By Kathleen Casper
Gifted adults often spend their lives trying to find friendships that have a depth and breadth at the spiritual level that most of their friendships and intimate relationships only skim the top of. And once in a while they actually find one of those if they are lucky, although they are incredibly difficult to find. Researchers don’t know exactly why this is, or why it matters, although they can follow the brain chemistry evidence to prove there is a biological event that occurs when people do find connections (Krienen, Pei-Chi Tu, and Buckner, 2010), somehow the idea of finding that one person who matches their character and mirrors their soul matters more than most gifted people want to admit. Some give up and live a life of solitude. But others continue to look, sometimes moving from unsatisfactory relationship to yet another unsatisfactory one, always hoping they will find “the One.”
Starting from youth, gifted children begin looking for peers who mirror their intelligence and interests. Articles have been written about what “true peers” are for children, whose asynchrony of development causes problems for them in finding even playmates who understand them at the appropriate levels. But when a gifted child grows into a gifted adult, the intricacies of relationships thicken and just having someone who can do “parallel play” at the higher levels isn’t enough. Gifted adults have the potential of forming intimate relationships that overshadow the casual friendships they maintain in their workplaces and in their regular social networks. This pursuit of true adult peers is so important that it manifests itself in what can appear to be self-depreciating or harmful behaviors and even unhealthy medical conditions, including diseases and stress-induced maladies, multiple intimate relationships, divorces, and more.
Just knowing there is a potential for more intimate depth is enough to keep them searching, and often moving from relationship to relationship until they find the “soul mate” they are looking for- if they ever are able to find them.
It is well documented in research articles that the gifted are prone to characteristics that can lead to problematic social interactions on many levels- the high sensitivities, their questioning nature, persistence and obsessiveness, passion and perceptiveness, empathy and enrage over unfairness, and so forth (Heylighen, n.d.). The combination of these characteristics and each gifted person’s specific areas of concerns and passions are unique. Therefore, a gifted person may have to search high and low throughout the population of their communities and the world in order to find someone who matches their desires and understands them at the deepest levels.
Loneliness is a major issue for many adults, but particularly those who are gifted-
Gifted people historically struggle with the issue of loneliness throughout childhood, into adulthood and even in the elderly years. Looking at just about any list of gifted characteristics, loneliness is often mentioned- showing how difficult it is for gifted individuals to feel true connections with others. It’s a lonely existence to not feel like you really belong. This statement says it best- "A common feeling or fantasy among highly gifted children is that they are like abandoned aliens waiting for the mother ship to come and take them home” (Webb, Amend, Webb, Goerss, Beljan, & Olenchak, 2005, p. 136).
This desire to find someone who understands us is human nature. Psychologists have documented the need for social connections. “Across the lifespan, affiliative and attachment bonds have clear survival and reproductive advantages that may help explain why the motivation to form and maintain close social bonds is as potent as the drive to satisfy hunger or thirst”(Cacioppo, 2009).
Researchers (Caspi, Harrington, Moffitt, Milne, & Poulton, 2006) found that loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood caused actual physical maladies such as cardiovascular issues and other health concerns.
Even when a person has what appear to be many friends, they can still be lonely. Many gifted people actually have several casual friends but this does not fill the need to fully connect with someone.
A study done by Lavelle and Hawkley (2010) found the following:
Loneliness is a feeling of distress that accompanies perceived deficiencies in social relationships. Loneliness often occurs in conjunction with social isolation, but a person can be socially isolated without feeling lonely and can feel lonely without being socially isolated. In contrast with social isolation, loneliness is more closely related to the perceived quality than quantity of social relationships.
Even if someone is not really isolated, if they feel isolated it’s even worse. In fact, researchers Cacioppo, Fowler and Christakis (2009) found that “Humans are an irrepressibly meaning-making species and a large literature has developed showing that perceived social isolation (i.e., loneliness) in normal samples is a more important predictor of a variety of adverse health outcomes than is objective social isolation.”
In other words, the lack of a true connection can also be dangerous. It makes people who feel socially isolated willing to take more risks and incur greater costs in order to find connections, sometimes getting themselves into more exploitive relationships than individuals who feel more connected to others.
Gifted characteristics have a tendency to sometimes be especially isolating when the individual feels that the world is full of unfair situations and things to be anxious about. And those who are more willing to accept that other people can be helpful in facing these massive problems are more likely to feel supported in their pursuit of justice, but those who are skeptical and don’t have a network of friends they can count on feel even more hopeless. In fact, research has shown that people who feel like they are connected to others believe they can overcome challenges with the support of their friends.
