The Primary Importance of the
Inner Experience of Giftedness
Christiane Wells, MSW, is a writer, social worker, and doctoral candidate in
educational psychology at Walden University. Her dissertation topic is a
phenomenological exploration of the experience of parenting stress in
parents of children identified as twice-exceptional. Research interests
include the construct of giftedness, Dąbrowski’s theory of positive
disintegration, the creation of imaginary worlds, and qualitative research
methods. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
ABSTRACT: Based on my autoethnographic work, this paper illuminates
the consequences of allowing a focus on achievement to overshadow the
importance of the inner experience of giftedness. Growing up identified as
a gifted child, but lacking an awareness of what it means to be gifted,
created great inner conflict as I struggled with feeling too different and
out of sync from the norm. As an adult, I have found that Dąbrowski’s
theory of positive disintegration provides a framework for understanding
the power of multilevel development. Lacking guidance to help me
understand that these differences were indicators of strong developmental
potential—and not mental illness—led to two decades of inappropriate
treatment. To ignore or deny the inner experience is an injustice to gifted
individuals of all ages.
This article is based on what I have learned from a lifelong
search for understanding about who I am and where I belong in this
world as a gifted individual. It feels like both an introduction and a
homecoming, as I feel in some ways late to the party, in terms of
studying giftedness, and someone who has been here all along, if
only in spirit. Growing up identified as a gifted child and
participating in gifted programming, there was no discussion about
what it means to be gifted beyond achievement in academics.
Moving into young adulthood, with no guidance to help me
understand my intensity or existential struggles, I began a long
journey through the mental health system. Although many labels
were offered, the ones I accepted and internalized were bipolar
disorder, panic disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
Nearly four years ago, I first learned of the existence of the
phenomenon known as twice-exceptionality (2e), or the co-existence
of giftedness and at least one disability, in Silverman’s (2009) paper
“The Two-Edged Sword of Compensation: How the Gifted Cope
with Learning Disabilities.” Discovering 2e, at the age of 39, felt
illuminating and empowering, and I viewed it as the answer to the
question I had asked myself since the age of twelve—what is wrong
with me? Why was I so different from the other gifted kids? Driven
to learn more, I discovered a body of literature concerning 2e and
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found that I knew very little about the construct of giftedness outside
of my experiences.
At first, when learning about how giftedness is conceptualized
within the field of gifted education, I assumed a highly inclusive
definition of giftedness would be positive, perhaps a way to improve
the identification of twice-exceptional children, those possessing
both advanced cognitive abilities and co-occurring disabilities.
Although the initial intention of this paper was to discuss the
construct of 2e, it has become clear that there is little value in
championing the need for awareness of 2e if the construct of
giftedness is lost to defining giftedness through a talent development
focus (Tolan & Piechowski, 2013).
Presently, as I survey the path ahead, as a newcomer to the world
of gifted education, I am increasingly alarmed by the focus on
achievement and talent development as essential to defining
giftedness. Particularly troubling is the position that eminence “ought
to be the chief goal of gifted education” (Subotnik, Olszewski-
Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011, p. 4). Subotnik et al. are not the first to tie
giftedness to talent and achievement (Gagné, 2007; Renzulli, 1999;
Sternberg, Jarvin, & Grigorenko, 2011), but their monograph has
been embraced by large advocacy groups such as the National
Association for Gifted Children.
Regarding the need to address the emotional differences of gifted
children, Subotnik et al. make only a brief reference followed by the
statement that they have found inadequate evidence to support the
view that giftedness is a qualitatively different experience from the
norm. As for gifted adults, if one is not an “eminent producer,” they
should not expect to consider themselves worthy of the gifted label
following high school (Subotnik et al., p. 23). That a large body of
literature exists related to the population known as gifted adults calls
such a view into question (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Fiedler,
2016; Grobman, 2009; Jacobsen, 1999a, 1999b; Lewis & Kitano,
1992; Lovecky, 1986, 1990; Miller, Silverman, & Falk, 1994;
Perrone-McGovern., 2011; Prober, 2008; Rocamora, 1992; Roeper,
1991, 1999; Ruf, 1999; Tolan, 1995, 1999).
