Thursday, February 10, 2011

Letting Your Giftedness Out of the Closet

I recently became acquainted with Lisa Erickson, a local (you know, the old fashioned geographic way) counselor who has specialized in helping people who designate themselves or have been designated by others as "gifted." She told me about the publication of her article, Coming Out Gifted. I suspect I, as a psychiatrist, have lots of company in struggling with the idea that what might be wrong with someone is that there is too much right with them. How can one have trouble with superiority to the rest of us schmucks?

Lisa admits that her analogy falls short of perfection and lists a few ways in which "coming out" as gay differs from coming out or facing the ugly fact that one's intelligence or other capacities exceed those of others. I'll add a few, while admitting that I consider myself straight as an arrow, so what do I know?  Gay doesn't come by degree. Giftedness probably does. You either have a sexual attraction to the same sex or you do not. Even bisexuality seems pretty black and white. (Speaking of black and white, perhaps race might serve up a better analogy in the sense that one can be of or from any of a number of races to a differing degrees depending on ancestry.)

But not only does giftedness occur on a continuum, but where it starts is arbitrary, a judgment call. Even if you can substantiate your claim with results of an intelligence test or star status, there will always be the question of where to draw the line. However, by the very act of "coming out" as gifted, one would seem to be drawing a bright line, saying, "I am different from you." which others may hear as, "I am better than you." And unlike gay, there exists no moral or religious condemnation of smart or talented, no matter the degree.

Of most interest to me as a psychiatrist is the notion that we might mistake attributes of giftedness as evidence of a mental disorder like attention deficit disorder or bipolar disorder. While I accept the notion that individuals with extraordinary talent or intelligence may benefit from help in adjusting to their differences, we should arguably never view their superior abilities as illness. This is where the concept of "over-excitability" starts to excite me. I'm still looking for a rigorous definition, but what I've seen makes me think psychiatrists might easily confuse gifted individuals with those who have ADD or bipolar disorder. Not that we should think giftedness renders immunity to any mental illness. But most of the attributes associated with giftedness, even over-excitability(?), can occur in individuals who are not gifted.



  1. Thanks for this post, and the link to "Coming Out Gifted" by Lisa Erickson, on one of my sites.

    The misunderstanding of giftedness attributes, even misdiagnosis as pathology, is a topic addressed in his article Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children: Gifted and LD, ADHD, OCD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder by James T. Webb, Ph.D. - who writes, "Many gifted and talented children (and adults) are being mis-diagnosed by psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, and other health care professionals."

  2. Another example of and reminder to beware of stereotyping---especially as clinicians. Thanks for the post.

  3. As a clinician, I have been working with people who are highly intelligent, divergent thinkers for years; they "think differently" than other people. It is not that they are "better," than others, rather, it is more a different way of synthesizing and integrating information. This other way can sometimes be overwhelming to themselves or others, can result in a variety of social, emotion and career challenges particular to this group.

  4. Dr. Seiger: Everyone is different. How do you determine whether someone is "more different" than others? Can you paint a picture of a different way of thinking? Are these the same people others might describe as gifted? Are their tests to measure such differences? How about people from history, like Marx, Freud, Galileo, Einstein, Hitler, Madoff? Anyone about whom you might ask, "What were they thinking?" Not to mention all those folks who don't seem to think at all. Will this warrant another category in DSM?

  5. As a person who is gifted and two spirited of which i came out young, coming out as a gifted person was just as difficult to announce albeit very relieving and a little scary. Reading the article only confirmed what i already knew and from my perspective on the money. I related very much to what she stated in her article and will hopefully have a conversation with her one day soon,in regards to it.

  6. Also i would like to say in regards to having a gift it does not necessarily mean a person is of higher intelligence to me it means having the ability to have a connection to understanding and seeing things and feeling and sensing things other people are'nt picking up. Knowing and sensing things ahead of time is very difficult to explain to people without sounding a little wierd. But we all know people like this are out there the extent of their gift only they really know. Connecting with spirit is also a gift. To me an uneducated person is how i percieve lisa's article.

  7. Catharine Alvarez, PhDFebruary 28, 2012 at 9:33 PM

    I see this is an older post, but it was just retweeted, so it's new to me!

    I read Lisa's article last year, and it really resonated with me. I think I understand what you're saying, moviedoc, that giftedness should be a good thing, and anyway, how do we know who is gifted?

    Here's the thing: extreme intellectual abilities can be painfully isolating. It becomes very difficult to find kindred spirits with whom to share the inner life of your mind. Many gifted people disguise their intellect in order to fit in, but at the cost of always having only superficial relationships with others.

    I completely agree with you that giftedness is not a disorder, nor should it be in the DSM. But it is absolutely relevant to psychotherapy where people typically explore issues around identity and relationships.

    If you're still interested in this topic, I highly recommend that you read Cheetahs on the Couch: Issues affecting the therapeutic working alliance with clients who are cognitively gifted by Aimee Yermish, PsyD

  8. Catharine Alvarez, PhDFebruary 28, 2012 at 9:42 PM

    Oh, I also wanted to address this point:

    "And unlike gay, there exists no moral or religious condemnation of smart or talented, no matter the degree."

    That's true. There is no moral or religious condemnation. But there are strong social taboos against appearing to be smarter than others, and many negative stereotypes of intelligent people--nerd? geek? egghead?

    People tend to feel threatened by smart people--evil genius? mad scientist? Gifted children are often bullied and ostracized.

    So insofar as "coming out" feels like a risk for a gay person (Will I be accepted for who I am?) the analogy to coming out as a gifted person is very strong. It feels like a risk to show one's true self, but a risk that must be taken in order to have the kind of intimate relationship that human beings crave.