It takes a lot of support to view intensity as acceptable rather than an inconvenience. The truth is that the intensity that springs from giftedness will be too much for some. We will find ourselves on the outside sometimes. We will come on too strong, scare others away, or even get so lost in our thoughts and feelings that we distance ourselves on our own.
If ever there was a word to succinctly describe giftedness, it’s intensity. I remember researching giftedness back when we first discovered my son’s sky-high IQ and feeling suddenly seen when I saw the word. I’d struggled for years to explain just what he was, what he was like, and what his experience was like; now it all felt both validated and manageable, as though putting a name to it all made it somehow easier. (Spoiler alert—it hasn’t gotten easier.) My gifted son was intense, and apparently there were others like him.
As the years have passed and my research into giftedness has intensified, I’ve discovered— admitted—that I, too, am gifted. I, too, have an experience unlike most of the people around me. I, too, am intense.
It makes sense, in retrospect, that I’d fall into the gifted category. Looking back at my school-age struggles and triumphs, they’re pretty classic signs of being a gifted kid. My grades were pretty great, I didn’t sleep, and I developed a biting sarcasm almost before I was old enough to even bite. So why did it take me so long to consider myself gifted? Why did it take me so long to recognize it in my own children? Why was I so reluctant to claim a label that so clearly defines myself?
Because I’m intense. More specifically, because such intensity has bred insecurity.
Growing up, I knew I was different, much like our gifted children do. I didn’t know why I was different and I didn’t know it was okay to be different. I was just very aware that the people around me didn’t experience emotions as deeply as I did, didn’t react so strongly to smells or tastes, and didn’t dwell on fears and find reasons to panic. My experiences, as far back as I can remember, have been frosted with intensity, like a layer cake: first day of school on the bottom, add a layer of intensity on top, moving to a new house in the middle, add a layer of intensity on top. Every experience that is typical of childhood was blanketed in intensity and wildly, obviously different from the other experiences around me.
I learned through observation, not mentorship, that I was different. I saw my differences in the reactions others had to me. I saw my differences in the eyerolls and heavy sighs of my teachers. I saw my differences in how easily others seemed to navigate friendships and social relationships, while I seemed to be the only second-grader staying up all night writing, brooding, feeling… intensely.
I felt. A lot.
And because I noticed my intensity on my own, I became deeply insecure about it.
Instead of having a gifted teacher or mentor to explain why I was different or having a parent support and encourage my differences, I was left to notice them on my own in shame. No one else was like me, so there must be something wrong with me. No one else felt the way I did, so there must be something wrong with my feelings. No one else was intense, so intensity must be bad.
Many years later, when my son was first identified as gifted, I saw his shame, too.
I saw him draw away from crowds. I saw him try, unsuccessfully, to find friends who shared his interests. I saw him punish and doubt himself every time he had to be pulled out of class, set to the side, tested, questioned, and made aware that he wasn’t like the rest. Finally, it occurred to me to talk with him about it.
I explained that yes, he was absolutely different. Yes, he felt, thought, and behaved differently than most kids. Yes, all of the things he’d noticed—all of the things I’d noticed in myself—were very real. Yes, he felt more deeply and reacted more strongly. Yes, while some things seemed easier for him, there were very big parts of his experience that were much, much harder. Yes, he was intense, but no, he didn’t need to be ashamed of it.
It will likely be a lifelong process to embrace his intensity rather than hide it. I’ve had a lifetime to feel segregated by it rather than supported in it, and the damage isn’t undone overnight. I still suddenly grow quiet at parties when I feel I’ve come on too strongly. I still stay up at night agonizing over conversations, issues, and anxieties. I still hurt deeply, l love strongly, and accelerate quickly. I still live intensely, and I’m still fighting the urge to be insecure about it.
It takes a lot of support to view intensity as acceptable rather than an inconvenience. The truth is that the intensity that springs from giftedness will be too much for some. We will find ourselves on the outside sometimes. We will come on too strong, scare others away, or even get so lost in our thoughts and feelings that we distance ourselves on our own. We will be exhausted by our children, by their intensity, and by their own struggles to make sense of their experiences. It’s a lot… but that should not make us feel like less.
The intensity of the gifted experience is not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something that disqualifies or discounts us. It does set us apart, but it doesn’t cut us off. In the midst of our angst and ecstasy, it’s easy to get lost in the feelings and convince ourselves that these intense experiences are so unlike others’ that we can never be understood and can never understand another. It’s too easy to take offense at our own intensity and punish ourselves for being so different. It’s far too easy to take note of our differences and become insecure about them. The real work, and the real progress, comes in supporting not just one another in our intensity, but in accepting it in ourselves.