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Gifted Adults & Second Childhoods: Revisiting Essential Stages of Development - Part 2

By Jennifer Harvey Sallin | adapted from the original article published on InterGifted.

In the first part of this article, I introduced a gifted-specific look at the stages of psychosocial development, adapted from the work of the psychologist Erik Erikson. In this second part, I will go more deeply into the stages of development, exploring how they manifest themselves across the gifted lifespan.

As a refresher, here is the chart of developmental stages:


Trust vs. Mistrust (infancy)

In this early developmental stage, a gifted infant must develop trust in their (gifted) self, trust in their body, and trust in their carers. If they are developmentally faster, qualitatively different, or physically or emotionally needier than other infants, and if this is not recognized and/or responded to appropriately, children can develop, already at this stage, mistrust in themselves and their surroundings. Gifted people sometimes report (those with very early memories, which is not uncommon in gifted people) remembering at the age of one or two years old, being so very different than the other children around them; feeling understimulated, bored, slowed down, and otherwise not appropriately mirrored or nurtured by their parents and/or social environment.

Sometimes this awareness only comes into play when the person is already an adult, looking back on how they were raised and exploring memories of their childhood. Perhaps they learn as an adult that their parents knew they were different and needed more, but tried to stifle that extra need; or that their parents never even noticed. This knowledge can suddenly explain a lifetime of confusion for some adults. Neuronal patterns - the way we see the world - can become fairly firmly set even in this early age, and if an infant instinctively senses they cannot trust their carers to see and respond to their needs, they will develop neuronal patterns which represent mistrust (fear) rather than trust (safety).

When I am working with gifted people stuck at this very early stage, it is important to help them understand that while they might not have developed trust because of not being adequately recognized, mirrored, or stimulated, it does not mean that they and the world are not trustworthy in a global, absolute sense. It is important to help them understand that conditions create feelings, but not ultimate realities, and that trust can be gained at any point along the way by coming to understand their own body’s and mind’s signals of their unique (gifted) needs, and learning how to respond to them in nourishing ways (and how to reach out to others who validate and respond appropriately and adequately to those needs).

Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (toddlerhood)

This stage is all about developing the ability to take care of our own basic (gifted) needs - “basic” being a key word here (we’re not talking about advanced developmental needs). Problems can arise when carers don’t understand a gifted child’s basic cognitive or physical needs, such as the need for advanced intellectual stimulation or reduced sensory stimulation (especially in the case of twice-exceptionality, as the high ability mixed with contextual disability can be very confusing and disorienting for a parent or carer who is not well-versed in this domain). During this developmental stage, if these basic gifted needs are not recognized, outrightly ignored, or it is not modeled to the child how to learn to care for them, the child can develop shame and doubt about them and try to hide them, failing to become autonomous in this regard (unable to identify, validate, and/or meet them on their own). If they do become autonomous with them, they learn to occupy, stimulate and calm their gifted mind, and they learn self-regulation of their intensity.

Many of the gifted adults I meet are stuck in this developmental phase, chronically invalidating or ignoring their gifted needs because they never developed the ability to take care of them at the basic level. They are still essentially “starving” in this way, and in addition, are generally feeling a high degree of shame for feeling those needs in the first place. Many still don’t know how to self-regulate when it comes to their intensity and still don’t know how to adequately occupy, stimulate and calm their gifted mind.

Working with adults who are stuck in this developmental transition is a challenge, as it often feels shameful for them to be “such babies” and to have to work on “such basic” things. I remind clients all the time that it is not shameful to need a “second childhood” when one did not have an adequate “first childhood”. Childhood is all about trying, testing, failing, learning, and honing skills (in many ways, that’s what generative adulthood is about too), and taking this approach helps to take the shame and the sting out of the need to be weak in order to become strong.

There is also the question of deserving. Many gifted people feel guilty for the “extra” needs for support, attention, time, energy, and consideration required from their carers, family, friends, and support professionals. Needing more yet again can trigger loads of guilt and feelings of not deserving more than they already got. When clients feel like this, I remind them that many people - especially the chronically ill or physically disabled - need uncommon levels of support. I ask them whether they feel that those people should feel guilty for their needs. The answer is always, “Of course not!”, which leads to a healthy and generative discussion about the double-standard they hold toward themselves in regarding their gifted needs.

Many gifted people struggle because their uniqueness doesn’t show up as classically recognized disability, and so it feels less “legitimate” than physical illness or some other life situation that requires "extra" help. A lot of the internal work here is around finding a way to drop comparisons, and simply legitimizing one’s own needs without trying to one-up or one-down them, as compared to someone else. You are not someone else, you are you, and you and your needs matter regardless of where you fall in the spectrum of "neediness". The truth is, gifted people do take an enormous amount of energy from others, but they also have a lot to give. Their needs/offerings exchange formula just looks - yes, once again - different from the neuronorm, but that fact does not invalidate its legitimacy.