Dismissing the unique social and emotional needs of gifted
children or adults by denying the existence of their inner realities is
not progress. When the goal of gifted education is to prepare children
for a future of achievement and eminence, the natural consequence is
to leave another generation of children unprepared to move forward
in their adult development.
Until working on an autoethnography about my perceived 2e
experiences in 2014, I would have been hard-pressed to come up
with even one example of a theory of giftedness unrelated to
Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI). When I first
approached learning about 2e, I began with theories of intelligence,
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and a search for theories of intelligence delivers different results than
a search for theories of giftedness. Already familiar with MI, I read
Gardner’s (2011) Frames of Mind and wondered about my own MI
profile from Gardner’s perspective. I searched for literature about
what he describes as the personal intelligences, and discovered
Piechowski’s (1997) “Emotional Giftedness: The Measure of
In Piechowski’s work, I found answers about aspects of myself
that I had been unable to articulate, knowing that I had always
experienced a great deal of emotional intensity and sensitivity.
Suddenly I realized that there was a whole body of literature that I
had been unaware of, but because of the speed with which I work, I
did not allow myself time to reflect on what I had learned about
myself and moved directly to the references to find more answers.
Recognizing Linda Silverman’s (1994) name, I moved forward and
found much to relate to in her description of asynchronous
Perhaps due to my background in social work, I found the most
striking feature of asynchronous development to be its application
across diverse groups and recognition that gifted children do not
grow up in a vacuum but have parents, teachers, and other critical
adults in their lives. This definition addressed gifted individuals as
whole persons, sharing the common experience of being different
and misunderstood no matter their backgrounds. Giftedness as
defined by the Columbus Group in 1991 made sense:
Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced
cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create
inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively
different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with
higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted
renders them particularly vulnerable and requires
modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order
for them to develop optimally. (Silverman, 1997, p. 39)
Silverman’s (1997) work was packed with ideas that would take time
to process. Even the first line, in which she states that “to be gifted is
to be vulnerable” caused me to take a moment and consider how well
I know that to be accurate (p. 37). From that point, I felt a lessened
need to examine definitions, as this was the one that captured the
essence of being gifted.
The Experience of Giftedness
To say that I have faced challenges is a gross understatement.
The breadth of experiences that I can claim is wide—achievements,
traumatic events, addiction, extensive mislabeling, and misdiagnosis
in mental health treatment. While discovering the construct of 2e
helped me identify aspects of myself that had been puzzling, on its
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own 2e remained inadequate for explaining my history. A true
understanding required an appropriate conceptual lens. To make
meaning from my experiences, it was necessary to look for answers
in unexpected places and to challenge long-standing beliefs.
My life is best understood using a lens based on the work of
those who have brought an understanding to the world about the
vulnerability of the gifted and the importance of acknowledging and
supporting the qualitatively different experience of being gifted.
These include, but are not limited to: Cross & Cross, 2015; Daniels
& Piechowski, 2009; Delisle & Galbraith, 2002; Gross, 1998;
Hollingworth, 1926; Jackson & Moyle, 2009; Kline & Meckstroth,
1985; Lovecky, 1990; Maxwell, 1998; Morelock, 1992, 1996;
Neville, Piechowski, & Tolan, 2013; Peterson, 1997; Piechowski,
1979, 1986, 1989, 1997, 2003, 2009, 2014; Probst & Piechowski,
2012; Roedell, 1984; Roeper, 1982, 1991; Silverman, 1994, 1995,
1997, 1998; Sisk, 2005; Tolan, 1989; and Tucker & Hafenstein,
There is a significant volume of information available about my
life, ranging from childhood drawings to entire books, but the most
recent project I’ve undertaken is the previously mentioned
autoethnography, a meaning-making effort that has profoundly
changed my life (Wells, 2014, 2015). As a part of that process, I
attempted to share my experiences as a person who identifies as 2e
in a way that could reach a wide audience of individuals who might
relate to my story, knowing that I was presenting my work to groups
of academics who were potentially gifted and learning-disabled.
