Was I ever even "gifted"?
November 9, 2021 3:14 AM   Subscribe

I think a lot of emotional pain I'm experiencing now is due to the fact that throughout my childhood I was considered academically gifted and based my identity around that. I have miserably, catastrophically failed to live up to that. But I am wondering now, was I ever even gifted? When I analyse my upbringing I had advantages that others didn't have. Could you read my story and tell me what you think?

Growing up, me and my siblings didn't have a TV or a radio - all we did was read. We tore through the library and probably read about 10 books a week - children's books. My parents also paid for us to have Maths and English tutors from a young age on and off, right the way through to until I was about 16. The home environment was abusive and controlling.

I grasped things quickly and everyone said I was academically smart, but also I got the label of being very socially slow and not on the ball (true). I'm very unaware and in my own head.

My home maths tutor praised me and said I was excellent at Maths, I think I grasped things quicker than my siblings, apart from my older brother who was smarter than me. I got the reputation in the family of being effortlessly smart (academically). My Mum wanted me to be a doctor so I convinced myself that's what I would be. I went to a grammar school (selective school with an entry exam at aged 11). I got a very high score in that.

I was always top 5 in the class for all my subjects without ever really trying. This is what kept my self esteem afloat as I was extremely shy and anxious and felt ashamed of my family and poor immigrant background in a class of very middle class white girls. I developed what I believe was clinical depression and social anxiety as a result of childhood trauma at 16 and did poorly in A level Maths. I gave up my dreams of being a doctor as I felt I was too socially anxious. I also disliked Chemistry strongly and got a C in it and dropped it. The only thing I started loving was English Literature - we read Hamlet and I could relate to his depression and existential angst. I got 100% in my English coursework and 96% in the exam. But I failed to get into the uni I was offered, I think part of this was because I applied to study accounting which I loathed the idea of doing (I'm still doing it now).

The only options that I felt were available to me at the time were doctor, lawyer or accountant and the first two were ruled out due to terrible social anxiety. I did end up doing an Accounting degree at a crap university and doing poorly. I regret this as you don't even need to study an Accounting degree to get into Accounting so I ruined 3 years of my life when I could have been studying something I enjoyed.

Ever since going to uni, I have been terribly failing everything. I can't concentrate. I tried to redo my Maths A-level at 20 and got a B, again. I watched my peers surpass me academically, those who I thought I was smarter than got into red brick Unis and got high grades.

Was I ever even "gifted"? I mean, I had personal tutors and all I did was read growing up- wouldn't anyone in that position become pretty smart?
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (38 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you were and are smart. Probably so smart you did not develop learning or study habits that would let you succeed at uni. Those are skills that can be learned, but you didn't start developing them at a typical rate.

The real problem here seems to be childhood trauma. Dealing with that trauma and resulting anxiety/depression can help you figure you a career and life path that you want. I'd try to start talking with a therapist. Have controlling parents can prevent your personality and likes from fully forming, and your post makes it sound like this happened to you. You need to heal from this with a therapist and give yourself some time to discover what you really find meaningful and fulfilling. I don't think that's going to be related to grades but it could be using your mental abilities to do something you love that can help others.
posted by Kalmya at 3:30 AM on November 9, 2021 [64 favorites]

Yes, you were gifted. And you need therapy, like Kalmya says.
Let me expand on that a bit. I had very similar experiences to yours, though we had a TV at home. We were immigrants, my parents were abusive, I was painfully shy, and I learnt to read early on and excelled at math and all the other subjects. At one point, I was at an American school in Germany where they did an IQ test on me, which led to me being moved to an other grade, where the age difference was so huge that I became very lonely on top of all the other issues. Eventually, we went back to our original country, and my grandmothers were both able to help me a lot, which I retrospectively think saved me from a lot of abuse and loneliness. But the thing of relevance to you is that came into puberty very late, and at a time when it really interfered with my studies. My final exams mostly went really badly, specially in math and the sciences. Like you, I discovered literature and the other humanities subjects, which sort of saved me from total disgrace.
But for me, the failure turned out to be a sort of blessing, because my parents stopped having ambitions on my behalf and I chose a field I love, and surprised everyone by doing well in that.
You can still do that. I've changed careers more than once, last time I did I was 52, and right now, I have been urged to apply for a job in a completely different field again. I haven't decided if I'll do it, yet.
posted by mumimor at 3:41 AM on November 9, 2021 [13 favorites]

I'd just like to say that you aren't the only one. For the longest time everything I attempted academically felt beneath me. Until it came to things that required planning and sustained effort over longer periods because no level of ability could get the work done in a single push. After that I was pretty much lost. Turns out that ADHD is a harsh mistress. It giveth and it taketh away.

What you're experiencing is very common among people who were labeled as gifted children. Many people have tutors and still only manage to reach average achievement academically. (And that's perfectly ok! Plenty of people who do poorly in school turn out to be great at real world jobs!)
posted by wierdo at 3:47 AM on November 9, 2021 [24 favorites]

No, not everyone with access to personal tutors and unlimited books would grow up "smart". Not everyone with access to books loves to read. For example, many children are heavily tutored in an attempt to pass the 11+ and they do not pass. Many children need heavy tutoring to get the kinds of grades you got without really trying. While the majority of people can learn almost anything if they put their minds to it, not nearly everyone can grasp things quickly.

Getting a B at Maths A-Level is not failing. Very specifically, while failing academically says nothing bad about a person, that is not an example of academic failure in any case. It is a very competent grade that suggests you have mastered the material.

People who learn things quickly, often don't learn good study habits or how to approach material that is difficult. But those things can absolutely be learned. I learned mine a little bit at uni but mainly through gainful employment.

Regardless of your actual age, you sound like you are still young to me. I am in my early 40s. I know a lot of smart, gifted people about my age whose academic journeys came unstuck at the GCSE, A-Level, or degree stages. Some of them due to trauma, depression, anxiety, ADHD, or other factors. Some for no particularly good reason. All of them have gone on to have productive and fulfilling careers, many in fields that are well paid. Several have gone back to masters level study in later life (including people with no undergraduate degree at all) and due to increased life skills have gained excellent results.

