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The Gifted Identity Formation Model
In search of the gifted identity, from abstract
to workable counseling constructs
In this article:
Identity and its Formation
The Gifted Identity Formation Model
The Four Constructs
12 Systems Impacting Identity Formation
By Andrew S. Mahoney M.S.,L.P.C.,
Knowing one's giftedness and having a well-developed sense
of identity as a gifted person are crucial for the development
of the self. Many gifted people struggle with their giftedness,
what it means to be gifted and how to develop that potential
because there are few models available to assist in the identity
development and counseling of gifted people. Moreover, identity
itself is often viewed as an abstract concept, making the
task of bridging this concept to pragmatic applications highly
The Gifted Identity Formation Model, presented
here, helps bridge the theoretical with the practical, includes
identity and its formation as crucial variables in the counseling
process and uses identity as the baseline for intervention.
The model aids with assessment and helps deliver counseling
related interventions that explore and strengthen the identity
and identity formation of gifted people, in turn enhancing
the health and development of the self.
There are many conceptual
challenges to understanding the
issues related to identity formation in the gifted. One is to understand
what goes into the formation of a gifted person's identity.
A second and perhaps more involved challenge rests in the pragmatics
of helping to foster a healthy and relevant identity for a gifted
person. The need for differentiated and specialized counseling services
for the gifted is evident throughout the literature (Moon, Kelly
& Feldhusen, 1997; Treffinger & Feldhusen, 1996; Feldman, 1996;
Rocamara, 1992; Alverado, 1989; Coangelo, 1989). Recently David
Feldman (1996) called for an expansion of human development theories
to include the unique characteristics and developmental needs of
gifted people. However, the problem is that there are few differentiated
models that counselors, educators, and other professionals can use
to help counsel the gifted and to help strengthen the development
of an identity integrated with giftedness. The task of integrating
an intricate and complex concept such as giftedness or the development
of a gifted identity into workable counseling applications offers
a multifaceted challenge.
The Gifted Identity Formation Model
is a differentiated counseling model which attempts to bridge the
theoretical constructs relating to identity formation in the gifted
with the practical aspects of counseling gifted people. For the
purposes of this model, giftedness is defined as exceptional ability
in a variety of areas such as intellect, the arts and creativity.
Giftedness is also viewed as an aspect or aspects of the self. This
article illuminates the complexity, process and nuances of identity
formation relating to the gifted, and then provides an overview
of a differentiated model that incorporates identity formation into
the counseling process for the gifted population.
Defining identity may be as complex
as developing one's identity; even Eric Erikson (1968) was hesitant
to offer a definitive explanation. It may be that the definition
includes the unity and integration of all aspects of self, including
the conscious and unconscious. It may be that another way to define
identity is through answering the question, "who am I?"
If identity encompasses the complexity
of all aspects of "who I am," then identity formation
is the process of integrating and shaping discrete pieces of the
self into a unique being. Erikson (1968) spoke of identity formation
as "a process located in the core of the individual and yet
also in the core of his communal culture" (pg. 22). He refers
to the integrative and complex relationship between the inner self
(all inner aspects and internal interplay of the self) and the outer
world (self as it relates and contends with the external world).
He described a "few minimum requirements" to consider
when contending with the complex process of identity formation.
The Gifted Identity Formation Model utilizes these requirements
as the working underpinnings of the model:
- Identity formation employs a process of simultaneous
reflection and observation;
- Identity formation takes place on all levels
of mental functioning;
- An individual judges himself in light of what
he perceives to be the way others judge him, in comparison to
himself, and to a topology significant to others.
Identity formation for Erikson
was largely unconscious, indicating how much he believed the inner
world of the self influenced identity. He believed the process was
"for the most part unconscious except where inner conditions
and outer circumstances combine to aggravate a painful or elated
identity-consciousness" (p 23). Erikson was referring to what
occurs when an individual is not in synch with her true self. For
example, even though Mary was told since childhood that she was
gifted, she did not view herself as such and was very distressed
over her career choice as an adult. She complained constantly that
her chosen life's work was not in tune with who she really is,
but had no sense on how to redirect herself. It is also important
to keep in mind that Erikson never saw identity as static or unchangeable
but believed identity formation was a life-long process. Therefore,
the Gifted Identity Formation Model operates under the principle
that development and integration of one's giftedness must be
accounted for as a variable in the healthy development of the self's
identity across the life span.
