The Gifted Identity Formation Model

By Andrew Mahoney.

Full Title: The Gifted Identity Formation Model: In search of the gifted identity, from abstract concept to workable counseling constructs

Abstract Knowing one’s giftedness and having a well-developed sense of identity as a gifted person are crucial for the development of the self. Many gifted people struggle with their giftedness, what it means to be gifted and how to develop that potential because there are few models available to assist in the identity development and counseling of gifted people. Moreover, identity itself is often viewed as an abstract concept, making the task of bridging this concept to pragmatic applications highly challenging.

The Identity Formation Model, presented here, helps bridge the theoretical with the practical, includes identity and its formation as crucial variables in the counseling process and uses identity as the baseline for intervention. The model aids with assessment and helps deliver counseling related interventions that explore and strengthen the identity and identity formation of gifted people, in turn enhancing the health and development of the self.

There are many conceptual challenges to understanding the issues related to identity formation in the gifted. One is to understand what goes into the formation of a gifted person’s identity. A second and perhaps more involved challenge rests in the pragmatics of helping to foster a healthy and relevant identity for a gifted person. The need for differentiated and specialized counseling services for the gifted is evident throughout the literature (Moon, Kelly & Feldhusen, 1997; Treffinger & Feldhusen, 1996; Feldman, 1996; Rocamara, 1992; Alverado, 1989; Coangelo, 1989). Recently David Feldman (1996) called for an expansion of human development theories to include the unique characteristics and developmental needs of gifted people. However, the problem is that there are few differentiated models that counselors, educators, and other professionals can use to help counsel the gifted and to help strengthen the development of an identity integrated with giftedness. The task of integrating an intricate and complex concept such as giftedness or the development of a gifted identity into workable counseling applications offers a multifaceted challenge.

The Gifted Identity Formation Model is a differentiated counseling model which attempts to bridge the theoretical constructs relating to identity formation in the gifted with the practical aspects of counseling gifted people. For the purposes of this model, giftedness is defined as exceptional ability in a variety of areas such as intellect, the arts and creativity. Giftedness is also viewed as an aspect or aspects of the self. This article illuminates the complexity, process and nuances of identity formation relating to the gifted, and then provides an overview of a differentiated model that incorporates identity formation into the counseling process for the gifted population.

Identity and Its Formation Defining identity may be as complex as developing one’s identity; even Eric Erikson (1968) was hesitant to offer a definitive explanation. It may be that the definition includes the unity and integration of all aspects of self, including the conscious and unconscious. It may be that another way to define identity is through answering the question, “who am I?”

If identity encompasses the complexity of all aspects of “who I am,” then identity formation is the process of integrating and shaping discrete pieces of the self into a unique being. Erikson (1968) spoke of identity formation as “a process located in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture” (pg. 22). He refers to the integrative and complex relationship between the inner self (all inner aspects and internal interplay of the self) and the outer world (self as it relates and contends with the external world). He described a “few minimum requirements” to consider when contending with the complex process of identity formation. The Gifted Identity Formation Model utilizes these requirements as the working underpinnings of the model:

· Identity formation employs a process of simultaneous reflection and observation;

· Identity formation takes place on all levels of mental functioning;

· An individual judges himself in light of what he perceives to be the way others judge him, in comparison to himself, and to a topology significant to others.

Identity formation for Erikson was largely unconscious, indicating how much he believed the inner world of the self influenced identity. He believed the process was “for the most part unconscious except where inner conditions and outer circumstances combine to aggravate a painful or elated identity-consciousness” (p 23). Erikson was referring to what occurs when an individual is not in synch with her true self. For example, even though Mary was told since childhood that she was gifted, she did not view herself as such and was very distressed over her career choice as an adult. She complained constantly that her chosen life’s work was not in tune with who she really is, but had no sense on how to redirect herself. It is also important to keep in mind that Erikson never saw identity as static or unchangeable but believed identity formation was a life-long process. Therefore, the Gifted Identity Formation Model operates under the principle that development and integration of one’s giftedness must be accounted for as a variable in the healthy development of the self’s identity across the life span.

The Gifted Identity Formation Model The Gifted Identity Formation Model is a guide for understanding the complexity and nuances of gifted people. It provides a counseling framework that helps gifted individuals to be aware of and to understand the effect their giftedness has on their life development, and the importance giftedness has on their identity formation, thus better understanding themselves as gifted people. The counselor uses the model to assess the complexity surrounding an individual’s giftedness and how giftedness is relevant to the healthy or unhealthy development of that individual. The model serves as a guide to design interventions, practices or strategies to facilitate and/or intervene in the counseling process. The model is not meant to be used as a criteria scale for mental health or to compare the development of individuals. Rather it has three primary counseling purposes: serving as an assessment tool, assisting in the development of counseling interventions, and acting as a guide in the counseling process.

The model also provides a context for understanding giftedness as part of the co