After the second presentation, I knew I was much closer to
discovering my purpose in life.
During my childhood, the field of gifted education was
blossoming when Piechowski (1979) introduced the work of Polish
theorist Kazimierz Dąbrowski, a psychiatrist and psychologist, in a
book called New Voices in Counseling the Gifted. Piechowski
advanced the concept of developmental potential (DP) as a model
addressing the underlying dimensions of giftedness.
As a central concept in Dabrowski’s theory of positive
disintegration, DP is made up of special talents and intelligence,
psychic overexcitability (OE), and the capacity for inner
transformation (Jackson, Moyle, & Piechowski, 2009).
Conceptualized as forms or dimensions of mental functioning, the
OEs are innate aspects of an individual which lead to heightened
sensitivity or excitability in one or more dimensions of psychic life
and are observable in gifted and talented individuals (Piechowski,
1979; Piechowski & Cunningham, 1985).
All five psychic overexcitabilities: psychomotor, sensual,
imaginational, intellectual, and emotional, have been present and
active all my life, experienced as countless variations of enthusiasm,
vivid imagination, emotional intensity, heightened sensual capacity,
and a love of learning for its own sake (Piechowski & Miller, 1995).
Born in 1973, I grew up in Milford, Connecticut living with my
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natural parents, possessing a great deal of developmental potential.
Verbal precocity was my special talent, and my development was
marked by asynchrony—reaching some developmental milestones
more rapidly than usual, and reaching others later than expected
(Silverman, 1997). For example, despite demonstrating high verbal
ability, I sometimes appeared immature for my age due to behavioral
issues. At school, I displayed an aggressiveness not usually seen in
girls, a difference which I always assumed was evidence of
dysfunction. From a more positive perspective, Csikszentmihalyi
(1996) and Maslow (1970) have described a similar resistance to
rigid gender roles as characteristics of creative and self-actualizing
When multiple OEs combined during the months leading up to
college in 1991, a book resulted, released under my maiden name,
Chris Campbell (1993), just days following my twentieth birthday.
No Guarantees described a battle to overcome drug and alcohol
addiction that did not occur entirely in the real world but was laced
with imaginal memories best explained through the phenomenon of
worldplay, or the creation of imaginary worlds in childhood
(Piechowski, 2014; Root-Bernstein, 2014). The book exists because,
during adolescence, I began the deliberate work of inner
transformation during a period of intense introspection and self-
development. Piechowski’s (2009, p. 191) model of multilevel
introspective emotional growth helps shed light on some of the
themes from my adolescence using eight components, including:
(1) awareness of growing and changing, (2) awareness of
feelings, interest in others and empathy toward them, (3)
occasional feelings of unreality, (4) inner dialogue, (5) self-
examination, (6) self-judgment, (7) searching,
problem-finding, asking existential questions, and (8)
awareness of one’s real self.
That fall, I was finally beginning to thrive as I learned to trust in
my way of learning and interacting with the world. During the first
quarter that year, there are as many positive comments on my report
card as there were in the two years prior combined. I was class
treasurer and club president of Students Against Drugs, which I
created with my best friends during the previous school year to
prevent substance abuse. Aware that public schools in my city had a
curriculum in place for students struggling with drug and alcohol
issues, it rankled me that my school did not, and I began to put
pressure on the private school I attended to implement a similar
A great deal of conflict ensued when I was unable to remain
calm during meetings with administrators. Still, for the first time in
high school I was doing well academically, even excelling in
multiple classes. The comments on my report card were dramatically
different and, for once, none of my teachers expressed concern that I
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was “not working to my potential.” During the autoethnography, I
made sense of these memories in relation to ADHD, assuming that
such a lack of emotional regulation was related to cognitive
dysfunction. Conceptualized through Dąbrowski’s theory, it is more
accurately understood as a consequence of multilevel development.
With emotional OE as my dominant mode of functioning, my
genuine desire to create positive change at school was often
overshadowed by behaviors I had not yet learned to control.
