Gifted Women: Identity and Expression
by Douglas Eby
A wide range of personal characteristics may accompany being exceptional -- qualities that impact how gifted people see themselves, how others respond to them, and how fully they are able to realize and express their talents.
Qualities may include wanting to move fluidly from one pursuit or interest to the next; having impatience toward those who are less gifted; engaging in self-critical labeling as "scattered," having unusual excitability, high energy level, emotional reactivity, relentless curiosity, and other characteristics.
concern with using our intellectual capabilities "fully" and
in a "respected" talent domain may stand in the way of
finding an ultimately more satisfying life path.
book "This Time I Dance!.." Kieves encourages the honoring
of our intuitve wisdom, and releasing constraints based too
much on reason alone:
"Trust the process. A calling calls to remind you to enter the mystery of instinct and the metamorphosis of an inspired life. Honor your passion to emerge. Say yes to a supernatural, all-natural self within. Then let creativity transport you to the borderless places, the magical spaces, where caution cannot tread."
Many gifted women may have constraining experiences because of gender, such as being seen as threatening to some men - and other women - in positions of authority. Some may feel pain at being different from "the way women are supposed to be" and have a need to hide their abilities to "fit in" with more "normal" society.
called "gifted" as an uncomfortable burden, and will avoid
even allowing the thought they may, in fact, be gifted.
One fairly common reaction is feeling oneself to be an "impostor."
impostor phenomenon or syndrome began with the work of
psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who
wrote a paper on the topic in 1978.
They found many women with notable achievements also had high levels of self-doubt which could not be equated with self-esteem, anxiety, or other traits, and seemed to involve a deep sense of inauthenticity and an inability to internalize their successes.
had the belief they were "fooling" other people, were
"faking it" or getting by from having the right contacts
or just being "lucky." Many held a belief they would be
exposed as frauds or fakes.
With this fear, those who feel like impostors often "play safe" by avoiding exposure through competitiveness and intellectual challenge. They hide their talents. In at least one study, for example, qualified female students declined invitations to participate in honors programs, because of their perceived intellectual inadequacies.
topic (in her book "Smart Girls.."), Educator Barbara Kerr
notes a couple of possible dynamics in the development of
impostor feelings: one is that a girl is identified as
"the sensitive one" in contrast to a sibling, identified
as "the intelligent one."
Another scenario is that she has been constantly acclaimed as "smart" and "superior" but as she matures, encounters tasks that turn out to be very challenging.
Dr. Kerr writes, "Her difficulties now prompt her to believe that if she isn't a genius, she must actually be only average, or even dumb -- and clearly an imposter."
Another researcher, Lee Anne Bell, has defined this Impostor Syndrome as the "doubting and discrediting of one's abilities and achievements" and noted it is especially disabling for gifted women.
She also wrote that part of the discomfort women express with achievement "may not be a result of impostor feelings as much as a desire to equalize relationships and... disassociate from the male model of achievement." Another contributing factor, she says, is that "women tend to define competence as perfection and are often guided by standards that are unnecessarily high."
Bell notes that many accomplished women, with notable academic distinction, status, recognition and professional attainments, do not emotionally accept those signs of ability, but perceive themselves as slipping through the system undetected as fakes.
Referring to impostor feelings among career women, trainer, public speaker and consultant Valerie Young, PhD notes that their fears can "prevent them from fully enjoying their success and seizing opportunities, and can cause them to overwork to compensate for supposed deficiencies.
"But 'impostors' are not the only ones who pay a price," she continues, "the cost to their companies in terms of unrealized human potential can be enormous... When qualified workers fear risks, get caught in the 'expert trap,' and are prone to perfectionism and procrastination, there's a leak in the corporation's human resources pool."
To become more aware of impostor thinking, Young suggests, among other things, looking for stereotyping and self-defeating attitudes that can be reflected in speech, such as women prefacing sentences with disclaimers like "This may not be right, but..." and discounting accomplishments with "Anyone could have done it" or "It wasn't much."
less capable, less intelligent is a ploy that has probably
been used by many gifted women. When she began directing
in the forties, Ida Lupino sometimes claimed not to know
the best way to line up a shot or specify a line reading,
explaining "Men hate bossy women. Sometimes I pretend to
know less than I do."
to be less
women in the arts, such as Barbra Streisand, have endured
widespread negative reactions to expressing their
intellectual and creative abilities. "They fit in by pretending to be
less capable than they really are, disappearing
into the crowd."