You are not a fraud or an imposter. You are smart and gifted. Your life is at most very temporarily off-track, probably as a result of trauma maybe with compounding factors. You can get onto a track you are happy with, it probably just needs a bit of work both on your mental health and finding a career (or other approach to earning money and finding fulfilment) that will make you happy.
posted by plonkee at 3:49 AM on November 9, 2021 [11 favorites]

Oh boy, book ahead. I went to a high school for academically gifted kids, like "write nerdy exam to get in" and "our school cheer goes 'Themistocles, Thermopylae, the Peloponnesian War! X squared, Y squared, H2SO4!"

I also fell apart in university due to childhood trauma.

So there are two ways to look at "book smarts." One is a fixed mindset - if you're smart, you just learn/know things, and if you're not you don't. One is a growth mindset - that a big part of the equation of learning and growing is your capacity to well, try things and keep at them as well as keep learning.

Gifted kids, even the concept of 'gifted,' is rooted in a fixed mindset. You're born smart and you are smart. In my experience though, what society calls gifted kids are usually what are called asynchronous learners. They pick up certain skills easily and early, often reading, and seem to make jumps in their learning. This is a lovely thing and those kids do need instruction that meets them where they are. But traditional school, even a lot of traditional gifted education (isn't that term awful??) can fall into a pitfall of inculcating a fixed mindset. Just as an easy example, in my public school board now where my kids are, they test for the gifted program in grade 3. That's it. They don't keep testing to see whose brain/executive function has caught up.

Also in middle-class environments a lot of gifted education is really about how pushy the parents are.

What does that mean for you? It means this. You are likely very smart. But you learned somewhere two things:

1. Your worth depends on your smartness. For me, I was trotted out as smart and a credit to my family on a regular basis. My school told us we were the future of humanity, no fucking joke. Do I want to use all my talents - my empathy and my sensitivity and the work of my hands - as well as smarts in the service of humanity? Yeah, I do. But I am also a full-out human being and my worth is not dependent on my contribution. I am worthy.

2. Smart means you can overcome academic obstacles no matter what. No, it doesn't. One of the smartest people I went to high school with was recognized as a genius in his field - and committed suicide. One thing he was not genius at was getting help.

I would, if possible, set aside the doctor/lawyer/accountant question. You're smart, but you've learned just that smartness is not sufficient in any way. It hasn't yet made you happy, except in the past when your family and friends praised you for it. (Which is fine!!) It hasn't given you success yet, possibly because you don't actually know really what you want to succeed at. It can't solve your feelings of anxiety and depression for you. That's because it's a great thing but limited.

So the joy is, it's a tool you have in figuring out what else you need. Therapy, meds, time off school to find out what you want to do, extra time to absorb math, the ability to see a B as fine, plus 1,000,000 other things.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:01 AM on November 9, 2021 [50 favorites]

The single most helpful advice I've received is that it's best to think of gifted as a *LEARNING STYLE* instead of as a mark of your personal worth or an expectation of your success. As a learning style, giftedness often means that you pick up particularly quickly, almost as if by osmosis. You're often autodidactic and intellectually curious, especially in the topics you love, you're often hyper intuitive and good at understanding systems and patterns, you often test well.

Those are all good things, and they can certainly make life easier and more interesting, but giftedness isn't better. Just different.

There are many ways to be successful and happy as a gifted person -- some of my friends have big, important jobs. Another good friend devoted the first part of her life to theater projects and parenthood is now, in her mid-40s, using her skills to help build a hospital in an underserved area and is just being a super kind and rad person in general. I'm also in my mid-40s and have sort of bounced around professionally and I'll never have a big important job, but I'm learning to work through all the anxiety that that particular classification crushed me with (I had to force myself to start seeing perfect as the enemy of good or good enough) and see giftedness as a way to connect with others.

Metafilter is chock full of folks who were classified as gifted, so you'll get a lot of good insights here. I just wanted to ask you to begin with this -- giftedness as a learning style and personal perspective -- as you read through the other responses.
posted by mochapickle at 4:22 AM on November 9, 2021 [56 favorites]

It is really common for kids who are ahead of their peers in one area to be behind in another.

It is really common for people who grow up in a controlling environment to have a hard time with the transition away from that environment.

It is really common for people with depression to struggle with material that doesn’t seem to difficult to them on its face.

It is really common to get a B in a math class.

If you feel like a gifted label is holding you back, discard it freely. But it’s also okay to be struggling, no matter the label.

(As someone who has had similar but not identical problems, I have found it very useful to have a hobby I am objectively bad at, and to really lean into the badness and practice being okay with it. I find it a major pressure release valve to, say, draw an extremely ugly cat and be able to kind of roll around in how ugly of a cat it is and be relieved that I can be a flawed human being just like everyone else that I love.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:53 AM on November 9, 2021 [12 favorites]

I am concerned that you seem to be stuck with this problem of self esteem and unable to move on from it. You have asked some very similar questions here before.
Maybe as an exercise, write out the answers you would most like to get, and also the answers you are most afraid of getting.
In my experience, when I am craving reassurance, the person most likely to give that to me is myself, and until I can do that, I will keep looking for it in places that can't really deliver.
What would help you to accept your own worth? Is that thing possible? Is it judgmental? Is it kind?
I think you are at the stage where AskMeta can't be of much help, and you might need to find a way to get therapy.
Needing reassurance and external validation are both rational and normal human needs. But it's important to channel that need in a direction where it can lead to something constructive, and I get the impression that this is not the place.
posted by Zumbador at 5:00 AM on November 9, 2021 [19 favorites]

You're less gifted than some and more gifted than others in the particular skills your culture values (and those change over time). There's a joke I saw online recently you might enjoy. A person described her halloween costume as "a former prodigy." It consisted of people asking hew what she was supposed to be and she answered with "I was supposed to be a lot of things."

