Updated: Jan 20
By Jennifer Harvey Sallin | adapted from the original article published on InterGifted.
FIRST CHILDHOOD: DEVELOPING IN A DISTORTED MIRROR
For over a decade, I’ve been coaching, mentoring and guiding gifted adults through their giftedness discovery process, and the integration of their giftedness into their holistic sense of self. For adults who grew up in my generation, giftedness was often unheard of. Or as in my own case, some of us were identified as gifted kids and maybe even had some gifted education, but the focus was on advanced math or honors classes, rather than on learning about and meeting our unique developmental and social-emotional needs. Most of us gifted kids forgot about being gifted as we grew into adulthood. No one ever mentioned it again, and it was assumed we’d grow up and fit into the neuromajority just fine.
Yet many of us didn’t. It’s years, even decades later, and we’re still not fitting in. The truth is, we were missing key information about ourselves and our unique needs, as well as crucial guidance and mentoring through the phases of gifted lifespan development. It’s usually not that our parents or the education system were trying to keep our authentic self-knowledge about giftedness from us or to force us to develop into false versions of ourselves (though, sadly, this can sometimes be the case). Still, growing up not really understanding that we were gifted, or that gifted people have special developmental needs, made us see ourselves and the world in confusing ways. We were developing ourselves in response to a distorted reflection: a mirror which implicitly or maybe sometimes even explicitly told us that if we could just be more “normal”, everything would be okay for us. But we have this “extra” that doesn’t fit into the “normal” mirror, and many of us developed shame and confusion along the way about the "extra" parts of us didn't fit. Those extra parts may still be wondering where they belong.
As lots of us went through our first (biological) childhood trying to develop ourselves into a “normal” person, however “normal” was defined in our social and cultural world, (re)discovering our giftedness in adulthood often catapults us into what I call a second (psychological) childhood. This is a sort of redo period, where we are given the opportunity to
complete the essential tasks of psychological and social development in more authentic ways which include rather than ignore our giftedness. In other words, we create a larger mirror which encompasses our whole self and leaves no fragments out of the developmental journey. This more complex and multi-dimensional mirror reflects a non-distorted version of us back to ourselves, and allows us to experience what it’s like to develop all of ourselves as unique (gifted) individuals.
STAGES OF PSYCHOSOCIAL DEVELOPMENT FOR GIFTED PEOPLE
In my work, I have used psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development as a basis for understanding the developmental tasks and the existential questions a gifted person faces while growing up. Though Erikson himself didn’t discuss gifted-specific development, I have adapted his stages to consider what they often look like in a gifted person’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
When we consider how we developed as gifted children, teens and adults, it’s important that we identify areas where we were or were not able to complete our developmental stages. This allows us to revisit them, meet the needs associated with each, and find ways to answer the existential questions of each stage in authentic, meaningful and connected ways.
There are many things, including trauma, abuse, neglect, or other lesser interruptions, which can curtail healthy development and “task completion” during these stages. Lack of adequate self-knowledge and accurate social mirroring are certainly two of them, and they are often two sides of the same coin. For some gifted people, this lack of self-knowledge and lack of social mirroring are experienced as traumatic, as over time their confusion and isolation induced existential panic and other terrifying feelings of invisibility or defectiveness. Even for those who didn’t or don’t experience these lacks as traumatic, they often struggle throughout life with self-definition and social belonging.
Of course, not everyone had an ideal developmental journey, even without considering gifted-specific needs. So, sometimes we have extra work to do to address unfinished general developmental stages before or alongside our gifted-specific stages. For that process, therapy or other support with a knowledgeable guide can be a big help. We may have parts stuck in the past that need the loving attention of someone who has been there and who knows how to help us through the tough spots on our developmental journey.
In the second part of this two-part article series, I’ll go more in detail about the gifted-specific needs of each development stage, and how they manifest for us across the lifespan. Please note that this article has been adapted from my Gifted Psychology 101 training courses I offer for gifted psychologists, therapists and other helping professionals. If you’re a gifted helping professional looking to better understand gifted-specific psychology across the lifespan, I welcome you to one of my upcoming trainings. If you’re a gifted adult exploring your own gifted-specific psychological development, here are some further resources I’ve created to help guide you as you explore your own “second (gifted) child:
Jennifer Harvey Sallin is a psychologist specialized in supporting gifted adults in their personal and social development. She is the founding director of InterGifted, where she offers qualitative giftedness assessments, gifted-specific psychology training for therapists and coaches, mentoring for gifted leaders, and a vibrant international community for gifted adults. She has created a holistic model of giftedness which considers all forms of gifted intelligences, and draws special attention in her work to high, exceptional and profound giftedness, as well as to gifted trauma and paths to healing it.