"They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd."
Many gifted women were never identified as such, and don't appreciate their own high potential for expression in many areas. Many may also have been impaired by psychological and circumstantial factors, such as gender stereotyping, misogyny, race, dyslexia, mood disorders, cultural background and other issues that can affect self-actualization at many levels.
Commenting about some of the themes in one of her movies, Jodie Foster has commented, "Traditionally, women who excel have had to place themselves carefully, because the journey is so fraught with disrespect, not being allowed in, all the lack of acceptance, and old traditional wounds, but it doesn't have to be that way. 'Little Man Tate' is kind of about that, too: there's two women, one in some ways represents the head, one represents the heart.
our culture, women have had to choose between the two;
they weren't allowed to be both, allowed to be whole, in
some ways. So that little boy represents a kind of
repairing of that split between the two of them, because
he gets the chance to be something they were never able to
be." And, she adds, "I'm hoping, of course, that all that
has changed now."
One aspect of identity often related to giftedness is androgyny, a concept developed by Stanford University psychologist Sandra Bem. She does not view femininity and masculinity as opposite poles of a single continuum, but rather as parallel sets of traits. An androgynous person will have high levels of both so-called masculine traits (e.g. independence, autonomy, dominance) and feminine traits (warmth, awareness of others' feelings, expressiveness).
In her book "The Lenses of Gender" Bem argues that gender polarization can be very destructive personally and socially, and that there are many more variations of masculinity and femininity than society usually considers.
Given that calling a trait "masculine" or "feminine" is a bias, a number of psychologists and others have commented that creative people and gifted women tend to be more androgynous.
In her book "Revolution From Within" Gloria Steinem writes, "..females who are more 'androgynous' - that is, who incorporate more 'masculine' qualities along with their gender-appropriate ones - have considerably higher self-esteem than those who rate as exclusively 'feminine.' ...
"Studies of creativity make the point: creative people have both higher-than-average self-esteem and higher-than-average degrees of androgyny."
Psychologist Ellen Winner speculates in her book on the topic of exceptional children and prodigies, "Perhaps because gifted children reject mainstream values, they reject gender-stereotyped traits as well."
She refers to a study of gifted teens by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who found that "talented females scored highly on achievement motivation and dominance, two traits typically associated with males, and rejected traditional feminine values such as neatness."
Barbara Kerr notes "Although gifted girls were more like gifted boys in many ways, they nonetheless maintained attitudes, values and social behaviors expected of girls, perhaps to keep themselves from seeming markedly different from the norm."
This kind of protective stance is perhaps a reason some gifted girls and women may downplay their androgyny. Prof. Constance Hollinger has noted it may be anxiety producing for female adolescents to be told they can "be anything they want to be" in terms of career choices, and to face the ambiguity that they can be "both masculine and feminine."
norms is one of the themes of the film "Boys Don't Cry" -
about the transgendered life of Teena Brandon, who chose
to live as a boy.
be a factor in the inhibition of giftedness. One form is
depicted in the film of writer and director Mina Shum,
"Double Happiness", in which family attitudes undermine
the resolve and drive of a young woman, Jade, who is
struggling to become an actress.
Jade's father continually says, in effect if not directly, "You're just a girl so shut up; you don't have a right to an opinion."
of disrespect and erosion of esteem is of course not
limited to any particular culture or group, but it may be
especially destructive for the gifted, who are often
hypersensitive and especially vulnerable. More extreme
experiences such as rape and incest may have profound
impacts on women, gifted or not.
Talented women may hide abilities in order to survive socially.
a stereotyped view of what giftedness means (as merely
high IQ, for example) and feel that an identity as
"gifted" is incompatible with their self-concept.
may have a fear of failure or success related to living up
to the label, or have an aversion to being thought
"elitist", "superior", or "hogging all the glory" -- and
they may feel guilt, shame, or other destabilizing
feelings about being exceptional.
