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Understanding Viewpoints Based on Dabrowski Levels — Inner Growth in Gifted Adults

By Deborah Ruf, Ph.D.

Part 2 of Gifted Baby Boomers, How They Were Raised, and What Was on Their Minds as They Raised You. See Part 1 here.

… and how it might still be affecting you, your parenting, and your relationships. Dabrowski’s theory came after your Baby Boomer relatives were already grown up. Before that, not many people got therapy. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t trying to figure themselves out. That’s what this article is about.

Readers familiar with Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration …

… know that positive disintegrations are episodes in the maturing individual’s inner life where old viewpoints are now seen as questionable rather than naively acceptable. Although it is probably more likely that it will at least passingly occur to highly intelligent people, than for people of more average intellect, that some things that are should not be, my research shows that many intelligent people clearly do not tackle these questions to any substantial degree.

The more self-controlled, “can do” thinking of the G. I. generation and many of their descendants leads many people from that group to make the best of a less than perfect world. “Making the best of it” is a coping strategy that leaves many of its possessors with an unwillingness to interfere with what appears to work for them; such people are unlikely to seek counseling and are also unlikely to experience advanced inner development.

For others from the same generation, however, their whole inner world can be turned upside down until they make their own sense of it. Many of them need and seek the support of counselors to guide them through their struggle.

The selected excerpts from my doctoral dissertation study (Ruf, 1998) illustrate progress from the mere questioning and wondering of early emotional development, captured by the question, “Who am I?” to the more advanced, complex viewpoints displayed by people who actively ask, “What exactly is the point of life and what should my role in it be?” The final section of excerpts illustrates the viewpoints and thought processes of subjects who have achieved advanced levels of emotional reasoning and inner growth. From the point of view of the therapist it is important to note that these people are not ill, but they are suffering. The therapist needs to provide support, empathy, and guidance as the subjects clarify these existential issues for themselves.

Who Am I?

Even though degree of giftedness is significantly related to social and emotional adjustment (Gross, 1993, Hollingworth, 1942; Janos & Robinson, 1985), the degree to which the individuals are different from the expected norm affects the way significant people (e.g., parents, teachers, age-mates) in the highly gifted people’s environments react to them. In other words, it is the gifted child’s perception of the acceptance, approval, or rejection that leads to the social and emotional adjustment.

A 45-year old woman wrote,

“Some saw me as a person with rare insight, others thought I was crazy. It was very hard to see it clearly. I was often confused by the variety of responses. Even reading about giftedness and having my own children identified [as gifted] was confusing. I did not see them as any smarter than I was, so could not see that they could be gifted. Seeing a list of characteristics made it very clear that I was probably in the gifted range, yet it was hard to accept. It feels like I am boasting, or somehow trying to claim something I have not earned. There is something bad about claiming to be smart, it is arrogant and boastful. I have less confusion now, but there are still beliefs that make it hard to say I am anything but average. There is nothing wrong with being average, but somehow there is an idea that there is something wrong to see yourself as anything more than average.”

Apparently the desire to underplay the abilities of the gifted child so that relatives would not feel bad was common in the subjects’ families. Unfortunately, the gifted children ended up feeling depressed and less valued than those whose feelings were being protected.

Three women, all in their early 40s, reported feedback they received from well-meaning parents and relatives who tried to keep them from feeling superior to others:

My mother never wanted me to feel superior, so she always told me that I was not terribly smart, just good at taking tests. Perhaps that explains why I had such a distorted view.

My mother told me, as an adult, that she didn’t praise me [as a child] because she thought it was obvious that I was outstanding and she didn’t want me to get a swelled head.

I received lots of mixed messages, even from my extended family. As soon as my father would “brag” about me in some way, grandmother or aunts would be quick to point out something one of the distant cousins had done. It was their attempt to keep me from getting a big head, I think.

A 51-year old man spoke for many of the subjects when he described his own situation during his school years:

I took the usual number of aptitude-type tests, and, from the reactions of teachers and principals, did extremely well. But, nobody would tell me how well I did, or who else did well…the stated grounds were that I would immediately change into someone with an insufferable ego.

A 43-year old woman wrote about how her apparently higher intelligence seemed to cause problems for her family.

She is one of the subjects who did not write about seeking therapy and gave evidence in many places that she wanted to handle her feelings and worries in her own way. Her “can do” attitude is more common in the G.I. generation than her own.

