I once knew a nine year-old boy, let’s call him William, who would excitedly theorize about the evolutionary advantage of imagination, the expansion and contraction of the universe, and the artistic preferences of nature (apparently nature loves symmetry too). The complexity of his thinking would often leave me speechless; William’s thoughts were more sophisticated, sometimes, than most people I’d meet in their 20’s. A sensitive boy, with multiple overexcitabilities, he often found himself overwhelmed by the world outside of and inside his mind; loud noises or sock seams could inspire a terrible meltdown, sunset or a beautiful harmony could make him weak at the knees, and anyone’s negative opinion could reduce him to tears for hours. Worst of all, in William’s view, was the fact that he still had potty accidents during the day and had to wear a pull-up overnight.
What does it feel like to be like William?
According to Erik Erikson, the developmental drives of a 9yo are to learn to fit in and belong in your social peer group and to achieve competence at the things which are valued by your social peers and society. For most kids in (at least) the US, including William, social peers are provided for us within the fairly strictly age-segregated groupings of the classroom at school. How well do you think a boy like William is able to learn to belong and fit in within the average public school 4th grade classroom? When he attempts to talk about John Stuart Mills’ higher versus lower pleasures with the 9yo kid who sits next to him at lunch, how do you think that goes over? When he got invited to a sleepover party, if he ever was, how do you think he would feel about accepting if he knew he would be the only boy there in a diaper? How would he feel if he didn’t know until they were all there getting ready for bed?
William’s is an admittedly extreme case of asynchrony in a gifted child but I have personally known at least four exceptionally to profoundly gifted children who have delayed potty training completion until the age of even 10 or 11. Even far less profound asynchrony that is common throughout the gifted population, even the essentially definitional asynchrony of having an IQ in the top 2% of the population, can make it very difficult to “fit in” with age mates and make it feel impossible to become competent at the skills those social peers find valuable. We know that this can result in social isolation and alienation; what does it FEEL like though?
If William were to openly worry about his deficiencies with his very loving and accepting parents, they would likely tell him he will eventually figure it out and, besides, he has the most amazing mind that more than makes up for it. They would possibly tell him that really smart kids, like him, sometimes have very uneven development. They would tell him that it’s not his fault and there is nothing wrong with him. Maybe all of their assurances would serve only to convince him that the adults in his life don’t understand him either.
Because, in William’s mind, he can’t be all that smart if he can’t figure out something your average 3 year old can master. In William’s point of view, eventually figuring it out is meaningless… even a month away can feel like a lifetime. In William’s mind it might not be his fault that he can’t be like the other boys his age but it absolutely DOES mean that there is something wrong with him. He can’t keep up with them. He can’t do even the simplest things that they can do. It doesn’t matter if he could run a billion laps around them in speaking french or understanding the chemistry books that (by the way) just make him even more weird; it’s quite obvious to William that there is something very, very, wrong with him and if you try to convince him otherwise then you must not understand.
If age 5-12 is when we are driven to achieve mastery and competence, is it also the time when we develop those voices about ourselves that live inside of our minds? If William developed a self-concept at age 9 that he is dumber than his peers because he can’t hold back his tears or go to bed without a pull up would that explain why, at 35, he feels like a terrible fraud who actually isn’t smart enough for his exciting job at Google? Would that silent shame of not being able to fit in, that he put on when he was a small child, just be another version of the shamefully silent suspicion that all of his workmates are better than him at their jobs and, if they really knew him, would see how incompetent he truly is? Would that voice also explain his inability to approach women who he finds fascinating and beautiful; does he settle for unsatisfying relationships because he is invisibly convinced that he’s not worthy of more?
And for the rest of us, what about the voices in our heads that might be so much the same as William’s? Did ours also come because of our own asynchrony as children? Is that the developmental stage when we, too, became impostors? And if it is, is that the child inside of ourselves that we must return to and convince that, really, we are good enough and smart enough and worthy?
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you think it’s possible that asynchrony might be a cause of Impostor’s syndrome in gifted people. I’d also love to hear if this rang a bell for you or your child and how you dealt with it or any ideas you might have. Please feel free to share in the comments or via email.
*Julie Creech is a Marriage and Family Therapist registered Intern in the state of California who practices in the South Bay of San Francisco, otherwise known as Silicon Valley.