The problem in the present is that you built your self esteem on your "gifts" but as you age you're no longer measured by your potential but by your achievements. In the end, the only solution is to stop thinking in terms of the contest of who is superior to whom and realize we all have intrinsic value as humans. This kind of adjustment is a lot harder to make than it is to summarize in a sentence. Therapy can help. It's a long term project.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:02 AM on November 9, 2021 [16 favorites]

I mean, why on earth would it even matter? Yes, you were gifted at some things (things that your abusive and controlling parents valued, it sounds like). "Giftedness" alone is not a predictor of success (basically all it means *some* things come more easily to you), so if you are not as successful as you would like, that doesn't mean you've "squandered your gift" or some nonsense, it probably just means you have other things going on that have made it hard for you to use your gifts. And if you never were gifted... who the fuck cares? There are lots of successful (and more importantly, HAPPY) people who don't fit into the "gifted" model.

You are treating "success" and "gifted" as if they have these incredibly specific, immutable definitions and that is just not the case.

One thing I never really seem to get from your questions is an idea of what you would actually like your life to look like. You're pursuing a career that you have already decided you hate and think you will be bad at, which... is not an obvious choice if you are looking for a path to happiness and success! What are you trying to prove, to whom, and why?
posted by mskyle at 5:34 AM on November 9, 2021 [10 favorites]

Your story resonates with my own. Now well past middle age, I've tried lots of things in my life and nothing, I mean nothing, ever really grabs me.

I'm a loner and I like it that way. I'm married with two kids and put work into having a stable happy home life.

It's interesting to me that you ended up an accountant. My dad was an accountant. I was the oldest of four, and would often accompany my dad to work where I'd help him out with banal photocopying tasks. He'd have to copy long computer formfeed reports for department heads, and I enjoyed setting these up on his Xerox. They had cool heavy glass bottle cokes in the office, which I'd earn if I helped him out. It was nice. I developed a taste for the office coffee as well. I was 10.

I vicariously hated the drudgery and politics of my dad's career. I vowed to never be an accountant. My dad's boss, the plant manager of a shingle factory, was a chemist. My dad looked up to him and took his advice when helping his children navigate their way through life. I was advised many times when I was young that biochemistry was a growth field with opportunity for a smart young ambitious man. I never really had an affinity for biology, though. I saw it as a memorization and categorization field, which disinterested me. Harder sciences like chemistry and physics seemed more focused on explaining the world. I'm an autodidact with infinite curiousity, and I pursued a career in chemistry.

Something James Taylor said has always resonated with me. He also is a trained chemist, and when asked why he pursued this line of work instead of music, he said that he was good at science and never really had any interest in anything else. This mirrors my experience. I have a deep interest in music, and play several instruments well, but never pursued it as a career. I lack the ego and drive I think successful musicians have. I enjoy playing for myself, but to get back to one of my earliest statements above, nothing ever really grabs me. I get bored with everything eventually.

Speaking of boring, this screed is already too long and I'll sum the fallout of getting bored with chemistry. I went to grad school with no research focus in mind. I interviewed with a wide range of advisors. I literally ran the gamut of all the chemistry subfields seeking something that interested me. I was equally good at everything, but deeply interested in none of it.

While in grad school, I started to pursue another interest: technology. I had a TRS-80 model III my dad brought home to do accounting on. I loved that machine, and programmed all sorts of BASIC and Z-80 assembler programs for fun.

While in grad school for chemistry, I taught myself electrical engineering, 6502 and 68000 assembler and C to the extent that I had made and marketed several computer peripherals. I bailed from chemistry and pursued this full-time for several years, to no real success. My product was popular enough with a small set of consumers, but too niche to ever really take off to profitability. Hindsight is very 20/20. The people in the industry, with few exceptions, were literally hostile to my product for a variety of reasons irrelevant to this discussion.

My wife had a kid, I became a stay at home dad around the shambles of my tech career, and we've stayed there since. The kids are almost grown and I suppose another phase of life will start. I occupy myself doing whatever the family needs most, be it drywall, roofing, plumbing, electricianing. Did I mention I'm handy too? You need it fixed or built, I'm your guy. I cook, clean, do laundry and am happy to do it.

I'll leave you with this trite but prescient aphorism:

Not all who wander are lost.
posted by sydnius at 5:58 AM on November 9, 2021 [16 favorites]

Yes, you were gifted. And you still are. But you are depressed. This question you have posted is a sign of your depression. Rather than spending time using your power you are writing to strangers on the internet to perseverate on the past with you. None of the past matters now. Go out and live, succeed and fail, with all your gifts. It’s really your only option.
posted by Lucky Bobo at 6:14 AM on November 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

I remember your earlier questions. I'm sorry it's still hard.

Do you hate the work of accounting, or just the schooling? What is the fastest way for you to make enough money to put schooling aside, so that you can start to solve the problem of your sadness?

Do you think the answer lies in untangling this part of your past? Or is there something you need to change now?

I think some people who were labeled gifted as kids have struggled as adults because the label led them to think that life "should be" easy for them, or that they owed society something more than other people do, merely on account of the gifts they were born with. Both are terrible messages to saddle a child with. It's a gift -- neither a prison sentence nor a get-out-of-jail-free card. You don't have to disavow the story of your growing-up for the person you are today to be okay. You are enough.

Parenting gifted kids can be hard. Sometimes parents are forced to make compromises: prioritizing one need over another, because both cannot be met in the same environment. Other times the entire situation is hard because the parents themselves have poisonous ideas about giftedness and make poor choices. I get the sense from your response here that some of both could have been happening. Putting you -- a kid with social anxiety! -- in a setting where all the other kids were different/more privileged, in the name of meeting your intellectual needs, might have been a compromise your parents knew they were making, and just didn't have a better choice. On the other hand, pressure to become a doctor sounds like the second kind of problem, stemming maybe from a wrong idea about what giftedness is, maybe from the fear and precarity that can result from immigration status -- who knows.