At the core, I always felt loved, but I seldom felt that anything I did was quite good enough. My parents bent over backwards not to over-praise my accomplishments so that none of my siblings were hurt. They explained it to me and I understood it intellectually, but still felt bad when there was much more fuss made over someone else’s three “A’s” than my card full. Looking back, I don’t know how they could have done any better, but it did feed my perfectionistic tendencies. Overall, I did know they believed in me, which was terribly important.

One of the older subjects, 58 at the time of the study,

still experienced a sense of anger over the way she was treated in childhood. She experienced father-daughter incest during childhood and was seeing counselors her entire adult life. It appears that the sexual and emotional abuse issues received, of necessity, such priority in her treatment that she has been unable to effectively address her giftedness issues. She wrote,

When I was a preschooler I was always drawing stories and did not care to socialize with other children. My mother was told that I was a genius — she cried and said she just wanted a normal child…A friend of mine in the third grade thought I was weird because I skipped all over my books and read ahead in assignments. In high school I was considered weird because I only listened to classical music and read extra books that were not required. I felt there was something wrong with me. I was not good-looking enough, I was too tall, I was awkward, I was shy, I had a lousy personality, I was weird, I wore glasses.

It is true that many people suffer similar feelings as they are growing up and learning about themselves. What makes these stories particularly salient is that giftedness, even high giftedness, does not automatically make individuals better able to interpret their personal worlds. The theme of strangeness and loneliness ran throughout the case studies.

During the formative early years of school, most of the gifted children learned that they did not seem to fit in and that something must be wrong with them. At least half the subjects did not discover until adulthood that the oddness and alienation they were feeling were due to a difference from their age-mates in intellectual functioning.

Additional subjects described the pain that lack of information caused them. A 57-year old man wrote,

I was aware [of being more intelligent than others], but thought it more of a “strangeness” than a qualitative difference, thus thought of myself as not fitting in. Nevertheless, it was not an extreme isolation, just a sense of being “peripheral” to mainstream.

Three more men remembered their feelings of not fitting in:

I had interests that did not seem to match up with anyone else’s interests, I did not fit in, and I sometimes felt lonely.

To some extent I always felt like a social outcast. Felt I was just not liked by peers — something wrong with me.

General feeling of being “different” in several ways — interests, thoughts I thought only I was having.

Two women further noted how their intellectually different personalities and interests often left them with an array of bewildering feedback:

I often thought I was really stupid because I couldn’t understand why teachers taught things that I thought were obvious. I thought that other children were smarter because they saw complexities that I now know never existed. Instead of realizing that I had grasped the concepts quickly or knew them already, I thought I was missing some subtle point that confused others and I was too dense to see it.

I always thought being smart was an advantage. I didn’t know why I didn’t fit in. I always felt there were social rules that everyone but I understood.

One of the male subjects echoed her observation:

I did not understand the social issues in high school life — dressing choices, etc.

High intelligence often places the young person in an untenable position with those in authority. Silverman (1990, p.175) summarizes Hollingworth regarding this problem:

Negativism toward authority tends to develop when the gifted child perceives those in authority as illogical, irrational, erroneous, or unjust (1939, 1940a, 1942). “It is especially unfortunate, therefore, that so many gifted children have in authority over them persons of no special fitness for the task, who cannot gain or keep the respect of these good thinkers” (Hollingworth, 1942, p.261).

The gifted child and emerging young adult may appear to be a know-it-all or have a bad attitude as a result of encounters that involve vastly different perspectives.

For example, a woman who now runs her own small business reports the following incident:

I began a master’s thesis in mass communications, but quit when the mass media department, in 1980, refused my master’s thesis topic, “Computers as a Mass Medium”. The department contended that computers were not mass media.

The next two subjects are further examples of people whose lack of information regarding intellectual differences led to issues with authority.

Both of these people are defensive, which may be a result of insufficient recognition or understanding of their abilities earlier in their lives. The apparent result is that they were unaware that some people really do think and reason differently than they do and they were resentful of an “ineptitude” they did not understand. Their lack of compassion and understanding, which certainly manifested itself as intolerance, coupled with defensiveness, made them personally unpopular in the workplace and continued their pattern of being under-appreciated.

A man who by age 52 still experienced difficulties with those in authority explained his attitude as follows:

I regard myself as “normal” — this created (and creates) a problem in that I became disillusioned with people around me who constantly fell short of what I regarded as “their potential” — teachers who could not, or would not, attempt to answer complex questions — people who seemed to have no passion, people who took the beauty of life for granted.

