get to the core of the matter while the gifted individual may not understand why others act in ways that are counter-productive to solving the real issue at hand. Lovecky points out that the greater the discrepancy between the inner self and outer face, the less comfortable the gifted feel.
Finally, Lovecky identified a fifth trait common to gifted adults, which she called ‘entelechy’, to describe the unique type of motivation, inner strength, and vital force directing them to be all they can be. This drive often serves as a role model to others to self-actualize and creates the context for deep connection or “golden moments” of friendship where both parties are working together to be all they can be. However, this may result in the gifted individual feeling overwhelmed in trying to meet others’ needs at the expense of meeting her own, with the gifted adult eventually shunning relationships in order to achieve her potential.
GIFTEDNESS AND VULNERABILITY
The asynchronicity of both gifted children and gifted adults causes them to be especially vulnerable in their attempts to interact with the general population, often creating a huge divide between who they authentically are and the public persona they are pressured to assume. Consequently, gifted individuals end up feeling alienated--both from others as well as from themselves. And, unfortunately, the quality of life in Western society only serves to exacerbate this potential for psychic pain due to its focus on materialism, competition, and lack of community.
This is underscored by author Sebastian Junger in his book, Tribe. Junger shared that he was inspired to write this book because he was intrigued by the fact that many colonists captured by Native Americans often did not want to be repatriated to colonial society and, similarly, many soldiers often miss their war experience and suffer from PTSD upon returning home. For Junger, obviously a gifted, divergent thinker, these two impulses seemed roughly analogous. What he concluded after investigating both situations further was that human beings have a strong instinct to belong to small groups (like Native American tribes or combat units) defined by clear purpose and understanding—to ‘tribes’. Sadly, this sense of connection and shared meaning has been largely lost in modern society.
Junger examined why colonists and returning combat veterans found Western society so unappealing, despite the greater material and security benefits it offered. According to Junger, agriculture and then industry produced two fundamental changes in the human experience—they created a society that was more individualistic, focused on the accumulation of personal property and less on the common good, and where people were able to live independently from any communal group. Therefore, for the first time in human history, an individual can go through life with little or no human interaction, surrounded by strangers, resulting in a society where large numbers of its members feel utterly alone.
In contrast, colonists living in Native American tribes learned to embrace the classless and egalitarian close-knit tribal communities that provided more autonomy, less repressive religious practices, more sexual freedom and a sense of group loyalty. Similarly, combatants during wartime shared strong social bonds, where being collaboratively engaged in a cause not only gave their lives an intense and immediate purpose but imparted a powerful sensation, ironically, of well-being. Upon returning home, these veterans often experienced isolation and depression and felt like aliens in a community that had no real sense of, or appreciation for, the profound intensity of experience they had lived through. During wartime, “self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there’s no survival outside group survival and that creates a social bond that many sorely miss.”
Interestingly, the author himself experienced short-term PTSD after serving as a war journalist in Afghanistan. I’m including his description of this experience because much of what he describes echoes some of the same responses gifted individuals may experience in their daily lives because of their heightened sensitivity, excitability, emotionality and intensity. Junger stated that, from an evolutionary perspective, the symptoms of PTSD (and possibly the reactions of gifted to their hostile environment) are appropriate responses when you feel threatened: “you want to be vigilant, you want to avoid situations where you are not in control, you want to react to strange noises, you want to sleep light and wake easily. You have flashbacks and nightmares that remind you of specific threats to your life and you want to be by turns angry and depressed. Anger keeps you ready to fight and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself in more danger.” He went on to state that PTSD can be exacerbated by other factors but tends to diminish with time. “My panic attacks eased up and eventually stopped though a strange emotionality took their place. I found myself tearing up at things that I otherwise would have just smiled at or not noticed…this triggered a catastrophic outpouring of sorrow…When I went to sleep, it was like I became part of some larger human experience that was utterly heartbreaking. It was far too much to acknowledge when I was awake.”