In adolescence, I lacked authoritative assistance as there was no
one to help me understand the complexities inherent in the inner
experience of giftedness. If I had understood that my learning style is
vastly different from the norm, and that it is fueled by my individual
combination of OEs, I could have approached my academic work
more effectively (Silverman, 1998). Instead, I was tormented by the
paradox of easily understanding the complex but not the simple, and
I berated myself for being unable to memorize facts and formulas.
My mind was often a source of both frustration and concern. The
description of “dual processing” in Gross (2009) helps make sense of
some of the issues I faced in adolescence, such as the times when my
ability to process more than one problem simultaneously was
mistaken for partial seizures. Until I learned that not all people
process information in the way that I do, in my early 40s, I assumed
this testing for seizures must have been related to ADHD.
Aware that I needed to gain greater control over my emotions, I
undertook a program of change. As the above events occurred, I
began seeing a new therapist who was struck by the intensity of my
anger. When I described the issues I was having with losing control
at school, he suggested this was a topic worthy of further
examination. That evening, I went to a bookstore in New Haven and
purchased a self-help book on anger that suggested keeping an anger
journal, rating one’s levels of anger throughout the day and noting
the triggers of anger.
During that term, I had enjoyed writing a journal for my religion
class, and decided to begin writing as a way of better understanding
my anger issue. Soon, goals related to anger switched to goals about
other areas of my life which I wanted to improve. It is interesting to
note that while I described other people’s perceptions of me as angry,
there is very little anger evident in the journal entries themselves.
Few people were aware of what I was really like, and the sincere
entries written in the journal for religion class provided that teacher a
window into my inner experience.
Unfortunately, the journal was too little, too late, to save me at
school. After making some very poor decisions, I was asked to
withdraw from school, three months into the year. During the
incident that led to this departure, I lied repeatedly to adults and
denied any involvement. In fact, I had lied to myself in my own
journal about the incident. My religion teacher finally confronted me,
and I found myself unable to lie to her. For the first time in years, I
cried at school, the feeling of shame and guilt so overpowering that I
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wanted to die. Although I had to leave the school, the administrators
and teachers showed great empathy for me, knowing that things were
more complicated than they appeared.
Leaving my beloved school was a painful experience. At times, it
felt nearly unbearable, and I learned that writing was an excellent
tool for coping, facilitating an awareness of the ways in which I was
changing and growing:
I wish I could understand myself better. Part of me is happy,
and wants to be successful, and do what I want to do. Then
again, there is the side of me that is angry and hurt, and
wanting something more out of life than I seem to be getting
(or earning). The part that is worst is the side of me I can’t
see at all. I think it’s harder to be me than people give me
credit for—just because I always have a smile on my face
doesn’t mean I’m happy. The only way I can come to grips
with my feelings is to write, so I am going to keep writing in
these notebooks until my pens run out. (Journal entry,
January 1990, age 16).
In the above entry, I describe the “happy-go-lucky façade,” which
Silverman (1997) discussed in her article about asynchronous
development, caused by the dissonance one feels when they struggle
with inner doubt and conflict but are unable to express themselves
authentically in the world. In my case, inner doubt was complicated
by the existence of an imaginal world, which also was a component
in the way that I learn experientially, through highly personal
meaning-making efforts. Hutchens and Morelock (2012) describe
this as a type of whole-brain thinking that allows for the perception
of multiple layers of meaning in which one “experiences the world in
all its interconnectedness” (p. 234).
If I can uphold strength in character, I will be able to achieve
my dreams—I may not know them all yet, but that is okay,
because I am happy to admit that my life is far from over. My
wish is not to help just one person—I want to help everyone,
and to at least touch the soul of all those I meet. If I am
sincere, and I know that I am, I will make the best of this
year. Even if I can’t be in the place I wish to be—I am a
better person every day. I will not allow myself to go back to
the person I was, I am truly happier this way. It was worth
spending the last year and a half working to achieve the
peace of mind that I have today. I have given credit to those
deserving it—certainly I was not alone on this venture.
