J. Coulson, UKCP Registered
The unique challenges facing gifted individuals
To be gifted is very often to be classified as neurotic. To be gifted and not to know it is to perceive oneself as neurotic or worse. Here are some of the ways in which gifted people become confused with neurotic people:
Non-achievement. Whether were talking about the child with the high IQ who plays around in class, or the adult with the brilliant strategic insight who cant stand another meaningless meeting, gifted people frequently and ceaselessly underachieve. They can be the despair of their friends and colleagues. Over and again they are told: I dont understand it! You could be running the place if youd only get your act together.
Getting their act together, however, is not something gifted people are likely to do as long as it means conforming to someone elses half-baked notion of the way things should be. Its not that they dont understand whats going on, (though if theyre into self-blaming they may hide the truth from themselves) its that they understand too well.
When you can see that your teachers, your bosses and your colleagues all lack the vision, intelligence and courage to do whats needed, you give up. You know youre not going to be able to move the organization the way it needs to go so whats the point?
There is a point, which is to honor yourself by doing what you can rather than demanding of yourself that you achieve the impossible. But that has to do with the next sign of gifted neurosis: perfectionism.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism is not necessarily the bad thing that many therapists would have us believe. It is actually an essential motivator for those who seek true excellence. It is a way of avoiding something most gifted people dread: the pain of being mediocre.
It seems probable that we humans only strive for what we know intuitively we can achieve. Accordingly, not many people aim for perfection. Some do, however, and they fall into two groups: the gifted and the hopelessly misguided. It is important to know which group one is in: coaching can quickly help you decide.
The evidence that perfectionism is useful can be summarized in one question: What of human value has been achieved by people whose goal was just to be good enough?
Can you imagine an Olympic athlete setting out on years of dedicated training with the goal of being less than perfect? or a world class actor who merely hoped to remember most of her lines? or a serious painter who would use a blue because its close enough to green just to finish up a tube of paint? Of course not.
Striving for perfection is appropriate for gifted people. At each stage of their development they will strive anew, their goal always shifting as their own achievements redefine perfection.
Very often, their drive for self-perfection can manifest itself as self-condemnation. This is a serious matter only if it reaches a point where it immobilizes the individual in a net of 'shoulds' and 'musts' .
It is because perfectionists experience pain at their failure to attain their own high standards that we are often advised that perfectionism should be put aside in favor of the pursuit of excellence. This moderating notion may be comforting for many, but it is the pursuit of perfection that benefits both oneself - through the gratification of self-fulfillment - and society.
Coming to terms with ones perfectionist drive is hard enough. However, there is nothing like being a perfectionist for contributing to another piece of gifted neurosis: alienation.
Alienation. It is hard to find a group of like minds or even a friend or partner when your attitude and way of being are so demanding and so at odds with much of social convention. No wonder you blame yourself, condemning yourself for your inability to just fit in.
It is hard to fit in with people whose values and intuitive understanding of the world are so very different from your own. As a gifted person you are one of a tiny percentage of the population so its appropriate that you should feel left out.
How you come to terms with the challenge of not-belonging has a lot to do with how successfully you manage the next challenge: identity.
Its very hard for gifted people to reach the rejection stage of this selection process because their testing can take them so much further into excellence that it can seem as if theyre doing the right thing. After all, if youre so much better than the next person at the same task then society will tell you that thats what you should be doing. So why does it feel such a pain?
The challenge for gifted people is to push themselves beyond the good enough barrier and so discover what they really enjoy and can sustain into the future. Which leads neatly into the next challenge for gifted people: existential depression.
Existential depression. This is the classic whats the point? form of depression which I regard as a totally understandable knee jerk response to the condition of the world we live in. Like most such responses, however, it does not stand up to a more thoughtful examination.
Before this examination can take place, it is frequently necessary to work through the cynicism, rejection and raw hurt that a gifted individual can build up through years of painful existence. There is usually also a significant store of anger that the gifted person has been hoarding since experiencing the frustrations of childhood.
