Can You Hear the Flowers Sing? Issues for Gifted Adults

By Deirdre V. Lovecky.

Citation: Copyright © American Counseling Association. Reprinted with permission from Journal of Counseling and Development, May 1986. No further reproduction authorized without written permission of the American Counseling Association.

There has been comparatively little focus in the literature on the characteristics and social and emotional needs of gifted adults. Using observational data, the author attempts to delineate some of the positive and negative social effects of traits displayed by gifted adults. Five traits (divergency, excitability, sensitivity, perceptivity, and entelechy) seem to produce potential interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict. Unless gifted adults learn to value themselves and find support, identity conflicts and depression may result. Emphasis on self-growth through knowing and accepting self leads to the discovery of sources of personal power. Nurturing relationships through realistic expectations and learning to share oneself provides a supportive environment in which gifted adults can grow and flourish.

Although the personality traits and social and emotional needs of gifted children have been widely described (Erlich, 1982; Terman, 1925; Torrance, 1962; Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982), there has been comparatively little focus on gifted adults. Numerous longitudinal studies have indicated that the early advantage experienced by gifted children continues into adulthood and that gifted children become adults of superior vocational achievement, generally satisfied with themselves and their lives (Oden, 1968; Terman & Oden, 1947,1959). Nevertheless, by age 62, most gifted men have experienced the same dissatisfactions with family life as have most people (R.R. Sears, 1977). The gifted women reported to be happiest have been those with the best coping skills, which are dependent on early experience (P.S. Sears & Barbee, 1977). In fact, the effects of early experience, particularly in terms of early educational advantage, seem to be one of the most important contributory factors in later adult achievement (Bloom, 1964; Oden, 1968; Terman, 1925).

In studies of male scientists (Roe, 1952), creative artists and writers (Cattell, 1971), female mathematicians (Helson, 1971), and architects (MacKinnon, 1962), among others, the predominant characteristics found included impulsivity, curiosity, high need for independence, high energy level, introversion, intuitiveness, emotional sensitivity, and nonconformity.

For the most part, the literature on gifted adults does not address the social impact of the various traits described. Piechowski and Colangelo (1984) indicated that certain modes of mental functioning are not socially valued because their expression causes discomfort in others. These traits were termed overexcitabilities, that is, wider and more intense experiences in psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional areas. Gifted adults seem to be characterized by imaginational, intellectual, and emotional overexcitabilities.

In this article I attempt to delineate some of the social aspects (both positive and negative) of traits displayed by gifted adults. I selected gifted adults from among my colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and psychotherapy clients. Of the 15 gifted adults included, 6 were therapy clients. There were 8 women and 7 men ranging in age from 20 to 79. Of these, 6 were doctoral-level professionals, 4 were master’s-level professionals, and 3 were students. Fields of endeavor included the social sciences, education, medicine, the biological sciences, business and computers, art, literature, and history. Identification of giftedness was based on a variety of criteria, including identification of giftedness in childhood, memory of scores on achievement or IQ tests, SAT scores, current professional achievement, or attainment of national recognition for achievement.

Using anecdotal and observational material as a basis, I describe five traits that seem to be present in gifted adults and that seem to be central features of their giftedness. The goal is to generate a group of hypotheses about gifted adults and their interactions with others. Further explorations of these preliminary ideas, using more refined research methodology, will undoubtedly provide a more elaborate explanation of the impact of giftedness on the lives of those concerned.

Characteristics of Gifted Adults There seem to be five traits that produce potential interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict: divergency, excitability, sensitivity, perceptivity, and entelechy. The first three traits have been derived from Torrance’s (1961, 1962, 1965) descriptions of creatively gifted children. The last two traits were developed from discussions with gifted adults. These traits seem to be an integral part of giftedness; however, the behavioral manifestations of these traits may vary depending on other physiological and personality factors, such as tolerance for ambiguity, degree of introversion or extroversion, and preference for particular types of sensory input. Gifted adults may exhibit several of the traits. The gifted adults who served as a basis for this article all exhibited at least three (divergency, excitability, and sensitivity).

Although the traits in themselves are neutral, their behavioral manifestations make them socially and emotionally significant. For example, the trait of sensitivity can be manifested as empathy, commitment, touchiness, intensity, or vulnerability. Thus, in any individual, the sum of the behavioral manifestations may be viewed as positive or negative.

Trait Descriptions Divergency. A preference for unusual, original, and creative responses is characteristic of divergent thinkers. The positive side of the trait includes people who are often high achievers, innovative in a number of fields, task committed, self-starters, and highly independent. Many theoretical scientists, writers, artists, composers, and philosophers are divergent thinkers. Einstein, Freud, and the French impressionists are examples of gifted adults successful in using their divergent thinking ability.

Divergent thinking has positive social and emotional value. Gifted adults possessing this trait are able to find creative solutions to a wide variety of problems, including interpersonal problems, and are able to see several aspects of any situation. In an organization, they are often the “idea” people who bring challenge and enthusiasm to others. They find deep personal satisfaction in the development of new ideas. Divergent thinkers challenge stereotypes. Socially, they bring color to the lives of others, who may use their example to find the courage to break the bonds of conformity and decrease the effects of prejudice.

On the negative side, divergent thinkers encounter difficulty in situations in which group consensus is important. They are often dedicated to their own ideas and find it difficult to support ideas they find foolish. The usual rewards may not motivate divergent thinkers. In fact, they may ignore a reward system imposed by others to work on their own. In social situations, divergent thinkers may not fit in. Common social rules, such as not criticizing others publicly or not disagreeing with one perceived by the majority to be influential, may be disregarded. The dilemma of the divergent thinker is one of maintaining identity in the face of pressure to conform. A highly divergent thinker is often a minority of one. If no one else hears the flowers singing, the divergent thinker may experience alienation and eventually an existential depression.

Excitability. High energy level, emotional reactivity, and high nervous system arousal characterize the trait of excitability. Although excitability and hyperactivity may seem to be similar, they are fundamentally different in that gifted adults with the trait of excitability are able to focus their attention and concentration for long periods of time, to use their energy productively in a wide variety of interests, and to do many things well. These gifted adults enjoy the excitement of taking risks and meeting challenges. This risk taking is dissimilar to that found in mania or impulsivity in that the gifted adult (a) is aware of the consequences of the risk, (b) takes risks in the form of challenges rather than reckless activities, and (c) knows when to stop.

The high energy level of these gifted adults allows them to produce prodigiously in whatever most captures their interest. They often pave the way for others to follow with refinements of their innovative id