The Often Ignored Consequences of Being Gifted: On Misunderstanding Being Smart

Although routinely misunderstood as well, many people do acknowledge that standardized test scores by students are more strongly a marker for socioeconomic conditions of students and their parents than for student achievement or effort.

Despite efforts to create unbiased tests and to control for factors not related to achievement, standardized tests and similar measure of IQ remain weak indicators of what they claim to measure.

Giftedness, however, receives far less scrutiny for what it represents and how it is identified.

In both cases, we tend to jumble what we consider “smart.” For example, when students are tested for beginning algebra early, those students identified are usually directly and indirectly considered the smart group in a class.

These students are not necessarily smarter (whatever that is), but have developed abstract reasoning (brain development) sooner than some peers (see this as a consideration of being ready to do algebra, abstract mathematical reasoning). Biological age corresponds loosely with abstract reasoning development, but some people do not reach that level until late adolescence or even early adulthood.

While a teacher, I received training in gifted and talented education, but I really didn’t understand the label in a critical way until I was introduced through social media to Webb’s Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults.

What is very important here is that this discovery was a key step of my own struggles with anxiety.

Reading Webb’s analysis was a moment I will never forget. I cried throughout the article, tears of relief prompted by a recognition I had never experienced before. One of the most profound elements of that reading is this chart:

dabrowskis 1.jpg

I returned to this article and chart recently because my virtual colleague and fellow critical pedagogue Angela Dye raised a question about giftedness:

This time working back through Webb’s examination of Dabrowski has coincided with my own renewed journey to address my anxiety and life-long struggle with chronic pain.

The chart above, I think, is incredibly important since it balances and complicates identifying students and adults as “gifted.”

As I replied to Dye’s question, I am not necessarily against the label of “gifted” (although I do balk at most labeling), but:

I have noted above that many measures claiming to identify student achievement and intelligence (being “smart”) are misleading so I want to spend some time here unpacking the negative consequences.

First, giftedness in formal education often feeds into tracking. While tracking is popular, it is overwhelmingly not effective for any students, even those who receive the boost of being advanced. As the analysis of algebra readiness explains, students identified as “advanced” are biologically advanced; this is not about merit but an accident of human development.

Therefore, when giftedness is used for tracking, it is harmful and should be avoided—especially since it often signals incorrectly that some students are smarter (better, more deserving) than other students.

Next, identifying students as gifted has a great deal of potential if it is used for counseling instead of primarily for academics. I have often joked that OCD and ADHD helped me achieved a doctorate (and most of my successes in life, actually), but the really unfunny part of that is my life-long anxiety has robbed me of a great deal of pleasure that every person deserves.

Anxious people rarely live in the moment and even when successful are unable to enjoy that success, or even see it is as success.

Tracking children and teens as gifted in their academics often works to further mask the negative consequences outlined in the right-hand column above—intolerance of others, self-loathing, social awkwardness and isolation.

Since I teach at a highly selective university, my students tend to respond strongly when I discuss these dynamics. By misunderstanding and mislabeling “gifted” and “smart,” formal education perpetuates deeply unhealthy behaviors in young people who would be better served if they recognized early and began to address the profound struggles associated with crisis thinking, anxiety, and depression.

To some, recognizing giftedness as a positive (“smart,” “advanced”) may seem a welcomed alternative to deficit ideology and our cultural urge to pathologize and medicate; however, in this case, I am calling for expanding our recognition and response to giftedness to include the negative consequences so that children, teens, and adults can accentuate their strengths while also addressing the mental and physical toll of anxiety and depression—especially when those conditions are ignored, repressed in the sufferer.

For me, recognition and awareness have been liberating, an important first step to finding ways to heal. Most of my life, I have repressed my anxiety since it has caused me a great deal of physical pain as well as social stress since I am routinely misunderstood (my behavior is misinterpreted as negative personality traits instead of anxiety responses).

Since I did not have any real understanding of these mental challenges until I was 38, and then I didn’t discover Webb’s analysis of Dabrowski until a few years ago when I was in my early 50s, I have a tremendous mountain to climb—decades of self-harming habits that feel normal even as they cause me physical pain and diminish the quality of my life.

All of that, of course, exists in a professional and social context whereby people view me as highly successful, extremely smart, and profoundly overachieving—while also viewing me as impatient, bossy, domineering, arrogant, aloof, etc.

In the early 2000s during my first (and mostly failed) effort at therapy, I declared that I would gladly give up the positives from my anxiety for some relief. My therapist argued that the positives were a gift, although I was hard pressed to see that.

Now I recognize this was a nuanced conversation about giftedness that I was simply uninformed about. I also recognize that no one has to choose as I was willing to do because with awareness and help, those of us who suffer because we have qualities some see as gifts can alleviate the negative consequences if and when we come to recognize the full picture of who we are.