THREE BASIC NEEDS INTRINSIC TO HUMAN HAPPINESS
Junger summarizes his analysis of why tribal life was preferred for colonists and combatants and affirms that it’s because it met three basic needs intrinsic to human happiness (according to self-determination theory): to feel competent, authentic, and connected. Modern society, with its emphasis on extrinsic values (such as wealth, status and achievement), conformity and competition, fails to address these needs and results in mental health issues like isolation, loneliness and depression. He concludes: “Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”
For many exceptionally and profoundly gifted, their unique characteristics make it extremely challenging to find a fit in Western society, so this sense of separation, loneliness and destruction of the human spirit is intensified.
For many exceptionally and profoundly gifted, their unique characteristics make it extremely challenging to find a fit in Western society, so this sense of separation, loneliness and destruction of the human spirit is intensified. Efforts to connect with others are often unsuccessful. It’s a constant struggle to gain a sense of belonging. In addition, trying to relate to colleagues or age cohorts with whom they have little in common is totally unfulfilling. Mutual rejection may happen, leading to psychological isolation. And, often, these gifted individuals are at a loss to understand why this is happening to them. The stories gifted individuals tell themselves in an attempt to make sense of all this may lead to guilt, shame, and/or self-deprecation. There’s something truly challenging and painful about being out of step.
Historically, the gifted have frequently been derided and criticized for their unique characteristics which set them apart from the norm. In a competitive society with a win-lose culture, their advanced abilities and skills may be threatening to those who feel they have less of an edge. Consequently, gifted individuals must deal with a society that’s not only not geared to their meeting their needs but also hostile to their failure to conform. Basically, according to Nancy Alvarado, gifted folks make up a subculture within a dominant culture, often without realizing it, and, as such, must cope with identity issues, just as other minority groups do.
Because of society’s intense pressure to conform, some gifted individuals may have an inclination to try to adapt to the group. As Stephanie Tolan stated, where their abilities cause jealousy, there may be a powerful incentive to hide or disguise their gifts in order to fit in. However, this can result in feeling isolated, weird, dissatisfied, and miserable because the gifted person often finds that most social interaction lacks the depth and intellectual nourishment she craves and she’s basically sold her soul in the process. Many suffer a sense of deep isolation and endure inner conflicts between their desire to fit in and their personal values and ideals.
To protect themselves in their attempts to interact with society, many gifted don a variety of psychological and behavioral gear. This gear comes in different forms but two common forms of protection were described by Barbara Kerr as thorns and shells. For those gifted who choose to wear thorns to defend against societal pressure to be normal, rebelling against authority, becoming intolerant of the status quo, acting self-righteous and aggressive is part of their arsenal. This prickliness makes social interactions challenging but helps somewhat to protect their inner core. Conversely, some gifted individuals may choose to develop a shell as part of their persona to protect themselves from the pain of being different, becoming more private, shy, introverted and modest. Like thorns, the shell is an attempt to protect their inner identity. Finally, a third option for protective gear (and one that allows for a bit more creativity) is to don a mask, thereby developing a totally false persona that’s more acceptable in the given social environment. This mask may help the highly gifted successfully assimilate into society to some degree, but at what price? Most likely at the expense of the gifted individual’s soul.
GETTING 'IN-SYNC'/ CONNECTING WITH YOUR TRIBE
We are a communal species and, to varying degrees, we need other people in our lives. Ideally, as gifted individuals, by finding others who love us just the way we are (the true ‘us’ hidden underneath our protective gear) we can feed our hunger for intellectual companionship and overcome our feeling of isolation and sense of being out of sync. We can then learn not only to accept ourselves but embrace our giftedness along with the vulnerability it brings.
As gifted individuals, by finding others who love us just the way we are (the true ‘us’ hidden underneath our protective gear) we can feed our hunger for intellectual companionship and overcome our feeling of isolation and sense of being out of sync.
