Book Reflections #4: “Bright Adults” by Ellen Fiedler

As I’ve noted previously, the body of literature about adult giftedness is fairly small, presumably because of (at least) the following two assumptions:

1) We have a legal and moral responsibility to support and nurture gifted children and teens (who are minors under our care), but there is no such formal mandate to continue this support through adulthood.

2) If giftedness is defined as asynchrony between intellectual capacity and other developmental milestones, this developmental asynchrony must presumably come to an end and converge at some point – in other words, a grown person ultimately “catches up” to their intellect and can simply proceed from there – right?

Of course, it’s not that simple – and in Bright Adults: Uniqueness and Belonging Across the Lifespan (2015), Ellen Fiedler directly addresses this through her emphasis on developmental stages for gifted adults throughout their lifetimes.

Fiedler highlights and defines the following six distinct phases of gifted adulthood:

  • Seekers: Usually 18-25, on a quest to find their place in the world
  • Voyagers: Usually ages 25-35, purposely journeying through life to establish themselves
  • Explorers: Usually ages 35-50, matching their lives to their identity and priorities
  • Navigators: Usually ages 50-65, using prior knowledge, including self-knowledge, to fulfill their goals
  • Actualizers: Usually ages 65-80, on a path of self-actualization as well as helping others actualize their goals and reams
  • Cruisers: Usually age 80 and beyond, using minds that remain intensely active regardless of physical changes

Before proceeding, I’ll briefly share some of Fiedler’s own discussion of how she developed this model. In Appendix 1 (pp. 217-219), she notes that she was inspired by Erik Erikson’s work on adult development; David Shaffer and Daniel Levinson’s publications on “seasons” of an adult’s life (early, middle, and late);  Mary-Elaine Jacobsen’s The Gifted Adult (1999)Marlou Streznewski’s Gifted Grownups (1999); Willem Kuipers’ work on XIP (Extra Intelligent People); and Gail Sheehy’s classic book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1974, and updated).

Back to Fiedler’s model: she writes that what bright or gifted adults at all these six stages have in common is  a tendency to “search for answers about how to live their lives and directions they should go” (p. 2). She notes that such individuals “are usually intense, idealistic, complex, multifaceted, strong-willed, and impatient”, and points out that they “seek to discover if they are ‘there’ yet – that indefinable place where they can find meaning in their lives.” She posits that “in the same way that gifted children often hit their life stages earlier and more intensely than other children, so do gifted adults” (p. 3)

(A ha! Asynchrony again.)

As someone who is constantly questioning my own life and decisions, Fiedler’s acknowledgement of how tumultuous this journey can be is a welcome balm. It’s difficult to explain exactly how painful it is to live with a relentless sense of existential angst and wondering. While of course it can be a beautiful and wondrous thing to question the complexity and mysteries of existence (this is what I hope to see in my own kids!), it can also lead to paralysis, depression, and deep fatigue.

Fiedler takes time early in her book to clarify how common it is for gifted individuals to question their own traits, and to resist a designation of giftedness due to either “fear of failure to live up to the label” (p. 10), fear of being seen as arrogant, heightened sensitivity to perceived disapproval, and/or continuous comparison of one’s own talents or gifts to those in other (distinctive) fields.

(Gifted adults tend to focus on what they haven’t done, rather than what they have done.)

Fiedler provides a useful overview of “significant needs and issues throughout the lifespan”, which include:

  • Acceptance
  • Meaningful connections
  • Living with intensity (either intellectual, sensory, imaginational, and/or emotional) 
  • Access to resources
  • Relevant challenges
  • Finding meaning

Next, in Chapters 4-9, Fiedler covers each of the gifted adult developmental stages, including “waypoints and strategies” to help gifted adults navigating through typical challenges and needs. Here are the stages:

Ages 18-24: Seekers (Heading Out): Seekers are on a quest to “find somewhere in the world where life is the way they think it really should be” (p. 43). They are typically “dealing with gaining greater clarity about their identity, overcoming isolation, finding relevant things to do and think about, making college and career choices, coping with entry-level courses and jobs, finding like-minded mentors and colleagues, [and] dealing with newfound freedom” (p. 55).

