How being gifted means being different

gifted childrenOver the last couple of years I have spent time off and on doing research into giftedness and living with unusually high intelligence.  It has been far more interesting and enlightening than I expected.  So I figured I would share some of what I have learned with y’all.  Today I will focus on some of the differences which tend to be characteristic of those with unusually high intelligence.  Tomorrow, I’ll get into why so many gifted people have a hard time recognizing themselves as gifted and why it is so important for them to understand their giftedness and teach their children to do the same.

First, the differences.  I always figured that high intelligence was just about how a person learns new information and skills.  What I have found out, however, is that high intelligence entails not just being able to learn new things quickly and easily, but affects a person’s entire experience of life.  People with unusually high intelligence take in and acquire information differently, process that information differently.  They frequently experience emotions and physical stimuli more intensely than others.  They have motivations and drives which others often find odd or bizarre.  In short, being unusually intelligent tends to create a whole life experience which is markedly more complicated and intense than what most people experience.

Psychologists who deal with highly intelligent people label these areas of high instensity and complexity “Overexcitabilities” or OEs.  They are generally divided into 5 categories: Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional.  (This article has a pretty good basic examination of OEs.)  While not every highly intelligent person will have an area of OE, most will have at least one or more areas of OE.  These OEs are areas in which the highly intelligent person has unusually strong, frequent or deep reactions and experiences.  For example, a person with intellectual OE may be unable to stop thinking about the things which interest him or her.  They can get lost in figuring out some theoretical problem and spend a lot of time seeking out information and ideas related to the issue.  While this is just the sort of person you want to sic on a complicated problem, a person with intellectual OE can find the pace and intensity of their thinking exhausting.  They can also be impatient with others who aren’t able to intellectually keep up with them or highly critical of others and their ideas because they themselves are able to quickly and easily assess ideas for problems and flaws.  A person with this OE is not just acquiring information more quickly than those around them.  They are dealing with an interacting with that information in ways which are fundamentally different than others.

One of the real challenges that people with high intelligence face is learning how to deal with these OEs in ways that are healthy for themselves and others.  Even more so than for most people, the things which are their greatest strengths can also be very destructive for an unusually intelligent person.  This is why it is very important that kids who are gifted are taught about their giftedness, how it affects them differently than other people and how to manage those areas of OE that they have.  Because they are dealing with an unusual level of intensity and complexity, a gifted child may take longer to get his or her areas of OE under control than a normal child dealing with similar issues of self-control.  For example, it is not at all uncommon for a gifted child to be prone to inappropriate emotional outbursts well past the age that most kids have stopped throwing fits.  While we often attribute this to a lack of maturity, perhaps due to focusing so much mental energy on intellectual development, the reality is that this struggle probably has its root in an emotional OE.  When a person experiences emotions much more frequently, intensely and easily than other people, it only makes sense that it is going to take more time for them to learn to tame and manage them.  We can probably compare it to the difference between saddle training a wild mustang and saddle training a horse bred on a horse farm.  While the Mustang may end up being the more magnificent animal, it is also to be expected that it will take more time to bring the wild animal under control than it will the domesticated one.

In addition to dealing with OEs, one of the problems which a lot of kids and adults with unusually high intelligence have is that they do not understand the ways in which they are different from most of the people around them.  They may realize that they learn things more quickly and easily than others, but may be wholly unaware that others don’t share their endless curiosity and may not have the strong feelings about things that they do.  Highly intelligent people may also find themselves odd man out because it is in their nature to think and work outside of the box.  They may know that they are doing this, but may not realize how threatening and disconcerting this often is to others.  They can be blindsided by the negative reactions they receive for doing things which they see as positive.

This fundamental different-ness combined with a lack of insight into the reality of the how other people’s minds work underlies a lot of the social difficulties which highly intelligent people often experience.  Unfortunately, the social problems that unusually intelligent people, particularly kids, commonly experience are usually pinned on some failure on their own part.  However, a good part of the social problems highly intelligent people experience are rooted in a lack of tolerance for their differences.  Take a child who uses vocabulary that his peers aren’t familiar with and responds to being shown a frog with an explanation of the life cycle of frogs and the similarities and differences between frogs and toads.   The other kids don’t usually think, “wow, he’s really smart.  I wonder what else he knows.  I bet he’d be an exciting person to get to know.”  They just think, “what a weirdo.”  How is the child suppose to handle himself to solve this problem?  Should he somehow figure out how to change his very nature so that he doesn’t care about the things he sees around him?  Should he not educate himself about the things which interest him?  Should he magically know which of the words that he effortlessly picks up his peers won’t notice and learn for many years to come so he can refrain from using them?  Should he cynically assume that other people suffer from what to him is an appalling lack of curiosity and not share what he knows (after all, he really likes it when people tell him new things)?  Obviously, pinning the “weirdo” reaction on the gifted child and expecting him to become more “socially adept” in order to avoid triggering it is wrong and ridiculous.  Far better to teach greater tolerance for these differences to the other children.  It would cost the gifted child a huge part of himself to “fix” this social interaction while expecting greater tolerance from more normal kids would be a benefit to themselves as well as the gifted child.