The Gifted Identity
The Gifted Identity Formation Model
is a guide for understanding the complexity and nuances of gifted
people. It provides a counseling framework that helps gifted individuals
to be aware of and to understand the effect their giftedness has
on their life development, and the importance giftedness has on
their identity formation, thus better understanding themselves as
gifted people. The counselor uses the model to assess the complexity
surrounding an individual's giftedness and how giftedness is
relevant to the healthy or unhealthy development of that individual.
The model serves as a guide to design interventions, practices or
strategies to facilitate and/or intervene in the counseling process.
The model is not meant to be used as a criteria scale for mental
health or to compare the development of individuals. Rather it has
three primary counseling purposes: serving as an assessment tool,
assisting in the development of counseling interventions, and acting
as a guide in the counseling process.
The model also provides a context
for understanding giftedness as part of the continuum of human behavior.
It allows for giftedness to be placed in a positive context of development
rather than be mischaracterized as abnormal or pathological. With
this framework the counselor is challenged to explore the diverse
nature of the gifted self and its importance in the greater scope
of human nature.
Using a cross-gridded framework (see
Figure 1 -- click
here to open in separate window) of four constructs (Validation,
Affirmation, Affiliation, and Affinity) and twelve systems (Self,
Family, Family of Origin, Cultural, Vocational, Environmental, Educational,
Social, Psychological, Political, Organic-Physiological, and Developmental),
counselors (with their client or independently) explore, discuss
and chart the components of identity development exposing giftedness
as a variable (see Figure 2). For example, when assessing from each
construct and system, it is important to explore whether giftedness
has or had a value of positive, negative or some manifestation in-between
placed on it.
Jon grew up in a family that never acknowledged his giftedness.
He reported for this section of the grid that there was no
validation coming from his parents. Jon's self report
here would be an example of negative or indifferent validation
coming from the family (i.e. his parents) in regards to his
The constructs and systems are differentiated to
accentuate the complexity of identity and the identity formation
process. By breaking down these variables and aspects of identity
formation, the counselor and client are able to manage the complexity
and work with identity in a less abstract form. As an overlay, the
model can be used with existing counseling frameworks. For example,
if the school counselor is conducting a career exploration group,
the model can provide a differential tool to account for gifted
members. He could help individuals define areas of strength and
identify ways to better support areas that need development related
to their giftedness. Thus, the model can be used for counseling
interventions that directs people to be more in tune with their
giftedness and demonstrate how their giftedness plays out in work,
education, development, and relationships. The intent is to assess
and introduce the variable of giftedness in many contexts to support
and develop a gifted identity as a part of the whole self.
The Four Constructs
The four constructs represent some
of the forces or underpinnings that shape and influence identity.
These focal points are described and delineated to help the counselor
sort out and work with the complex nature of identity and how it
forms. There is no distinct order for the four constructs, although
there may be some sequence to them. For example children are often
identified in some formalized manner (see section on Validation)
as gifted before being placed in a gifted education program (see
section on Affirmation). The author encourages the use of these
constructs in a fluid way to support the notion that identity is
multifaceted, complex, and forever evolving.
Validation The first
construct is validation, an acknowledgment that one's giftedness
exists as corroborated by others or by oneself. Validation originates
from primary relationships such as the self, parents, teachers,
institutions and persons in positions of authority. The relationships
are primary in the sense that individuals are dependent on these
relationships or sources of validation to facilitate their development
or growth in some manner.
Giftedness can be validated through
identification by an academic gifted program, acknowledgment of
ones giftedness by a significant other and/or by coming to one's
own realization through exceptional accomplishments, etc. Keep in
mind that the form of validation may limit how it validates a person.
For example, if the child does not meet the eligibility criteria
for a gifted program he may not feel that his giftedness is valid
because the school says he is not. Therefore, to facilitate self-understanding,
counselors should consider and define a variety of indicators of
ability that will assist people in understanding how their gift
Persons who do not feel their giftedness
is valid, may suffer from self-esteem problems and low self-concept.
