Gifted people's minds range from being somewhat to extremely complex: intellectually, creatively, emotionally, sensually, physically, existentially or some combination of these factors. Their level of complexity can be both exhilarating and at times challenging, for themselves and for their social entourage. Learn more about what giftedness looks like in real life in the article below.
by InterGifted's Founding Director Jennifer Harvey Sallin
updated January 2023
AREAS OF INTELLIGENCE
Typically, the word "gifted" is shorthand for "intellectual giftedness", but there are various ways any person - gifted or not - expresses their mental faculties. In truth, “giftedness” is a kind of mind construction pattern (neurologically, cognitively and phenomenologically speaking) which results in a complexity and intensity of thought (and often emotion) that is uncommon. In our work at InterGifted, we use my holistic model of intelligence, which I have developed in particular with advanced gifted adult development in mind. My model works with six areas of intelligence: intellectual, emotional, creative, sensual, physical, and existential.
Profound and complex curiosity, love of knowledge and learning, love of problem solving, probing questions, search for truth, understanding, knowledge, and discovery, keen observation, avid reading, sustained intellectual effort, love of theory and analysis, and independent thinking.
Depth of emotional feelings and relational attachments, wide range of complex emotions, strong memory for feelings, high concern for others, heightened sense of right, wrong, injustice and hypocrisy, empathy, responsibility, and self-examination.
Detailed and complex visualization, vivid dreams, love of fantasy, creativity, inventions, love of music and art, good sense of humor, preference for the unusual and unique.
Complex and profound sensory experience of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, or tactile stimulus. Appreciation of beauty and harmony.
High physical skill or dexterity, preference for fast action, physical expression.
High and complex focus on meaning, values, ethics, morality, ecological interconnectedness, and the nature of reality.
An intellectually gifted person has a baseline of intellectual intelligence that is higher than average; how any of the other areas of intelligence combine and interact with with their intellectual intelligence shows in their own unique giftedness "flavor" or "personality". There's also the question of levels of giftedness, which range from mild to profound, and very much influence the expression of giftedness in an individual. Additionally, there can sometimes be twice- and multi-exceptionalities, such as autism, learning disabilities, or other neurodivergences (in many cases extended to include mental health issues and physical disability), which add certain challenges or additional "flavors" to the expression of one's high intellectual ability. Overexcitabilities, which are areas of uncommonly high intensity (but which are not synonymous with giftedness, as is often believed) add additional flavors of expression. Other factors, including trauma history and our social context, also affect our gifted development and expression. In other words, giftedness is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and though all gifted people share a baseline of higher than average complex cognition, gifted people make up a very heterogeneous group. This is why it's important for a person to discover their own giftedness profile, as your gifted mind and life is a whole ecosystem with its own particular makeup, context, needs and expression.
Intellectually gifted people represent a small minority of the overall population (opinions differ, but research suggests somewhere below 5%), and this means that gifted people have to face the common challenges of minority development throughout their lives.
Academically, professionally and socially speaking, gifted people often don't follow the conventional paths laid out by the majority. By the time they are adults, they have often studied (formally and/or self-directed) many divergent subjects, and may have frequently changed jobs (once the challenge of learning a role turns to routine, they feel bored and under-engaged). They may have already had three careers at the age of 30, or may have never really settled down to do any career. Or they did settle down, and feel like they have sold out and are struggling. Socially, they may look for and try to create intensity and complexity in their relationships, and continue to be disappointed, or see themselves or others as "faulty" because they cannot seem to get the full spectrum of their intellectual and emotional needs met no matter how hard they try. And this is only mentioning the challenges as we see them from the adult's point of view; these all extend, in their own way, to what our challenges were as gifted children.
The issue is that gifted people like exploration, not routine; and they need a lot more intellectual stimulation than is common. For a lot of people, traditional roles, rules and expectations feel good, and create a sense of safety, but many (if not all) gifted people feel imprisoned by routine, tradition, and rules-based contexts. Without the room to try out different roles, stretch and question the rules, be creative and go beyond traditional expectations and limits, gifted people often feel uncomfortable, misunderstood, imprisoned, suffocated, and at the extreme, even existentially panicked. And without adequate intellectual stimulation and depth in their relationships, they may feel themselves going into a kind of hibernation/shut-down; or conversely go into a kind of overdrive trying to get their needs met in contexts and with people who are unable to meet them adequately. Some of what I've described here can actually lead to something we call "gifted trauma". This is such an important topic in a gifted person's development and thriving, that we've dedicated an entire podcast to it, which you can listen to here: Conversations on Gifted Trauma.
