If you’re gifted, you’ve heard all of the demeaning terms that people like to use to describe us.  You’ve been called a know-it-all, a perfectionist, an overachiever, and just plain weird.  What’s the best way to reply to these frontal attacks, without coming across as angry, defensive or smug? Today I’m going to teach you three satisfying ways to respond to haters and preserve your sense of self-worth without losing your cool. 

Today we’re going to talk about one of the most frustrating aspects of being a gifted person, fielding those mean-spirited comments. There are a lot of reasons why some people feel like it’s ok to literally insult gifted folks to their faces by using intentionally belittling words like overachiever, and most of those reasons are the result of either insecurity or suspicion. 

Why Do Haters Hate?

Some people will get anxious when they see a gifted person doing things more quickly or more easily than they are, and they don’t know how to handle the pressure they feel to keep up, so they lash out in an immature, insensitive way.  And other people find smart folks very suspicious, and assume that they belong to this mysterious “elite” level of society that wants to control all the wealth and access to resources, making the social inequality in this country that much worse. So they lash out … to stop them? Hard to say what exactly they think will change when they get snotty like that, BUT in both of those cases, that’s a “them” problem, not an “us” problem.  Easy to say while I’m sitting here by myself, but in the moment, it’s hard not to feel hurt by these undeserved slings and arrows. 99.9% of gifted folks are just living our lives, trying to enjoy the things that make us happy, like challenge and creativity, and it feels wildly unjust to be treated as if we’re purposely trying to ruin everyone else’s lives around us. 

Over the years, you’ve probably tried a variety of different strategies to respond to these slights and this scorn, with varying degrees of success.  The thing is, most of our strategies don’t do our own mental health any favors.  Most often, we’ll either try to laugh it off, or try to avoid people who regularly make this kind of cutting remark, but in both of those instances we’re left holding that pain and that feeling of being unfairly judged, and when we internalize that, it can eat away at our own self confidence. 

What’s The Best Way to Respond?

Luckily, there is a better way to respond to these kinds of verbal jabs that doesn’t involve just absorbing and holding these negative messages.  Without getting rude or combative ourselves, we can hand back those undeserved words and let the speaker carry them around.  Did you know that was a thing we can do?  With some practice, we can learn to respond in a very simple way that can preserve our sense of self worth, get rid of the burden of carrying around all that negativity, AND potentially change the behavior of some of these people.  Potentially.  That depends on the person. 

The best way to respond to someone who is being demeaning or contemptuous of your giftedness is to refuse to accept the label they’re giving you.  It’s not naturally our first reaction, and it does take some practice to ingrain this kind of response, but the secret is to think to yourself, “No thank you.  I decline to take the gift you’re giving me and I’m handing it back to you.” You block that negativity from soaking in and living inside you. 

And there are three levels of this response that you can use, depending on how unpleasant the comment was. When someone says to you, “You’re such an overachiever, stop being such a perfectionist, or you’re making the rest of us look bad,” you can reflect that message back to them by replying in one of three ways:

  1. No I’m not
  2. What do you mean by that?
  3. That’s a you problem

Let’s take a look at a few examples …

 Strategy 1: The Simple Rebuttal

In the least aggressive scenario, when let’s say you have a friend or co-worker who’s trying to pass off a mild insult as a joke, you can use the simple rebuttal technique.  They say something not very complimentary to you, you say Nope, I don’t accept that and hand it right back. 

Maybe you’re ordering from the sushi place for lunch and she says, “I never know what to get, you always hear about mercury in fish and I never remember which ones have it.” And you respond, “Tuna has a lot but eel and crab don’t have as much.” Then she rolls her eyes and says something like “Oh god, of course you know! You’re such an egghead.” 

Here’s where you think, “No I’m not,” and you say out loud, “No, I just read a lot” and smile.  The trick is to say it pleasantly, like you’re talking about the weather, and without apology.  You smile and say, “No, I just read a lot,” not “Oh sorry, yeah, I read a lot of nerdy stuff.”  It’s “No, I just read a lot,” And then you change the subject.  “What do you want to order?”  You’re not mad, you’re not offended, you’re stating a fact, which just happens to reflect back on your “friend” and make it clear that they haven’t been reading, and then you move on so they can’t dwell on the fact that you just took them to school. 

So that’s strategy #1, the simple rebuttal. They say you’re something negative, you say no I’m not, smile and move on.  Your message is “this is a misunderstanding, and i have the best of intentions here.” This works for the least offensive remarks like:

Them: “You’re such a know it all.”

You: “I don’t mean to come across that way. I just enjoy sharing what I know. How ’bout those Red Sox?”

Them: “Stop being such a perfectionist.”

You: “Huh, I do have high standards, but what’s most important to me is progress, not perfection. What time is lunch?”

It’s simple, but it serves the dual purpose of blocking their negativity and making them think. 