If an individual's concept of valid giftedness is defined only
in a limited manner, how she develops that gift will also be limited.
Another form of validation is reflected
in the parents' awareness that the child is gifted. Do they
know what giftedness is and do they validate the child in her giftedness
by acknowledging and accepting it? If the parent knows their child
is gifted, validation can come through advocating for the child
to be in a gifted program, providing an enrichment opportunity or
any activity where she can understand and develop her behavior from
a gifted perspective. Validation then becomes an important marker
the second construct, requires interactive acknowledgment (a seconding
of the motion) of who we are from many supportive individuals or
processes. It is the continual reinforcement of the nuances of an
individual's giftedness from learning, experiences, environment,
parents, teachers, and enrichment. It is the ongoing, interactive
process between self as gifted and the world. The process reinforces
in the self that "I am gifted."
Affirmation can also be negative
from the absence of reinforcement or from negative feedback. A positive
example of affirmation is a child's participation in a gifted
program that provides ongoing challenge to his ability and continuous
positive mirroring around his giftedness. Another example might
originate in the Family of Origin System (generations of the extended
family). Affirmation from this system comes from both the conscious
and unconscious value structures that are passed on generationally.
For example, in a family in which giftedness in women was not affirmed,
and in which the family disapproved of women in higher education
for several past generations, the development of intellectual gifts
in women might be neither acknowledged nor supported. This exemplifies
a negative affirmation. Values such as these are often heavily ingrained
in a person's identity and need to be explored and brought to
a conscious awareness. The gifted individual who is aided in exploring
giftedness, from the aspect of family of origin, will be able to
begin a healthier differentiation of self, and enable the self to
integrate its giftedness more fully.
However, awareness alone does not
always facilitate growth. At this point, the skill of the counselor
is relied upon to help intervene and take that awareness further.
In these examples, the construct of affirmation was analyzed with
the Family of Origin, Cultural and Educational systems, showing
how the model allows for an assessment that will naturally lead
to exploring the other constructs and systems.
is an alliance or association with others of similar intensities,
passions, desires and abilities. It means being received in fellowship
or integrated into a group or society without loss of identity (or
the self). Affiliation provides a reason for being by providing
a pathway towards connecting the self with the communal. The process
of individuation relies heavily on affiliation to support the self
coming into its own. For optimal development of a gifted identity,
the association or alliance must support giftedness. When discussing
validation, primary relationships (such as parents, teachers, and
authority figures) are the key focus. In affiliation, secondary
relationships (i.e., peers, siblings, colleagues, etc.) become highlighted.
These relationships enhance the individuation of the self by encouraging
separation from the family of origin and from the parent. In this
way, affiliation supports individuation and the development of a
healthy and whole self. Included in this process is recognition
of the need for belonging and feeling that "who I am"
has a place and meaning. Gifted affiliation provides a forum in
which individuals are appreciated and accepted for their uniqueness.
For example, with appropriate affiliations, a gifted child will
not have to deny their giftedness in order to make friends.
To affiliate, people need to be valued
for who they are -- for their uniqueness, talent, specialness, and
that they are human beings. Integration begins here. The self experiences
others of likeness away from the primary source of validation. The
self at this juncture sees giftedness as valid through others and
begins to come to a higher level of self-appreciation and acceptance.
Affiliating the gifted aspects of self is conceivably one of the
strongest methods to relieve the alienation and isolation that gifted
people so often feel.
For the gifted adult affiliation
is often difficult. Aside from MENSA, there are few organizations
for gifted adults to affiliate with for mutual challenge and support
relevant to the development of their giftedness. The Gifted Identity
Formation Model can be used to assess many of the systems that could
provide places to affiliate. A work environment could be reorganized
so that people of like mind would have more opportunity to collaborate
both vocationally and on a social level. It is important to keep
in mind that affiliations do not have to exclude others. People
can be united through sub-grouping, such as committee work or conferencing
within the workplace.
