Average height. Average build. Above-average brain?
My journey through adult giftedness. Part 1.
In April of this year I was thinking that if I started another blog, I would title it, “Average height. Average build.” And then after an article or three, I would quickly move on to something else — as I am wont to do. That is assuming that I was actually able to finish the first article. And then the second one, and possibly the third. History shows that this is not a sure thing.
Why “Average height. Average build.”? Well because that is a pretty accurate description of who and what I am. Male. Brown hair, blue eyes. 5' 9". And no discernible markings to speak of either: no tattoos, no piercings — though I tried the pierced ear thing for a couple of years in my mid-twenties — no funky haircut, no soul-patch, no weight problem, nothing to make me stand out in a crowd.
I wanted glasses in grade school because I thought they would give me “personality” and help me stand out from the crowd. (I also often wished that I had broken an arm or a leg so that I could have a cast and the signatures that came with it.) I had braces for most of senior high school but I am pretty sure they have never featured on anyone’s bucket list. I finally got glasses in my 30s, but I’m not sure about how that added to — or detracted — from my personality.
If there was thing I might have a stood out for in grade school, it was that I was typically the first to have my hand up in response to a question, often before the question was finished. But I never gave much thought to that as being a defining characteristic of me, desired or otherwise.
And then something happened and I stopped being that really bright kid.
But the article title now includes “Above-average brain” with a question mark as well. What gives ?
Three months after starting this article and not long after my 46th birthday — the annual celebration of my perceived and painful ordinariness — I was diagnosed as “gifted” with an IQ in the 99th percentile, meaning an IQ score of at least 135. (A giftedness diagnosis typically starts at an IQ of 130 or scoring the 98th percentile of an approved IQ test.)
This occurred while I was consulting a therapist following yet another burnout on the job, followed by yet another months-long depression. (15 months earlier I wrote an article detailing many of my personal and professional challenges from a mental health perspective. I initially reached out to my therapist on the basis of attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder, depression, and anxiety.)
And then suddenly the last 40 years started to make sense.
And the next 20 years became the realm of the imagined.
If I could dream it, I could do it.
Of course, that is easier said than done.
A very, very, very short primer on giftedness
Giftedness is typically thought of as having a (precocious) potential for advancement in school or achievement in later life. It is said that, “gifted children and adults see the world differently because of the complexity of their thought processes and their emotional intensity.”
Source (adapted): http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/overview-giftedness/what-is-giftedness
While typically the result of an assessment of an IQ in the top 2% (meaning a score of 130 or higher), giftedness is also (positively) characterized by:
- High reasoning ability
- Creativity, curiosity
- Large vocabulary
- Excellent memory
- Strong sense of justice
Source (adapted): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_giftedness
Gifted people are also described as having a variety of “overexcitabilities”, though the weighting of each one depends upon the individual:
- Psychomotor: physical response to stimuli. Often seen as hyperactivity
- Emotional: emotional hypersensitivity
- Imaginative/imaginational: intense fantasy life that sometimes disrupts reality; not to be confused with mania
- Sensory/sensual: sensory hypersensitivity
- Mental/intellectual: highly active mind. “Exaggerated search for explanations and a tendency to intellectualize problems in everyday life.”
Source (adapted): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overexcitability
Unfortunately, as a result of being “wired” differently — my term — many gifted children and gifted adults are negatively characterized by:
- Low self-esteem
As you can see, giftedness carries with it a lot of meaning, a lot of potential, and a lot of baggage for the person diagnosed as such. (This is another good list of traits.)
A child who is fortunate enough to be diagnosed at an early age and to live in the right school district has the opportunity to enrol in a special program for the gifted and to adjust his or her life path to make the most of being gifted.
For the adult who only learns of giftedness at a later age, the path to the diagnosis itself is often littered with broken dreams, lost jobs, misunderstanding from peers and loved ones, sadness, poor sense of self-worth, etc.
For the individual diagnosed as gifted only later in life, the negative characteristics of giftedness may in fact be more readily apparent than the positive ones. In my own case, all five of the negative characteristics above caused me to seek therapy and eventually led to a diagnosis of giftedness.
7 stages of adult giftedness discovery
The giftedness assessment is the start of a long process or, if you will, the end of the beginning. There are many chapters to follow in one’s giftedness story.