(Journal entry, January 1990, age 16)
Writing helped me rebound, and two months after switching
schools I was involved in new extracurricular activities which
captured my heart. My journal entries are awash with thoughts about
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how I was growing and changing, particularly once I began
volunteering at Yale-New Haven Hospital in a program for students
hoping to pursue careers in medicine. I was deeply affected by the
death of a boy on the adolescent unit where I spent my time:
I think an important lesson I have learned is not to be self-
centered. I am more conscious of other people’s problems
instead of blindly focusing on my own. Life is not always fair,
but I am sure God must have a purpose for everything.
Otherwise twelve-year-old boys wouldn’t suffer and painfully
die from diseases like leukemia—only four months after
being diagnosed. If nothing else I learned from him that I
cannot take one thing in my life for granted. (Journal entry,
March 1990, age 16)
This was a period of intense emotional growth, and in No
Guarantees, I summarized my hospital experience briefly, and from
a Dąbrowskian perspective, this excerpt is rich with evidence of
At first, psychiatry and neurology were what interested me
most, but that changed. Cancer patients interested me more. I
sought to learn as much about oncology as I could. I often
went in to talk to the oncology patients, and I read their
charts at every opportunity. The nurses taught me as much as
they could about chemotherapy and other cancer treatments,
and about the disease in general. I worked on a project
dealing with acute leukemia. It fascinated me to the point of
not wanting to learn about anything else. I wanted to spend
all of my free time at the hospital. I was reading about
oncology constantly. I ignored my schoolwork and
concentrated on hematology and oncology. The hospital was
a place where I found something in myself that I had always
known existed. I wanted to help people. I felt a great need to
be there, to be involved in the healing process. (Campbell,
1993, p. 80)
In the above excerpt, one can see the presence of psychomotor
OE, as I described a high level of energy, a drivenness, and a
capacity for being energetic. Intellectual OE is clear from the desire
to learn about oncology on a deep level, to a point which interfered
with the work I was supposed to be doing at school. Emotional OE is
present in the empathy I felt toward the people I met at the hospital,
and my desire to heal them. There is also evidence of entelechy, a
concept Lovecky (1986) has used to describe the feeling that one is
propelled forward by a mission in life, or a guiding principle.
It seems worth noting that my academic achievement ended as
abruptly as it began that year. My cumulative high school GPA was
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2.25. Yet my academic self-concept was strong, and I dismissed the
concerns expressed at school about my mediocre performance:
They’re afraid I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing
half-baked work and not using my intelligence. Well, I beg to
differ with them—I have both purpose and direction in my
life. That I have achieved practically on my own. Granted,
with some help lately. I have every intention of utilizing my
summer well, working on projects, working at the Yale
Comprehensive Cancer Center, and at my normal job.
Someday I will be a physician—I don’t think that I have no
goals, and or that I do ‘half-baked’ work. (Journal entry,
June 1990, age 17)
The difference between my self-concept and the others’ perception of
me was a recurring issue. Part of the problem was a lack of
communication. If my guidance counselor had known about the
volunteering, or my passion for oncology, he might have been less
concerned. But he did not know, and neither did many other
important adults in my life. Grant (1995) has addressed this issue of
mistaking underachievement for unrealized potential, which is a
consequence of moving away from respecting the growth of the
spirit. Within this framework, one can see that the power of an inner
drive allowed me to create my own opportunities for learning in
ways that were meaningful and powerful. At the hospital, I presented
as my authentic self, and the people with whom I worked affirmed
my belief that I could become a physician someday. At school, I was
becoming someone else as a way to endure the process of
establishing myself in a new place, with new people.
Over thirty years ago, Kline and Meckstroth (1985) described the
need for awareness of gradients in abilities among the highly and
exceptionally gifted. They wrote that with great variation in abilities,
measured in standard deviations from the norm, there is an increased
potential for misunderstanding. My personal experiences affirm the
belief that asynchrony does not disappear in adulthood but continues
throughout the lifespan, manifesting in different ways. One
conclusion from my work is that a major obstacle in my ability to
realize my potential was feeling misunderstood, which stemmed
from being misunderstood (Wells, 2015).