Professor Brene Brown concluded, after years of research on shame and vulnerability, that those who felt they were worthy of love and had a deep sense of belonging were able to embrace vulnerability and believe that what made them vulnerable also made them beautiful.  They eventually realized that vulnerability and tenderness were important aspects of who they were.
It’s not too surprising that feelings of isolation and the pain of being different can be greatly assuaged by connecting with others who can provide the emotional, intellectual, imaginational, sensual, physical support we need as gifted individuals. Unfortunately, because the number of exceptionally and profoundly gifted is such a small percentage of the population, it can be difficult to find and establish relationships with true peers. But it’s critical to developing both a coherent self-identity as well as a group identity that we do. Therapist Andrew Mahoney has outlined four primary constructs that he believes are critical steps for gifted in shaping and positively influencing self-identity. These are: validation (awareness of one’s giftedness); affirmation (receiving acknowledgement and appreciation of one’s giftedness from others); affiliation (associating with those who have similar characteristics, passions and abilities); and affinity (making connections with the outside world and nurturing a sense of meaning and purpose in life).
So, it’s critical to find peers but it involves risk-taking and hard work. However, the benefits of finding your tribe—gifted individuals like yourself who can provide a collaborative, supportive community engaged in meaningful endeavors, offering reinforcement, encouragement and nurturing your strengths, passions and dreams—is well worth the effort. Such a group can offer lasting friendships based on mutual characteristics, interests, intellectual ability, authenticity, and shared values.
InterGifted is one such example, as we offer connection and support for gifted people. Our mission is “to provide the infrastructure, support, education, guidance, opportunity, and professional development opportunities that allow gifted people to proactively meet their fundamental needs with, and among, their gifted peers.” Other possibilities of tribes for gifted adults include:
- Highly Sensitive Persons groups
- local book groups, interest groups (like chess clubs, theater guilds, poetry groups)
- political action groups
- courses offered locally or via the internet
- volunteer opportunities
For parents of gifted children, social networks like Hoagies as well as non-profit organizations such as SENG, Davidson Scholars, Gifted Development Center, and local community support groups for parents of gifted can offer invaluable empowerment and connection.
One note of caution, however, is that we need to remember to take care of the true peers we find and accept them as the imperfect human beings we all are. As Nancy Alvarado pointed out, gifted adults need a group identity in order to thrive but sometimes developing such an identity is “complicated because many are striving to realize an idealized self-image, and they recoil when they see their own problems reflected by other gifted adults. They want to associate only with those who will enhance their own opinion of themselves…They demand perfection from their own kind, hoping that society will become more accepting of them.” She again offered an example from Mensa members who often are disappointed with the perceived social misfits they find at group meetings.
However, the dismay we may sometimes experience by seeing our own ‘out of sync-ness’ reflected by other members of our gifted tribe can be over-shadowed by the incredible joy and excitement we experience by being part of such a group. The intellectual synergy we can experience from the group’s energy and the ability to interact (maybe for the first time in our lives) with individuals who can build off of our complex intellectual world, share our depth of emotion, and bond with our intensity and passion is invaluable. As Tolan put is: “There can be a sense of almost magical connection as ideas flow…When unusually capable minds are working together there’s a powerful sense of community and belonging.” The joy of finding intellectual peers who are willing and able to really listen, who share their vulnerability, and who embrace who you truly are without trying to get you to ‘fit in’, creates a sense of solidarity that’s at the core of what it means to be human.
CONNECTING WITH YOUR GIFTED FAMILY TRIBE
Because giftedness often is passed down through our DNA, a key component to enhancing our self-identity is to explore the history of our “gifted family tribe”, i.e., our ancestors as well as our more recent relatives like grandparents, parents, and siblings. By focusing on the challenges they faced being out-of sync and any effective strategies they used to achieve their dreams we can uncover incredible wisdom from the past about living with giftedness throughout the ages.
The unique manner in which our relatives’ giftedness was manifested can be enlightening to us in terms of how their personality characteristics, passions and interests may be reflected in our own lives. We can honor and appreciate giftedness by raising awareness of the impact (both positive and negative) that it’s had on us as individuals and our extended family over the years and by handing down the stories of our gifted relatives to future generations.