"Many who are truly superior... are reluctant to consider themselves 'better than' or 'above' others, in large part because a sense of humility accompanies their personal and spiritual power," M. Scott Peck has noted.
In his book "The Road Less Traveled and Beyond" he describes an interview with a young woman: "'I don't want to be a whiner' [she said]. 'Then you'll need to learn how to accept your superiority' I retorted. 'My what? What do you mean?'
not superior.' 'All your complaints - your whining, if you
will - center around your probably accurate assessment
that your dates aren't as smart as you, your professors
aren't as humble as you, and your fellow students aren't
as interesting as you.'" "The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed,
powerful girls shrink down to the size of a
thimble... And the other women around us... send
us the message that to survive as a woman, you
have to quiet that voice.
"The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, powerful girls shrink down to the size of a thimble... And the other women around us... send us the message that to survive as a woman, you have to quiet that voice.
"Virginia Woolf called it 'the angel in the house,' Fonda continued. "She would sit down to write from her core, and the shadow of the angel would cast itself over her page to say, 'I'm not sure you want to say that. People aren't going to understand that. You should be nicer, a little more feminine.' ... Hide your intelligence. Hide your power."
Developing a meaningful identity is a long process for everyone, and ideally includes for gifted children and adults a realistic self perception as being multitalented, with capacities in various domains of giftedness: cognitive, affective, physical, intuitive, and social.
multifaceted perception of identity seems to be especially
difficult for many women with exceptional abilities, who
may fear losing or compromising their emotional connection
of connection is motherhood. Sally Reis reports in her
book "Work Left Undone.." on her studies of women artists:
"The most financially successful artist of the group," she
writes, "commented that having children was undoubtedly
limiting if she compared herself to a woman who devoted
her whole being to art.
Another issue for gifted women may be shame. Mary Rocamora, director of the Rocamora School in Los Angeles, and a counselor of gifted and talented individuals, says she has also that one of the most significant barriers to the joy and expression of exceptional talent can be shame: "It is the 'leading cause of death' of the potential for actualizing giftedness" she declares.
of any child's self-esteem is devastating, but for the
gifted it is particularly so. The gifted I've worked with
tend to have had an extremely intense reaction to being
shamed or humiliated in early childhood. For some clients,
any attempt to achieve anything can trigger fear and
deadness, a sense that any effort to be Somebody is simply
a futile effort to avoid accepting that you are really
"The drive to express their inner creativity is heightened in many gifted individuals, and when the drive to create meets the wall of shame, it implodes into numbness, rage, depression and hopelessness." (From her article: "Counseling Issues...")
women in the arts may have the added pressure of intense
media focus, and are many times shamed and criticized for
body image and behaviors deemed "unacceptable" by
entertainment industry standards - at least the more
Multiple aspects of high ability
High intelligence is only one indicator of giftedness. Gifted individuals often live with perfectionism, introversion, idealism, extreme sensitivity, obsession, visionary perception and divergent thinking, which may be defined as "a preference for unusual, original and creative responses... divergent thinkers are often innovative in a number of fields... but may encounter difficulty in situations where group consensus is important, and do not work well for someone else." ("Warts and Rainbows..", by Deirdre V. Lovecky, Ph.D.).
in another article that "Divergent thinking has positive
social and emotional value. Gifted adults possessing this
trait are able to find creative solutions to a wide
variety of problems, including interpersonal problems, and
are able to see several aspects of any situation." [from
"Can You Hear The Flower Sing? Issues for Gifted Adults"]
"When I was a child, my family did not encourage me to develop my psychic abilities; in fact, I was discouraged," she has said. "In school there was nobody who encouraged me in this area, and I strayed very far from the whole psychic realm, and became skeptical about it. But since 1983 I've incorporated it into traditional medicine."
The inner experience of giftedness, including aspects such as divergent thinking and high sensitivity, can be mistaken for mental illness. But inner conflict and turmoil are signs, not usually of pathology, but of the emotional and intellectual complexity and reactivity that accompany giftedness.