OTOH, it is entirely likely that the gifted child will prattle on about frogs and toads far past the time available and without regard for the fact that others may have things they would like to contribute to the conversation.  So gifted kids do need to be taught to manage their tendencies in order to be respectful to others and capable of engaging in reciprocal conversations and relationships.  However, many gifted kids and adults struggle with figuring out what they are doing “wrong” in social situations.  They have taken the time to master the art of listening, asking questions, making small talk, providing positive feedback, making jokes, being intentionally kind and thoughtful, modulating emotions and reactions so as not to startle or discomfort other people.  And yet they can still find themselves isolated without knowing why.  The simple fact is that we can (and should) encourage gifted kids to develop good social skills, but if we insist on blaming them for all of their social problems, we are being very unfair.

I personally began to get an inkling of the idea that I might be different from other people in ways that I hadn’t previously realized a couple of years ago.  A woman from my bible study who I was trying to get to know (and who was being rather unresponsive) commented in a discussion, “I always think I’m so unique and different, but the more I get to know other people, the more I realize that they are interested in and looking for the same things as I am.”  It really hit me that my experience of life was just the opposite;  I always thought of myself as normal.  Yet the more I got to know people, the more I realized that other people are pretty much nothing like me.  What is so funny is that other people saw me and interacted with me and seemed to know immediately that I was different.  Yet I, the one who is supposed to be so smart, was frequently oblivious to this.  Actually, I wasn’t so much oblivious to it as I was oblivious to the effect that this difference has on the way people respond (or don’t respond) to me.  Once I started looking into giftedness, things started to make more sense to me.  While it is a little discouraging to realize that there is really nothing I can do to change some of the negative ways people respond to me, it is also freeing to realize that this doesn’t mean I’m doing anything wrong.

I have found that especially being a mom, when you are very different, it can be hard to find others who “get” you.  Unlike fields like medicine or engineering where gifted people are the norm, motherhood pulls in people from across the range of the intelligence scale.  One of the things which I appreciate about the internet and this blog is that it is much easier to find people who share my interests and probably a few of my OEs online than it is in real life.  So, especially to my regular readers and commenters, thanks so much for joining in here.  It’s nice to have an outlet where you are appreciated rather than just labeled “weirdo”.  🙂

84 thoughts on “How being gifted means being different

  1. Thank you for this.
    I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face in recognition of the challenges you’ve described here. I’ve always felt different but maybe didn’t realize how much.
    The part describing the negative reactions of others has haunted me in interpersonal relationships and intimacies and while this information is somewhat isolating, it is also such tremendous comfort.

  2. Wow, Thank YOU! Have not consider myself gifted in the sense of the high achievers, but have a very high IQ and think very differently from others, with a brain that moves so quickly that as my mother put it when I worked for her in my twenties, as her operations officer of a financial firm, you are 10 to 20 paces ahead of the rest on zeroing in on problems that others don’t know how to respond to your questions because they make no sense to them. It was then my mother told me how high my IQ test was as a child and my clever ways. As a child I desperately wanted to fit in, subsequently have never found my niche in this life, sad to say. Now in my 50’s and frustrated. But what was so awesome about reading this article was to understand myself better and for my hubby and children to understand me a bit deeper. Yes, I concur that many others do not understand us and how we think and therefore judge us incorrectly, and at times are unable to follow our thoughts to final conclusions due to their own fears (you know the old “this sounds like heresy”) of which I have found to be very painful especially so in church settings. I have beaten myself up time and time again, blaming myself, feeling there is something wrong with me. There has been stretches of feeling isolated, well no more of that. I wish this was known when I was a child perhaps my life would have turned out very different. I am normal and happy to know a bit unique with many others who are just as or more unique than I. PTL Thanks! Time to heal and move on and find my spot in this life if its not too late!

