Stephanie S. Tolan

Self-Knowledge, Self-Esteem and the Gifted Adult

by Stephanie S. Tolan

Originally published in Advanced Development Journal, 1999

Abstract: Self-identification as a gifted adult is complicated by the great diversity among the gifted adult population. What does a gifted adult look like? Unfortunately, for many gifted adults, it looks like somebody else. Using a metaphor of Dots and Spaces, the author explains how we tend to see our own deficits (spaces) but others' gifts (dots). This negatively affects self-esteem and often causes gifted assets to be viewed as mere "weirdness."

Many gifted adults seem to know very little about their minds and how they differ from more "ordinary" minds. The result of this lack of self-knowledge is often low, sometimes cripplingly low self esteem. Most have never been formally identified as gifted, and even those who have may disbelieve the identification or have difficulty incorporating it into their sense of themselves.

Though women are particularly hard-pressed in our culture to recognize and fully utilize unusual intelligence, uncertainty about gifts can affect both males and females, especially those who are not recognized as intellectual achievers. Strangely, even among men and women who are recognized achievers, the "impostor-syndrome" is widely reported. These people go along routinely doing what few others can do, all the while dreading the moment when the world will find them out and discover that they are the fakes they believe themselves to be.

Dots and Spaces

The problem with identifying and discussing the "gifted" is that they are as diverse a population as can be gathered together under any single label. They have, of course, the individual differences of the rest of humanity in temperament, personality, size and shape, life experience, socio-economic class, gender, race, ethnic background. But they also differ from the norms and from one another because of the complexity of the workings of their minds. This diversity may be a primary reason for the inability to recognize and understand the extent of one's intelligence.

Mental Capacity and Individual Differences

In simple terms, the more limited the mental capacity or the lower the IQ, the more similarities will be apparent between individuals. It's easy to understand why this is so. In the normal range of intelligence (into which approximately 90% of the population falls) there are many different mental abilities widely and variously distributed. Consequently, within the broad limits of "normality" there are many and obvious individual variations. Most of the individual differences between people are therefore taken as just that -- individual differences -- unrelated to mental capacity.

As one moves downward from the range of "normal" intelligence, the number of mental abilities individuals exhibit is increasingly restricted -- and so the range of activities and behaviors of those individuals is similarly restricted. The result is that individuals seem to be considerably more alike.

Their similarities are fairly commonly recognized as relating to the level of their intelligence. In some cases speech patterns and even bodily postures and movements are clearly similar. Tom Hanks, portraying the fictional title character in the movie "Forest Gump" was able to convincingly give the impression of mild retardation not just through the content of the character's lines, but by molding his voice and his movements, even his facial expressions to those patterns.

At the other end of the scale, the higher the IQ or greater the intellectual capacity, the more individual differences there will be between individuals. No single person can possibly have all the many capacities available to the extraordinary, beyond-the-norms, human mind. So each individual will exhibit a constellation of these capacities that will be different from the constellation of any other individual.

If we were to think of each of these various unusual mental capacities (e.g. photographic memory, lightning mathematical calculation, the ability to visualize clearly, speed reading, quick spatial pattern recognition, ease in learning languages, metaphorical thought and speech) as "dots" and the lack of them as "spaces," we would see very different patterns in different individuals, even if IQ scores seemed to indicate great similarity.

Because of these varied patterns each highly gifted individual is likely to feel very different from other highly gifted individuals and this sense of difference is likely to create a sense of inequality.

No matter what the individual's pattern of dots and spaces may be, there is a tendency for the person to take his or her own dots for granted. "Lightning calculation is just something I do," a person might say. "A knack I have."

There is no great sense of accomplishment for an attribute that seems to have been with one all one's life, even if that attribute contributes to unusual and high levels of achievement in a culturally recognized field. "Oh, sure, I'm good at math. What could you expect from somebody who calculates that fast." We're likely to value something we've had to work at or study hard to acquire far more highly than something that comes naturally -- something that's just "me."

Meantime, the "spaces," those things that we can't do (or that we do poorly) that someone else can do, easily and well, we're likely to consider really important, particularly if there is a cultural cache to being able to do them. We will feel our lack acutely, and since there are probably a variety of spaces in our particular constellation of abilities just as there are a variety of dots, if we focus heavily on the spaces, we may feel actually incompetent rather than unusually able. We are not comparing ourselves broadly to other people in the normal ranges, but to people outside the norms who have patterns of unusual abilities different from our own.

Because individual differences within the normal range are considered ordinary, typical of the complex species humans are, and in no way related to levels of intelligence, people with the greater differences created by extreme intelligence may dismiss those differences, too, as "ordinary, typical of the complex species humans are." They may never consider that their differences are related to unusual intelligence and considerably outside the norms.

Inevitable Comparisons

A person whose dots create a pattern that allows him or her to become a theoretical physicist is likely to be thought of by most people as an unusually bright person. Our culture values scientific exploration highly and readily concedes that it takes unusual mental capabilities to engage in such activities at a high level.

But the theoretical physicist may or may not agree with that cultural evaluation, depending on what spaces (and how many) he feels he must work around. While he may not feel inferior to a novelist (because a novelist's work is not culturally perceived as either as challenging or as intellectually important as theoretical physics) he may feel distinctly inferior to another physicist who never forgets a detail from a journal article she's read or invariably remembers the specific citation. He may feel inferior to someone who is better organized or more verbal or who does a better job of writing up his findings, or can maneuver more successfully in academic politics.

On the other hand, the novelist is likely to assume that what he or she does is not particularly intellectually challenging, as compared, for instance, to the work of a theoretical physicist. Being able to envision settings and characters and transfer that complex and many-dimensional visual imagery into the linear realm of language, to develop an interesting plot or create a character that is both believable and emotionally commanding, to keep a story line and a philosophical argument balanced and moving, all may seem ordinary stuff to one for whom it is a "dot," one who does it naturally. "I'm not all that bright," the novelist may say or feel, "I just have this talent."

Meantime, if the novelist's computer goes down, the person who can come in and fix it, who understands how it works and what might have gone wrong, who can tinker with it and get it going again, seems to be "the smart one."

All these people, the computer whiz, the novelist and the theoretical physicists could have comparable (even identical) extremely high IQ scores. But each may see someone else as the "really gifted" person.

Unusually intelligent people, probably because they are used to being able to do things well that other people struggle with and have extremely high expectations of themselves, may be especially aware of and self-conscious about their spaces. The combination of focusing on one's spaces while taking one's dots for granted, perceiving that there are huge numbers of dots that others may have that one does not, and valuing other people's dots more highly than one's own, can lead an extremely intelligent person to feel "dumb" or inadequate.

Add the sense of being different that plagues many gifted people (particularly those at the highest ranges) and the result can be a seriously distorted self-image and very low self esteem. As a brilliant and internationally recognized writer friend of mine told me when I dared to suggest that she was gifted, "Oh, no, I'm not gifted, I'm just weird."

Looking at giftedness from the "dots and spaces" perspective might not instantly convince a gifted adult that she is indeed gifted, or solve the self-esteem problems of a lifetime, but it can give her a new way of looking at herself, a clearer view of the abilities she has at her command. How we live our lives has a great deal to do not just with who we are, but who we believe ourselves to be. Learning to celebrate our own constellation of dots can begin a process of self-understanding that can lead to real and positive changes in gifted lives.

Stephanie S. Tolan, M.A., award-winning author of books for children, such as Welcome to the Ark, and co-author of Guiding the Gifted Child, also writes and speaks about the needs of the gifted.

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