GIFTEDNESS ≠ SUPERIORITY
What's difficult about all of this is that many people don't want to see themselves as gifted because it sounds like a question of superiority, and they don't want to believe or feel they are better than others. But while it’s healthy not to see oneself as “special” and therefore “superior”, it is also necessary to recognize and honor the way one’s mind works and when one’s level of intensity is different as compared to the norm. As mentioned above, those who are more intense than the norm but refuse to believe it, risk looking for intensity and complexity in friendships, relationships, discussions, collaborations, roles and systems when it is simply not there; and they risk being disillusioned and blaming themselves or others for the “failure”. They also risk overwhelming less intense people with their intensity, and once again blaming themselves or others for the mismatch.
Additionally, if a gifted person is unaware of their authentic academic and professional needs and tries to follow traditional academic or professional goals and routines, they may exhaust teachers, classmates, co-workers, bosses, and even family and friends with their chronic dissatisfaction and need for challenge and stimulation. If they are unusually sensitive, they may be bullied regarding their extreme empathy, extreme sense of justice/injustice, and inability to “go with the flow” or just accept things the way they are, problems and all. Or may even be aware of all of the potential ways they could help others and become a sort of “savior”, losing themselves in cleaning up other people’s messes (sometimes which the other people didn’t even want cleaned, and sometimes to their own detriment).
Another common fear of gifted people is that if they admit their difference from others, it will ruin their relationships with their non-gifted family and friends or somehow jeopardize their place in the non-gifted dominant world. It won't. It will simply help you to communicate more effectively, understand others in your life with more ease, and realize where and with whom you can get your various gifted-specific and non gifted-specific needs met. The essential point is: the better you understand your own mind and functioning, the better you can negotiate the necessary conditions for your thriving. That process takes radical self-honesty. Denial about one's giftedness can be a challenging aspect to overcome, but it is worth the work, as it allows you to come into a real relationship with yourself and with the world and others around you; allowing you to heal old wounds of unmet needs and thus redirect the use of your intelligence toward authentic, holistic and interdependent relating which allows you to meet your needs while honoring the limits of others. If you are somewhere on this fear/denial/acceptance journey, you may find my article on the topic helpful: The Stages of Adult Giftedness Discovery.
Of course, many of us have also known people who are uncommonly intelligent and love to flaunt that fact and use it to embarrass, manipuate or otherwise humiliate others who are less cognitively endowed. These people often have issues to work through as well, as somewhere along the way they learned to use their giftedness as a weapon against others and in turn against themselves. Their relationships suffer and their disconnection, though different in cause from someone who is in "giftedness denial", is very real.
GETTING THE RIGHT SUPPORT
Even gifted people often confuse “giftedness” with “genius”, imagining that "gifted geniuses” have it easy. Gifted people might be “genius” in some ways at certain times (certain aspects of learning are easier for them than for the average), but everyone – including gifted people – must systematically experiment and apply their knowledge over time to succeed, and must have the social and financial support to progress toward their authentic potential.
Giftedness does not result in automatic success: as with everyone and everything, the conditions (inner and outer) must be right for flourishing. When a gifted person's complexity and intensity is supported and managed well, they have the proper social mirroring, and the social and cultural context is ripe, they can do amazing things. When it is not managed well and not supported (which given the numbers, is understandable), that same complex thinking and intensity can result in underperformance and failure throughout life. Finding the right support can be a challenge, due to the “intensity mismatch” gifted people sometimes experience when reaching out socially, professionally, and for help and support. This was the main reason I created InterGifted.
Here you can learn more about some of our core support services:
LEARN MORE ABOUT GIFTEDNESS
We have an extensive collection of articles and other media covering the various aspects and nuances of giftedness on our blog and our resource library. And for a more personal look at the gifted experience, as told through the words of our own InterGifted community, read our e-books (all found at our bookshop):
- These Gifts are Sacred
- Emergence: Contemplations & Creative Expressions of the Gifted Feminine
- Gifts for an Emerging World
- Embracing the Gifted Quest
- Being Me: Reflections on the Gifted Person's Path to Authenticity
- Making the Invisible Visible: Intersections of Chronic Illness, Disability and Giftedness