For gifted mothers of gifted children, having a greater awareness of our past, including our parents’ childhoods as well as our own, will allow us to be more effective in how we respond to parenting challenges. Studies have found that we need to cut our parents, especially our gifted parents, some slack. Dr. Barbara Clark states that our early life experiences don’t, in and of themselves, make us effective or ineffective parents. Rather the way we view our childhood is the crucial factor. It’s important to realize that our parents were, most likely, also gifted and, as a result, their unique needs may not have been met. And, to make matters worse, as James Webb points out, many of our parents were probably often frightened, worried, or even intimidated by their bright, strong-willed offspring (i.e., us!) and the impact raising a gifted child can have on the family. So, our ability to come to terms with both the negative and positive events we went through growing up and to look back on our parents in an understanding, forgiving way has a much greater influence on how we raise our gifted offspring than any memories we have...And, if we model compassion towards our parents, maybe we’ll be lucky and our children will do this, too, when they grow up!
HEALING YOUR INNER TRIBE
A number of professionals in the gifted field have identified what they believe are key personality characteristics that make-up the gifted psyche. Some of these include:
- Mary-Elaine Jacobsen who found one of the most interesting and often overlooked qualities of giftedness to be the trait of sensory sensitivity…causing gifted to take in life experiences through their pores like a sponge.
- Deirdre Lovecky who, as discussed earlier, focused on five specific attributes of gifted—divergency, excitability, sensitivity, perceptivity, and entelechy.
- Polish psychologist and psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski who identified five areas in which the gifted exhibit intense behaviors (frequently called "overexcitabilities" or, more correctly translated, as "supersensitivities"). An individual may have one or more of these which include psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual and imaginational, although one often tends to be more dominant.
- And other experts who have emphasized the intensity, curiosity, risk-taking, energy, drive, quest for meaning, keen sense of humor, and creativity of gifted individuals…just to name a few!
However, a new approach to understanding the multidimensionality of the gifted was introduced by therapist Paula Prober, author of Your Rainforest Mind: A guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth. In a recent blog article, Prober suggests that the multidimensionality of the gifted mind can be thought of as different sub-personalities, based on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. She asks the gifted reader: “What if your multidimensionality could be divided into specific peopled-parts that you could identify, name, converse with, and learn from…your very own inner community?” Or, your inner tribe, if you will.
Dr. Richard Schwartz, who originally developed the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach, perceives individuals as being whole but made up of a collection of parts, or sub-personalities. (Some synonyms used historically for these parts include archetypes, dream figures, ego states or complexes.) Each sub-personality has valuable qualities to contribute to the whole and is designed to play a specific role. This helps to explain why, for example, we can have ‘mixed’ emotions about someone or persist with habits that we know are harmful to us. At any moment, a given sub-personality may become activated depending on both inner and outer circumstances and may be forced out of its’ valuable role to impact the inner tribe in a dysfunctional way. However, once it seems safe, this sub-personality is then able to transform back and become a contributing tribal member once again.
Most importantly, however, above and beyond these various sub-personalities exists a true Self or spiritual center (or, with poetic license, we might say an inner ‘tribal leader’). This concept of Self is well-known in many spiritual traditions and has been referred to in various cultures as our Essence, Divine Self, consciousness, Soul, or Seer. The Self has many necessary leadership qualities, such as vision, confidence, compassion, honesty and acceptance. This Self is who we truly are.