An article on this topic by Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora ["Misdiagnosis of the Gifted"] notes "Gifted individuals face many challenges. One of them may be in getting correctly identified by psychotherapists and others as gifted. ... It is because these gifted children and adults have a finely tuned psychological structure and an organized awareness that they experience all of life differently and more Intensely than those around them.
"These characteristics, however, are frequently perceived by psychotherapists and others as evidence of a mental disturbance because most of the population lacks accurate information about the special characteristics of gifted individuals, couples and families."
book "Girl, Interrupted" Susanna Kaysen writes about the
struggles to find her identity as an artist and a person,
particularly within the context of being treated for a
"mental disorder" and having to follow often limited ideas
of what constituted help: Was I crazy or was I right? In
1967, this was a hard question to answer. Even
twenty-five years later, it's a hard question to
Was I crazy or was I right? In 1967, this was a hard question to answer. Even twenty-five years later, it's a hard question to answer."
Another issue related to being exceptional may be social isolation: true peer relationships are rare and demanding. Hypersensitivity to destructive influences from others may demand protective isolation, even from family members.
of a number of accomplished creative people is a family
undertow: others telling them they are responsible for the
ones in the family who aren't so successful: "Your younger
brother can't get a job - it's up to you to support them,
because you have all this money."
The family of some successful performers can be like quicksand, and very toxic. Women are typically trained to support and nourish relationships, and may find even the thought of isolation distressing.
Gifted people, having multiple talents, may have low tolerance for frustration, experience hypersensitivity to mediocrity in themselves and others, engage in misapplied perfectionism, easily get overextended, experience a deep reluctance to delegate, and project exorbitant standards onto others, especially those less gifted.
result in making vocational choices based on convenience,
prestige, money and other considerations, rather than core
personal values. Being gifted can lead to an overextension
of personal energy, to compartmentalizing talent in order
to produce rewarded results, to self-limiting career
choices, lifestyles and relationships, and impoverished
Emotional sensitivity and intensity, more than logical choice, may direct life and career choices.
Social reactions toward women, especially those who are gifted, may be demeaning and hostile. Labels like "scattered" and "bitchy", rather than "multifaceted" and "ambitious" may result from insecurities people feel around exceptional people.
The gifted woman's family may experience strong envy and antagonism. leading to active, though perhaps unconscious, discouragement of her realizing or even pursuing her unique potentials. Hostility toward women and toward exceptional ability can lead to compromised self-confidence.
for the gifted and for women are still often inconsistent,
even mutually exclusive. Films and other media often
reduce talented women to dependent glamour images, asexual
harridans, or into invisibility. The expressions of
intelligence and creativity are often not rewarded in the
same ways for women, and the reward of eminence is more
likely for men. "But I am fiercely intelligent,
which most people find very threatening."
"But I am fiercely intelligent, which most people find very threatening."
Another actress, Cheryl Miller, also notes that, even today, "It's considered not feminine to be intelligent. Whenever I speak, people are shocked, and then they're threatened, and I'm perceived as being too strong, and so forth."
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., thinks "It's hard enough to be gifted and creative in North America, where (unlike in Europe) if you're anything other than the typical person, it's inexcusable -- unforgivable in some ways. One possible explanation is that in a country founded on individual freedom, and where all of us are supposedly created equal - well, what if it turns out some people are smarter than the others? This idea is threatening.
"And more so for women," she adds. "Women aren't supposed to be smart enough to be threatening to a lot of men and to other women, and secondly, one of the myths is that a woman can be competent or smart, or she can be nurturant - but she can't be both.
you find some woman who's a genius, or is gifted, people
automatically assume that she's going to be a bitch, or
that she's going to be deficient. It's like a zero-sum
game within that person: the more intelligence she has,
the less humanity and warmth." "I hate it when I do it
unintentionally. I basically suffered for years
from chronic shyness. I've gotten over that
since I've had children, although I can still be
gauche and very reserved."
"I hate it when I do it unintentionally. I basically suffered for years from chronic shyness. I've gotten over that since I've had children, although I can still be gauche and very reserved."