Researchers (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Rickett, & Masi, 2005) from the University of Chicago found the following:
People who feel socially connected …react to interpersonal conflicts in peaceful and constructive rather than offensive and aggressive ways, thereby producing an environment that others want to inhabit but in contrast, lonely individuals are more likely to construe their world (including the behavior of others) as potentially threatening or punitive. (p. 147)
Finding This Level of Connection is Rare-
There are so many benefits to finding that real connection with someone, and yet it is more difficult to find than it sounds like it should be. Researchers theorize that in order to truly connect and form a friendship, often people need to find someone within 10-20 points of their own IQ score. With only about 3-5% of the world’s population exhibiting gifted characteristics, and even less having similar interest areas and personality compatibility, this makes it quite difficult for a perfect match to take place.
The IQ guidelines sound strict, but Francis Heylighen attempted to explain this enigma when he studied the way gifted people function in society. Heylighen found that in order to converse about an issue, a gifted person (which he referred to as a GP) will often discuss it using information they already have to make inferences and analogies in order to better understand the situation. The fact that most of what is going on in the gifted person’s head is harder to follow for a non-gifted person who is not processing the information at that level and this heightens the anxiety level of a non-gifted person in the conversation, and any input they can contribute to the discussion may not add enough to the thought process for the gifted person so they do not fully engage. If the gifted individual tries to explain their thoughts to the non-gifted conversationalist, they may sound as if they are dumbing it down and insult the other person, making the formation of a friendship difficult.
Heylighen (2007) found the following, "As a result, the GP will tend to remain in the boredom zone, anticipating most of what the other is going to say without learning much new, while the non-GP remains in the anxiety zone, being unable to comprehend much of what is being said, and wondering what the other party is up to."
Gifted researcher Dr. Kathleen Noble (2012) noted this struggle and the importance of finding true peers in her research, stating, “In terms of finding peers, you have to realize it is hard, and you have to work at it.” She also noted that the individual’s living or work situation also plays a part in how difficult it is to find a true peer, but that new technology such as the internet makes it easier to find and explore relationships which may help rural women who are not exposed to as many others. If someone lives in a city or is connected with a university or “some kind of idea factory” it should be easier to find other gifted peers, but for those who work in the corporate world (presumably with less women co-workers) or in the retail world (presumably with less gifted individuals) or at home raising children it’s harder to do so.
Another issue that may make it more difficult to find a true peer is the personality type of the gifted individual. Highly sensitive people may shy from relationships, especially ones that have the potential to be more than just casual friendshipsbecause of their fear of being emotionally harmed by rejection. So finding a true peer requires finding another person who understands this dilemma and is willing to work around it until both parties can trust each other (Aron, 2001).
However, when gifted people do find someone that they click with on such a deep emotional level, they can finally feel like they are supported and that they are no longer alone (Castro, 2008).
And as Susan Daniels points out in her book Living with Intensity, gifted people begin searching for kindred spirits and true peer connections in young adulthood and “their friendships and love relationships may have an almost explosive quality. Successfully finding others with whom they can truly connect allows gifted adults to savor the joys of true intimacy—joys that they will experience with their characteristic intensity” (Daniels & Piechowski, 2008, p. 170).
What is a TRUE PEER?
Different cultures call the idea of a “True Peer” different things. Some refer to them as “best friends” or “kindred spirits.” However a “true peer” in the world of the over-excitabilities-prone, sensitive and high level thinking gifted person is often defined as being even more than those everyday terms. The connection being sought is at a level of depth more in-tune with that of the controversial “soul mate.”
The idea of a “soul mate” is intriguing and different cultures all over the world have believed in and referred to this phenomenon. As far back to Plato, soul mates were an item of discussion; “Bashert” is a Yiddish word that Jewish people use to mean one's divinely foreordained spouse or soul mate, whichis called "basherte" (female) or "basherter" (male). It can also be used to express the seeming fate or destiny of an auspicious or important event, friendship, or happening (“Yiddish Dictionary Online,” n.d.); and in the Malaysian culture they use the word “Jodoh” for soul mate or partner. Malaysian Muslim women sometimes say, “Jodoh pertemuan dan ajal maut di tanganTuhan” or ‘matters of death and soul mates are in the hands of God.’ Researchers Ibrahim and Hassan translate this by saying “Jodoh in this regard means ‘soul mate’ or ‘partner’; but most importantly the word has an implication of fate determined by God at the perfect timing. If one says she hasn’t met her jodoh that means God has not permitted her to meet her soul-matebecause the time is not yet right.
