Learning you're gifted as an adult can be quite overwhelming. In this article, InterGifted's founding director Jennifer Harvey Sallin shares the seven stages gifted adults typically go through after discovering (or re-discovering) their giftedness, and how you can best navigate them toward self-acceptance, joy and a proactive creativity with your own unique gifted mind.
DISCOVERY & THE LOSS OF AN IDENTITY
Learning as an adult that you are gifted has sometimes been likened to having a bomb explode in your life, or as I once heard it described, living through the “Big Bang”. People often assume that everyone wants to be gifted, and that gifted people are all too happy to discover that they are “special”; this couldn’t be further from the truth. Discovering you’re gifted isn’t all roses and doesn’t make your life infinitely easier. Being gifted is neither good nor bad, but it has personal and social implications that are known to create some measure of chaos in your self-understanding and in your understanding of the world, until you learn to integrate your gifted mind fully into your life. Gifted coaching can help immensely to facilitate that process.
In my experience as a psychologist and coach, I’ve guided many gifted adults through their giftedness discovery journey over the years, and I have witnessed a fairly predictable pattern that follows the discovery of one’s giftedness. Interestingly, it includes some of the famous stages of grief from researcher Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, as well as some key aspects of giftedness researcher Kazimierz Dabrowksi’s Levels of Positive Disintegration. Why grief? Grief follows loss, and as much as learning that you are gifted (and learning about what that means to you) is a gain in self-awareness, it is also a loss of a version of your self-identity that you’ve been constructing all your life.
Grieving that kind of loss is normal and healthy. We all do it again and again throughout life as we lose friendships, dreams, youth, and the self-identities we have tied up in them. But no matter how big the loss, the intensity of the feelings of loss don’t last forever. All emotion is finite, and although gifted people generally find a lot of emotion stored up inside them related to their gifted mind construction (feelings of being misunderstood, misguided, ignored, judged, or bullied for divergent ways of thinking and being, for example), that emotion can be processed and dealt with in constructive ways.
What I have witnessed in working with my clients is that consciously and diligently making one’s way through the stages of giftedness discovery allows a more positive process – one that transmutes painful emotion into positive energy, and liberates gifted people to create an updated self-identity based on how their unique mind really works best.
FROM DENIAL TO CREATIVITY
Here are the stages of giftedness discovery, as I have witnessed them in my work:
DENIAL - "There's no way I could be gifted!"
EXCITEMENT - “This explains so much of my life!”
ANGER - "Why didn't anyone tell me this before?" and “Why don’t others care now?”
BARGAINING / DEPRESSION / PANIC - "Can I give it back?"…"OMG I can't give it back!"
ACCEPTANCE - "Ok, this is how I am. How am I going to use it to my advantage?"
REBUILDING - “I’m doing the work to rebuild myself based on who I am.”
CREATIVITY - “What else can I create from my unique self?”
I can tell you from accompanying clients through these stages, that it’s a fun, scary, challenging, overwhelming, frustrating, and liberating process all at once. I’m often asked for my best advice for navigating it most effectively, and that advice is: study the stages, and resist the temptation to fight against the process of going through them. It might not be easy, because the process often brings up very intense emotions. But the good news is that those emotions are very valuable messengers of outdated beliefs you are likely ready to let go of (beliefs about who you are and “how the world works”). They are also messages about the positive self-awareness you want to carry forward with you into your future sense of self.
Here's some more insight from my work about what to expect during each stage and how coaching helps gifted people navigate the process effectively:
During the denial stage:
"There's no way I could be gifted!"
Immediately following the "Big Bang" moment of giftedness discovery, many of my clients want to just shy away from the topic of giftedness altogether. They insist, “there’s no way I could be gifted!” or dismiss the necessity of the question – “If I’m gifted, what does it really matter?” In part, they don’t yet know just how important this realization is for their accuracy of self-understanding and perception of others; and in part, it is daunting to identify with something rare and not yet very well understood or appreciated in conventional social circles. But, as I remind my clients during this stage, burying your head in the sand does not make truths go away. Just like you deserve to know about your body and your world, you deserve to understand your mind and know how to use it for your own good.