In fact, there are numerous examples of what feeling
misunderstood looked like following high school, particularly once I
began to seek treatment for what I assumed to be mental illness
(Wells, 2014). Unfortunately, since I lacked awareness of the
essential aspects of giftedness, a cycle from childhood continued into
adulthood, and it did not occur to me that simply feeling too different
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from normal was not evidence that I was mentally ill (Piechowski,
1997). This knowledge might have made a world of difference when
I sought help, at age 19, for symptoms of internal conflict
manifesting in existential depression and anxiety, only to be
misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.
A primary motivation for undertaking the autoethnography was
that I found so little in the literature that I could relate to—I kept
hoping to find articles about people like me. As mentioned earlier,
there is a large body of literature on gifted adults but not about gifted
adults who have also been categorized—at times—as “chronically
mentally ill” or addicted to drugs. The spark of recognition, the
awareness that one is not alone, is a benefit of telling stories that
reveal vulnerabilities. A critical issue to address is the phenomenon
of feeling misunderstood, including a lack of understanding of one’s
self as well as a perceived lack of understanding by others.
Condon (2008) conducted a concept analysis of the phenomenon
of feeling misunderstood and found that three characteristics present
in people who feel misunderstood: disquietude, discordant
perceptions, and an increased cognizance of emotions. At age 20, I
acknowledged feeling misunderstood:
I think that one of the biggest problems I have is that other
people misunderstand me. Since others are socialized in
ways that I don’t conform, their perceptions of me are almost
always wrong. (Journal entry, January 1994, age 20)
Reflecting on what I wrote as a young adult, this phenomenon
was amplified because I did not understand myself. One month
following the above entry, I was struggling with depression and
Who am I, anyway? When I look in the mirror I don’t even
know who I am anymore. Not that I ever really did. I
remember when I was younger, I would stop and start
thinking about who I was, and I’d realize that I felt like I was
in a movie and everyone else’s life was real but I wasn’t. I
didn’t really exist. I don’t know how that must have been, but
I recall it was scary. Like a bad dream that never ended. I
put on a pretty good act. I seem like a pretty together person.
But I’m not. (Journal entry, February 1994, age 20)
By the time I was 23 years old, I was being encouraged to
embrace the (mis)diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and part of the
acceptance, for me, was to share the information with people I had
known since childhood or adolescence. When this news—that I had a
severe mental illness—was not immediately embraced, it created
conflict and fueled the lingering uncertainty I kept hoping to
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It’s funny how you look at the world after you have a nervous
breakdown (or two), because then it’s basically before and
after, and the shit in between. For example, a hospitalization
or something. I’m a lot different now, mentally, than I was
before. More laid back, which in retrospect is something to
be thankful for. Now I just accept the fact that I am mentally
ill. Even though the words still leave me feeling like a
failure. I’ve seen signs that say things like, “Mental illness is
a no-fault disease,” and shit like that, but it’s not really true.
Being bipolar makes me, separates me—to society. (Journal
entry, April 1996, age 23)
Family and friends expressed confidence in my ability to
overcome, using my strong will, and it felt infuriating. The most
frequent remark, noted in my journal on many occasions, was that
my family and friends believed that I was overmedicated. A review
of my medical records, and the increased frequency of the phrases go
to sleep and take a nap in my journals reflects that this was an
accurate perception. For years, I took unnecessary medication,
inadvertently placing obstacles in the path of my development. This
issue is one I plan to explore further, including the appropriateness of
the ADHD diagnosis that I was given at age 24 but did not treat until
I was 40 years old. Differentiating overexcitability from dysfunction,
such as ADHD, is complex, but it is possible, and undoubtedly an
area worthy of investigation (Probst & Piechowski, 2012).