Prior to IFS, little attention was given to how these inner entities (the Self and various sub-personalities) functioned in relation to each other. Dr. Schwartz found that not only could these parts and their interactions be changed, but that many of us have three different major types of sub-personalities. He labeled these: the managers, the exiles and the firefighters. Basically, the ‘managers’ try to keep us functional and safe and attempt to maintain control. When the individual experiences hurt, humiliation or shame, another group of the sub-personalities, called the ‘exiles’, will absorb and store the negative emotions, memories and sensations from these experiences. The managers will then step up and try to repress these feelings by keeping these vulnerable parts locked in inner closets. Whenever the exiles escape by becoming too upset and flood the individual with negative feelings like fear of being hurt again, another group of sub-personalities, categorized as the ‘firefighters’, will react by trying to stamp out these intense emotions. The firefighters frequently try to distract or dissociate the individual from these painful feelings by numbing them via various addictions such as alcohol, food, sex or work.
In addition to these three main groups of sub-personalities, one’s inner tribe may consist of many other parts (or members) and, because the inner psyches of gifted folks are often highly complex, this is frequently the case. In her article, Paula Prober suggested some additional peopled-parts, or sub-personalities, that might be especially relevant to a gifted individual. These are the Saboteur, the Perfectionist, the Ruminator, the Seeker, the Intuitive, the Artist, and the Hermit. Others might include the Intellectual, the Aesthete, the Caregiver, the Professor and the Imposter. However, because highly gifted individuals are unique in a multitude of ways, this list is hardly exhaustive!
The objective is to identify your own special sub-personalities, disentangle them from both each other and the Self, and help them (i.e., your inner tribe) enter into harmonious collaboration. By doing so, you will be nurturing the inherent power and resources of your Self. To paint a clearer picture of this goal, we can ask: What if your inner tribe met your basic needs intrinsic to human happiness (to feel competent, authentic, and connected), nurtured your spirit and sense of belonging, made you feel loved and appreciated just the way you are, was kind and gentle to you, nurtured your strengths, passions and dreams, gave you a sense of meaning and purpose in life…and provided you with a collaborative, supportive inner community?
Both Schwartz and Prober offer various techniques to promote the smooth functioning (or, in some cases, healing) of your inner tribe and to enable you to consistently remain in the state of Self (or, in other words, to be a Self-led person). To this end, each sub-personality needs to be acknowledged, comforted, loved and heard. As the Self’s compassion, clarity and wisdom are strengthened, individuals inherently know how to empathize with, and help, each of their sub-personalities. But, as Paula Prober emphasized, “It makes so much sense but isn’t easy to achieve.” Like finding a tribe of true peers, healing your inner tribe takes time and effort. Fortunately, one common characteristic of gifted is their energy and drive, which can fortify them in this process. By stepping back and becoming meta-cognitively aware of the ongoing interactions between your various sub-personalities, you can empower your Self to carry out her role as the tribal leader.
Prober suggests some specific ways that are useful for exploring your psyche and achieving this goal:
“What if you could bring all of those parts into a conference room and sit them down at a table for a discussion?…Make a list of all of your many parts…and, then, write a little description after each…This way, you don’t have to define yourself as depressed or anxious or hopeless. Instead, you get to see that a part of you is, say, depressed. And you can get to know that part and find out what it’s trying to tell you or teach you. But depressed is not all of who you are. It may feel like that on your worst days, but it’s not all of you. It’s a part that you can work with and grow to understand. And that understanding can help you feel more self-accepting and hopeful. Knowing your Essence is an on-going process. When do you feel peaceful? Joyful? Deeply compassionate? Chances are, at those times, you’re in touch with your True Self. Make a list of those experiences. Are you painting, writing, meditating, singing, gardening, hiking, blogging, running? Practice deepening those moments as you gain awareness of your body-mind-spirit. Notice when a sub-personality shows up. Welcome him/her. Sit by the fire for a chat.”
Many gifted individuals, with their deep and complex inner tribes, need regular periods of solitude, which is especially the case for more introverted folks. These periods of reflection can be enhanced through meditation, visualizations, relaxation exercises, yoga, energy work, journaling, nutritious food and proper sleep. In addition, the guidance of a skilled therapist, like Paula Prober, or an InterGifted coach or mentor, can make the process of inner tribal healing more effective and enjoyable. And this brings up another key strategy for nurturing your true Self—be sure to make time for fun in your life and find ways to put your gifted sense of humor to work for you! Getting to know and feel a connection with all parts of your mind and be your authentic Self is the way to honor and celebrate your wonderfully gifted inner tribe and will promote your growth, self-actualization and transformation.