All of which adds up to a non-clinical depression which is the inevitable result of seeing the truth but being powerless to change things.
Again, there are strategies for dealing with this depression which involve a combination of intellectual and emotional factors They are certainly more effective in the long term than those ruthless forms of self-treatment which gifted people resort to when they feel particularly trapped: self-damaging behaviors.
These behaviors frequently take the form of eating disorders, sexual acting out, drug and alcohol abuse and many forms of self-harming.
Some of these behaviors are genuinely life-threatening and may occasionally require medical intervention. However, long after medical intervention has ended, the psychological dependence on the behavior can continue. This, for example, is what makes Alcoholics Anonymous claim that there is no 'cure' for alcoholism.
This dependence can be reduced almost to insignificance by developing an inner strength based in joy and appreciation of one's true strengths. It is precisely this recognition and approval that was lacking at a crucial time and which led to the development of the behavior in the first place.
The process of moving beyond these behaviors can empower gifted individuals and enrich their lives. However, the shift takes substantial dedication to the process and a readiness to redirect some of the enormous energy that others experience as: intensity.
Intensity. Gifted people are intense. This is because things matter to them very much. And why not? If you can see the emperor has no clothes, shouldnt you shout about it and try to catch someones attention? And if society smiles benignly and ignores you, shouldnt you shout even louder?
It is this intensity, fueled by a highly developed sense of values, that leads many gifted individuals to throw themselves enthusiastically into good causes.
The gifted are to be found everywhere in social, political and ecological causes and even in cults. In this way the gifted person hopes to kill two birds with one stone, combining an outlet for humanistic energy with the joy of belonging to a group.
Very often, however, this strategy fails because they find that group dynamics tend to prevail over good intent. Then the cause can become secondary to the need to establish hierarchies and alliances and all the other bits of human impedimenta that effectively stand in the way of progress.
And so it goes on. The gifted individual feels driven by irresistible inner motivations yet has enormous difficulty in directing this force in a way that is both productive and meets social norms. Meanwhile they can also feel they are letting themselves and others down. Truly, they are experiencing: the curse of the blessed.
It can be hell to be born lucky.
If you are beautiful, people rarely see beyond your features and behave toward you as they imagine you are, not as you really are.
If you are rich, people rarely see beyond your bank balance and treat you with resentment or false friendship, depending on their natures.
If you are brilliant, people rarely see beyond your intellect, revering you and denying you the simple pleasures they imagine are beneath you.
If you are musical or artistic, athletic or poetic, the story is the same: it is hard for you to touch base with reality, to know who you really are, because those around you are not grounded when they are with you.
Many of the trials of the psychologically and intellectually gifted are experienced by another group, the societally and physically gifted. Those born with wealth or position, or born beautiful or with natural athletic prowess have great difficulty finding their true selves. They can never know what they would have been if they hadnt been born rich or handsome.
Unless they take steps to accomplish it, they can never experience the confidence of having done it through their own efforts.
Like anything that comes too easily, and whose existence seems too closely related to pure chance, these forms of giftedness can be very damaging to self-esteem. They give rise to self-denigrating comments such as: "I'm only here because of my looks", or "If it hadn't been my father's business I'd never have made it", or "It was just luck: I was born that way."
Like everything else where gifted individuals are concerned, these challenges can all be met provided diligence and commitment is applied.
The challenges facing gifted people arise directly from the exceptional qualities that mark us out as genuinely different.
Sometimes, as with the rich, privileged, athletic or beautiful, the difference is obvious. With psychologically and intellectually gifted individuals it is not so obvious. But the results are the same and can lead to very similar and potentially self-damaging adaptive behaviors.
Dynamic Life Coaching provides an environment in which gifted people can re-work their approach to life. They can then move into a richer and more productive pattern of behaviors that support, rather than seek to obliterate, their uniqueness.
Copyright © 2001-2014 Christopher J. Coulson
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