Fulfilling My Mission
That this article was written suggests that I managed to achieve a
state of relative wellness, despite facing a significant amount of
adversity well into my twenties. How did such changes occur? The
question of how I made the critical changes in my life, allowing me
to pull away from the dark world of addiction and illness in which I
once lived, has been the big question. It is an inevitable aspect of any
discussion with strangers about my life story, and it is only recently
that I have had an answer.
The answer is both simple and complex—I realized that I could
change if I wanted to, and had reached a point in which I desperately
wanted a better life, so I created such a life for myself by seizing
opportunity. When I was offered the chance to move to a different
city, I undertook deliberate work to identify the positive aspects of
myself and leave behind my role as mentally ill and disabled.
From developing an imaginal world in childhood, my ability to
visualize alternate realities was well-established at age 26, as I had
maintained the world into adulthood. Hypnotherapy sessions the
previous year had taught me to enhance this ability and focus it in a
more purposeful manner, to create change. Using the imaginal world,
I first pictured what it would look like to live a different life. This
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manner of rehearsal seems to have been a key to successfully moving
from chronic mental illness and addiction to crack cocaine, first, to
someone able to work at a regular job, and eventually, able to return
to school and pursue the fulfillment of my mission in life.
I just read a book about the juvenile court system here in Los
Angeles and I wish I could help kids who are trapped in the
system. First, I need to stabilize both at home and at work.
Jason is my priority over work, but work makes Jason feel
secure, which means it’s crucial I stay at this job, or at least
get another job lined up before I leave. Then I want to go to
school and work on my degree. I need to major in sociology
and perhaps get my master’s degree in social work. But that
is in the future. It’s important that I stay in the present.
(Journal entry, August 2001, age 28)
Similar to gradients of abilities, there are gradients of emotional
development. As confidence in my development increased, I was
able to turn away from allowing others to define who I was and
where I was going. Following the autoethnography, in 2015, I found
that I did not relate to the concept of “recovery” from mental illness
when the concept is defined as a return to a previously experienced
state of functioning or health (Whitwell, 1999). I knew that such a
belief would be false and not characteristic of my lived experiences.
This is yet another way that I’ve found answers in Dąbrowski’s
theory. The wellness that I’ve achieved is not a recovery from mental
illness but a different, higher level of functioning and development.
Uncovering the constructs that I study, in my personal
history, I continue to be aware of self-stigma. It’s a special
kind of torture to spend your days revealing stigma.
Discovering trauma that your brain had protected you from,
reading the biased language of mental health records,
realizing the magnitude of being an outlier. For example,
each time I have to troubleshoot a major computer issue, I
realize that I’m good at it because I see multiple solutions.
There’s always one more thing to try. Some new way to get
around the obstacle, a better fix. It’s part of who I am—when
faced with a problem, I can persevere because I see so many
possible answers. I don’t give up easily. This was seen as a
negative trait in treatment. Every barrier was surmountable
if I kept trying...but when my goal was at odds with another
person’s? It was a sickness. A character flaw. (Journal entry,
August 2015, age 42)
Finally, in my forties, it was time to fully reject mental illness as
part of my identity, and truly examine what had happened in my life,
no matter how painful. In order to fulfill my purpose and destiny, I
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had to trust myself, and my intuition, and accept a degree of otherness
that, for much of my life, had felt too lonely to comprehend.
Critics of the position I am taking, that the inner experience is of
critical importance, might argue that my case is not representative of
the population of individuals who are gifted. However, enormous
volumes of data, such as personal journals and medical records, exist
but never become part of the academic world because of the deeply
private nature of such information. This type of data is often not
shared among close friends, let alone in settings such as journals or
conference presentations. Fortunately, it does happen, and there are
examples of the phenomenon I am about to describe, which is the
experience of knowing that other people have related to my story so
deeply that it moves them to tears (Tolan, 2012).