Ages 25-35: Voyagers (On With the Journey): Voyagers are journeying through life to establish themselves, often “with more purpose than they had as Seekers, even though they are not necessarily tied to specific destinations” (p. 68). They may experience “bore-out” (the self-explanatory flip side of “burn-out”), and are often dealing with or seeking out “the complexity of identity, career decisions and career moves, advanced training, mentors, relationships, [and] parenting” (p. 82).

Ages 35-50: Explorers (Setting a Course): Explorers are matching their lives to their identity and priorities, and often “barely have time for snatching a bit of conversation in the midst of busy, busy lives” (p. 97). Fiedler points out that life for gifted adults “at this stage may look quite different… than for others in the general population because of the characteristic intensity of these bright adults” (p. 98). For instance, while “most people between the ages of 35 and 50 simply want to settle into a comfortable life with a good, solid job and enough money to pay bills each month”, “explorers want more”.  Issues faced by Explorers during this stage include: “coping with hectic lives; dealing with higher standards than others; questioning everything about their lives; reevaluating patterns of thinking, behaving, and responding to others; developing lives that fit with their emerging worldviews; [and] dealing with major life events” (p. 108). [As someone who’s been in this stage for awhile, I can attest to all of this as being super-accurate!] 

Ages 50-65: Navigators (Smooth Sailing or Stormy Seas):  Navigators use their prior knowledge, including self-knowledge, to fulfill their goals and “typically” (though not always, of course) “have increased clarity about their personal goals and values” (p. 117). Waypoints and strategies named by Fiedler at this stage include “coping with conflicting feelings and asynchronous development; using prior knowledge, including self-knowledge; responding to an urgency to accomplish something worthwhile; dealing with dissatisfaction; balancing everything in their lives; [and] setting a new course in life” (p. 124).

Ages 68-80: Actualizers (Making a Difference): Actualizers are on a path of self-actualization in addition to helping others actualize their goals and dreams. This is a time “for bright adults to determine what activities they really want to be involved in so that they can spend their time on their deepest interests and passions”.  Hallmarks of this stage – all positive, by the way! – include “reflection, enjoying deeper clarity about their identity, seeking ongoing opportunities to expand their knowledge, connecting with others, [and] generativity” (p. 144).

Ages 80+: Cruisers (Sailing On): Finally, Cruisers have minds that remain intensely active regardless of physical changes, and know who they are and what they want in their remaining years. They move along at a speed that works for them, take care of what’s most important, and may have to respond to ageism. Typical issues dealt with at this stage include “being selective about how to spend their time and energy; continuing to have vibrant, interesting lives; dealing with physical changes; intense drive to exercise their minds; having meaningful relationships with others; remaining independent as much as possible; generativity; [and] being ‘ageless'” – that is, tuning out people who expect you to “act your age” (p. 167-168).

In Chapter 10, Fiedler addresses the issue of “the invisible ones” – i.e., gifted adults who fly “under the radar” – from a variety of perspectives. First she discusses the issue of “stealth giftedness” – that is, those whose giftedness “was never recognized, encouraged, or nurtured”, or those whose “abilities somehow disappeared from sight”, either temporarily or permanently (pp. 183-184). In a section entitled “Rough Going”, she outlines three ways gifted adults may “avoid confronting existential issues”:

  1. “Moving away from” – i.e., “avoiding and rejecting traditional society by withdrawing”;
  2. “Moving toward” – i.e., accepting society’s traditions by conforming but remaining “prone to feeling as if they are imposters and, later in life, to feeling that their efforts have been shallow and without meaning”;
  3. “Moving against” – i.e., “rebelliously rejecting society” (p. 186).