Finally, you don't mention the pandemic, but man has this been a rough couple of years for some people with social anxiety. I don't think I have it in excess, but I still find that the attendant drop in human contact feels like being in the social equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank. Do you have a therapist?
posted by eirias at 6:16 AM on November 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

You've opened your question by saying, "I think a lot of emotional pain I'm experiencing now is due to the fact that throughout my childhood I was considered academically gifted and based my identity around that."

I'm going to suggest something a little different, something that you yourself have suggested in a past question: your emotional pain is primarily rooted in terrifying and deeply abusive childhood experiences. That is the culprit here, much more than the "gifted and talented" label, which I do agree is harmful.

You describe experiences in this question (https://ask.metafilter.com/354116/I-think-I-32F-might-have-Complex-PTSD-what-do-I-do-now) that are enormously traumatic. Do you have a therapist to help you specifically with processing childhood trauma? If you don't, I encourage you to try to find one, because judging from your AskMe history it looks like your childhood trauma is having a very painful effect on your daily existence and your peace of mind. This can be fixed, but only with the right kind of help!

Please bear in mind that there is nothing wrong with you; being a child in an abusive home literally rewires your brain and your nervous system to the point that twenty years later, it's impossible to just tell yourself to snap out of it or whatever. In other words, you are having a very normal response to a very abnormal situation, and anyone else raised in such an environment would feel and act much the same way that you do now. But the effects of trauma on your brain, nervous system, and body can only be effectively addressed by specific kinds of therapy (e.g., somatic therapy) rather than, say cognitive behavioral therapy, which is very useful for certain problems but which hits a wall when it comes to deeply ingrained somatic trauma responses.

To sum up: you are suffering the aftershocks of an enormously traumatic childhood. The trauma has rewired your brain and your nervous system. (This rewiring is how your mind and body learned to survive under very difficult circumstances; in other words, it's normal and it happens to just about anyone who grows up in such an environment.) This is treatable, but to start to heal from it you will need the help of a therapist trained specifically in trauma therapy.
posted by cubeb at 6:30 AM on November 9, 2021 [18 favorites]

Being academically gifted - meaning being able to easily complete academic tasks - is just one competency needed to be successful in life. Unfortunately a lot of “gifted” kids get the message that it is ~everything~ and then have to spend a lot of painful years unlearning that.

The full package for success looks more like academically gifted (meaning learns easily and quickly) + emotional intelligence (understands the emotions of self and others and responds appropriately) + self-management/executive function (getting shit done in the right order and at the right time) + communication and self-presentation + probably some other stuff I’m not thinking of now. But as a gifted kid it is easy to see people who aren’t as “smart” being successful and feeling frustrated and confused by it, when what is going on is that they have some of these other skills and abilities.
posted by jeoc at 6:35 AM on November 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

"Gifted" is not a meaningful concept, for the reason you've identified (it's often a proxy for wealth, or at any rate heavily influenced by access to resources) and the reasons others have identified (it collapses intellectual/creative capability and academic performance). Most people are good at some things and bad at some things; many people are remarkably good at some things without being remarkably or even moderately good at everything. Some people would be remarkably good at many things but never get the chance because they don't have access to things like tutors and "gifted" programs or don't have the luxury to focus on scholarship, art, etc. at the expense of work.

I understand people's eagerness to affirm that you were gifted, because it's clear that you're feeling adrift as an adult and it seems from this question that you're finding the idea of not being gifted destabilizing—but I remember your previous questions, and you also find the idea of "wasting" your gifts to be destabilizing. Absolutely the best thing you could possibly do for yourself is to find a way to move on from this question, reckon with the effects of abuse and trauma, and build an identity that is unrelated to your academic performance in childhood. The fact that you are in your 30s and still remember a test score from high school breaks my heart. There's a lot that's troubling about the way you conflate performance and worth—but you won't be able to unpick any of it without dealing with trauma head-on. I think the best thing you can do is stop relitigating grades, scores, and academic placements, and start trying to understand why being graded highly is so deeply intertwined with your self-concept.
posted by babelfish at 6:37 AM on November 9, 2021 [13 favorites]

Oh I feel for you. My journey - at least my parental influences were not academically abusive (general verbal, mental, food-control and physical abuse were on regularly the table though). Your pain is related to abuse, not giftedness.

Reading? I love(d) to read - it was and is a wonderful escape - but... only fiction (hint - this is not a good thing)

They couldn't figure me out in school - either I excelled at certain subjects with ease - or I failed horribly (Math typically). I could whip-out essays the day before they were due (hint - this was not a good thing) - and always do well on high-pressure, time-boxed exams.

In Grade 9, they put me into a special evaluation class to determine if I was gifted - or had a learning disorder. Nothing ever came of it, other than being put back into regular classes (family moved around alot - so, by the end of that academic year, I was moving to the other side of the country anyways - no follow-up, different systems entirely).

Then - I went to college - and failed horribly - I never developed proper study habits, or the ability to read dry textbox material without being forced to do it while in-class.

In my 30's, I was finally diagnosed with ADHD - am nearing 50 now. Unfortunately in my experience (observing myself and hundreds of co-workers across dozens of employers) - being gifted while young, or being very intelligent does necessarily guarantee any success in later life. In fact - for many people I have seen, it is quite the opposite - they are typically unhappy, having never ended-up living up to their youthful potential.
posted by rozcakj at 6:50 AM on November 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

I don't know about others, but for me, the problem with the "gifted" label was that it isolated me, in many ways. One way was what I mentioned above, being in a class with far elder children. Another way I can see playing out here in the thread towards the OP, that a lot of people resented me for that label and felt (still feel) it was (is) their job to tell me I wasn't special. And specially when I was a child and a young person, it was lonely and confusing because I had no idea why they resented me and I didn't feel special. It wasn't like I was doing anything, other than existing.
A third type of isolation I experienced was because my social skills weren't really developed in a "normal" pace, I think because I was left in peace when I was reading, so I read a lot.
And a fourth thing was that my interests were different from those of other children, until I met some other nerdy children at about ten.
Even if you are shy and enjoy being alone, you don't want to be lonely.

