By: Janie Hong, Ph. D.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to some of the most brilliant minds. One curious consequence is the large bubble of individuals who have a history of being labeled as “gifted” AND also suffer from high anxiety. Why is that? What has become apparent to me- from both my practice and a review of the research on gifted individuals- is the very intelligence that has led to their success is also the cause of much of their suffering.
Individuals are identified as intellectually gifted when their IQ scores are at least 30 points higher than the average score of 100. At an IQ of 130, that person has a score that is higher than 98% of the population. The higher the IQ, the further the person is from experiencing and understanding the world like his or her peers, and is more likely to feel like an outsider. What is even more isolating for gifted adults (and children) is the bias that comes from others who see high IQ scores as something to only be celebrated. They are judged negatively if they share any aspects of their giftedness that is either positive (e.g., “What makes her think she’s so great?” “He doesn’t seem that smart to me”) or negative (e.g., “He’s seeking attention”; “He has nothing to complain about”) so that they quickly learn to closet their high intelligence.
Gifted individuals start life with a mental age that is higher than their chronological age. The higher an IQ score is, the greater the discrepancy between a person’s mental and actual age. Starting in early childhood, gifted kids will become aware of emotional consequences and possible dangers that their emotional system and experience level is not yet equipped to handle. For example, consider a 4 year-old gifted child whose mom reads a story where the main character is living with her stepmother because her mother died. Rather than glossing over the fact as “just part of the story”, that 4 year old is horrified. He emotionally grasps the loss that comes with the death of a parent, infers what the character may have felt because of the loss, and then considers how a similar loss would feel if he lost the very parent who is reading him the story. Along with this awareness, is his poorly equipped 4 year old emotion system. He has never had discussions with others about these ideas, nor has he developed emotional skills to manage such an overwhelming possibility. To him, this aspect of the story is shocking and creates a full-stop emotionally that cannot be undone.
The above type of story is common among my clients who have a history of intellectual giftedness. Their childhood is riddled with events where their cognitive awareness and empathy caused them to feel intense emotions by seemingly minor events. Anxiety happens when we do not feel safe. If someone experiences a sudden, intense rush of emotions without a clear reason why, or without a clear way to manage them, that person will feel unsafe and scared.
One of the ways we manage anxiety is when we are able to reference past experiences of safety or use skills to soothe and effectively solve the problem. When anxious, children may seek out rules for how to behave (or even made up their own magical rules) to help create a sense of predictability, or rely on being perfect to prevent unwanted consequences, or attempt to avoid any situation that may trigger high anxiety. These strategies can continue to adulthood and solidify into patterns of avoidance, rigidity, emotional numbing, and chronic worry. Of course, a person need not be gifted to develop such a trajectory of anxious problems, but being “gifted” can set a person down a path where high anxiety is more the rule than the exception.
The gifted mind is by definition a lonely one. There are few who are intellectual peers and many who judge the suffering of those who are gifted. With the large (albeit artificial) bubble of gifted minds in the Bay Area, there is an opportunity for like-minds to find community and understanding that normally would not be possible. Despite this opportunity, the loneliness and gifted closeting persists.
My hope is greater awareness of the difficulties that come with being gifted will give people the courage to come out of their closets to find their community. I also hope there will be greater willingness to see giftedness as part of the struggles they may be experiencing, and seek help if they need it. Being intellectually gifted means experiencing the world in a way that is “not normal” and is not always something to be celebrated.