In a school setting, a counselor
or a teacher may want to start a group for talented artists, writers,
musicians, that meets periodically rather than viewing gifted affiliation
as being appropriate only in the intellectual domain. It is important
to create affiliations on the micro level in groups that account
for many different abilities. This will help broaden the view of
what giftedness is and reduce stereotyping.
Affinity The fourth
construct is affinity. It maintains the fire of the self. It is
an attraction towards that which nourishes and resembles, a mating
of souls, spirit and philosophy; not a yearning, but a calling.
It has something to do with the soul, a mission, and a sense of
purpose in life. There is a deeper and more esoteric meaning involved.
Affinity connects the self to the world and the mystery of life.
Often affinity needs are put aside
when the identity process is not maximized. Unmet affinity creates
anguish, making life more tenuous. "If I can't fulfill
my calling, then I will never have a sense of fulfillment and relief
from my angst."
Affinity provides for a goodness
of fit, for appropriate challenge and stimulation to develop the
gifted attributes -- what some might consider their quest. Without
an awareness of and meeting of affinity needs, the gifted individual
often feels powerless and alienated from life and others. Affinity
can drive affiliation, it can drive the development of the gift,
or relieve the existential angst associated with being gifted. And
without meeting affinity needs there is no respite or shelter from
the humanness and non-spiritual aspects of this world.
When working with this construct
the counselor asks the question, "Is the client's affinity
(i.e. purpose, meaning or quest) being met?" as it relates
to her giftedness, passions, goals, and drives that are related
to or stem from their gifted attributes. For instance, a gifted
adolescent may have a burning passion to make a social and political
contribution to a cause. Someone facilitating this young person's
process needs to question how they can assist that encounter with
affinity. This construct requires a much deeper look into the self.
The affinity of the self may lie unearthed from a lack of validation,
affirmation or affiliation or some combination of all three. The
person may have the awareness of their affinity but not know the
validity of their feelings.
These four constructs -- Validation,
Affirmation, Affiliation, Affinity -- represent important building
blocks in development of the self. They interface and have an impact
with the following 12 systems to help shape and influence identity
formation in the gifted.
12 Systems Impacting Identity
The following twelve systems (Self,
Family, Family of Origin, Culture, Vocational, Environmental, Educational,
Social, Psychological, Political, Organic-Physiological, and Developmental)
delineate variables that contribute to the development of the self's
identity as a gifted person. They represent and interface with both
the internal and external forces that impact identity formation.
Each system has properties or values that influence the development
of individual giftedness.
The Gifted Identity Formation Model
requires the counselor and client to explore each system to understand
how it influences or impacts the identity development for the client
because they are key to personal growth. These systems do and will
overlap. The intent of the model is to challenge the counselor and
the client to explore in depth what occurs within and among each
of these systems as they relate to the client's giftedness.
Charles' self perception is not congruent
with his achievements (i.e. a Ph.D. in Physics with honors)
which should validate his sense of self as gifted.
Charles can validate his view of self
by his choice to work alone and without others to challenge
his self perception.
Self System This system refers
to the individual's values and beliefs, including the internal
view of self as a gifted person. It also includes the perception
one has of how he is viewed by others. For example, Charles comes
into counseling with very low self esteem, suffers from depression
and is bored with his career. When asked how he perceives his own
giftedness, he reports himself to be of average ability, yet he
holds a Ph.D. with honors in physics from a highly prestigious university.
He has virtually no awareness of his intellectual giftedness. The
self view he presents is highly incongruent with the reality of
his current and past experience. In this particular case, the client
spent most of his career isolated in his work and was caught in
the trap of merely performing with his talent (See Figure 3). After
exploring more about his gifts, Charles was able to make appropriate
life changes based on a better and more suitable understanding of
self and his giftedness. It is the counselor's task to begin
the process of helping this man understand his giftedness and to
create a view of self that he can understand and further develop.
Family System This system
includes the immediate family, spouse, parents, siblings, children
and partners keeping in mind that the immediate family varies in
different cultures. The client and counselor, when working with
this system, explore how the immediate family interfaces with the
giftedness of its members. For example, Sheli's parents recognized
her giftedness early on and went to great lengths to provide enrichment.