The Urban Dictionary (2006) has a wonderful explanation of what a soul mate is:
A person with whom you have an immediate connection the moment you meet -- a connection so strong that you are drawn to them in a way you have never experienced before. As this connection develops over time, you experience a love so deep, strong and complex, that you begin to doubt that you have ever truly loved anyone prior. Your soulmate understands and connects with you in every way and on every level, which brings a sense of peace, calmness and happiness when you are around them. And when you are not around them, you are all that much more aware of the harshness of life, and how bonding with another person in this way is the most significant and satisfying thing you will experience in your lifetime. You are also all that much aware of the beauty in life, because you have been given a great gift and will always be thankful.
According to some modern day experts, there are soul mates and then there are also kindred spirits. A Soul mate should be distinguished from a kindred spirit, who is someone you connect with that you may feel like you’ve known forever, or who brings you a certain message in your life like many people likely have done. Life Coach, Author, and Personal Trainer Jana Hollingsworth (2011) states, “Kindred spirits can sometimes be our soul mates. However, having a special bond with someone does not always mean they are ‘the one’ that we are meant to spend the rest of our lives with.” However there’s been little research regarding either type of phenomenon.
It may be a gifted characteristic to search for this “true peer” or soul mate. Some researchers have tied the idea of finding a true peer to the theory of self-actualization, with the reasoning that love and belonging are important parts on the hierarchy of human needs that lead to self-actualization and that in order to fully be able to learn about one self, the need to connect with others must be met.
And yet, researchers also believe that the capacity to develop strong and lasting friendships cannot develop in the gifted individual until she herself has experienced the glad peace of being understood and accepted by kindred spirits -- people of similar abilities, values and interests.
Some who are gifted in entelechy (a driving force that makes the individual focus intensely on passions,) are more likely to want or need the “true peer” type of intimate connection but also may find deeper disappointment in relationships when the connection does not end up to be as great of a match as they had hoped.
According to researcher Deirdre Lovecky (1986):
People gifted in entelechy bring deep feelings to a relationship. By spontaneously expressing feelings, they encourage others to do so as well. Their example of overcoming obstacles and their continuing support and interest encourage others to grow. They not only hear the flowers singing but invite others to hear them too.
People gifted in entelechy are capable of creating “golden moments” of friendship, those special times when two people are truly their best selves and able to share on a deep level" (N. Jenckes, personal communication, December 26, 1984). Gifted adults may find sources of rare intimacy; however, they may also find an overwhelming number of people who want contact but have little to offer in return. They may feel vulnerable to and intruded on by the demands of others who may feel cheated that the promise implied in the initial sharing cannot continue.
Perceptiveness is another type of gifted characteristic that adds complexity to the issue of finding a true peer. Those who are more perceptive and have more empathic connections hold “women's most potent gifts, yet, as with all great gifts, there is increased vulnerability.”
According to Researcher Deidre Lovecky, “one of the problems for women with an exceptional degree of perceptiveness is that they experience a deep sense of being different from others -- including most other women -- in their moral and social concepts, in how they view truth and justice, and in how they can foresee the ultimate consequences of particular trends of both individual and community behavior.” So it is harder for them to show their real selves in relationships and instead of finding the true peer, the highly perceptive woman “finds herself in many relationships in which she has to erect a false face that hides how different she really is. Consequently, the highly gifted woman may, in fact, feel inauthentic in her relationships” (1996).
Even if a “soul mate” is not found, often gifted individuals do find a couple very close friends during the course of their lives and it helps them learn more about themselves. Examples of this are present in many articles on the emotional lives of gifted individuals. In Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D.’s research on EQ and the IQ Connection, Dr. Ruf specifically mentioned two different subjects, Candice and Gene who both had only a couple of close friends. “Candice had two different friends in her late teens and in her 30s who helped her find herself.”
According to Dr. Ruf, Sandra became one of the most evolved, self-actualized people in the study and had a couple of close friends as well as a number of casual level acquaintances and was “very happily married to her second husband.” (This last statement does bring up the question of self-actualization and the pursuit of a soul mate through multiple relationships/marriages, which is an area that is lacking in gifted research.)
And Gene, a 56-year old scientist with an IQ of about 175, who she says had only two close friends, one at a time, throughout his childhood (2000).
Gifted adults sometimes expect to share everything with one person and overlook the special relationships that can develop around one interest or one facet of self (Lovecky, 1986).
Researcher Jean Baker Miller (1986) suggested that being able to increase the authenticity in a friendship is the goal of women's relationships, but it can only be obtained when the two participants feel equal.
In order to find a true peer the gifted individual must take the time to both meet many other people and to put forth the efforts involved in building a friendship and exploring its potential depth. “Some of the reasons that many talented women have few friends and are often lonely revolve around the extremely limited amount of time they have for friendships and the ambivalence of other women to talented women who achieve at high levels” (Reis, 2002).