Jennifer Harvey Sallin, a coach and gifted adult in her own right, has written an excellent article detailing what she sees as the 7 stages along the journey to understand, explore, and take advantage of one’s giftedness. They are as follows, with a typical reaction for effect:
- 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 recently learned that creativity in the context of giftedness includes writing. As I understand it, creativity is also a means of coming to terms with giftedness and the emotions — about the past, the present, and the future — that surround it. I therefore propose to write about my own experience of this journey, using Jennifer Harvey Sallin’s 7 stages as a guide.
A very average guy’s journey through giftedness
Stage 1 — Denial 😕
When I reached out to a therapist in June, I was so beaten down by life that I was open to whatever suggestion or counsel came my way. I sought cognitive therapy on the basis of what I have since learned are common “side effects” of attempting to function in a society that is structured very differently to the way gifted people sense and interact.
Attention deficit, anxiety, depression, lack of self-esteem, burnout, etc., were the issues that I sought immediate help with, whereas underachievement in school and work and isolation were things that I had experienced earlier in life but I had never understood them well enough to seek their treatment. (Note: A few months after publishing this article, I would be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type I, which means I am prone to manias in both directions. My levels of depression in my past, and the interaction between ADHD, giftedness and bipolarity in all of my life experiences took on much more significance as a result.)
The giftedness diagnosis was the result of an inventory of my past experiences, my values, and a standardized IQ assessment (i.e., the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Inasmuch as it is possible to be objective in a mental health diagnosis, I took the immediate results at face value without really understanding what they meant. 🤔
However, after reading about the characteristics of gifted people in a variety of articles, so much of my experience and of “who I am” just fitted with this diagnosis. Concepts that I had used to describe painful episodes from my past or ongoing challenges in all spheres of my life — the feeling of speaking a foreign language with friends, family, and peers; of not fitting in / feeling like an alien; and of hitting the wall in school or at work — flowed through each article I read, whether it was a therapist relaying clinical experience or a gifted adult having the courage to share his or her story.
To be honest, I don’t think I experienced the feeling of denial for very long, if at all. I pretty much jumped straight to Stage 2.
Stage 2 — Excitement 😃
This was truly my reaction to the diagnosis. To say that I was overcome with relief would be an understatement.
My reaction to the word “gifted” was first, “What does that mean?”, and second, “What can I do about it / do with it?”.
Two things came to mind when I heard the word “gifted”. The first was “special schools for kids in the arts”. The second was a reference to the final scene in the film comedy, Zoolander, where our hero inaugurates a new edifice in his name:
However, as I read about giftedness and began to understand both its inherent characteristics as well as the “side effects” (which I refer to above as negative characteristics), I recognized myself immensely. It was a revelation of sorts for my wife—and partner in crime of 24 years—as well. (As she began to read about giftedness, she recognized me as well and was able to understand me much better than ever before.)
I would divide the excitement stage into two parts. The first part of the excitement stage is relief, of which I experienced two distinct sorts:
1.Relief about the present.😌 Typical of many persons receiving a giftedness diagnosis was understanding that I was in fact — much evidence to the contrary — not an alien. That’s right: 👦🏻≠👽. (Though there is always the possibility that I am a mutant; I am waiting for Professor Xavier to call any moment now.)
Many gifted people will tell you that they often feel like they are speaking an alien language. Though they may be speaking the same in the same tongue as their interlocutors, the words and the concepts they use seem to fly over the heads of the others. That has been my experience in pretty much each of my relationships—personal, professional, or academic.
Until you are told that it is you who is wired to think and communicate differently, you assume others are wired to think and communicate similarly and that, as a result, you must be doing something inherently wrong. (Cue the negative impact on self-worth.)
2.Relief about the past. 😥 I am reminded of that scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where the late Robin Williams’ character convinces Matt Damon’s character that it isn’t his fault. (Though in this case, they are referring to physical abuse as a kid.) I am instead referring to the tendency to blame oneself for anything that has gone wrong in life and to assign it multiple failings.
(You can watch the actual clip here: https://youtu.be/wklDd8o8HFQ)
The second part of the excitement stage is thoughts about the future. Questions come fast and furious, though answering them early on is difficult:
- What can I keep from my past and build on for tomorrow?
- What does giftedness mean for me today?
- What does giftedness mean for my future?
- How can I take advantage of giftedness going forward?
- How can I use giftedness in my next job / career?
- Who else do I know that is gifted?