Fiedler acknowledges that the invisibility of some bright adults is due to “complex causes”, including:

  • “difficult experiences in childhood or adolescence” (p. 187);
  • gender-conformity struggles (pp. 189-193);
  • “differing abilities and disabilities” (pp. 193-194);
  • mental illness (pp. 194-195);
  • personal choice.

Fiedler talks readers through a list of (mostly healthy!) strategies that can be used by “the invisible ones” to cope with their challenges. These include:

  1. Accepting giftedness;
  2. Dealing with overwhelming options;
  3. Numbing themselves to pain (not healthy!); 
  4. Dealing with gender-prescribed roles;
  5. Coping with how they learn and process information;
  6. Finding a satisfying, meaningful life.

This is all much easier said than done, of course, but Fiedler’s final chapter at least offers an acknowledgement of the many entry-points invisible gifted adults might take “in order to have satisfying and meaningful lives”, – and, critically, she reminds us it’s “not necessary… to achieve lofty levels of fame and fortune” (p. 208).

What remains under-discussed in Fiedler’s book (and Jacobsen’s) is the issue of “invisible” gifted adults whose lives go so far afield they end up in prison. Streznewski  does acknowledge this possibility in her book, so I’ll return to her work as a starting point for a later blog post on that topic.

For now, I’ll close by saying that it was refreshing to see myself reflected in the earlier stages of Fiedler’s model; reassuring to know that my hectic life right now is on par with other Explorers; and eerie (but comforting) to know that older age will bring its own unique opportunities for happiness and satisfaction.

Reference: 

Fiedler, E. (2015). Bright adults: Uniqueness and belonging across the lifespan. Gifted Unlimited, LLC.

Reflecting on “Narcissism and the Gifted Soul” by Heather Boorman (SENG Fall Mini-Conference Take-Aways)

https://pixabay.com/vectors/cat-mirror-lion-reflection-5690627/

In these two previous posts, I shared my thoughts on the various presentations at SENG‘s Fall Mini-Conference, held in October. However, I’ve saved one final talk – Heather Boorman‘s “Narcissism and the Gifted Soul” – for its own entry, given how powerfully it resonated with me, and how much I have to say on the topic.

For those unfamiliar with narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), I’ll begin this post by briefly citing the Mayo Clinic’s overview:

Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.

The short story of my own involvement with clinical narcissism is that I was forced to learn about it when living with a young woman (a caretaker) whose personality-disordered problems spilled over into our entire household. As a post-partum gifted adult with three young kids in my house (including a newborn), I was especially vulnerable, and got hit hard by this individual. Once I finally figured out what was going on, I was able to take action to distance myself from her, and begin the long, slow process of healing – which included reflecting back on how often I’d allowed myself to be pulled into relationships like this in the past.

I’ve since read many books and articles on narcissism (including some core psychology textbooks), but I hadn’t ever made the connection between narcissism and gifted individuals – so I was duly intrigued when I saw the title of Boorman’s presentation listed in the SENG conference agenda.

Boorman began her presentation by providing her own brief definition of clinical narcissism (“exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy”) and pointed out distinctions between  “overt” (done or shown openly) and “covert” (not openly acknowledged or displayed) narcissism, with the latter less easily identifiable but equally damaging.

Next, Boorman described the ideal “targets” of narcissists as having oh, so many of the traits commonly associated with gifted individuals (yikes!) – including empathy, integrity, compassion, strong moral principles, talent and intelligence, introspection, self-doubt, vulnerabilities from our past, vibrancy, sensitivity, loyalty, and tolerance.

Boorman briefly described the narcissist’s cycle of idealizing a “target” (in part by “mirroring” them and purporting to want to be “just like them”), then devaluing and discarding them once they no longer provide “narcissistic supply or fuel”.

