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Douglas Eby : Entitled to Be Exceptional

Entitled to Be Exceptional

By Douglas Eby

Being exceptional — unusually skillful, smart, creative or otherwise more capable than the norm — may include a judgment both by others and ourselves as being an "outsider." Gifted and talented people can experience a self-defeating aversion to expressing talents that might separate them from other people. Girls and women may be especially sensitive about fitting in, and deny their capabilities, find it hard to recognize and embrace their abilities, and have a low sense of entitlement to be exceptional.

In her book "The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Women's Lives," Kathleen Noble points out that primary religious and secular myths, including stories from Beowulf to the Brothers Grimm to Disney, idealize women "for their modesty, beauty, chastity, piety, obedience and selfless performance of domestic duties" and perpetuate stereotypes that make it "extremely difficult for women to be seen as strong, resourceful, courageous, and real, the ingredients of true heroic stature."

Dr. Noble cites the power of a specific example: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" This is the question that opens the tale of Snow White, one of Western culture's most enduring heroines; it is the question that forms the core of most quest stories written for women and girls, and it is the question that serves most forcefully to blind us to our strengths.

Quoting writer Carolyn Heilbrun, Dr. Noble says women need a hero myth that inspires them "to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular" and notes that a woman "to live heroically must belong to herself alone; she must be the center of her own life to pursue a wholeness or integrity that is fluid, inclusive and interconnected.

The task of being a "fully functioning female human being," she notes, "is a formidable and heroic challenge because a female hero must insist upon herself, something that most women are neither taught nor encouraged to do."

Dr. Noble also writes, "There comes a moment in each quest cycle where a woman finds herself poised on the brink of transformation... the pivotal decision to embark upon an extraordinary journey of self-discovery... each quester who wins her way through to the portal of transformation must discard some part of herself in order to create a larger self and give birth to her own possibilities."

In Heilbrun's book "Writing a Woman's Life" she refers to an essay ("Selves in Hiding", 1981) by Patricia Spacks, in which she evaluates the autobiographies of Emmeline Pankhurst, Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir: "each a profoundly radical individual, responsible for revolutionary acts and concepts... Although each author has significant, sometimes dazzling accomplishments to her credit... to a striking degree they fail directly to emphasize their own importance, though writing in a genre that implies self-assertion and self-display." Heilbrun notes "These women accept full blame for any failures in their lives, but shrink from claiming that they either sought the responsibilities they ultimately bore or were in any way ambitious.

"Day, for example, has what Spack calls 'a clear sense of self — but struggles constantly to lose it.' All these autobiographies 'exploit a rhetoric of uncertainty'... And in all of them the pain of the lives is, like the successes, muted, as though the women were certain of nothing but the necessity of denying both accomplishment and suffering." Mary Rocamora (director of the private Rocamora School in Los Angeles) notes that many women have unwittingly lost much of their authenticity to over socialization: "Doing what we should is programmed into us at an early age. You may find yourself trapped between two identities: the ordinary self that habitually and unquestioningly yields to the expectations of others, and the gifted self that must have time and freedom to devote to your talents. "This presents an even greater challenge for gifted women who are in the early stages of self-recognition and personal development. Women in our culture are raised to be care-givers, and as such, their identity and self worth are defined primarily by that role."

Rocamora also thinks that for most women, "it is a major psychological achievement to shift their primary identification and sense of worth to the development of their talent. Not only is it threatening to the woman, but often to friends and family who are used to being put first." Psychologist Matina Horner, in a 1969 report on her doctoral dissertation research, identified what came to be called the Horner Effect, or Fear of Success syndrome: that women characteristically underachieve when competing against men.

In her book "Smart Girls" Barbara Kerr notes that this pattern may have lessened in the past twenty years, but "the Horner Effect may still live on in girls' and women's tendencies to negotiate and avoid conflict or competition when friendship or intimacy is at stake... Since they are astute, gifted girls become sensitive to the conflicts for women in competitive situations much earlier than average girls do... Terman's studies show gifted girls and women have an even stronger need to please others than average women do."

Another indicator of entitlement, in terms of having a political or moral "right" to being heard or recognized, may be the so-called "feminine speech" style identified by researchers such as psycholinguist Deborah Tannen, with verbal characteristics distinct from a more typically masculine one, including a greater use of verbal tags such as "...don't you think?" or "That is a good idea, isn't it?", and a rising inflection placed on the end of declarative statements. These differences are observed in heterogeneous, mixed gender groups, but both males and females initiate the "feminine style" at the same rate when they are in groups composed of only their own gender. Perhaps women feel somewhat more entitled to be authentic and forthright in groups with only women present.

The creative contributions of gifted and talented women are needed more than ever, by women willing to be "improper" if that's what it takes. Standards, rules and expectations about creative work, often defined by men and male institutions, can limit what women feel or perceive they are entitled to be.

Academy Award-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson commented in an interview that "A lot of the criticism about my comedy work by men has been "I think you're marvelous, but you just can't do that.' They think I should be attractive, do serious drama; they're threatened by a moderately good-looking woman who tries to be funny as well. We are taught to take women only on a very few levels."

Perhaps characters such as Sydney Bristow in the tv series "Alias" [played by Jennifer Garner]; Shu Lien in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" [Michelle Yeoh] and Mackenzie Allen [Geena Davis], the first woman president, in the tv series "Commander in Chief," may be helping create new myths and role models of heroic, self-aware and confident women who are able to more fully realize their many strengths and talents. •

© 2005 Douglas Eby

Douglas Eby is a writer and researcher about psychological aspects of creative expression and achievement. More »