Everyone who says this is about the trauma, not the giftedness are right, but at least for me, the two things are deeply intertwined.

I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and it makes a huge difference to have the right diagnosis. I get a different form of group therapy, and much more attention to my general health than when the diagnosis was anxiety and depression.

Thanks to dancing leaves for the Alice Miller reference, I will order that.
posted by mumimor at 6:58 AM on November 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think this thread might interest you

Maybe the dozens of testimonies from damaged former gifted kids will help put your question and some of the reasons you are asking in broader perspective.

But more than that, I really truly recommending holding your own hand, dear sweet Sunflower, and speaking to yourself the words you crave to hear. Sounds corny but it can be really healing. There are lots of therapists who practice or write publically about inner child work, and it's something that might help you heal (Tiffany Roe, for example, has a super approachable instagram if actual therapy isn't working or workable rn).

I sincerely hope you find some peace.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:05 AM on November 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

Also - related to ADHD - so, yes - I was diagnosed during my 30's - and started taking medication - and it helped my focus.

However - I was also in an abusive marriage from 1995 until 2012 - so, my childhood PTSD kept getting refreshed.

I have been fully out of that relationship since 2013. Since 2014 I have not had to take any medication.

So - did I really have ADHD? Or was it PTSD? I don't know - I have been in a steady, healthy relationship since 2014 - and have done well enough with my career (but - I have also learned, that I do not need to be a 60-hr per week workaholic either)
posted by rozcakj at 7:28 AM on November 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

When my own young kids showed signs of being gifted in various ways, it led me to seek out information about parenting gifted kids, and kids with asynchronous development, and I was sort of astonished to learn that my own pattern of being very smart but underachieving is a common one. In school, I was widely seen as very smart, but my grades were merely good—I adopted a pattern of not trying very hard in order to preserve my self-perception as an exceptionally smart person. Here's how it worked: if I didn't study, or did assignments at the last minute, and then did really well on them: proof of how smart I was. If I didn't study and then got B's, it proved nothing—I could preserve my untested theory that I could have gotten straight A's if I'd tried. I never tried, though, because what if I did, and still didn't get straight A's?

It was very interesting to learn that this is a common self-protection scheme among anxious, academically gifted people.

One aspect of how my mind works is that I am interested in almost everything. This has led to me not settling into a career. I tend to move on from things after awhile. I'm 56 now, and I have friends who are still passionately doing the things they were passionately doing when we were in high school—one friend's punk band still gets together to rehearse, and plays gigs two or three times a year. Another has made a career out of the hobby he developed in middle school of buying and refurbishing pinball machines. I think both these people are amazing, and yet my own reaction is something like, "You're still doing that?" I'm not still doing any of the things I did as a high schooler and young adult, except continuing to read voraciously and enjoying learning new things. This is also very common for people who have a certain kind of brain.

I think the gifted label can do more harm than good for some of us. In my case, it led people to make well-meaning predictions about my future that never came to pass. I had to work hard in adulthood to accept myself as I was, and not to feel like a failure. There's a place in one of Anne Lamott's books where she says, "I was 30 before I figured out that a B+ was actually a good grade," and my own experience was much like that.
posted by Orlop at 7:29 AM on November 9, 2021 [17 favorites]

I agree with many here saying that you were indeed gifted (and still are).

Something from your story resonated with me - 'I was always top 5 in the class for all my subjects without ever really trying'. I felt the same for many years, up until university. I thought of myself because of that. But in the end, it turns out that there is a ceiling for doing well academically without trying, at some level, being hardworking/disciplined becomes more important. And that is a skill I never acquired, well, because I didn't have to. It resulted in dropping out of university several times, losing many jobs.
I couldn't concentrate either. I always thought of it as a character flaw but then just recently I was diagnosed with ADHD. Everything makes way more sense now.

Right after high school I picked a field that I thought would make my family proud, dropped out a few years later, did it again, dropped out. In the end, I discovered social sciences/humanities, decided to let my family down and ended up much happier.
posted by sharksmile at 7:33 AM on November 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm sure you are smart! Sounds like you demonstrated your success in school.

But maybe drop the whole idea of "gifted". This language is deeply problematic, as it places you in competition and conflict with others, purveying a fixed mindset that some of us are "gifted" and others are not - and therefore lesser. With that mindset, no wonder you have felt so awful when you didn't succeed at certain times in your life! It undermines your concrete identity as "gifted".

People have amazing gifts, and get to have them all on their own, not in comparison to others. Your story holds a number of traumas and resulting social anxiety that needs addressing, and I hope you can draw from your network of family and friends, and potentially some professional therapy, to feel better.
posted by RajahKing at 7:56 AM on November 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

I don’t see how being academically gifted puts you in competition with others in a way that other gifts don’t. My sister is athletically gifted. My cousin has a strong gift of empathy. Both of them exceed me in their respective gifts.

I think a lot of people go through a stage where instead of figuring out how their gifts work in the real world, they develop a sense of shame or denial around them, which benefits no one. It’s not the type of gift that does this, but the expectations that are developed around the gift— that you’ll become a doctor, play in the NBA, have a job where you never need to compromise your standards, etc.

I would also agree that the previous question on C-PTSD is more likely the root of the issue here. A lot of people with narcissistically abusive parents run into a wall where they have no idea how to use their gifts to do anything but hurt themselves. Healing from the C-PTSD addresses this.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:40 AM on November 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

Hi there. I did not read any of the responses but your question resonated with me so deeply. I had a very similar childhood with some additional complications and now that I am 40 years old and have been diagnosed with complex PTSD (cptsd) I'm finally working through it. All I can say is ... I wish I had identified this issue and gotten treatment much earlier because it made my life really hard. You are a valuable person and your worth has nothing to do with how academically gifted or inclined you are. You are obviously very intelligent, intelligence isn't the issue here.