    1. It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it? I once had a woman contact me because her adopted teen son brought her this essay and told her that it described him. The child had been IQ tested in middle school and she had been told he had a very high IQ, but the implications of that were never explained to her. She never thought to attribute the differences she saw in him to his high IQ, but actually was under the impression that he had fetal alcohol syndrome because she knew his mother drank. It was so striking to me that her son’s intelligence made him so different and strange to her that she actually thought there was something wrong with him! I mean, I guess that’s a bit depressing, but at the same time it was also re-assuring that people’s sometimes strange reactions to me were probably not caused by anything wrong with me, but by something that has the potential to be very good. I’m glad that this essay was such an eye-opener for you. I would highly recommend a book called The Gifted Adult as you think about how you want to move forward. It gets a bit irritating towards the end, but is very good and empowering. I think you would really appreciate it. And of course it’s not too late! Many blessings.

  3. I’m stunned and in tears to have found your blog and this post. My life has seemed to dramatically narrow the last four years or so. I have searched desperately for answers as friends keep a distance, and people I encounter respond with ‘that look’, the one that I have never quite figured out, even after years visiting a therapist with some regularity to seek answers. I ask my family, spouse, friends and therapist but no one has suggested this. Most people respond with silence, except for one or two folks who have suggested that I am difficult and that if I just tried to fit in, my world (and theirs) would improve.

    I earned my PhD 11 years ago, and have lectured at the college level. Even fellow professors would give me “the look”, somewhat different than personal acquaintances– it seemed to involve envy. As a middle-aged woman, a product of a culture anointing anyone but me, I would never assume that I was “smarter” than these tenured professors. But I would inevitably ask the questions and deliver insight that others lacked. Mind you, I thought this was what I was supposed to do as an academic, but I didn’t receive any kudos. I often assumed gender bias was involved, but I have engendered the same response from younger, female academics. I also received poor reviews, and I knew that I wasn’t relating well to students. Again, it seemed hubris to think that I was more intelligent than other long term professors, and I eventually stopped teaching after a number of dramatic failures.

    Now in my mid fifties, I am at a loss. I joined a liberal faith and immediately stepped up to help and take a leadership role in many activities. Even among these accepting people, I have found myself on the outside and bewildered yet again as to why I can’t fit in. I am extremely self-analytical and critical, as perhaps are most OE’s. I have a friend who has been diagnosed bipolar and I feared that perhaps this was the explanation, though the symptoms don’t fit, except for perhaps racing thoughts.

    As I spend another morning rooting about looking for explanations, I typed in these words “racing thoughts trouble keeping friends extremely smart emotional woman” and bingo, up came your blog, as the number one match. While some of this has occurred to me in my ruminations, the validation I feel is overwhelming.

    Thank you for some insight.

  4. I thought I was the only one now i feel comfort to say dat I’m gifted, thank you 🙂

  5. I feel a sense of community from this gathering of kindred spirits, thank you for being there.

    I was found to be gifted as a child. As an adult of 42 I still struggle with not fitting in, interacting with people who don’t understand what I’m saying, and being occasionally socially awkward and eccentric… and ruminating endlessly.

    I am normally friendly and upbeat in efforts to make friends, and on occasion I find people who mistake kindness for weakness (or stupidity) and try to take advantage of me in myriad ways (at which time I can sum things up very clearly and bluntly– which can be more off-putting than any salty language). Then, I feel like retreating to hide in a cave full of snacks, books, and art supplies (which is an escape I can’t practically fit into my schedule).

    I’m going to see if Mensa will have me. I could really use an in-person community of gifted people to talk to. I do my best to make myself happy, but I feel very much the odd one out all the time; always.

    I would love to have friends to chat about space weather with, or what I read by auditing EdX classes on magnetism, or medicinal properties of edible tree bark. I love my husband dearly, but he just thinks I should watch more TV (which is pretty boring). He’s a good man, and I think I wear him out. A friend of mine recently said, “boy, it isn’t easy to have a smart friend who remembers everything.” I feel like a burden sometimes.

    I just hope my mind hasn’t become dull from childbearing and rearing, because if Mensa won’t have me then I’m just a plain old weirdo, I guess :-/

    I feel like a well-intentioned Frankenstein’s monster. I want to make friends with the villagers, but I fear they might come for me with those torches, and fire bad 🙁

    I don’t normally use the pronoun, “I” this much when I write — this must be significant in some way… there is a tear in my eye, in a good way 🙂 thank you <3

  6. I have always felt different and I think very different than the majority of people I interact with. In Jr high and high school I realized how much I did not understand the popularity contest and mundane interest of my peers. I was different. I did average in high school and was bored and didn’t really care much because it seemed very uninspiring. In college I was in the top 2 students in most all my science and nursing courses. I tried to understand why some of my peers seemed to really struggle to grasp the material.

