The "Me" Behind the Mask: Intellectually Gifted Students and the Search for Identity

By Miraca U.M. Gross.

The process of identity development in intellectually gifted children and adolescents is complicated by their innate and acquired differences from age-peers. To be valued within a peer culture which values conformity, gifted young people may mask their giftedness and develop alternative identities which are perceived as more socially acceptable. The weaving of this protective mask requires the gifted child to conceal her love of learning, her interests which differ from those of age-peers, and her advanced moral development. If this assumed identity does indeed bring her the social acceptance she seeks, the gifted child may become afraid to take off her mask. Gifted children and adolescents need the opportunity to work and socialize with others of similar abilities and interests if they are to grow towards self-acceptance. This article is illustrated by poetry and diary entries written by highly gifted young people, portraying the process of their own identity development.

“I have come to the conclusion that the degree of my difference from most people exceeds the average of most people’s difference from one another; or, to put it more briefly, that my reactions to many things don’t conform to popular patterns.” (C.E.M. Joad, 1947.)

During the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most popular radio programs in Britain was The Brains Trust in which a panel of intellectuals, entertainers or politicians, chosen for their skill with words and ideas, responded to questions sent in by listeners. One of the most popular panelists was Professor C.E.M. Joad, a brilliant scholar and gifted writer who had a remarkable ability to explain highly complex, sometimes controversial theories in language that made them accessible, and, indeed, fascinating to the layperson.

Joad was extremely precise in his response to questions. He was constantly aware of the ambiguity of the language in which the questions were often phrased and he was anxious to ensure that his answer was both accurate and clearly understood. His somewhat pedantic response to almost any question; “It all depends on what you mean by…” was greeted by the studio audience with the delighted and affectionate laughter with which they would have greeted the catchphrase of a favorite comedian. Few listeners understood the urge which prompted the response — Joad’s need to define the terms of the question both for himself and for the audience, to delineate the grey areas, and to clarify precisely those aspects to which he felt he could respond. For this gentle, scholarly man, the careful and deliberate qualification with which he started his response was an integral and essential part of the answer.

Despite his skill and popularity as a communicator, Joad found personal relationships difficult. As the above quotation shows, he was constantly aware of his difference from the great majority of people, and the degree of that difference. It was typical of this great scholar that his analysis of the degree of difference has almost a statistical flavor! Linked to this awareness was the ever-present longing for congenial companionship, and the knowledge, bought with experience, that he was unlikely to find it. Indeed, a few years before his death, he confided to a colleague, “My life is spent in a perpetual alternation between two rhythms, the rhythm of attracting people for fear I may be lonely, and the rhythm of getting rid of them because I know that I am bored” (Joad, 1948).

Like many other highly gifted adults, Joad had developed a range of professional identities within which he was accepted by others – the scholar, the writer, the broadcaster. It was, however, extremely difficult for him to maintain productive social relationships. The characteristics, attitudes and opinions which people accepted in Joad the scholar were a hindrance in his attempts to develop an identity as a private individual. As he himself phrased it, his “reactions to many things” did not “conform to popular patterns.”

The task of identity development begins in early childhood and continues through life. For many highly gifted people, such as Cyril Joad, identity formulation is complicated by factors related to, or arising from, their difference from the majority of people with whom they must associate at school and in adult life. This article explores two issues: firstly, that gifted people mask and camouflage their identities not because of any inherent problem, but because the social environments in which they live and work often cannot, or will not, provide the freedom for them to be themselves; secondly, that gifted children and adults need help in defining their identity in contexts which do not allow for their innate and acquired differences.

The Development of Identity

Steinberg (1985) lists five sets of psychosocial concerns which affect our lives as we progress from childhood to adulthood, intensifying in the adolescent years. These are: the development of identity — the quest for a personal sense of self and an acceptance of one’s individuality; the growth of autonomy — the process of establishing oneself as an independent, self-determining individual; the search for intimacy and the establishment of peer relationships based on trust, openness, and a similarity of values; the management of one’s developing sexuality; and the need to achieve, and be recognized for one’s achievements.

These five concerns interact and exert considerable influence on each other and for the majority of adolescents they are compatible, indeed complementary. However, for intellectually gifted young people, particularly the highly gifted, the drives for identity, autonomy and achievement may conflict with the need for intimacy. Gross (1989) discusses the “forced choice dilemma” which confronts the gifted child whose desire to excel in an area of talent which is undervalued by her1 agemates conflicts with her need to be accepted by the peer culture. If she is to satisfy her drive for excellence and perform at the level of which she knows she is capable, she may risk sacrificing the attainment of intimacy with age-peers who may be disconcerted by, or even resentful of, her abilities. If the pursuit of intimacy is her primary need, she must moderate her standards of achievement, conceal, to some extent at least, her intellectual interests, and conform to a value system that may be seriously at variance with her own levels of emotional or moral development. Gross (1989) proposes that this conflict between the two normally complementary drives of intimacy and achievement may be the central psychosocial dilemma of gifted youth. To resolve it, many highly gifted children retreat behind a mask of social conformity.

In his work on identity development, Erikson (1968) describes the identifications the child forms over the years with parents, siblings, teachers, peers and others on whom she is encouraged to model her behaviors, attitudes and desires. Her task is to select, from the smorgasbord of possible identities which are pr