Part of encouraging access to one's talents is a matter of resilience. Kathleen Noble, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor of Women's Studies, University of Washington, also has a private practice as a psychologist, working with gifted women.
She describes resilience as "a trifold process of recognizing and resisting the intrinsic and extrinsic obstacles that inhibit the development of one's potential. Resilience is the key. It's really the cornerstone of [my book] "Silver Horn.." and I think the way you go about enhancing resilience is to first of all recognize how critical a psychological factor it is.
"A woman has to look at her life objectively in terms of the kinds of obstacles she confronts, has confronted, perhaps will confront. You've got to know what you're up against."
"I think the third part of resilience is reaching out" she adds. "You have to be able to do that, for support, for nurturance, for commiseration. That can be reaching out to a book, to a group, another person in some way, or a therapist.
"Although the caveat there is to make sure your therapist is gifted, or else it can be an awful experience. Reaching out is really important, because I think a lot of women don't. We're really used to being there for other people, and not used to asking for help ourselves. And that's crucial."
Dr. Noble comments in her book Remarkable Women: "Although the path toward exceptional achievement is arduous, some highly capable individuals not only persist but illuminate new possibilities for us all."
vital and unique contributions to make in so many
fields, but may need to more fully acknowledge whatever
stands in the way of that expression.
As dancer Martha Graham cautioned,
"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it.
is not your business to determine how good it is,
Lynne Azpeitia, M.A. and Mary Rocamora, M.A. Misdiagnosis of the Gifted
Lee Anne Bell "The Gifted Woman as Impostor", Advanced Development Journal, Jan., 1990
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D. quotes from interview
Jane Fonda O, the Oprah Mag., July-Aug. 2000
Jodie Foster comments on "Little Man Tate" from interview
Constance Hollinger "Facilitating the Career Development of Gifted Young Women", Roeper Review, April, 1991
Deirdre V. Lovecky, Ph.D. "Warts and Rainbows: Issues in the Psychotherapy of the Gifted", Advanced Development, January, 1990
Deirdre V. Lovecky, Ph.D. Can You Hear The Flowers Sing? Issues for Gifted Adults
with Recognized and Unrecognized Gifted Adults,
Advanced Development, Jan., 1992
Ryan - “InStyle” October 2008
Hilary Swank: quote from Interview magazine, April, 2000
Kristin Scott Thomas Women.com interview, Oct.99
Valerie Young. "Are Achievers Draining Their Companies?", The Executive Female, 1986
Site of Dr. Valerie Young:
*Related articles :
Common Misconceptions About the Gifted by Mary Rocamora
of Women by
Women in Film: Identity and Power by Douglas Eby
Women Of Talent - Power and Leadership by Douglas Eby
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Sandra Bem, PhD The Lenses of Gender : Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D. They Say You're Crazy: How the World's Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who's Normal
Pauline Clance The Imposter Phenomenon : Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success
Petruska Clarkson The Achilles Syndrome : Overcoming the Secret Fear of Failure
Julie Ellis. Girls, Women and Giftedness contributions from 19 educators, researchers, psychologists etc.
Joan C. Harvey If I'm So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake : The Impostor Phenomenon
Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating
Susanna Kaysen. Girl, Interrupted (made into a film starring Winona Ryder; Angelina Jolie and others)
Barbara Kerr. Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness
Tama J Kieves. This Time I Dance!: Creating the Work You Love
Gene Landrum Profiles of Female Genius : Thirteen Creative Women Who Changed the World
Women : Perspectives on Female Talent
Kathleen Noble , PhD. The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Women's Lives
M. Scott Peck The Road Less Traveled and Beyond "Many who are truly superior will struggle against their genuine call to personal and civic power because they fear exercising authority. Usually, they are reluctant to consider themselves 'better than' or 'above' others, in large part because a sense of humility accompanies their personal and spiritual power."
Sally Reis, PhD: Work Left Undone: Choices and Compromises of Talented Women
Linda Silverman, PhD. Counseling the Gifted and Talented
June Singer Androgyny : The Opposites Within
Marylou Kelly Streznewski . Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential.
: Myths and Realities.
Related sites and pages :
intensity / sensitivity resources : articles sites books
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