Initiative vs. Guilt (early childhood)

This stage is all about developing a feeling of one’s own sense of purpose in action - learning to direct one’s actions toward one’s own purposes. Whereas the existential question linked to the prior stage is “Is it ok to be me?”, the existential question linked to this stage is, “Is it ok for me to do, move, and act?”. As this relates to giftedness, the questions translate to: “Is it ok to be my gifted self?” and “Is it ok for me to do, move and act in ways that are consistent with and authentic to my gifted self’s purpose?”.

Still mostly confined to action and expression within the family unit, it is at this stage that a child learns to take initiative and leadership, and set goals and accomplish them for aims that relate to the child’s unique inner interests and drives. If their gifted interests, values and aims are not recognized or validated by their carers, they will not be able to fully participate in the developmental task of this stage. They will either recoil (i.e. freeze - not take action, not think about what they want, not set goals, become apathetic), become aggressive (i.e. fight - not balanced leadership or respectful initiative), force themselves to take on the goals, aims and values of others (i.e. fawn - use their intelligence toward people-pleasing), or go into fantasyland and stop connecting with the physical world (i.e. flight - use their intelligence to create inner worlds, rather than taking initiative in the physical world); or some mix of all of these. Anything other than rising to the challenge of finding initiative leads to a feeling of guilt either toward the family (outside world) or toward oneself. Herein lies the classic gifted issues of underachievement, feelings of inferiority, guilt for not naturally having the “right aims and values”, feelings of self-betrayal, and so on.

Fight, flight, freeze and fawn are adaptations which avoid the true tasks of the moment. How can you find the validation of your own unique aims, goals, values and purpose? Exploration and knowledge of your personality preferences and authenticity in terms of gifted self-expression are essential, but who among us had access to that level of discussion growing up? Often, my adult clients have spent their whole lives lacking a (generative) language that includes their giftedness, so when they think of personality, values, and authenticity, they may still be thinking in terms of the norm, and trying to use normative language and concepts around these issues (trying to fit their larger-than-the-acceptable/available-mirror-size self into the reflection on the acceptable/available mirror). Oftentimes, much of my work guiding clients through second childhoods is about finding and creating a language that validates their gifted experience of these main building blocks of the (authentic gifted) self.

Industry vs. Inferiority (middle childhood)

Whereas the previous stages are more oriented toward the family, this is the first stage that is primarily oriented toward the world outside of the family. The question becomes, “Can I make it as my gifted self in the world of people and things?”. Of course, if the previous developmental stages have been completed well, in terms of one’s gifted self recognition, validation and expression, then this question will be asked from a point of strength and clarity. If one has become stuck at any of the previous stages, this question will be asked from a place of fear, uncertainty, anger, rage, shame and/or inferiority.

To be honest, it is rare that I work with gifted adults who have made it fully to this stage with the others intact (hope, will, purpose). Most often, I am working with them to complete those former stages in the present. Once the previous stages are validated, then the industry vs. inferiority question is not really a matter of “if” but of “how” - “I know what I value and need, now how do I do it in the real world?”.

Some people tend to get stuck on the neuromajority/neurominority question in this stage, arguing that they “can’t” do what they value and need because they feel there’s no one in their life, or in the world, who values their unique (gifted) contribution. However, this is an inferiority stance and represents a failure to rise to the developmental challenge. I remind clients they will have to work harder as a minority to find their audience, get their message across, and contribute to a fitting segment of the population of the world. Having to work harder is not an excuse to consider oneself “inferior” and rarity does not equal impossibility. Working with someone through this developmental stage (in the gifted sense) is very focused on taking action, removing obstacles, and creating fitting opportunities.


Identity vs. Role Confusion (teenage years)

Here we move to the next stage of independence from the family unit. Not only is the question “Can I make it in the world as my gifted self?” directed outward, but now the question is “Who am I? And who can I be?” as a social (gifted) person. To get to this stage, one must have been able to develop hope, will, purpose, and competence as their gifted self. Asking, “Who am I as a social gifted person, and who can I be in that regard?” without having adequate hope, will, purpose and competence leads to masking and role/identity confusion.

One easy way to spot a person who has not adequately completed the previous stages is to listen to the way they ask about their identity. They may ask, “Who should I be?” or “Who do others want me to be?”. Helping them learn to ask the question in a healthy, self-affirmed way means necessarily going back to wherever they got stuck in their previous stages and helping them work through those developmental tasks till they can ask themselves the question in a self-affirmed way: “Who am I as my gifted self? And who can I be as my gifted self?”. The question asked in a non self-affirmed way reminds us of Dabrowski’s level two, where people get stuck trying to live by others' values and goals, and thus are never able to build up their own authentic self. Level three is when the person starts asking the question in a self-affirmed way.