Obviously I can't diagnose someone on the internet but reading your question felt like reading something I had written in a diary fifteen years ago, before I started to figure things out. But for me the issue was trauma by being brought up in an abusive environment that taught me that I was only worthy of affection if I did well on my tests and followed all the rules of the house (we had no tv, no music was allowed, only excelling at school or reading was ok). The consequences for not doing so were serious and all that stuff did lasting damage. I digress, but I hope that my comment is of some use to you. I wish you all the best and I'm sorry that you are going through this. Therapy with an emotions focused therapist who understands family systems, attachment theory, and complex PTSD was a lifesaver for me. Take care.

Also, there's a ton of self blame in your question and I urge you to do whatever you can to be as kind to yourself as possible. This isn't your fault. Be as nice to yourself as you can.
posted by twelve cent archie at 12:43 PM on November 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

There's some pretty interesting research out there that shows that kids who are taught that they are smart and gifted have more of a fear of failing and thus avoid hard tasks than kids who are taught that the brain is like a muscle that grows with use. This is along the lines of the fixed versus growth mind set. If you're told you are smart, than anything that somehow suggests you might not be (like a B) can feel like failure. Kids taught that the brain is a muscle that gets stronger as it's used would see that B and think that they need to work out their brain a bit more to raise their grade. So they strive a bit more, rather than feeling like that failed.

Does this resonate at all?
posted by bluedaisy at 1:59 PM on November 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

You clearly hate accounting. This has nothing to do with whether—or in which areas of study—you were/are gifted. You chose accounting for practical reasons with zero passion for the topic. That’s what’s continually bubbling up for you. Not some awful revelation about your intelligence or worth!
posted by kapers at 5:46 PM on November 9, 2021

I'm now in my 40's and I'm still untangling how my brain works. Luckily, I had very little childhood trauma and I've ended up in a job that suits me and bolsters my identity, so I mostly find it interesting and not confronting.

I think there are lots of different strengths/ways of learning/brain processing variants that lead to being called "gifted". Teachers call people "gifted" because they are learn quickly and are easy to teach. Parents call kids "smart" for similar reasons, mostly as compared to siblings or peers. It's not that hard to be smarter (or taller or faster or whatever other comparison tools parents use to distinguish between kids) than the people around you. Much harder to actually be good at adulting because you need to be good at so many things.

I grew up in a place where mining is the main industry, so being naturally good at maths and science lead to a overall label of "gifted". If I'd lived in a place that valued languages, I would have struggled more and probably have had to spend my leftover time in maths classes learning french spelling instead of being sent off to do enrichment classes. If I'd grown up in a society that valued punctuality, I would have been perpetually stressed. I'm now surrounded by people who are both "smart" and also incredibly terrible at some fairly easy things. The cliche of the mad professor exists for a reason, because being good at academics/research doesn't corelate with being organised or good with other people or being on time.

Anyway, I've found personality/learning models to be interesting and often useful. MBTI, Gretchen Rubin's the Four Tendencies (you sound like an obliger), Clifton Strengths. Other people like the Enneagram, but I didn't get anything out of it. They aren't particularly robust scientifically, but if you can find a model that describes part(s) of your personality, it is nice from a "yay, I'm not a freak" angle, and is often useful in working out how to approach things in ways that work with your strengths. Know thyself and all that.
posted by kjs4 at 6:13 PM on November 9, 2021

Have you been assessed for ADHD and/or Autism? Google “spiky skill set” to learn more. Gifts aren’t distributed equally across all skills the brain can have, and trauma from not having your access needs met can impact your ability to function.
posted by matildaben at 6:24 PM on November 9, 2021

Absolutely the best thing you could possibly do for yourself is to find a way to move on from this question, reckon with the effects of abuse and trauma, and build an identity that is unrelated to your academic performance in childhood. The fact that you are in your 30s and still remember a test score from high school breaks my heart.

This was 100% the reaction I had to your question, only better put into words.

You know your worth as a person has nothing to do with how smart you are or whether you were "gifted" as a child...right? These just aren't things that most adults spend a lot of time thinking about, whether about themselves or the people around them. When you're out in the working world your coworkers will care about whether you're pleasant to work with, whether you create hassles for others by missing deadlines or messing up your work or creating a disruptive environment, or whether they can trust in the quality of your work and not have to worry about what you're doing. Or whether you microwave fish in the breakroom or leave fingernail clippings on their desks. (Now that I type this out, I guess I'm saying people mostly just care about how you affect them.) It 100% matters to no one how you did in school as a kid or whether you are living up to the aspirations you had in high school. It really does not need to matter to you, either.

You have a mixed set of skills--some things have come really easily to you, and you've had high achievement in those areas, and some things have been more difficult. That is an experience a lot of people have with their brains, including me. And I don't mean in a mild way, but in a major way that really affects my life, and has caused lots of frustration to me and sometimes to those around me. I'm in my late 30s, I have prestigious degrees from universities that lots of people would kill to get into and a superficially impressive resume. I also have spent most of my adult life flat out not working at all or getting fired from various part time jobs and was completely overwhelmed the only time I had a full time job (and quit after a few years when I think I was about to be "managed out" anyway). It's only in the past two years that I have been able to comfortably support myself without always being on the edge of a mental health crisis and with people happy with the quality of my work and the experience of working with me. And sometimes I look around and see that my former classmates are having all this prominent success when I'm just sitting around at home after removing myself from lots of opportunities because I feel like I can't (or actually can't) handle it. It sucks! But other people have these issues. Maybe not most people, but still tons of people. You are not uniquely flawed and horrible. You have lots of company.

