One of the most difficult things about being gifted is that it’s really hard to be your authentic self.  Standing up and letting other people see your gifted quirks puts you right in the firing line for a lot of unfair criticism and negative judgment – of yourself, not just your ideas.  It’s not surprising that a lot of gifted folks prefer to hide their authentic selves rather than run that gauntlet. How can you find the courage to be your authentic self, because that’s really the key to long term happiness?

Why Is it Hard to Be Authentic?

You’ve probably heard about the concept of Tall Poppies as you’ve been learning about giftedness. This is a metaphor for what happens when high-achieving individuals stand out from the crowd, only to be immediately cut down.  When a gifted person achieves more success than their peers, they grow tall, like a flower in a field, but then they’re exposed, and other people who feel threatened or envious of their success target them, criticize or find fault with them, and that tall flower is cut down.

It’s disheartening, but unfortunately it’s our reality. Gifted folks often face backlash or scrutiny from other people who don’t like that we’re standing out too much or being too successful … and that’s bad, because that can cause something called Tall Poppy Syndrome where gifted people stop embracing their gifts and showcasing their abilities because we’re afraid of being targeted or criticized. We decide to conform and downplay our talents to avoid that negative attention, but that can backfire, because then we feel empty, isolated and unfulfilled. And if we’re spending our days hiding our light, our self esteem suffers, we stop growing personally, and we miss opportunities. That internal conflict between wanting to be valued for ourselves, and also wanting to avoid being attacked, can cause real psychological distress, that can then turn into chronic anxiety and depression. 

How Can We Find the Courage to Stand Up?

Finding the courage to stand up and be yourself is a lot like fighting in a World War I battle.  Hear me out.  You know how in WWI, the Allied Powers and the Central Powers both built hundreds of miles of trenches along the Western Front, and the soldiers would hunker down in them until it was time for a battle, then they’d have to muster up all of their courage to “go over the top,” to stand up and put themselves in the firing line. The minute they popped their heads up from the trench and started to run across the no-man’s land in between to attack the other side, they were sitting ducks for the gunners on the other side, and it must have been unbelievably hard for them to psychologically convince themselves to take that first step.  

And while gifted folks don’t face firearms on a daily basis, the metaphor still works.  It takes a great deal of courage for us to go over the top, to stick our heads up, be our authentic selves and stand right in the firing line of criticism and disapproval. 

How can we find that courage to allow us to be our authentic selves every day? 

Well, to take the metaphor a little farther, if this is a battle, then we need a battle plan.  There are four strategies we can use to find the courage to stop hiding and be our authentic selves: 

1. Strengthen our self-image

The first strategy we’ll use in our metaphorical battle plan to find the courage to be our authentic selves is to strengthen our skills and our weaponry.  Before any combat, you have to start by making sure your soldiers are strong and well-trained. We’ll do that by improving our self-awareness and building our self-confidence, so we’re as strong as we can possibly be. 

Improving our self awareness means we need to first understand what giftedness is and how it manifests, so we can see ourselves in a positive light. We have to start from a position of understanding and appreciating ourselves.  If we’ve internalized any previous criticism of our gifted quirks, it will be impossible for us to defend ourselves against further criticism. For example, gifted minds thrive on complexity. If I think that it’s bad for me to love complexity, then you tell me I’m annoying for over-complicating things, I’ll think to myself, “yes, you’re right,” and I won’t stand up for myself.  But if I understand that that’s the way gifted brains work and that’s one of the reasons WHY I’m a high achiever, then the attack hits differently.  It’s no longer a flaming arrow in my chest, it’s just a pesky fly in my drink.  So we want to start by building up our strength by understanding our own traits and truly accepting them …. By adjusting our mindset to believe that the parts of us that make us gifted are completely normal for a gifted person, and that these parts are what make us special and able to do amazing gifted things, not weird. 

Then along these same lines, we need to build up our self confidence by surrounding ourselves with people and messages that also understand and appreciate giftedness.  The more we can spend time in the company of people who get us and love us for who we are, the more comfortable we’ll feel in our own skin, and the more prepared we’ll be to block negative messages when we do go over the top. And if supportive folks are thin on the ground where you are, set aside some daily time to review some positive affirmations. This will be your mental armor. Repeat to yourself things like:

My intelligence is a gift that I use to make a positive impact in the world.

My creativity allows me to see solutions where others see obstacles.

I trust in my instincts and intuition

I deserve recognition and respect for my achievements

Because you do. 

2.Protect our emotional balance

The second thing we’ll do is to protect our emotional balance by setting boundaries and building resilience skills. This is the part in the fictional war where the villagers move everything within the castle walls, batten down the hatches, set up the sandbags and booby traps and hide swords in all the bags of flour. 

We’ll protect ourselves metaphorically, not by building a castle wall, but by setting boundaries. You hear about setting boundaries a lot, and the one piece of information that’s generally missing from these conversations is that boundaries are for YOU, not other people.  The wrong way to set a boundary is to say to someone, “Hey, you’re not allowed to ever call me an overachiever again.”  Sure, that’s a boundary, but you have no mechanism to enforce that, because that other person has free will and they can say whatever they like.  The right way to set a boundary is to say, “I will cut off this relationship if you continue to use denigrating language when you speak to me.”  In this case, YOU hold all the power.  You tell the other person what behavior you’re willing to accept, and you get to deploy the consequence. 