My homework for clients in this stage is to read enough about giftedness to understand its main structure. InterGifted’s blog and the book Living with Intensity are great places to start. It is also crucial to learn more about the distinctions between the levels of giftedness (mild, moderate, high, exceptional and profound), which you can find in my article “High, Exceptional & Profound Giftedness”. This subject is of utmost importance as you are learning about what giftedness is – it helps you understand your cognitive patterns: whether you are a skip-thinker or a meta-thinker, and how that differs from being a step-by-step (linear) thinker. This basic knowledge on the structure of gifted cognition will help you further accept where you are at on the “gifted scale” and understand what that means for your life and relationships. At this stage, many people like to seek out a qualitative assessment in order to get help exploring their unique cognitive landscape and functioning from someone who knows the terrain.
People also benefit from working with a gifted coach during this stage, because is your coach has already successfully navigated through the discovery process, and has developed strategies which help you overcome denial in constructive, healthy and efficient ways. They keep you from wasting more time not knowing who you are. Talking with your coach about your discoveries helps provide validation and clarification about what you are discovering about giftedness in your life, and helps you overcome the imposter syndrome that often accompanies the denial stage. Having a trusted partner in this process can help you stay present with the emotions that surge into your awareness as you overcome your denial; your coach can then help you find creative ways to express and channel those emotions, so that you can liberate yourself toward self-discovery.
During the excitement stage:
“This explains so much of my life!”
As my gifted clients learn more about the phenomenon of giftedness, it is a moment of relief learning that, as they tell me, they’re "not crazy after all!". The mysteries of one’s life and mind, which were till now impenetrable, start to resolve themselves. This excitement typically liberates a positive energy that encourages clients to want to share their discoveries with their social world. And even though they often fear saying they are gifted will sound arrogant, their self-discovery is so important and meaningful to them that they are generally willing to take the risk.
To minimize miscommunications with others who are not familiar with giftedness, I teach clients alternative a more effective language to use. For example, if a client has been having trouble communicating with his boss, rather than him saying, “Hey boss, I just discovered I’m gifted, so I don’t need step-by-step instruction from you anymore!”, we rehearse him saying something more like: “In my coaching sessions, I’m discovering that my mind processes incoming information differently than the norm, and I realize that this is why it’s hard for me to pay attention when you give me step-by-step instruction. Maybe next time, we can try out you first giving me the big picture and then I can ask questions if there are specific details I don’t understand. I think it will be an effective solution to our past communication difficulties." Communicating in this way takes more words, but it is clearer and less charged than the descriptor "gifted”; it is also a way that allows your listener to know what to do with what the information you’re sharing. These linguistic changes maximize comprehension and encourage positive relational support from others.
However, no matter what words you use to describe your giftedness to others, the unfortunate truth is that others will at times not be as enthusiastically welcoming to your self-discoveries as you wish them to be. Being that some of your gifted qualities are the ones that your partner, co-workers, family or friends would most like you to change (your intensity, your high idealism, your insatiable drive, etc.), they are not always keen to learn that these qualities aren't "problems to be solved", but rather manifestations of how your brain works best. It is as if, by putting a name to these qualities and recognizing that they are natural result of the way your mind is constructed, it renders them unchangeable, and this is not always welcome news for others. Then there is the social stigma of giftedness, which can feel threatening to partners who, for example, don't know how to integrate your "difference" into your social circles. Finally, if you are sharing your insights with someone who is him- or herself gifted, but has never been identified as such, your discoveries may stir up their own realization and emotions (their own "Big Bang"); as a result, he or she may go into the denial stage and resist your insights.
This very social dynamic has been a main life-long problem for the majority of gifted clients I’ve coached over the years – that others take their thoughts and insights less seriously than they themselves do, or are even threatened and irritated by them. This creates an ongoing social dissonance that can turn into extreme frustration and anger. In this stage on your giftedness discovery journey, you are likely thrilled to finally make sense of so many aspects of your life, but when you see that others around you are less enthusiastic or even hostile toward your discoveries, it can bring up a lot of the old pain of being misunderstood or not taken seriously at the level you need it. Coaching can help you learn to communicate more effectively, but there may still be realities to face about what others in your life are willing or not willing to accept or celebrate in you. Facing this old dilemma yet again in a new way typically pushes clients to the next stage: anger.