You have not failed. You are a worthy human being because you are a person, and your parents were supposed to be nurturing and impart that lesson to you, and they didn't. They failed you.
posted by Squalor Victoria at 9:52 PM on November 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm a lot like you, i picked up things incredibly quickly, always got top marks and won prizes in school, suffer fr crippling anxiety and depression and am very unsatisfied and underperforming in my life.

I've come to understand that part of my way of coping with my s is I've parents was to suck up to authority. i am very very very good at understanding what parents and teachers want. I have a natural aptitude for picking things up quickly and remembering facts. This gave me the appearance of intelligence. But I actually never learned how to reason, make decisions for myself, or approach complex problems that don't have an obvious 'rifht" answer. The course of my life is an attempt to follow some combination of what I think the authority figures in my life expect of me. I'm paralyzed by new situations. I struggle to understand and relate to people because people are inherently complex and they are not like tests where you get that checkmark for getting s right answer.

I think I kind of went all-in on the idea that I was gifted because it was a way our of the pain. But all it was, was a small amount of naturel aptitude for picking up things quickly, and a huge amount of desperate need to please authority. Looking back at my peers, I now think the ones who were bucking the system and rebelling were more intelligent in a practical sense because they saw through the system and we're thinking for themselves. And it turns of life outcomes it's a big crapshoot.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:19 AM on November 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your responses, I've read them with great interest. I'm just popping back in the conversation to respond directly to @PercussivePaul because the description of your intelligence fits mine. I pick things up very quickly and can follow rules, but have also never learned to reason or approach complex problems - I am adept at rote learning and applying rules but never had true intellectual curiosity or interest in genuine problem solving, like truly thoughtful and intelligent people. The only exception perhaps is my love of English Literature, which was profound at that age; I would deeply analyse the meaning of texts in my spare time as I loved it so much.
posted by Sunflower88 at 8:14 AM on November 10, 2021

Your giftedness does, actually matter. Your aptitude for learning quickly and the depth of interest you have in finding meaning in literature do matter. Getting stuck in a tedious office job where people only care about how easy you are to work with and what you put in the shared microwave is not an inevitability. (Which isn’t to say that working with others isn’t sometimes important, it’s just far from the core of self-actualization.)

The test scores are a signal, not noise. The tragedy is that with your upbringing, you weren’t seen or validated and struggle to understand what they were a signal of. They were supposedly a signal that you could be a doctor or an accountant, and that this would make you happy. Which turns out not to be true. Most likely, that would have made your parents happy, which in bad parenting usually gets conflated with the child’s happiness.

It is tremendously invalidating to be told that something that set you apart from others (in positive and negative ways) wasn’t real, or wasn’t valuable, or you should be ashamed, or forget it. It is a part of you. I’m guessing the mystery for you is “if I was so smart, why aren’t I happier? More successful?” Because you were taught a frame where giftedness == material success == happiness.

I don’t know why people are always so insistent that academic giftedness does not matter, while musical or athletic giftedness does— but I assume it’s because that type of giftedness is overvalued in the above frame, or funneled into banal careers rather than creative ones. While that may be so, it’s somewhat notorious for making people miserable as adults, and not because they refuse to steadfastly pretend they weren’t gifted, but because the meaning of the gift is continually misinterpreted. (PercussivePaul is right on point; it so often creates the people pleasing child who must overrely on the external proof of their gifts to win attention or approval, while the inner world is neglected. But the gift itself is intimately connected to the inner world.)

I don’t hear a lot of professional athletes say “oh I was good at sports, but I’m ashamed to recall that, and it doesn’t really matter, and anyway I wish I never had been!” It would sound silly. However, a lot of them do struggle with fame, being in the public eye, etc. If we assume the value of being good at sports is to become famous and make a lot of money, then we justify the “drama” we see with athletes who take a political stand and are told to shut up because they’re rich and spoiled, or who are shamed for their behavior because they’re famous and role models now and isn’t that what they wanted? In all likelihood the athlete was born with talent, worked incredibly hard because they were passionate about the sport, and loved to play it. Fame and fortune were the after effect. But people conflate the result (the part they’re jealous of) with the athlete’s purpose. The athlete’s purpose was usually to make use of their gift, excel at it, enjoy the pleasures of skill and talent, and find personal meaning through focus and work.

The same is true with academic gifts. If they don’t bring you pleasure in your talent and skill, what use are they? Jealous people and people who want to instrumentalize you will say the value is fame/fortune but that’s rarely true for the gifted person. The ability to see your gifts for what they are and accept their personal value to you, in your inner world, is tremendously important to happiness and self-worth.

Alice Miller’s Thou Shalt Not Be Aware is good on this topic: how invalidation in childhood prevents the child from using and enjoying their gifts and finding their true purpose.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:15 PM on November 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

stoneandstar's excellent comment reminded me of a thing, which might be useful for you when you think about how you want the rest of your life to be, and is an other way of stating what others above have mentioned.
It was because of the comparison with sports, and because I just heard a discussion about a young tennis player on the radio, I was reminded of a fact that I often talk with students about: even the most gifted person needs to practice a lot, what you call rote learning. There are aspects of knowledge, wether it be in sports or in maths or fine arts, which one can only learn through repetition of movements (wether in the body or in the mind) and accumulation of information. And while a gift, or several gifts, can be a good entrance to excellence, one can also achieve a lot through discipline. That is how it can be that less gifted children can grow up to be adults that excel at something.
If you apply practice to your love of literature, even today, you can obtain a profound skill, either just for the joy of it as your private interest or as a profession. Malcolm Gladwell wrote of the ten thousand hours, and it was pop psychology, but it wasn't quite off.
Someone who has read hundreds of books will find joy in the stories or the language or the images the authors bring forward. Someone who has read thousands of books and perhaps also critical analysis will se patterns and families and ideas across the ages and languages. A lay person will look at a meadow and see a meadow, a biologist may see hundreds of species of plants and birds and insects. A farmer may see spots of draught, or a pest or invasive species. Creativity doesn't really begin before you are at that level of knowledge, where the observation is almost instinctual.
This interests me a lot as a teacher, I have often noticed that students who have practiced some form of sport or music at a fairly high level are often much higher achievers at university than those who have merely achieved high marks in the academic part of school. They are familiar with practice as a part of learning, which some highly intelligent kids are not, as many have noted above.
posted by mumimor at 2:30 PM on November 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

Reading the new comments, I felt that stoneandstar's response massively twisted my words (I assume much of it was a response to me since I talked about coworkers caring about what you microwave at the office).