So in this step, to protect your emotional balance, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about who upsets you with their behavior and what exactly they’re doing that upsets you.  Then think about what you would prefer to happen, and what kind of boundary you’re comfortable setting to enforce that.  This can be complicated when you’re dealing with a parent or a spouse or a boss, or in any situation when the other party holds some power in your relationship, but it can be done, and I’ll talk more about that in a future post.  

Right now we’re just outlining our strategies, so I’ll move right into the second part of this “protection” strategy, which is to build our resilience skills.  This is like when the villagers lay in supplies before the siege.  Now we make sure we have the skills to handle any future conflict calmly, from a place of strength, where we can hear negative feedback but it doesn’t unravel our composure, it just bounces off.  Resilience is being able to take the hits but bouncing back with little damage. 

To get to this place mentally, there are a few things you can do.  Start by thinking about what your triggers are – whether it’s a certain word that you hate to be called, like show-off, or a certain vibe you get from someone.  Whatever kind of emotionally charged situation sets you off, visualize yourself handling that calmly, intellectually, and without getting worked up.  Reimagine this hypothetical confrontation as just an interaction, where you don’t give the other person the power to determine how you feel or how you react. You have that power. (gif of deflating) And did you know you can actually practice skills for managing intense emotions so they’re more ingrained in your mind and easier to access when you need them? You can practice techniques like – taking a pause & breathing before you react, or naming your emotions which gives you more power over them. Or you can  practice mindfulness techniques like counting to 10 or deep breathing to stay present in the moment … anything you can do to detach from overwhelming emotions, and gain some distance from impulsive reactions is what you need to practice. You want to be able to take a beat and let your brain go first and call the shots, not your heart. 

3. Prepare our responses

The third strategy we’ll use in our metaphorical combat readiness plan is to prepare for battle. If this was a movie, this is when the planes would be dropping propaganda leaflets and the generals would all be standing around the map table pushing the little miniature tanks around.

This part of our plan includes educating others, and planning responses. 

If we could drop pamphlets all over town explaining what giftedness really is, it would go a long way toward moving people’s mindset about gifted folks from negative closer to positive.  But, seeing as we can’t do that, and most people wouldn’t read them anyway, our only option is to try to subtly educate everyone in our orbit about normal gifted behavior every chance we get by mentioning illuminating factoids when it fits into the conversation.  You dont’ want to be obnoxious, but you can definitely slide little comments in here and there. Maybe you tell a funny story about how you were so engrossed in reading a book that you didn’t hear something happening right next to you, and you wrap up with “I get really focused when I’m thinking, that’s just how my brain works.”  See what I did there? It’s not a lecture, you’re just putting it out there.  And the more we can share what we know about how gifted brains work, the less other people will be able to attribute negative motives to our behavior when they see it later.  By subtly sharing the real scoop about how gifted people aren’t your enemy, we’re slowly reducing the number of potential combatants and moving some of them to our side.

Now the second part of preparing for battle is planning our responses.  We know we won’t be able to prevent everyone from misunderstanding us and treating us accordingly, so it’s important to decide ahead of time how we’ll respond.  It will be much easier to keep your cool when you aren’t taken by surprise or trying to formulate an intelligent, composed response on the fly.  Just review in your head some basic, neutral things you can say to someone who is starting to go on the attack, and just keep those there in case you need them.  

For example, you can kind of memorize some calming statements like “I’m just trying to do my best, just like everyone else”, or “Let’s focus on supporting each other instead of tearing each other down.”  And, if you think you’ll need them, you can practice some mild clapbacks like “I’m happy to show you how it’s done” or “Sounds like that’s a you problem” for people who just blurt out things like “What are you trying to make us all look bad?”  Or my favorite, “You’ve got more to worry about than me sweetie.”

And of course, any time you’re hearing criticism, it’s worth it to take a beat and ask yourself Is there any nugget of truth in this, and if there is, use it as a teachable moment for yourself, but if there isn’t, now you know what you’ll do. 

4. Repair our wounds

Lastly, after you’ve gathered up all your courage, gone over the top, exposed your authentic self, and run the gauntlet of all the giant hedge clippers trying to take you down, you may need to repair any wounds you suffered while you were out there on the battlefield, so you’ll be emotionally ready to get back out there and do it again tomorrow. 

To do this, you want to focus on your own personal growth and practice self compassion. 

So now we’re back in the medical tent, tending to our wounds and building ourselves back up again.  And the best thing you can do to make sure you’re still confident and comfortable with yourself is to pursue your favorite passions. Don’t let the haters ruin the things that make you happy – making sure you purposely keep doing what you love is the best way to prove that they haven’t won.  Keep drawing maps of your fantasy D&D world, and trying to learn Klingon and speed running the Wordle. Keep challenging yourself intellectually and creatively and let the thrill of problem solving and finding the lost answers to life’s questions refill your wonderful gifted self.  Keep setting goals to learn more and create more and explore more of the world, away from the people and places that make you feel “less than,” until you feel refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to strut your stuff again. 

And if you’re really feeling down, dig into your bag of tricks and practice self-compassion.  Be kind to yourself and recognize that it’s okay to make mistakes or face setbacks along the way, that’s the way life works. Give yourself a break, don’t let any of that negative feedback play on a loop in your head, and treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend.  If someone came to you and said they felt crummy because of something unkind someone said to them, you’d probably say something like, “Don’t listen to them, they have no idea what they’re talking about, they don’t know you.”  And that’s also what you should say to yourself.  Your gifted brain is amazing.  You’re amazing, and you deserve to be your authentic amazing self every day. 

I hope you find these strategies helpful, and you’re feeling a little braver about getting out there and being authentic, and I’d love to hear in the comments if you tried any of these tactics and how it went.