Surprised to be gifted: the inner world of unrecognized giftedness

By Cat Robson

In her post “to my surprise…” on her site Temporary Reality, “neighbor” wrote about the experience of growing up gifted that many of us can relate to. [The site is apparently offline or removed.]

Below is an excerpt – published here by permission:

When I was little I was labelled Gifted.  God, it sounds so bad to just up and say that.  I’m sorry.  There’s such residual confusion mixed up with that phrase.  I’m not bragging (there’s nothing to brag about), just stating the history.

Woman's brain by Little Zoker/zenonlineI was enrolled in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) back when it was MGM (Mentally Gifted Minors) and when it was mostly a pull-out program.

I loved it – it was engaging and fun, full of creative thinking and problem solving, whereas from what I can tell now, it’s mostly a college-prep academic-overload program.

In retrospect I appreciate that it wasn’t a program that took me out of “regular” school – I wasn’t made to feel like I was any different from anyone else except once or twice a week I got to leave class and walk the empty halls to a room with puzzles and tumbling mats and art supplies and new activities.

The fact that I scored very high on aptitude tests didn’t even make its way into my consciousness.

Elementary school, with its mix of subjects and emphasis on general education suited me.  Lots to learn, lots to explore, a sense that there was so much available in the world to try and experience, room for experimentation and an openness to options were all characteristics of what I liked about school.

I was lucky that my desire to learn meshed with what was expected of me.

I got good grades, took the AP classes – seemed promising.

The story I’ve always told myself though, to explain why misery hit me head-on in between 8th and 10th grade, is that I was bored.

But I wasn’t bored – at least not bored enough to let me disappoint all those whose claims had been tacked onto me about how smart I was.

Even if I went through the motions I still got As and Bs – THAT was discouraging.

What I realize now is that I wasn’t technically bored with the subject matter, I was apalled by the purpose.  I could sense I was being groomed for a profession.  Suddenly everyone’s focus, if not on getting drunk or laid, was the requirement that we pick a college and a major and a career.

I’ve been suffering a perpetual mid-life crisis since I was 15.

And by suffering, I mean seriously suffering.

Here’s what some of it looked like (well, looks like, ’cause it’s still existent):

  • I’d never realized that my pure love of learning and being challenged, for its own sake, made me different.  I assumed it was the norm and that the norm was that everyone set that aside and accepted specialization and the inevitable full-time job without much complaint.  But then I was struck by the simultaneous recognition that I must be somehow outside the norm for my utter unwillingness to conform to that.
  • I never comprehended being praised (or considered gifted) for being my very regular self, for feeling downright average.  This led to few options:  a total distrust of praise; then a distrust of myself for not fulfilling the expectations put forth by the praise (am I supposed to be smart and successful?  What the hell is wrong then, because I just feel normal.).  Everything became wrapped up in second-guessing and self-doubt.
  • A long term, fundamental assumption that I am flawed for being unable to mold myself, force myself to match the acceptable mode of being.  I took all my divergent interests, my fabulous imaginings and wished for experiences, as proof of my failing.  Proof of success would be…well, success at something.

I turned sharply, deeply inward.  It was an attempt to understand the very ground on which I stood, on which I was founded.  I needed to understand what I perceived as my deviance, for not choosing a path, for not following but forging my own path, for… everything.

I was certain the universe hated me (as evidenced by its not “calling” me to fulfill my potential in any particular way), I hated my lack of conviction or gumption that, had it existed, would have allowed me to express my giftedness in one realm, to match, ultimately, the model of success we’re supposed to copy.

Existential depression (if only you knew).  Severe internal critic (it’s a wonder I’ve not bled all over the place).  Survival tactics that required I downplay my “strengths” (see, still can’t admit I have them), blend in (I’d never stand out in a crowd), keep my secret, imaginative dreams to myself (they’re dangerous, they reveal my true multi-facets and inconsistencies, my wild, irresponsible flights).

You Can Accomplish Anything You Set Your Mind To

If I’m good at everything I put my mind to, it’s my fault I’m not good at making a conventional living, that I’m not earning a pension with my 20 year loyalty to The Company, that I can’t follow through with anything (except what really fires me up), that I can’t just buckle down and do the job.


I ought to try harder?  Trim the edges a little more, squeeze a little to the left, bite my tongue.  Maybe that’ll work.

A Very Lonely Thing

Untitled Film Still #13, 1978, by Cindy ShermanOnly it hasn’t really worked – and believe me, I’ve tried: grad school, full-time employment, part-time employment, at-home parenting, freelance writing and editing, etc. etc..

Meanwhile, whenever my true nature shows, it’s met with:  “You need to choose something to do”  “maybe you should get another degree”  “what is it that you do?”  “it doesn’t matter what you do, just pick something”…

But the childish methods I adopted for survival have taken their toll.  It’s not a good idea to have a habit of silencing yourself.  Ideas trickle to a stop, my creative muse-mind shirks and hides and doesn’t want to talk to me, I’ve thrashed about with every job description in the universe and don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing (all the tests I take show the bleeping result being high aptitude in multiple fields – totally unhelpful).

I’ve decided an existentially depressed person is like an alcoholic – you’re never cured (likewise I knew it wouldn’t do to seek help, I don’t WANT to be reconciled to society’s norms!! And don’t get me started on anti-depressants! 100%  Not For Me).  I have become extremely hermetic about “what I do,” though I’m very generous and open about nearly every other aspect of my life and relating to people.

The first lightning bolt that struck was Can You Hear the Flowers Sing?  Issues for Gifted Adults from the Journal of Counseling and Development, May 1986.

Holy moly, mother of Toledo!  You mean there are ramifications for giftedness?  You mean it wasn’t a mis-characterization all along?  and that somebody else figured out that the road was bumpy?  Somebody understands!  And I’m not the only one?!

~ ~ ~


Finding the Gems in the Rough: the mission to identify and serve the unknowing gifted By Sara Harrier.

Gifted, Sensitive, In Need Of Meaning: Existential Depression.

Brainpower and The Smart GapBrainpower and The Smart Gap – It may be natural to feel frustrated at not being able to solve a math problem or some other challenge when we are growing up and still learning, but how do you feel about your abilities and your self, your identity, when you confront a deep gap between what you would like to accomplish, and what you believe you can?

Admit your gifts: Willem Kuipers on unrecognized giftedness and identity.

Discovering the Gifted Ex-Child By Stephanie S. Tolan

The Too Many Aptitudes Problem by Hank Pfeffer

Underachievement in Talented Females By Sally M. Reis, Ph.D.

More High Ability articles

High Ability site

High Ability / Facebook

Image of woman at bookshelf – “Untitled Film Still #13,” 1978, by Cindy Sherman – from article Are you a scanner personality?


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Originally posted 2010-03-19 17:01:25.


  1. Dear God,I don’t know how many times I had to say to self,” Am I the only one?”
    I live in very dysfunctional society,and when growing up I couldn’t understand other’s
    behavior,it confused me. I thought there was something wrong with ME!
    I need sites like this to counteract the imposter syndrome on old neural pathways.
    Thank you for being here.

  2. …and that’s good to know :-)

    I’d never thought to consider that there might be resources and research on this subject. It sounds like it should have been obvious, that I could have looked for some of those resources – at least I knew I had once qualified as ‘gifted’ even if I didn’t believe it actually meant anything. This has been a rather amazing discovery and I’m interested in all the new territory.

What do you think about these topics?