It goes without saying that a person who asks this question in a non self-affirmed way is prone to building up an identity and adult life roles that do not fit their unique needs, values, aims, and capacities. The (gifted) adult who has asked this question in the non self-affirmed way will likely have created a whole life story based on the distorted responses that came out of the distorted question. It can take a lot of work once one is mired in an adult life that resulted from asking the question in a distorted way, and one can end up feeling quite "stuck” in the identity, roles and consequent responsibilities that resulted. Of course, the good news is that it’s never the end of the story, and there is always room to move in any situation. Sorting this out often requires balancing the need to fulfill commitments already made with the need to introduce change and growth, and that balance is an art that one can master with enough authentic effort.


Intimacy vs. Isolation (early adulthood)

Early adulthood is also focused outward, but in a different way. Here it becomes not only about defining one’s being and doing in relationship to others, but about the quality of interaction and level of contribution, intimacy, and connection that one has with others. Obviously, if one has completed the previous stage of identity and role identification in a distorted way, the question to “Can I love (as my gifted self)?” will not result in a healthy “yes”.

Love, when one is not able to be one’s authentic self, will typically look like projection, codependent behaviors, fight/flight/freeze/fawn (mentioned above), and so on. Of course, any of these behaviors leads not to healthy intimacy, but rather to a kind of forced isolation. When I’m working with adults on these issues, we are often looking at skills: the skills one has or does not have to be with reality without projecting one’s pain (or gifted mind) out onto the world and expecting the world to be as they see it; the skills one has to love in a healthy way, with appropriate boundaries which give them space to self-nourish and still connect with others in meaningful ways; the skills to respond to life situations without going into fight/flight/freeze/fawn; the self-authority to act without codependence and to cultivate an authentic level and quality of involvement and intimacy with other people.

And in order to develop those skills, we are often going back to a previous stage in the client's life to re-do former developmental tasks, knowing what they know now, and having the appropriate support, frameworks, language and mentoring - this time to be able to do it in a healthy, non-distorted way.

Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood)

“Can I make my (gifted) life count?” becomes the next developmental question. For those gifted adults who haven’t known they were gifted till later in life, they may take a long time to answer this question, for it will take them time to understand who their “gifted self” really is. Of course, they’ve lived with that self all along, but not knowing who it was and why it was there, and often having shamed themselves for it, they may need time to come into safe and non-shaming contact with that part of themselves. Once they do, often through months or years of therapy, coaching, mentoring and other gifted-specific support, they can really ask the question, “Can I make my (gifted) life count?”.

It’s interesting, because many gifted people who do not know they are gifted are trying to “make their life count” based on what would make a neuronorm person’s life count, and having existential crises because it’s “not enough” and they feel embarrassed, guilty or ashamed about that fact. Learning that needing something different out of life is because of neurological differences, and has nothing to do with moral judgment, can be extremely liberating for a gifted adult struggling with these issues.

Integrity vs. Despair (elder years)

Often, by the time a person reaches this age, they are no longer in the “seeking” phase of their identity-development, and have usually learned to advocate for themselves on their own. Successful resolution of this stage is the development of wisdom, and as that relates to one’s gifted self, it usually translates to the question, “Is it ok to have been my gifted self?” or “Am I satisfied by how I expressed and experienced my giftedness?”. Since this stage often takes place once a person has retired or is no longer needing work to meet their basic needs, there is room to respond to this question by developing activities or taking on challenges that would help the person to more fully and enthusiastically answer “yes!”.

Photo credit: Artem Beliaikin via unsplash


I hope this discussion has been helpful for you in understanding where you may have gotten blocked in your own (gifted) development and where you might now concentrate your efforts on validating and creating conditions for fulfilling those developmental tasks. You may now have some more clues for what kind, size and complexity of mirror you need for full, authentic gifted development. You may also have discovered while reading that you got stuck developmentally for other reasons as well - trauma, abuse, neglect, or other difficult life circumstances. You may feel that you need to redo previous developmental tasks for those reasons as well, and that is okay. There is no shame in “learning how to grow up” once you’re already an (chronological) adult. Remember that so much of this information has not been readily available till recently, nor has gifted-specific help and support for these issues. For whatever reason, you weren't able to get it before, but now you deserve to have access to an accurate reflection, and to develop in a mirror that doesn’t force you to cut parts of yourself out, due to giftedness or any other factors in your life.

How to go about finding/creating that mirror differs from person to person. Some people go through the journey on their own; but many people have needed and continue to need support throughout the process. Gifted-specific therapy is generally a good place to start the exploration, and coaching and community often come into play once enough safety in the process is established. Other forms of support include a gifted mindfulness practice and self-development work. Wherever your second childhood takes you, I wish you much healing, play, exploration and empowering fulfillment of each of the stages you move through on your path.

This article has been adapted from a module in my Gifted Psychology 101 Course for Psychologists. If you are a psychologist, coach, or other helping professional who would like training on best supporting your gifted clients, consider joining one of my upcoming courses.


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.

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