True Peers and Intimacy
Gifted adults whose characteristics include over-excitabilities and sensitivities may struggle to keep an emotional relationship from becoming sexual. This is something that also is documented as occurring in the teen years when some gifted individuals start sexual behaviors, often times as a way to fit in, but also stemming from the desire to lose themselves in the deep emotions of sexual intimacy and the intense feelings of the experience.
As a counselor for the highly gifted, Annette Revel Sheelystates, “Highly gifted high school students who felt socially isolated in elementary and middle school have talked about discovering sex as a new, intense way to finally connect with other people.”
Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowskidescribed the five overexcitabilities present in gifted people that all can add dimensions to a relationship and sexual experiences: Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. And highly sensitive people are “more likely to find sex to be mysterious and powerful, to be turned on by subtle rather than explicit sexual cues, to be easily distracted or physically hurt during sex, and to find it difficult to go rightback to normal life afterwards” (Aron, 2001).
Finding a true peer or soul mate comes with inherent challenges especially if the individuals are already in relationships with people who are not on the same emotional or intellectual levels as they are.
Realizing that a connection on such an intimate plane is possible may disrupt the existing relationships and cause jealousy issues or other jaded behaviors from the parties involved.
The possible conflicts intensify if the gifted “true peers” get so wrapped up in the emotions of the new experience that they become intimate or begin to experiment with the idea.
These characteristics do not mean that gifted people cannot control themselves, or to imply that sexual behavior is inevitable when gifted people meet someone who they connect with on the intimate “true peer” level. But researchers have found that it can make it much more difficult to deny the temptation due to the high excitabilities that may be playing in the gifted person’s mind. Gifted researcher Stephanie Tolan (2007) stated that “when gifted individuals find an intellectually compatible partner of either sex during adolescence, they may experience an ‘explosion’ of feeling.” This can create a situation where the gifted person feels they need to be with the other person and other relationships may suffer.
Tolan also noted another issue that can complicate the life of the true peers, stating, “If the partner is of the same gender, the complex cognitive process that accompanies the exploration of feeling may lead the child to assume a homosexual identitythat may or may not be accurate.”
Since gifted individuals often worry more than others about fairness and ethical issues, balancing this new relationship with their existing obligations is also important for their emotional growth and peace of mind.
The Risk of Reading too Much into Nothing:
It can be highly disappointing to many gifted individuals when they realize that the relationship they thought was “the One” is not what they expected. This causes many gifted women to revert to isolation and solitude in order to not be hurt by another disappointing relationship in the future.
Researchers have concluded that “the neurochemistry of infatuation causes us to overestimate compatibility. When infatuation fades (9 months to 4 years), incompatibility becomes our new focus. All our unmet expectations lead to post-infatuation frustration, which inevitably leads to disenchantment” (Murray, Holmes, Dolderman, & Griffin, 2000).
Many researchers believe that when gifted adults are fascinated with something, especially something new or novel, they tend to take on what interests them “like a holy mission, concentrating for exceptionally long periods of time with remarkable perseverance” (Clark, 1992; Lewis, Kitano, & Lynch, 1992; Lovecky, 1986). That can mean the intensity of infatuation with finding a potential “true peer” is heightened during the initial period of attraction.
Lovecky also noted that “Gifted individuals often exhibit the characteristic of intensity and it can be focused on their relationships, where the gifted individual desires relationships with intensity and sets themselves up for ‘intense mentor relationships’ that often result in keen disappointment.”
In order to know for sure whether an individual has found their true peer or soul mate, or even just a kindred spirit, it is therefore important to give the relationship enough time andgenuine effort to let it develop and to ensure it is more than just a mentor infatuation and that it lasts beyond the initial infatuation and into the future.
In summary, gifted individuals face many challenges when searching for the deep connection of a potential “true adult peer” or soul mate, including scarcity, emotional transparency risks, and balancing the new, unexplored, and potentially deep connection with other obligations or ethical beliefs. Yet finding a rare friendship like this is often a once in a lifetime event that cannot be taken lightly.
As a popular saying goes, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away.” And if they find each other, gifted True Peers have the ability to create those moments even more than non-gifted people do, with their intensity, overexcitabilities and their craving for the novel and the unknown.
Kathleen Casper is the Florida Association for the Gifted (FLAG) president. She recently left the position of the state gifted education specialist at the Florida Department of Education and is excited to now be working as a gifted education consultant and providing support to gifted preschool and homeschool children and families. She also continues working virtually as a part time attorney specializing in family and education law for clients in Washington State and federal courts in WA and FL.