CONNECTING WITH ALL OF HUMANITY
After healing our inner tribe, we can begin to reflect on our desired impact on the world. We can then develop and cultivate our connection with others, bringing our authentic Self to a much broader community—connecting with all of humanity.
A person whose inner tribe lives in harmony with the Self is often perceived by others as authentic, solid and unpretentious. They feel at ease in this individual’s presence, in part, because they sense that it’s safe to take off their own protective gear and reveal their true Selves as well. As Dr. Schwartz of Internal Family Systems theory put it: “Such a person often generates remarks such as: ‘I like her because I don’t have to pretend—I can be myself with her…They’re attracted by the Self-led person’s lack of agenda or need for self-promotion as well as her passion for life and commitment to service.” As the individual’s true Self is strengthened and the negative impact of her sub-personalities is lessened, her awareness of the fact that we are all connected becomes enhanced to the point that she is increasingly compassionate and motivated to improve the human condition in her own unique way.
This path to self-actualization outlined by the IFS model mirrors a number of different theories of human development. Two examples that apply primarily to gifted were proposed by therapist Andrew Mahoney and psychologist/psychiatrist Dabrowski, both mentioned previously. Andrew Mahoney outlined four constructs that are critical steps for gifted in positively influencing self-identity. He labeled the fourth and the final step, affinity, which requires the individual to develop connections with the outside world and nurture a sense of meaning and purpose.
Psychiatrist/psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski proposed 5 levels of personality development. Like both IFS and Mahoney’s model, at Dabrowski’s fifth, and most advanced level, the individual feels a connection beyond herself to all of humanity and chooses a life devoted to service. Specifically, Dabrowski’s theory, starting at Level 1, believes that most people live lives of quiet desperation, shaped by the pressures of society and peers, with little introspection. Because an individual can’t become fully developed and authentic without first developing their own inner core of beliefs and values, according to Dabrowski, he deemed life at this level “primitive integration.” However, if an individual faces a crisis or unsettling event (and who doesn’t!), her perception of herself may temporarily unravel, causing her to question what’s meaningful in life and become ambivalent about her life choices. At this level, Level 2, the individual resolves the stressful situation in one of three ways: by falling back to Level 1 and returning to the status quo, remaining stuck in prolonged disintegration at Level 2, or moving ahead by proactively choosing new values to replace rigid social codes of behavior. Dabrowski viewed this third choice as the first step toward true mental health and inner transformation. In Level 3, the individual continues to strengthen her personal value system and her decisions begin to be measured against her emerging vision of the “higher”—the kind of person she feels she ought to be. Moving on to Level 4, she becomes further committed to these higher values which are now increasingly part of her ‘true’ self. At Level 5, the individual is able to achieve inner harmony and integration. She feels a connection beyond herself to all of humanity and chooses a life devoted to service, no longer bound by culture and convention.
In her book, The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller stresses that we are all born with the faculty for connecting and experiencing a powerful sense of oneness with others. But this faculty must be encouraged and developed for both the benefit of the individual and, obviously, for society as well. In addition, gifted children are often born with special cognitive and emotional sensitivities that help to further this connection by fueling their positive disintegration and attainment of Dabrowski’s more advanced levels of personality. These characteristics frequently emerge at a very young age, as many mothers of gifted children will attest.
One such characteristic, the potential for higher moral development, was found by Dr. Linda Silverman to be present in the moral sensitivity shown in gifted children. However, Silverman also underscored the necessity to nurture this potential in order for it to lead to higher levels of development. The intense reactions and sensitivities of many gifted children identified by Dabrowski as ‘over-excitabilities’ (OE’s) also make them more likely to question the status quo and reject existing cultural norms and values. Psychologist James Webb believes that three specific OE’s are the key drivers in nudging the individual to positively disintegrate. According to Dr. Webb, intellectual OE makes one more likely to ponder and question, emotional OE makes one more sensitive to issues of morality and fairness, and imaginational OE prompts one to envision how things might be.