Since the release of No Guarantees and more recently, my
autoethnography, I have received numerous messages from people
who have related so much with my story that they felt compelled to
seek me out to share their new self-awareness. This is one of several
messages that I received, which are strikingly similar, in the months
after I presented the second part of “Too Smart for Your Own Good:
The Paradoxical Experience of Twice-Exceptionality (2e)” (Wells,
I just watched your conference presentation, and to be
honest, I’m crying because I’m so glad there’s someone out
there who shares my experiences. I’m a 26-year-old woman
with bipolar and ADHD (both diagnosed when I was 22),
and I am intellectually gifted, but I didn’t even know 2e was
a thing until today. I really identify with what you said about
being told during childhood that you could do anything
because of your giftedness, only to be unable to reach it
because of disability. (Allie, personal communication,
February 12, 2015)
Although many people with allegiance to an achievement-
oriented construct of giftedness will be unmoved by this paper, I am
undeterred by the enormity of the task before me. Many others have
paved the way for me to help bring awareness to the importance of
the inner experience of giftedness, and there are great numbers of
parents who will hear my words and take heart. Ultimately, parents
deserve a place in any conversation about giftedness, not only
because of their children’s potentials for eminence, but also because
they may be gifted and able to understand their children in a way few
others can. These parents feel tired, defeated, disrespected, and
unsupported by their schools and, by extension, the field of gifted
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The inner experience of giftedness exists and can be observed
using Dąbrowski’s work as a framework for understanding (Jackson
et al., 2009; Piechowski, 1989, 2014). Through my work I hope to
contribute by increasing awareness of the inner experience of
giftedness as a way of helping others feel less misunderstood. Part of
my process of self-acceptance is a willingness to share my
experiences in full, as an example of what it is like to grow up
without cognizance of essential aspects of oneself as an outlier. It is
unsurprising that no adults possessed the tools to help me understand
the nature of giftedness when I was growing up, in the 1980s, with
such little public awareness about giftedness. However, this is a
different age, and it is unacceptable to leave the emotional
development of gifted children out of the picture.
Examining the literature in the field of gifted education indicates
such a stance is well-founded as there is no shortage of research
concerning the social and emotional issues faced by gifted children
and adolescents. Thus, ignoring this aspect of the experience of
giftedness is not simply misguided but the cause of harm. As long as
the inner experience is not addressed by educators, researchers, and
clinicians, the misunderstanding of gifted individuals, and the
potential for misdiagnosis, will continue.
No adults possessed the tools to help me understand the nature of
giftedness when I was growing up, in the 1980s, with such little
public awareness about giftedness. However, there is no shortage of
research concerning the social and emotional issues faced by gifted
individuals of all ages. With that in mind, the following points
summarize areas in need of further consideration and study.
1. An individual who does not understand what it means to be
gifted is lacking the foundation for authentic expression. As self-
awareness increases, knowledge of the existence of the inner
experience of giftedness can be viewed as protection from the
incorrect conclusion that one’s differences from the norm must be
pathological. There is a need for true guidance of gifted children and
adults in this area, perhaps through mentoring relationships.
2. Eminence as the goal of gifted education is dehumanizing and
creates a system in which children are reduced to commodities.
Instead, the goal should be developing personal growth, from which
the realization of talent is a natural outcome. The construct of
asynchronous development honors the inner experience as an
integral component of giftedness, recognizes levels of giftedness,
and allows for an understanding which transcends culturally bound
conceptions of achievement.
3. Respecting cognitive styles, and the emotional reality of
imaginal experiences, is of critical importance. Attempting to
discourage or shut down an individual’s unique experiential channels
is to cut off one’s way of understanding, creating meaning, and
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Inner Experience of Giftedness
coping in both the internal and external worlds. The result is a
disruption in one’s learning and creativity, an obstacle in one’s drive
for internal consistency, and the cause of significant emotional
4. Gifted individuals and parents of gifted children must
understand that accepting a mental health diagnosis can lead to grave
consequences, such as inappropriate treatment, discrimination, and
worst of all, self-stigma. Dąbrowski’s theory of positive
disintegration is an alternative framework, a way to avoid
pathologizing the expression of multilevel development. As long as
the inner experience is not addressed by educators, researchers, and
clinicians, the misunderstanding of gifted individuals, and the
potential for misdiagnosis, will continue. Ignoring the inner
experience of giftedness is not simply misguided but the cause of
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