The first point which needs to be made is that contrary to the perception that unusually smart people are arrogant and think that they are better than everyone else, many, many highly intelligent people are in denial about their giftedness. People who belong to Mensa report that one of the most common things they hear from other members are jokes that someone must have messed up their test because they aren’t actually smart enough to be there. People who counsel and work with highly intelligent people find that many of them suffer from “imposter syndrome“. Imposter syndrome is a situation where a person feels that they are simply faking their way through life, that anything they have accomplished is due to luck and that their real abilities fall short of what others are capable of. I’m not aware of any actual research into the self perception of people with unusually high intelligence. However, based on reports from people with high intelligence and those who deal with them, it is probably safe to say that a large percentage of highly intelligent people do not see themselves as such. Contrary to the stereotype, many gifted people are not arrogant to the point of being unable to hold an accurate view of their own abilities.
Compounding the problem is the fact that in our culture it is rather hard to come right out and identify ourselves as gifted (although we all seem to want that label for our children, whether they deserve it or not). We believe that if we were to say, “I am a gifted/unusually intelligent person” we would be perceived as an arrogant braggart who thinks that they are better than everyone else. However, the fact is that a highly intelligent person is who he or she is. We really put people into a bad position if they cannot just be themselves without being accused of trying to make themselves look good at the expense of others. It is true that a minority of gifted people in a few circles such as high level scientific work or some university settings may view themselves as superior to everyone else. However, for the most part people with high intelligence have no interest in lording their smarts over anyone. After all, intelligence is an unearned attribute which doesn’t in and of itself make a person any better or worse than anyone else.
Further, because declarations of intelligence can trigger feelings of hostility and inferiority in others, people who come right out and say that they are gifted can be opening themselves up to impossibly high expectations from others coupled with increased scrutiny. Who wants to walk around feeling that people are watching you, just waiting for you to fail? Besides, being intelligent doesn’t mean that you won’t make mistakes. In reality, it probably just means that you’ll make bigger, more complicated mistakes than most other people.
Coupled with these barriers to acknowledging one’s self as gifted or unusually intelligent, most of us have an unrealistic idea of what giftedness is/looks like. (And those barriers have their base in unrealistic ideas of what high intelligence looks like anyways.) First of all, since giftedness runs in families, a person can see their very unusual abilities as completely normal. If your mom who is just a homemaker can finish a monster soduku puzzle in less than 5 minutes, then that must be what is normal. If dad who is just an accountant can memorize the entire official rulebook for his softball league verbatim, then that must be what is normal. The extraordinary becomes a baseline for average.
One of the other barriers to developing a realistic view of a person with unusually high intelligence is the fact that there is a greater diversity of abilities, interests and behaviors among the gifted than one finds in other populations. Most people live within the range of normal ability. While there is a great deal of diversity among people within this range, there are certain abilities which people do not expect to find within this population. A person of normal intelligence has no expectation that they must have a photographic memory, be able to speed read, memorize pi to 1000 digits, come up with ideas that turn the world on its head, learn multiple foreign languages quickly, create whole new fictional universes, etc. They do not feel pressure to maintain their “normal” status by exhibiting characteristics held by others in the normal range. No one would say, “I can’t seem to get the hang of knitting, so that must mean that I don’t have normal intelligence.”
OTOH, when looking at the gifted population, there is the same range of abilities found among normal people plus a dizzying array of other potential markers for intelligence. It would be impossible for one human being, no matter how intellectually gifted, to encompass all of the potential abilities of the human mind at its best. For this reason, it is pretty much impossible to create a check list of unusual abilities that a person must have in order to be called gifted. Rather, giftedness is assessed by comparing someone to what is normal and looking at how far outside the range of normal a person is. Instead of using this measure, gifted people tend to assess themselves completely differently: how they compare to other people who are gifted. Many people will look at someone who is gifted in ways that they are not, think to themselves, “well that person is really smart and I’m not anything like them, so I must not be really smart.” And the second person may also say to themselves, “well, that person is really smart and I’m not like them, so I must not be really smart.” What is so funny is that the two may have the same IQ. We have a strong tendency to write off the things we are exceptionally good at as “just what I do”, “no big deal”, “easy”, “anyone could do it if they wanted”, etc. Then we look at those who have abilities we don’t have, use them as the stick by which we measure unusual intelligence and find ourselves lacking. (This article has a good explanation of this dynamic.)
Again, unusually high intelligence is an unearned trait. We tend not to value what we do not earn. But if we cannot acknowledge that we do have unusual abilities, it will be hard for us to develop them to their fullest extent in order to actually do something worth being proud of with them. We need to value our abilities, not because they are just so magical and special and set us apart as better than others. We need to value them so that we can develop them. For this reason, some people refer to highly intelligent people as “high potential” rather than gifted.
If we can get a clearer view of our own abilities, free from the misconceptions about what it means and looks like to be gifted, then we will be in a better position to actually reach that potential. When I think of the number of things that I didn’t attempt to do or even view as a possibility as a young person because those were things that “other, smarter people” do, it makes me cringe. The simple fact is that being unusually smart is neither inherently good or bad. Unusual intelligence brings a lot of potential pitfalls as well as potential accomplishments. It is my opinion that we have the best chance of overcoming the pitfalls and attaining the potential when we have a reasonable, clearheaded view of ourselves. Sometimes that means having the courage to say, “I’m a really intelligent person” and not modifying or apologizing for that. Besides, you probably won’t be telling the people around you anything they don’t already know. For reasons such as those above, the smartest people are sometimes the last to really know.
BTW, if you or your kids are (or think you are) gifted, I would highly recommend checking out the Hoagies’ Gifted website. It is a great clearinghouse of resources, links and information. In particular, I have found the “gifted adults” page very useful. It’s all well and fine to learn about the kids and their needs, but if you aren’t at peace with your own giftedness, it will be hard to raise a child who is a peace with theirs.