A 50-year old woman described a familiar problem among the gifted adult subjects:

My biggest problems with jobs is when there is rigidity, stupidity and control on the part of those in charge — and, unfortunately, these are the very type of people who tend to rise to the top in my field. I quit, I come dangerously close to quitting, or get fired…because I speak up.

Many gifted children take negative messages about their gifted personalities into adulthood. Their asynchrony of development (Silverman, 1993) causes problems when adults assume more advanced maturity than the young, highly verbal child possesses.

A woman who by her early 50s, with the help of counseling, had figured out that she was not really a bad little girl after all reported the following:

I was often taken to the cloakroom and shaken by my second grade teacher, who left fingernail marks in my arms every time; she lost no opportunity to catch me in a mistake and ridicule me in front of the class — ”and you think you’re so smart!” …And as my mother said, when she refused to take my part and go to the school to defend me, “You let your eyes show how you feel about her and what she does — so what do you expect?”

A 47-year old woman who also sought counseling to put her experiences into perspective wrote,

I was inquisitive, which both parents interpreted as rude and challenging to their authority. I was smart so they confused my ability to learn with a capability for understanding my actions in a greater context. Therefore, they attached adult motivations to even the simplest questions of a 4-year old.

A 49-year old woman who still had many unresolved issues and was experiencing great depression at the time, wrote about her efforts to make sense of her experiences:

My father mostly yelled, criticized harshly and disapproved. My mother was quite harsh with me and used physical punishment and disparagement, too. Both were somewhat inconsistent and moody and both had high expectations for perfect obedience and no expression of anger or protest from me. I never felt loved or approved of. I often felt that if I’d only been a bit more perfect or good, then they’d love me, but they never did.

Part 3, the final part of this article is What Exactly is the Point of My Life?

For more background on Dabrowski and positive disintegration, see Volume I, Advanced Development Journal, 1989, for an excellent explanation by Karen Nelson:

All Posts from Deborah Ruf, PhD are Always Available to Medium Members. No limits ever. Your membership fee supports… ________________________________________________________

Deborah L. Ruf earned a Ph.D. in Tests & Measurement with a minor in Learning & Cognition at the University of Minnesota. She worked as a private consultant and specialist in gifted assessment, test interpretation, and guidance for the gifted for 30 years. Having been a parent, classroom teacher, and administrator in elementary through graduate education, she continues to write and speak about school issues and social and emotional adjustment of gifted children and adults. Dr. Ruf maintains an interest in educational policy, particularly how to set up schools that meet not only academic but social and emotional needs of children through grouping and instruction with true peers. She is the author of the award-winning book Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind (2005) and retitled 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options in 2009. In late 2022, Dr. Ruf releases her follow-up longitudinal book study of the now-adult children from the original book and how they are doing now. Her focus has now progressed toward the social and emotional health of the gifted adults who parent gifted children. Her most recent invited paper, How Parental Viewpoint and Personality Affect Gifted Child Outcomes (2020, Gifted Child International Journal) looks into specific parent-child interactions of the subject families from the 5 Levels book. For more than 40 years, Dr. Ruf has served as a keynote speaker, workshop, and conference presenter, and written chapters for 5 textbooks, more than 12 peer-reviewed journal articles, and 100 plus articles and handouts for newsletters, magazines, and websites. For more information see and LinkedIn.

Story References

Gross, M. (1993). Exceptionally gifted children. New York: Routledge.

Hazell, C. G. The experience of emptiness and the use of Dabrowski’s Theory in counseling gifted clients: Clinical case examples.” Advanced Development 8 (1999): 31–46.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet. Yonkers-on-Hudson: New York: World Book.

Janos, P. M., and Robinson, N. M. (1985). Psychological development in intellectually gifted children. In F. D. Horowitz & O’Brian (Eds.), The gifted and talented: Developmental perspectives (pp. 149–195). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ruf, D. L. (1998). Environmental, familial, and personal factors that affect the self-actualization of highly gifted adults: Case studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Silverman, L. K. (1990). Social and emotional development of the gifted: The discoveries of Leta Hollingworth. Roeper Review, 12, 171–178.

Silverman, L. K. (1993). (Ed.) Counseling the gifted & talented. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Company.

Originally written and published as part of “If You’re So Smart, Why Do You Need Counseling?” by Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D., Advanced Development: A Journal on Adult Giftedness, 1999. Denver, CO.

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