Strategy 2: Ask for an Explanation

Now, If you’re hearing more contemptuous comments like “You’re such an overachiever,” or “You’re so weird,” it’s time to move to level 2 on the no thank you response ladder.  The simple rebuttal no longer works here because the intent is much more clearly to hurt you.  In this case you don’t just hand back the negative comment, you throw it back.  

They say, “Oh my god, you’re such an overachiever,” and you say, “What do you mean?”  again, with a very innocent smile.  This is the same strategy any of us can use when someone tells a misogynistic or racist “joke,” … you don’t laugh, you look them straight in the eye and say sweetly, “What do you mean?” as if you truly want them to explain it to you.  And of course, they do not want to explain it to you, because they do not want to say out loud all the petty and mean-spirited things they’re thinking, because they do know better.  This strategy works in several ways … to block their negativity, to spotlight their hostility, and to embarrass them a little bit.  

I wish I had known about this strategy years and years ago when someone first called me an overachiever and it just about broke my heart, because I was trying SO hard to do the right thing, and it like such a stab to the gut to be basically accused of trying to make everyone else look bad.    My kids were small and soccer season was just about to start, and something went wrong with the uniform t-shirts the kids were supposed to wear – the order came in wrong and our team ended up with the same color shirts as one of the other teams, which was going to be a problem because how could the refs tell them apart? So the coach emailed all the moms and asked if we could dye these little cotton t-shirts before the first game that weekend.  And I very obediently, you know new mom of a little six year old soccer player, rule follower, went out to CVS, picked up some of those little dye pellets you throw in the washing machine, and did what I was told.  And when I showed up to the game a few days later, one of the other moms who didn’t dye her little charmer’s shirt, literally rolled her eyes at me and said the words that are burned on my heart, “Ugh, you’re such an overachiever.” 

And I had thought this woman was my friend, and I thought I was just following directions and trying to do my part to make sure the kids were in compliance and could play their first game, but she was mad and I felt terrible. (and of course It doesn’t help when you’re also highly sensitive.) Now, if I had known about the strategy that I’m trying to teach you here, I would have said, “Why Brenda, what do you mean by that?” and let her flounder around trying to explain why she was angry at ME for making her look bad when she was the one who actually wasn’t being a team player. That would have been the way to handle that, to force her to acknowledge that she was trying to offload her own insecurities onto me.  

And again, the trick is to stay calm and disarm any tension with a completely innocent, neutral tone and a smile, and just let the words hang there … with a disarming smile like you really have no idea.  It does take practice to pull this off without looking smug, but it can be done. 

So that’s strategy #2, ask for an explanation.  If you need to, you can follow up with your simple rebuttal, like, in response to “what an overachiever” you can say “Well, It’s important to me to give my best effort in whatever I do.”  Or in response to “You’re so weird” you can say “Well, That may seem weird to you, but I like it that way.”

Strategy 3: Call Them Out

Now strategy #3 is only necessary when someone is really throwing some malicious comments at you, like you’re arrogant, or elitist, or “you think you’re better than everyone else,” or “you’re making the rest of us look bad.”  Now you no longer need to try to give them the benefit of the doubt or pretend not to understand what they mean – it’s very clear they’re trying to insult you.  

In these cases, you call them out. They hurl disparaging remarks at you, you toss them right back and say calmly, “That’s a you problem.” Do not catch those sharp insults, do not let them sink in or hurt you.  Put up your shield, roll your eyes and say, “That’s a you problem.”

In order to make this work, you still want to hang onto your calmest demeanor, and try to exude peacefulness.  Not happiness, but inner peace.  You want to bring the attitude of, “I couldn’t care less what you think, because your opinion has no value.”  

Let’s see that in action.  Let’s say one of your colleagues sees how quickly you’re working and says, “Will you please stop churning out all those reports, you’re making the rest of us look bad.”  You don’t apologize, you don’t bristle and say, “Well that’s my job Janet!”  You look at them like they’re not making any sense and say, “I’m not sure what you’re doing, but that’s all you.”  

You call them out, and make it very clear that you see that they’re trying to blame you for their own insecurities or maybe their own failures.  “I’m not sure what you’re doing” tells them that you can see that they’re trying to manipulate the situation, but not doing a very good job of it, (you’re kind of saying, I’m not sure what you think you’re trying to accomplish here, that’s how badly your gambit is failing) and then “that’s all you” tells them that whatever they’re trying to say that you’re doing, it’s all in their head. 

With this strategy, you take the air out of their sails and expose the weakness of their strategy by making them look like they’re being petty and small…. And you’re bigger than that. 

Sometimes they’ll come back at you to try to save face with some feeble argument, and you may need to follow up with a firm, “You realize I’m doing what I’m paid to do, right?” or “ (i dont have time to worry about how you look, Janet) but your point will be very clear … they’re flailing because of something going wrong in their life, and that has nothing to do with you. 

Good luck, and let me know in the comments what has worked for you!