Family of Origin System
"Family of origin" refers to past generations of the extended
family. The values, beliefs, and traditions held by the family of
origin play an extensive role in how people experience and contend
with their giftedness. A young man wanted to use his gifts for science
and written language to become a science fiction writer. He was
confused about whether this was a respectable choice and had great
difficulty finding the freedom to explore this career direction.
He thought he would be the first person in his family to use his
talent in a nontraditional way. Unconsciously he was separating
from a long line of technical engineers, and he felt he was betraying
the past three generations of gifted men who followed a more traditional
and conservative route. The client was encouraged to explore further
back in his family of origin and located a descendant that was a
novelist. He was quite relieved and it helped him separate himself
enough from his Family of Origin to pursue his own dream.
Cultural System This
system includes heritage, gender, race, religion and ethnicity.
Each variable holds its own set of beliefs, values, and properties
regarding what it means to be gifted. Views of giftedness vary from
culture to culture and in some may be nonexistent.
In Vinny's case, he grew up in
the Bronx and had a strong working class background. He was faced
with the challenge of leaving the culture known to him to pursue
a career as a fine artist. He was in counseling with great distress
over the transition that he had to make to be successful and pursue
his talent. He was reinforced through his culture throughout his
formative years that being a fine artist was not an acceptable choice.
Vinny was left feeling panicked about who he was and where he was
headed. He felt alone and that he did not have the support of his
culture and family. He also spent time exploring a lifetime of feelings
of alienation because of his giftedness and the values he was taught
around his gift.
Vocational System This
system refers to career choice, career development, occupation and
the type of vocational exposure an individual experiences. Steve
was quite passionate about computers yet his training was limited
due to financial hardship and lack of parental support. Vocationally
he needed to have more exposure to and knowledge about computers.
Through his experience in a counseling group of highly gifted young
men he was able to find others with similar ability and passion
who were willing to set him up with his own computer system, aiding
Steve in fulfilling his vocational interest in the computer field.
This is an example of the vocational system interfacing with an
opportunity for affiliation (i.e. gifted peers in a counseling group).
This system impacts identity formation by nurturing or not nurturing
a person's gifts. This system includes a child's room at
home, the cubicle at work, geographic considerations, the raw materials
available to be creative -- one's surroundings. Does the an
individual's environment foster that person's ability? For
example, Randy was a prodigious artist as a child and had the opportunity
to frequent the local salvage yard. He was able to find unlimited
raw materials for his artistic creations. With a supportive environment
at home he could bring his found treasures to his family garage
(which served as his studio) and create art. In this example Randy's
environment provided him with raw materials at his disposal to be
used creatively and thus develop his talents. At the same time,
his parents encouraged his endeavors into non-conventional environments
(i.e. the local salvage yard).
Educational System This
system refers to formal or informal means by which the gifted person
is educated, including schools, discussion groups, clubs, individual
study, and observation. Working with this system, the counselor
needs to explore both traditional and other related educational
environments to assist in this area of development. The interface
between the Educational System and the identity of a gifted person
is critical because of the tendency to define giftedness in an academic
context. Society has placed enormous value on academically related
giftedness, the criteria for which has been set by the traditional
academic educational system. Nelson for example, because of his
profound ability, was unable to find his traditional educational
situation stimulating. He was in his sophomore year of high school
and his work had severely declined. His counselor and parents worked
on a plan to accelerate him in a few subjects through a local college.
The plan also included a mentor who taught Nelson how to do advanced
animation techniques on the computer. Things began to turn around
and his work improved.
Social System This system
involves relationships with peers, family, and connecting to others.
Counseling groups offer one form of socialization. David never had
the opportunity to talk to a peer about how badly the kids made
fun of the things he said. By joining a counseling group of highly
gifted 8- to 10-year-old boys, David began to understand how to
deal better with the kids at school. He found the group to be a
place of safety and support that enabled him to survive in his world.
This system is the system of our psyche where dynamics and experiences
come into play and build one's self esteem, self concept and
impact how the individual psychologically deals with life. The psychological
system also reflects the complexity of defenses and the depth of
one's ego and character. The field of psychology is part of
the psychological system. For example, how does the field of psychology
view and contend with the nature of giftedness? Is giftedness pathologized,
ignored or understood for its difference? All too often a precocious
gifted child becomes a marker for unacceptable behavior and yet
that behavior may be the raw potential for an exceptional future
contribution to the world.