- Is anyone in my immediate family gifted? And if so, why didn’t they tell me? (It turns out that my father is highly gifted and he only learned of giftedness—and the ultimate meaning of that IQ testing from his teenage years—from following my own journey.)
And most importantly of all:
How can I structure my life, my career, and my relationships so that the next 20 years aren’t like the last 20?
These questions are in fact answered later on in the journey, but the desire to discover, to discuss, and to read up at this early stage was at times overwhelming. In effect, I applied the same intensity in trying to understand my giftedness diagnosis as I have to any other new interest.
Stage 3—Anger 😡
I am not sure I spent much time here. In an ideal world, I would have been diagnosed as gifted as a young child and shifted towards a program that would help me to achieve my potential. That wasn’t the case and there is not much I can do about it.
As an adult, I can clearly identify those situations in college and in the workforce where the “side effects” of my giftedness (and ADHD), including easily becoming bored and an inability to stay focused, tripped me up with the inevitable hit to my self-esteem. (My January 2015 article delves into this quite a bit.)
Stage 4—Bargaining / depression / panic 😫
Stage 4 is where I have spent the bulk of my time over these past three months, with the odd venture out to stages 5, 6, and 7. It is the one with the most variety in terms of emotions:
Bargaining: I haven’t attempted this too much to date. I pretty much suck at negotiating anyways. My heightened sense of justice and ability to see things from all sides is definitely not on my side when it comes to getting the best one-sided deal possible. I tend to care about the long-term as much as the short-term.
Depression: This is definitely where I have spent the bulk of my time. Well to be honest, I have tried hard to be depressed, but my anti-depressant — prescribed in the wake of the heavy depression resulting from my burnout — (plus new medication for bipolar disorder) keeps getting in the way. Yet another thing I am failing at. 😜
Panic: I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to giftedness itself as one of panic. I would instead describe my reaction as one of mild anxiety, the result of being put squarely in the middle of the unknown at a critical stage in life: mid-career, perceived as too old for some things, too expensive or to senior for others, unable to keep up with the cool kids.
My journey through giftedness isn’t occurring in a vacuum, but instead in real life where bills come due, savings run low, and a job is required to pay for those bills, as well as call upon the services of a mental health professional to navigate all of this successfully.
As I write this in October, I am currently looking for work and so the inability to find gainful employment in a timely manner causes the odd mild panic attack, before dipping into depression (but not for long due that medication!), and then feelings of lack of self-worth.
When I started writing this article a few weeks ago as a means of integrating my understanding of giftedness and consolidating it into my day-to-day, I thought I could document the entire journey.
That is simply not realistic in the context of something so life-altering as being diagnosed as gifted. At best, I am barely halfway through, if you count steps and not the passage of time.
On bad days, I find myself going back to stage 3 (anger) and 4 (depression).
On good days, I bounce back and forth among stages 5 (acceptance), 6 (rebuilding), and 7 (creativity). These last 3 stages in the journey are not mutually exclusive. It is in fact quite normal to experience them all at once, or at different times, over and over again.
I see the remaining stages in this journey as a long process of iteration, which itself does not exist in a vacuum. My ability to secure a new rung on the career ladder — and thus the boost to confidence and self-esteem that I expect to come with it — is affecting my ability to work my way through stages 5, 6, and 7.
In addition, each article on giftedness, testimonial from a gifted adult, or therapy session helps me to discover and come to terms with often long-forgotten (though not always painful) elements of my past. For example, I mentioned earlier the young man who stopped being the smartest kid in the class. I am working on figuring that one out and gaining new confidence and swagger as I realize just how much mental horsepower I can call upon.
Three months into this adventure and I am going to have to save the rest of this journey for a Part 2. Though I can’t say when this will happen, rest assured that I am on it. How could I do otherwise?
Until then, it’s time to hit the lobby for some snacks. 🍿🍫
Postscript: In late November 2016, I finally got around to creating a blog like I mentioned at the beginning of this story. It is called Polymathica, and it is my attempt to capture and document the very many things that catch my fancy.
Postscript: before the end of 2016, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 1. In February 2017, I updated this article in some sections to refer to that diagnosis.
Postscript: In early January 2017, I published the following while taking a break from part 2 of documenting my journey. I don’t see it as a step back, definitely not back to step #3 (Anger), but more about using writing as an expression of creativity to make sense of the past.
Postscript: In August 2017, I published Part 2 of my journey.
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