Isolation is one of the main challenges faced by gifted individuals, especially those with no social network of gifted peers. In order to gain popularity, gifted children will often try to hide their abilities to win social approval. Strategies include underachievement (discussed below) and the use of less sophisticated vocabulary when among same-age peers than when among family members or other trusted individuals.
The isolation experienced by gifted individuals may not be caused by giftedness itself, but by society’s response to giftedness. Plucker and Levy have noted that, “in this culture, there appears to be a great pressure for people to be ‘normal’ with a considerable stigmaassociated with giftedness or talent.” To counteract this problem, gifted education professionals recommend creating a peer group based on common interests and abilities. The earlier this occurs, the more effective it is likely to be in preventing isolation.
Perfectionism is another issue for gifted individuals. It is encouraged by the fact that gifted individuals tend to be easily successful in much of what they do.
Healthy perfectionism refers to having high standards, a desire to achieve, conscientiousness, or high levels of responsibility. It is likely to be a virtue rather than a problem, even if gifted children may have difficulty with healthy perfectionism because they set standards that would be appropriate to their mental age (the level at which they think), but they cannot always meet them because they are bound to a younger body, or the social environment is restrictive. In such cases, outsiders may call some behavior perfectionism, while for the gifted this may be their standard.
“Perfectionism becomes desirable when it stimulates the healthy pursuit of excellence.”
Unhealthy perfectionism stems from equating one’s worth as a human being to one’s achievements, and the simultaneous belief that any work less than perfect is unacceptable and will lead to criticism. Because perfection in the majority of human activities is neither desirable, nor possible, this cognitive distortion creates self-doubt, performance anxiety and ultimately procrastination.
The unhealthy perfectionism can be triggered or further exaggerated by parents, siblings, school comrades with good or ill intentions. Parents are usually proud and will praise extensively the gifted child, on the other hand siblings, comrades and school bullies will generally become jealous of the intellectual ease of the gifted child and tease him or her about any minor imperfection in his work, strength, clothes, appearance, or behavior. Either approach—positive reinforcement from parents, or negative reactions from siblings and comrades for minor flaws—will push these kids into considering their worth to their peers as equal to their abilities and consider any imperfection as a serious defect in themselves. The unhealthy perfectionism can be further exaggerated when the child counter-attacks those who mocked him with their own weapons, i.e. their lower abilities, thus creating disdain in himself for low or even average performance.
There are many theories that try to explain the correlation between perfectionism and giftedness. Perfectionism becomes a problem as it frustrates and inhibits achievements.
D. E. Hamachek identified six specific, overlapping types of behavior associated with perfectionism. They include:
- A nagging “I should” feeling
- Shame and guilt feelings
- Face-saving behavior
- Shyness and procrastination
There is often a stark gap between the abilities of the gifted individual and his or her actual accomplishments. Many gifted students will perform extremely well on standardized or reasoning tests, only to fail a class exam. This disparity can result from various factors, such as loss of interest in too-easy classes or negative social consequences of being perceived as smart. Underachievement can also result from emotional or psychological factors, including depression, anxiety, perfectionism, or self-sabotage.
An often overlooked contributor to underachievement is undiagnosed learning differences. A gifted individual is less likely to be diagnosed with a learning disorder than a non gifted classmate, as the gifted child can more readily compensate for his/her paucities. This masking effect is dealt with by understanding that a difference of one standard deviation between scores constitutes a learning disability even if all of the scores are above average. In addition, many gifted children may underachieve because they have grown to believe that because of their intelligence, things should always come easily to them, and thus may lag behind their non-gifted peers in the work ethic required to learn things that don’t come immediately to them. One apparently effective way to attempt to reverse underachievement in gifted children includes educating teachers to provide enrichment projects based on students’ strengths and interests without attracting negative attention from peers.
It has been thought in the past that there is a correlation between giftedness and depression or suicide. This has generally not been proven. As Reis and Renzulli mention,
“With the exception of creatively gifted adolescents who are talented in writing or the visual arts, studies do not confirm that gifted individuals manifest significantly higher or lower rates or severity of depression than those for the general population…Gifted children’s advanced cognitive abilities, social isolation, sensitivity, and uneven development may cause them to face some challenging social and emotional issues, but their problem-solving abilities, advanced social skills, moral reasoning, out-of-school interests, and satisfaction in achievement may help them to be more resilient.”
Also, no research points to suicide rates being higher in gifted adolescents than other adolescents. However, a number of people have noted a higher incidence of existential depression, which is depression due to seemingly highly abstract concerns such as the finality of death, the ultimate unimportance of individual people, and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. Gifted individuals are also more likely to feel existential anxiety.
However, numerous studies have shown that an active depressive state impairs cognition because it retards neurogenesis in the hippocampus,
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