Fostering Adult Giftedness: Acknowledging and Addressing Affective Needs of Gifted Adults

By Sharon Lind.

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in an Internet conference with parents in Australia about the social and emotional needs of gifted children. During the two weeks of dialogue one parent, Michelle, said:

My own experience (and I suspect that of many other parents of gifted children) is that my awareness of giftedness came about after becoming a parent. In the process of learning about how to respond to the child’s needs, we parents often find ourselves discovering many things about ourselves and perhaps even dealing with a few painful memories of our own childhood experiences.

She went on to say:

It’s something I’ve noticed in my discussions with other parents — while many of them accept their child’s giftedness and associated traits, they seem to be in “denial” about their own giftedness, or at varying stages of dealing with it.

Michelle’s comments are not unusual. Frequently parents and teachers express concerns about fostering growth in gifted children while dealing with the often painful process of coming to terms with their own giftedness and potential. It is difficult — a sort of developmental double-whammy — to go through your own developmental phases while at the same time teaching, guiding, and/or parenting gifted children.

Giftedness in adults can be viewed through a number of lenses. For this article, I want to focus on five key affective needs of gifted adults: acknowledging your own gifts; nurturing your identity development; giving yourself permission to be a growing, changing, imperfect person; taking advantage of and coping with overexcitabilities; and learning practical coping skills. In order to improve self-esteem and self-efficacy, it is vital for adults, as well as children, to have a firm affective foundation from which to act. By focusing on these five needs, adults can begin to foster their own giftedness and will become better role models for gifted children by showing them the importance and value of addressing personal strengths and needs.

Acknowledge Your Own Gifts The first step towards building a strong social and emotion base is to recognize and acknowledge one’s own strengths or gifts. For many adults this facet of who they are has either gone unnoticed, been ignored or was not expressed for cultural reasons. So, if you have not already done so, take time over the next few days to list your personal assets. Look at those around you whom you believe are gifted. What characteristics do you share with them: intense curiosity, keen sense of humor, creative or artistic bents, sensual or emotional sensitivity, intense imagination, deep concerns about social issues, tenacious academic abilities, superior interpersonal skills, etc? If this is a difficult task for you, ask your partner, friends, children, family. Seek their input and validation.

The next step is to be honest with yourself and then open with others about your own concerns or confusion surrounding your giftedness. How do you feel being different from your friends, family, cohorts at work? How do you feel about talking openly about your strengths? How do your gifts enhance your life? How do they make your life more complicated? Self-evaluation, asking these questions, should enable adults to feel more comfortable with who they are and to become more willing to share themselves with others. This openness leads to modeling for children, pride in our assets, and a willingness to work on our weak points.

Nurture Your Own Identity Development Often gifted adults, out of compassion or obligation, focus on the development of their children, students or partners while ignoring their own. As Michelle said, “They seem to be in “denial” about their own giftedness, or at varying stages of dealing with it.” This leads not only to inappropriate modeling for children, but also to unmet needs as an adult. The key is to take the time to find reinforcement, encouragement, nurturing of ones strengths and passions. Andrew Mahoney (1998) has described 4 primary constructs which are the “underpinnings that shape and influence identity (p. 223). ” These are:

Validation: Personally acknowledging one’s giftedness

Affirmation: Gaining continual reinforcement and acknowledgment about one’s giftedness from others

Affiliation: Allying oneself with others of similar interests, passions, overexcitability, talents, etc.

Affinity: Developing a sense of calling or purpose — connecting oneself with the world

Making an active effort to meet your needs for validation, affirmation, affiliation, and affinity, is instrumental to fostering adult giftedness.

Give Yourself Permission To Be A Growing, Changing, Imperfect Person Another facet of the process of meeting your own needs is to give yourself permission to be a person in a growth process. Try to accept personal imperfections and recognize that growth tends to move through peaks and valleys rather than on a straight progression upwards. Many gifted individuals are born with a sense or understanding of how things (ideas, morality, justice) should be. They see more possibilities, imagine greater outcomes, and have loftier ideals than others. They can see from an early age what perfection looks like. As a result, their peers, teachers and significant others, hold inappropriate or overly inflated expectations for them. These expectations, whether directly stated or implied, are sensed by the individual and he/she responds by trying to be perfect in order to meet the expectations of others. But achieving perfection is difficult and often unrewarded by the outside world. So it is paramount for gifted individuals to try to develop realistic and satisfying expectations for themselves and others.

Take Advantage of and Cope with Overexcitabilities Understanding the innate characteristics which may accompany giftedness also helps to foster adult giftedness. The work of Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) provides an excellent framework in which to understand the supersensitivity or overexcitability frequently found in the intellectually or creatively gifted. Dabrowski described overexcitabilities (OEs) as a heightened ability to receive and respond to stimuli. Found to a greater degree in the creative and gifted, overexcitabilities are expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity, and represent a real difference in the fabric of life and quality of experience. Dabrowski identified 5 areas of intensity — Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. A person may possess one or more of these OEs. Individuals with these characteristics view the world through a different lens. They are often perceived as people who overreact or are just too intens