Political System This
system includes and often dictates values regarding giftedness.
Gifted people may fall victim to political agendas. The key is to
help the counselor and the client assess and understand how the
political climate is related to that client's giftedness. For
example, the issue of funding for education or the allocation of
resources and opportunities in a workplace are often affected by
politics. The most common example is funding for sports programs
versus gifted programming.
This system explores areas where there is a behavioral or physiological
relationship to one's giftedness. Benbow (1986) has shown that
some physiological traits occur more frequently in extremely able
students. She identified the traits of left or mixed handedness,
myopia, and symptomatic atopic disease (asthma and other allergies)
among extremely mathematically and verbally precocious students.
Such studies raise the question whether giftedness has a physiological
basis. The knowledge that giftedness has a physiological connection
may help to answer many questions and concerns a gifted person might
have in respect to their view of self.
This system encompasses life-cycle changes such as entering adolescence,
the birth of a child, individuation and separation from the family.
The Developmental system can be used to differentiate how a gifted
person's development may be asynchronous with traditional views
of development (Silverman,1998). Juan's parents could not comprehend
how he could be so mature and adult-like and suddenly change to
exhibit the behaviors of the 5-year-old he was.
The 12 systems described here have
been selected as a cross section of forces that impact the development
of a person's identity. The author acknowledges that many systems
simultaneously interface and overlap. The intent of breaking down
the systems is to encourage the exploration of the complex forces
and variables that contribute to identity formation.
A delicate interplay occurs in the
development of a gifted person's identity. How an individual
integrates and develops his giftedness has ramifications for his
life span. Our responsibility as professionals is to help the gifted
individual learn about variations in ability and how that variance
is to be integrated with "who I am" as a whole self, which
includes one's giftedness. Without the appropriate context for
understanding identity formation for gifted people, their needs
may not be met. A richness exists in this exceptional force or dance
within the self that can benefit from the kind of exploration this
This differentiated counseling model
is offered as a starting place, a point of discussion as the field
of gifted embarks on new ways to expand views about the development
of gifted people. The model is open for review, to be enhanced and
challenged. The intent here is to show a qualitative extraction
and synthesis of the author's extensive clinical work, utilizing
the construct of giftedness in the development of self and to share
that piece with others.
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- Colangelo Ogburn, K. M. (1989). Giftedness
as Multilevel Potential. Advanced Development, (vol.1), 87-100.
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Theory of Giftedness: Worthy of a name. Invited Keynote, Rosen
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Threshold. Self and Identity Development,
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D. V. (1986). Can You Hear the Flowers Singing? Journal of
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- Passow, A. & Frasier, M. M.
(1996). Toward Improving Identification of Talent Potential Among
Minority and Disadvantaged Students. Roeper Review, (vol.18),
- Rocamora, M. (1992). Counseling
Issues With Recognized and Unrecognized Creatively Gifted Adults.
Advanced Development, (vol. 4), 75-89.
- Silverman, L. K. (1998). Developmental
Stages of Giftedness: Infancy through adulthood. In J. VanTassel-Baska
(Ed.), Excellence in educating gifted & talented learners 3rd
Edition (pp.145-166). Denver: Love.
- Tolan, S. (1989). Discovering the Gifted
Ex-Child. Advanced Development, (vol.1). Treffinger, D. J., &
Feldhusen, J. F. (1996). Talent Recognition and Development: Successor
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This article first appeared in the Roeper
Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Pages 222-226. Used with permission.
Andrew S. Mahoney, MS, L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is
director of The Counseling Practice of Andrew S. Mahoney , a
counseling center for the gifted and talented. In addition, he
is past chair of the Counseling and Guidance Division of the
National Association of Gifted Children, and a trainer and supervisor
of counselors. For 20 plus years, Mr. Mahoney has explored and
developed frameworks for the counseling and psychotherapy of
Gifted and Talented individuals. His work offers a new and original
perspective for those interested in better serving this unique
population. He is also a professional pastel artist. To view
his online web porfolio, click
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