During the anger stage:
"Why didn't anyone tell me this before?" and “Why don’t others care now?”
In this stage, clients become angry that they were never identified as gifted when they were kids – “it would have saved me so much suffering!”. They are angry that they didn’t know this key information about themselves, and as a consequence have been judging themselves through a distorted lens all these years, believing what others often told them: that they really were “too much” or “not enough”, or “too demanding and perfectionistic”. And they are angry that it is happening again – “I’m even ‘too much’ in my giftedness self-discovery!”.
As I tell my clients, it is important that you give yourself full permission to feel your anger during this stage; you have a right to it, and it is a healthy expression of your need to be taken seriously, no matter how unusual your mind is. But as I also point out, it isn't constructive to use that anger to blame one’s family, friends, society or the world for what you might feel is, as my clients often do, their “incomprehension”, “small-mindedness” or “meanness”. Giftedness is just one way of being in and perceiving the world, no better or worse than another, just different; and the truth is that many people are still very unaware that giftedness even exists. It is unlikely that others are intentionally trying to harm you by their reactions, it’s just that they truly don’t – and often can’t – understand what you are going through and how your mind perceives things, because their mind construction is different from yours in key ways.
While anger is often considered a negative energy, in reality anger is just a neutral body-energy that can be used to destroy or create, depending on what we do with it. For example, my own anger gave me the courage and energy to create InterGifted. I was angry that in my mid-30’s, I still felt ashamed of my gifted mind, and angry that my clients felt the same shame. That anger could have caused me to become cynical toward the world and destructive toward myself (as it had done in the past), but instead I used it to help me come up with a creative solution for overcoming the social shame I felt about my mind. And thus was born InterGifted.
I’ve learned over the years that no matter how gifted you are, your cognitive biases can blind you because in real life, emotions always trump logic. When you feel wronged emotionally, it is very hard to see anger as neutral (even if you can admit that it logically is), and it is hard to know how to channel it constructively. During this stage, gifted coaching is immensely helpful for clients in sorting through which is which. It saves them from getting unnecessarily lost in emotional stories, and guides them as they become aware of just how angry they are and just exactly how they want to positively use all that powerful energy.
During the bargaining/depression/panic stage:
"Can I give the ‘gift’ back?"…"OMG I can't give it back!"
As clients start to channel their anger positively, they usually, even if briefly, go through a stage of bargaining, depression or panic – “Can I give back the gift?” or “Can't I just go into hiding?” I have found that the length of this stage depends a lot on the amount of support clients have and the amount of trauma they’ve been through in their lives – including trauma related to their giftedness, such as chronic not fitting in or chronic social invalidation.
The issue is, when clients see what is required to positively channel their anger, it can be very daunting. As described in Living with Intensity, clients can see the mountain ahead that they must climb (Dabrowski’s Level 3) in order to fully accept and integrate their gifted mind into their life, but are overwhelmed at the thought of climbing it. They can see that they will have to leave certain relationships, self-concepts, and comforts behind – including their habitual hiding places and masks (physical and metaphorical). They will need to adopt a new or improved communication style and find a way to accept their and others’ differences. They will be exposed to the “elements” and forced to test their inner strength.
By now in the giftedness discovery process, clients feel like life is pushing them irrevocably toward “accepting their gift” (in other words, pushing them to start the climb up Dabrowski’s mountain), and they are tempted to fight against it. It’s a challenging stage because, while a part of them wants to accept their “gift”, another part of them wants to go back to denying it. My clients have reported feeling fragmented, torn, in doubt, and sometimes unable to choose their direction during this stage. Existential depression and panic (both forms of anger at and fear of life turned inward toward the self) can occur here, along with extreme confusion or depersonalization. These are the moments that, as a coach, I must stay very present with my clients. I must assure them that they are safe to “accept the gift” and all that comes with it. I often remind them that it is a one-step-at-a-time journey and that it is okay to be an imperfect climber (two things that are often hard for gifted people to accept!). They don’t have to jump to the end of the journey today or tomorrow or even next year! And in any case, they don’t have to make the climb alone.