    My high empathy and emotional intensity have been something that is a blessing and a curse. I consider myself a highly sensitive person.

    In my adult life I have come into issues with being bored in conversation and struggling in being with groups of people who seemed perfectly content gossiping as a form of “intelligent” conversation.

    A few months ago an education specialist told me she thought my son was gifted. I had mostly thought the gifted kids were the straight A high achievers, but learned that there is so much more to being gifted. My son has not been officially tested, but he is believed to be a twice exceptional student. That got me thinking. I have read a few books and many articles and reflected on my life. I do believe I am a gifted adult, but saying that sounds pretentious and arrogant. I finished reading the book Gifted Adults and so much resonated with me and helped me understand and appreciate myself better.

  7. I found this while looking for how to understand how normal people think. I’m excited to have found your blog and look forward to reading more. I have struggled for years with a situation with my inlaws. What finally dawned on me after many years, is that they are protecting their daughter because she’s truly unintelligent. I was distracted by both her very forceful personality and the fact that the family is from a different culture, which meant that I wasn’t sure whether their behavior was unique or actually normal for the culture in which they live.

    It was only at our last visit, two weeks ago, when I realized that she struggled to follow a simple news story. I don’t know why this exact circumstance has never presented itself before, but it took three of us to explain the situation to her, and then her father struggled to explain the significance. Both the story and the significance would have been obvious to most people. Suddenly, I saw the fact that her parents had pulled her from her school and sent her to another, more traditional school in a new light. My husband had always said this was because she was female and her parents wanted a religious education for her. In reality the first school was academically challenging and she probably couldn’t keep up. If her own mother went there, I can’t see how her parents would have objected on religious grounds. I also understood why they have such a co-dependent relationship with her and her family. They don’t trust the husban and are keeping their enemy close, so to speak.

    I’m making this too long. I feel foolish for not recognizing this situation from the beginning. I was blinded by my own lack of knowledge of the culture and also my husband’s perspective, which was indoctrinated by the parents (again, I think, to protect the daughter- even from censure from her own brothers). I wish I had known from the start. My own attitude would have been much different. As it was, we were set up as adversaries–by my inlaws.

    My frustration is this. Even though I know that there are very few people who experience the world like I do, I still walk around with the assumption that everyone is intelligent and capable of (and interested in) understanding the nuances in life. How do I change my perspective? I feel strongly that I should, because it would help me to be more patient and tolerant.

  8. ” Far better to teach greater tolerance for these differences to the other children. It would cost the gifted child a huge part of himself to “fix” this social interaction while expecting greater tolerance from more normal kids would be a benefit to themselves as well as the gifted child.”

    As a gifted child, now (at least chronologically) grown up, I disagree. The other children have no motivation to put themselves out to understand the gifted child, and may well wish, on the contrary, to make things difficult for this wretched classmate who ends up being a teachers’ pet and making them look stupid by comparison. Besides, who is going to do this teaching, and, for the reasons I just outlined, isn’t it likely to do much more harm than good? A better approach might be to encourage the gifted child to feel pleasure in encouraging and helping others. The consequences that can arise when people feel looked down on can be, as recent history of the US shows, disastrous.

    1. I’m not familiar with the teacher’s pet phenomenon. Just the opposite, in fact. Bullying isn’t any better for a gifted kid’s development than for anyone else and my experience is that being gifted leaves a kid super open to bullying because these kids are different/weird/annoying. And teachers don’t often respond appropriately because they too may find the weird kid annoying and empathize with the bullies. That isn’t the gifted kid’s job to fix. Tolerance of difference – even the kind of difference that makes you feel dumb – needs to be taught.

      1. In retrospect, perhaps the people who most needed teaching were my teachers. Who else to teach me and my classmates how to get along? Unfortunatley, the bitterly competitive academic environment of that time would have made this difficult, and reviewing some of my own behaviour I am amazed at how tolerant my classmates were.

        I grew up in an excessivly deferential and class-ridden society. You by contrast grew up in a country where individualistic anti-intellectualism, coupled to a paradoxical intolerance of differences, is often the norm. That may account for the difference in our experience.

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