To avoid being seen as too weird or different, and to fit in better with others, gifted children often learn to cover up their unusual abilities. As adults, many still follow a pattern of hiding.
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.”
She was working in a more restrictive and even misogynistic era, but research indicates even contemporary girls and women often suppress their advanced abilities, and still pretend to know less, be less capable.
Sally M. Reis, Ph.D. of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented has found that many girls and women not only try to minimize their differences, but some “begin to doubt that they really have abilities.”
That is one of the most potentially destructive aspects of hiding: losing belief in your own capabilities.
But covering up, not acknowledging, or discounting our talents and abilities is not just something done by girls and women.
As one example, a recent article in a Malaysian newspaper reported that a teen boy was excited about astrophysics but “afraid of being ridiculed, teased, resented or ostracised, he goes to great lengths to hide his giftedness.”
Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton declare in their book Now, Discover Your Strengths that most of us have little sense of our talents and strengths.
They explain, “Instead, guided by our parents, by our teachers, by our managers, and by psychology’s fascination with pathology, we become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives trying to repair these flaws, while our strengths lie dormant and neglected.”
Discounting or disparaging abilities
Many people may even discount their exceptional perceptions, empathy, high sensitivity, rapid sensory processing, intensity of feelings, concern for social issues and other aspects of high ability, or disparage them as “flaws” – especially in the face of negative social reactions and ignorance on the part of others.
Even trained mental health professionals may not understand the personality and psychological aspects of giftedness.
Of course, in some fields, such as entertainment, being different and exceptional is much more supported. People who can entertain are celebrated and rewarded, and many of them have exceptional creative talents.
Gifted adults and hiding giftedness
Mary-Elaine Jacobsen (author of the book The Gifted Adult) points out that exceptional intellectual and creative abilities “can lead to highly successful careers, sometimes in multiple fields.
She notes that eminent gifted and talented people can be inspiring role models, but at the same time, “glorified images of illustriousness can imply that early in life those who are truly gifted know exactly what they are to do with their lives and pursue their rightful lifework unimpeded – all the way to the full realization of their potential and the rewards of eminence.”
She cautions that the many barriers to achievement, including hiding abilities, can “easily engender deep disappointment instead of the anticipated coming-of-age gratification.”
Another writer and expert on giftedness, Stephanie S. Tolan, notes that many people with extraordinary minds are aware “not only of their mental capacities but of the degree to which those capacities set them apart. Thinking independently may seem foolhardy or antisocial.”
Feeling frustrated, tied down
She adds that not being able to find ways to make positive uses of their abilities can result in feelings of frustration, and lack of fulfillment, a sense of being tied down and thwarted.
Another issue related to hiding that Tolan writes about is self-identification.
She notes, “Many gifted adults seem to know very little about their minds and how they differ from more ‘ordinary’ minds. The result of this lack of self-knowledge is often low, sometimes cripplingly low self esteem.”
Tolan and others point out that it may require great courage, fortitude, and assertiveness to not be adjusted to the norm, and to craft a life that encourages the expression of exceptional abilities. But it is worth it.
Martin Luther King Jr. once commented, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
As author and workshop leader Barbara Sher puts it so poetically, “Every single one of us can do things that no one else can do – can love things that no one else can love. We are like violins. We can be used for doorstops, or we can make music. You know what to do.”