In addition, one of the common, but most often overlooked, characteristic included in lists of ways to identify giftedness is a keen sense of humor. Parents and teachers often note the amazing sense of humor of the gifted children in their care, which is quite sophisticated and well beyond their years. Because human beings love to laugh, Dr. Leta Hollingworth described this ability as the “saving sense” of gifted folks given that it often serves as a critical social lubricant, creating a social context in which people feel comfortable, alive and connected. Interestingly, in the Native American tradition, specific members were designated, or self-appointed, as the ‘official fools’ for the various tribes. These individuals often did things backwards or contrary to the established tribal norms to intentionally shake people up and challenge their thinking. The fool, in many other times and cultures, played a very important and even sacred role—to keep people from getting stuck in rigid ways of thinking and living. Generating humor is one of the greatest gifts one person can give another and is related to making and strengthening human connections as well as promoting disintegration to higher levels of human development.
A final condition that promotes the connection between a gifted individual and all of humanity is, incongruously, the very challenging reality described in the definition of asynchronicity—their uniqueness from the norm and their resulting vulnerability. The mere fact that so many gifted individuals feel different and alienated often provides the impetus for positive disintegration by forcing the gifted individual to stand back and observe her environment as an outsider, providing a more objective lens on the status quo. Typically, this perspective leads to questioning the lives of quiet desperation she witnesses around her, causing her to ruminate about what’s uniquely important to her, to identify her values and ideals, and to craft her preferred approach to helping humanity.
In Dr. Brene Brown’s words, “That’s our job. To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen. To love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee. And to believe that we’re enough…then we stop screaming and start listening.” At this point, according to Dr. Brown, we can then be kinder and gentler to the people around us (appreciating the fact that our uniqueness may be hard for more neuro-typical folks to figure out and live with as well) and we can also be kinder and gentler to ourselves. And it seems that this is an essential step—if we want to help make a society work and positively impact our world, we need to underscore our shared humanity, focusing on our common bonds rather than our differences. By grasping the simple truth that others are as real as we are, and then attempting to enter these different minds to appreciate how they have an equal value, we can connect with all individuals in the greater tribe of humanity.
We can choose to lift each other up and, in the process, lift ourselves up as well. This is a conscious, life-affirming and necessary choice made by the Self. Because there is nothing more positive, hopeful and empowering than being good to one another. With this world view, the notions of success and self-actualization are re-framed from a narrow focus on self-interested goals to dreams based on our loving connection to each other. Author Piero Ferrucci shared a story that powerfully demonstrates this critical need for human connection: “Hell is where people all have super-long forks. They cannot get the food on their forks to reach their mouths. In Heaven, everyone has those super-long forks as well. But they feed each other.”  By both literally and metaphorically feeding each other, we can help create heaven on earth.
FIND YOUR OUTER TRIBE AND HEAL YOUR INNER TRIBE WITH INTERGIFTED
InterGifted as an organization is dedicated to raising awareness about giftedness in adulthood and the complex and unique needs of gifted adults - as well as supporting gifted adults as they work to heal their inner tribe and find their social tribe. Here are some of our offerings that might be right for you on your healing and connection journey:
- a qualitative giftedness assessment to help people you understand your unique cognitive profile and how to work best with it
- coaching and mentoring to support you as you heal, connect, and build an authentic life as a gifted adult
- workshops and courses allowing you to connect in real time with other gifted adults who are learning about themselves
- and, of course, our wonderful support community and peer groups where you can meet gifted peers from all over the world and interact in a safe, supportive, motivating and inspiring environment
- gifted-specific therapy
- you can also read more about what the "gifted journey" looks like in real life, in the words of gifted peers in our community, in our community ebooks
Let us know how we can best support you as you get connected within and without!