But perhaps you read my comment that way too, so I should clarify, because I really feel for you. I'm not saying your gifts and intellectual interests and skills "don't matter" or that you should resign yourself to a life of soul-sucking office jobs. In fact, resigning yourself to a particular career that you aren't interested in (accounting) seems to be a big part of what's making you miserable, and I 100% agree with stoneandstar and the other commenters that it would be immensely valuable to you to focus on the intellectual pursuits that you care about and really engage you. If you find a good workplace, one of the things that will make it good is that other people will be interested and skilled in the same areas, and it will be intellectually fulfilling for you. I have an intellectually fulfilling job and it means a lot to me when people appreciate my skills and intelligence and quality of work. (But I assure you no one has ever asked what my SAT scores were.)

It just really seems to me like you are intensely focused on your high school test scores, and whether the "gifted" label you received as a child was deserved, and using these things to evaluate your worth as a human being, and using them as a stick to beat yourself with. Your high school grades and the list of "acceptable careers," those things absolutely should not be guiding your life. It sounds like you made it a huge part of your identity, but none of that is internal, it's all numbers and labels that others assigned to you. It's not who you are.

Who you are is clearly a very intelligent person with a love of English literature who is struggling with feelings of shame and the effects of trauma. (As well as many other things, I'm sure, that just aren't a subject of this post.) In your follow up comment you refer to yourself as someone who is unlike "truly thoughtful and intelligent people," even though you clearly have a genuine love of some intellectual pursuits and seem to be very thoughtful and intelligent from your post. Most truly thoughtful and intelligent people are just like you, they are not fascinated by every subject but care a lot about their particular areas of interest. I hope that you come to see yourself differently because you do not deserve any of the harsh judgments you are making of yourself.
posted by Squalor Victoria at 9:02 PM on November 11, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks Squalor Victoria. I think the last time I remember feeling like a whole person, someone who might matter was in high school which is why I'm fixated on that time in my life. I suppose it was the last time I remember feeling I have worth. I'm not sure how to let that go, it's very powerful especially in comparison to how I feel now. I genuinely get confused when adults around me are present in their lives as grown ups, for me it doesn't feel real. Only being a child and a teenager feels real to me.
posted by Sunflower88 at 4:10 AM on November 14, 2021

Thanks Squalor Victoria. I think the last time I remember feeling like a whole person, someone who might matter was in high school which is why I'm fixated on that time in my life. I suppose it was the last time I remember feeling I have worth. I'm not sure how to let that go, it's very powerful especially in comparison to how I feel now. I genuinely get confused when adults around me are present in their lives as grown ups, for me it doesn't feel real.

Thank you. This makes total sense. Looking back at this post, I think the thing I was most trying to express was that I can see how alone and lost and worthless you feel. But you're not alone in feeling this way. And the fact that you feel this way doesn't make it true.

I don't have great advice here, I haven't really figured out how to feel like a real person who is present in adulthood either. But I am 100% sure that nothing is "wrong" with you, you have a lot to offer the world and can have a fulfilling life, and are just struggling with some really difficult things, which is totally understandable and normal for someone who has been through what you have been through.
posted by Squalor Victoria at 8:34 PM on November 14, 2021

I think we’re around the same age and I would really advise you to try to see yourself others beyond these labels of “gifted” / “intelligent” (and the shadow label of “stupid”) because they are highly limiting and will continue to prevent you from having the rich, full and multifaceted adult life you deserve. I believe the “gifted” label in particular is making you feel that you have an obligation to not squander that “gift” and is thus burdening you with feelings of regret, worthlessness and self-loathing. Let go of the idea that you must achieve a certain milestone, follow a certain path, be “successful” in a certain way to have a life worth living. Hell I’d even say distance yourself from those who perpetuate these ideas, be they your parents or certain peers.

I grew up in a household where summary judgment was often passed on the intelligence of those who did certain things or behaved in certain ways - these were based on the biases and prejudices of my parents and nothing else.

-Kids who did not get good grades were “stupid” and I was told not to associate with them lest I become stupid myself
-People in certain professions / jobs were derided as stupid and only certain professions were befitting of intelligent, successful people
-People who played sports were stupid
-People who were too joke-y, loud, extroverted, boisterous, those who had no restraint were stupid

…and the list went on

I was also often ridiculed for being “stupid” and an “idiot”, and “weird” if I did not conform to their expectations. Like you I tested well, was labelled as “gifted”, went to top schools, was a voracious reader, picked up concepts easily etc.

All these labels and the family environment I grew up in simultaneously made me feel superior to others while also being deeply self loathing and critical of my own perceived failures. It got to the point where I was so afraid of failing and anxious about taking exams that I would often blank out in front of the paper, unable to move my pen across it. I bombed my O levels and I still remember breaking down on the floor of my school the day I got my results.

It really has been the work of my life in the past 10 years moving beyond these limiting beliefs and discarding the idea of being “gifted” or “intelligent”. I don’t have any easy answers for you and many posters above have already shared insightful recommendations. I really just want to say I empathize with your pain. Personally, distancing myself from my parents, meeting people of various abilities and talents and just getting to know them has been really helpful. I also started practicing self kindness and suspending judgment on myself, coupled with just going with a curious, open mindset into things to explore what I loved, including trying (and failing) at new things. If you have access to a therapist that would probably be for the best as well. Good luck and I hope you find mental, emotional and spiritual freedom from the limiting beliefs of your family.
posted by pandanpanda at 7:09 PM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

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