Friday, March 27, 2015

Is it really so terrible to be gifted?

Another sensationalistic headline broadcasts negative stereotypes about the gifted.

A recent article in Business Insider, entitled "Twenty reasons it's horrible to grow up 'gifted'" portrays the image of miserable, angry gifted adults, distressed because they were labeled gifted as children. (I'm not sure how this has anything to do with business, but I'll try to reserve judgment on that.)

Let's look more closely at this article. The author, Richard Feloni, reviewed a Reddit poll asking gifted people if they believed that receiving the label of "gifted" was helpful or harmful to them, and then listed responses highlighting the "top" examples of harmful effects. There was no mention of responses claiming that being gifted was helpful. There was no clarification that the poll was a completely unscientific survey of people who choose to spend their time airing gripes on Reddit. There was no mention of published research about gifted children or adults, or even a nod to peer-reviewed conceptual articles or books published by respected leaders in the gifted literature, such as Gross, Webb or Silverman. There was no mention about why some gifted children struggle, such as having to face an inadequate education, bullying or negative stereotypes. There were no links to articles attesting to normal adjustment among gifted individuals.

So what can we learn from the comments in the Reddit survey? Most of the participants complained about parenting practices that left them feeling angry or confused. Poor parenting practices, such as comparing siblings to one another, bribing for grades, or lavishing praise on children for being smart were cited. These participants most likely missed out on the support and guidance they needed to understand what it means to be gifted. It is also likely that conflicts would have occurred within these families, regardless of gifted identification.

Readers unfamiliar with giftedness might assume from this article that being gifted caused the problems cited by survey participants. And one has to wonder if the article's intention was to alleviate envy among non-gifted readers by reassuring them that, yes, being gifted is a horrible experience. Yet, giftedness is not a choice. Regardless of what you call it, gifted people have an IQ above 130, emotional excitabilities, and exceptional talents above the norm. Children who are not labeled still know they are different from their peers. They might try to mask their abilities from others, but they can't hide from themselves. It is up to parents and teachers to help them grapple with what this means and learn how to handle their emotions, self-image and social relationships.

In fact, I have never...not once...encountered a gifted adult who regretted being identified as gifted as a child. I hear distress about childhood experiences in my psychotherapy practice, but have never heard complaints about gifted identification. If any concerns associated with being gifted in childhood are expressed, they tend to include the following:

  • They were not identified and didn't realize they were gifted gifted until adulthood
  • They never received gifted services
  • They still don't believe they are gifted
  • They were bored in school and never received a challenging education
  • They felt isolated and unable to find enough like-minded peers
  • They felt misunderstood by teachers and peers
  • They felt insecure and unable to live up to their own standards

Of course, there are stressors associated with being gifted. But many of these stressors relate to family, social or school situations that are poorly handled and could have been a problem regardless of giftedness. Many gifted adults were relieved to have been told they were gifted in childhood, as it helped to explain why they have felt so different or isolated or misunderstood. And many also feel grateful about their abilities and opportunities. They get joy from their work, interests and hobbies, and actively seek out peers who understand them.

It is unfortunate that Business Insider would publish such a one-sided laundry list of complaints without providing alternative views, established research findings, or informed opinions about giftedness. Some of the regrets expressed in the Reddit column certainly reflect valid struggles many gifted individuals face. But showcasing their concerns in this article serves no useful purpose, and at worst, perpetuates unfortunate stereotypes.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.