During the acceptance stage:
"Ok, this is how I am. How am I going to use it to my advantage?"
Once clients feels safe enough to start the climb with me, I know they’ve arrived at the acceptance stage. They’ve learned about what giftedness is and have recognized that it has affected their lives in profound ways, but they realize and accept that there’s still work to be done. Choosing to go up the mountain is like accepting an apprenticeship in the conscious deconstruction of your self, and of your conception of the world. It is a process which involves examining the various parts of what makes you you, and what makes your life what it is.
You become the detective of your own self, becoming more clear about your values, preferences, and most authentic expression. You start to connect the dots between how your unique mind works and what you need most in life. You start to accept both logically and emotionally the ways in which you are gifted, and the undeniable fact that there are a number of particular challenges which come with that and which you cannot “give back”. As you discover what it really means to be uniquely you, you start to let go of the rest – the false beliefs, the self-judgments, and the roles you adopted but which no longer fit you (such as “people pleaser” or “chronic perfectionist”).
I serve as a partner to my clients as they go through the deconstruction process – providing essential feedback, pointers, understanding, stability and encouragement. When we’ve examined the parts of the self and come down to the essential, I know my clients are ready to start rebuilding a life for themselves based on all they’ve discovered through the process.
During the rebuilding stage:
“I’m doing the work to rebuild myself based on who I really am.”
With enough self-awareness, clients start to be guided toward positive action by their emotions, rather than driven to self-denial or self-destruction by them. It is during this stage that they are ready to start rebuilding their lives again. The essential question during this stage is: given your raw material (your particular brain and its unique way of functioning, as well as your environmental constraints), what can you / do you want to build?
This may translate to building up your self-esteem, a career, your family life, your relationships – all in a way that suits how you work best. This stage helps you to learn how to communicate effectively to get your essential needs met, helps you construct positive relationships which will support who you really are, and helps you connect with your true inner callings, be they personal or professional.
Since gifted people tend to judge themselves and build their self expectations based on their theoretical potential rather than their actual potential, they are often disillusioned by their actual progress. Gifted coaches know that trap and keep you from falling into it during this stage by helping you realistically build up a life based on your actual potential. We help you stay realistic and focused on using your theoretical potential as a source of inspiration but not as a standard, and your actual potential as a realistic planning tool.
During the creativity stage:
“What else can I create from my unique self?”
This is Level 4 of Dabrowski’s Positive Disintegration. Here, you’ve successfully navigated up the mountain of self-discovery, deconstruction and reconstruction (with your guide) and you’ve learned the terrain. Where do you want to go from there? Other mountains to explore? Or do you want to go back down the same mountain and help others on their first time up? The creativity stage starts once you’ve built up a solid enough structure of yourself and your life; your structure is stable enough that you get to be creative with it.
The creativity stage is a joyful and long-lasting stage, which taps into play, inspiration and purpose in order to realize inner visions over the long-term. One feels, rather than being pushed or pulled by life, that one is co-creating with life. This final stage can have its own challenges, but those challenges are seen not as something to avoid, deny, fear or “just get through”; rather, they are seen as interesting opportunities to express one’s authentic self in myriad new ways.
YOUR STAGE ON THE JOURNEY
Are you just exploring the possibility of your giftedness? Have you known about it for some time now and are moving through one (or more) of the stages? Are you actively rebuilding and creating? Of course, it's worth mentioning that it's not always such a linear journey, and we can cycle through aspects of it at various times in our lives, depending on changing inner and outer circumstances.
Here are some support services / connection opportunities with InterGifted that may be a good fit for you now or at a future stage of your discovery and integration:
About Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Jen is the founding director of InterGifted. She's a psychologist, coach and mentor who specializes in providing training & mentoring for coaches and other helping professionals who support the gifted population. She also performs giftedness assessments and mentors profoundly gifted adults. She writes extensively on giftedness and self-development and you can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. Her climate emergency initiative is I Heart Earth. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. You can learn more about her here.