By Lisa Hancock
Giftedness has always been part of my life, but there was a long period during which I didn’t realize it. Looking back as an adult and parent of four gifted kids, I can now see how being gifted affected every stage of my life. My own experience growing up gifted involved periods of displaying as well as hiding my abilities. In first grade I would force myself to read aloud slowly and make mistakes like the other kids did in order to not look different. But it was hard to continuously work at what felt like a snail’s pace to me, and I would inadvertently end up working at my own pace and drawing unwanted attention to myself. In first grade I accidentally completed the entire SRA reading box in a few months because I didn’t realize it was supposed to take all year. I was frustrated by teachers and other adults who spoke to me like a child and who thought I should want to “play” with other kids my age.
We moved in middle school which resulted in my being the only kid at the new school who attended a gifted program; and leaving every Friday to attend the program at another school really made me stick out. I knew I needed to “stop being smart” in order to fit in better. I made a plan to hide my abilities, including quitting the gifted program. I started calculating how many items I needed to answer incorrectly in order to maintain a 90 average, which I felt drew less attention than a 100 but didn’t necessarily jeopardize my grades. At one point, I recall a teacher taking me aside and asking me, “Why do you purposely put the wrong answers? I know you do that.” I learned to read less, pretended to care about things that I really didn’t, and made friends. I learned how to blend in as opposed to sticking out.
When I went to a large high school that pulled from a wide geographic area, I met girls with abilities closer to my own, and two with whom I would eventually engage in a friendly competition to achieve academically. I enrolled in honors and AP classes in high school, and went on to college via financial aide, scholarships, and working multiple jobs to earn both a B.S. in Finance and Marketing, and my MBA. College was a wonderful place to be gifted, but it couldn’t last forever. In my subsequent career and social life I again began to feel as if something was missing, that there had to be “more” to life, and that somehow I just didn’t quite fit in. I didn’t think about gifted other than it was a label applied to me back in elementary school because I learned more quickly than the other kids. I wasn’t aware of being a gifted adult, or how this affected me and my interactions with others. I would become frustrated with my supervisor and coworkers when they couldn’t understand my leap from point A to point B, group projects were a tremendous source of anxiety for me, and I began to experience unhappiness in work that I didn’t feel made a positive contribution to society.
I took a 12-year break from the corporate world in order to marry and raise my four children, and was thrown back into the joys and pains of being gifted. I watched my individual children as they each struggled to balance their advanced abilities with what they were willing to let others see, and with the same self-esteem and anxiety problems that I had experienced. This led us down the path of testing, educational accommodations to improve fit, and finally finding our place within the gifted community via participation in organizations such as SENG, gifted talent search programs, gifted summer programs, and gifted support groups. This also led to my enrolling in a doctoral program in clinical psychology, and working with gifted individuals as part of my internship.
The problems I see working with gifted individuals continue to include low self-esteem and anxiety. Anxiety manifests in various ways from physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, to behaviors such as crying, temper tantrums, and meltdowns. It can affect test performance, ability to remember and follow directions, ability to concentrate, interpersonal relationships, sleep duration and quality, and overall family dynamics. Professionals trained in working with the gifted conduct comprehensive evaluations to help identify the source or sources that contribute to experiencing anxiety. These sources often include undetected learning disabilities, undiagnosed developmental disorders, perfectionism, family dysfunction, and lack of educational/school fit. As gifted individuals reach adulthood, they may still struggle with finding true peers socially, and lack of career/workplace fit. The problem of “lack of fit” with an individual’s social, school, or work environment can contribute to low self-esteem, in addition to anxiety. As the individual tries to justify why she or he doesn’t seem to fit, the answer generally involves a variation of “something must be wrong with me” – low self-esteem. In seeking to identify the source(s) of low self-esteem and anxiety in gifted children and teens, a comprehensive evaluation should include interviews with parents; interview with the child/teen; behavioral measures completed by the parents, child/teen, and teachers; the collection of historical, developmental, medical, educational, behavioral, and social data; appropriate test measures (ability, achievement, neuropsychological, social-emotional); and observational data.
Learning how to properly conduct comprehensive assessments of gifted individuals has been a challenging and rewarding experience for me, and also part of a journey of self-discovery. The more I have learned about gifted individuals and how they exist in the world, I find that I better understand myself as a gifted adult, as well as gifted family, friends, and coworkers. But the absolute highlight of my job is getting to have conversations with many different gifted individuals of all ages, and introducing them to resources that can nurture and support them as part of the gifted community – such as SENG!