Boorman pointed out that in the first phase of the “narcissistic abuse cycle” (Idealization), gifted individuals are particularly vulnerable as targets because we tend to feel different already and may have difficulty finding peers – so if someone comes along who wants to mirror us (i.e., be like us) and idealize us, this may seem, well, ideal!

Meanwhile, the Idealization phase tends to be fast-paced, which is perfectly suited for the gifted individual’s intensity and comfort with things moving quickly. Plus, a gifted person’s “imaginational intensity” aligns well with the narcissist’s tendency during the Idealization phase to create a fairy tale fantasy around how amazing (and special, and ideal!) you and your friendship/relationship are.

Finally, because gifted individuals are more likely to have imposter syndrome, a narcissist’s “love bombing” of their target with compliments during the Idealization phase can feel good (at least at first), 

In the Devaluing phase, highly self-critical gifted individuals are more likely to blame themselves for not being “perfect” (as defined in the eyes of the narcissist), and to take the criticisms lobbed at them personally (indeed, viscerally) given our heightened sensitivities and empathy.

And, because gifted individuals are used to being “too much”, we may more readily believe narcissists when they criticize and devalue (and eventually Discard) us: we are instantly ready to begin our own (very familiar) cycle of self-doubt and self-recrimination.

Despite all my own prior reading on narcissism, Boorman’s presentation at the SENG Mini-Conference was  a revelation to me in terms of pulling together the distinct spheres of personality disorders and giftedness. The stereotype of gifted individuals allowing their intelligence to “go to their heads” and develop into narcissistic (and/or sociopathic) tendencies is well-chronicled (as in the story of Leopold and Loeb, high-IQ teenagers who murdered a young boy in 1924 just to attempt to get away with the “perfect crime”; click here to read my review of a film based on this infamous case).

But gifted individuals as the target of narcissists? That was new and oh-so-valuable for me to consider. So many flashbulbs were going off in my head as I listened to Boorman’s talk – and thankfully, her discussion of what “gifted targets” can do to protect themselves all resonated with the path I’ve taken myself over the past years.

Among the many “protections” Boorman recommends taking against narcissists are the following (paraphrased, from my notes):

  • Go slow and be mindful with new relationships – especially ones that seem to be moving quickly
  • Have self-compassion
  • Listen to your body and your gut
  • Learn and practice emotional regulation tricks
  • Understand the role of past trauma in your current life
  • Find trusted “truth tellers”
  • Be mindful of how intensities play out for us as gifted individuals
  • Practice assertiveness

I’ll share more about the ways in which narcissism and other personality disorders have impacted my life as a gifted individual, but for now I simply want to extend my gratitude to SENG and Heather Boorman for offering this talk.

For anyone wanting to learn more about this topic, my top book recommendation would be Albert Bernstein’s Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry (2012), which covers not only narcissism but anti-social, histrionic, obsessive-compulsive and paranoid “vampires” who tend to drain the life-blood of emotionally vulnerable individuals. We (as a society) don’t tend to talk about personality disorders, but I’m a firm believer that we should.

References

Bernstein, A. (2012). Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry (2nd Edition). McGraw-Hill Publishers.

 

Book Reflections #3: “The Gifted Adult: A Revolutionary Guide for Liberating Everyday Genius” by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen

The literature available on gifted adults is relatively sparse, with only a few book-length titles available that I know of.

One of the first to be published was this book by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, Psy.D. (a psychologist), originally entitled Liberating Everyday Genius and then retitled in a way that more closely matches a similarly themed book published the same year: Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s  (1999) Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential.

I’ve written about discovering Streznewski’s  book a number of years ago, and what a profound impact this had upon me as a newly self-identified “gifted adult” (so that’s what I am!). Recently I decided to read through Jacobsen’s book to get a sense of the differences between the two.

And as it turns out, the books are quite different – thus giving credence to the notion that even if two creative individuals embark on a similar (much-needed) project at the same time, their results can and likely will be quite different. (I mention this given how easy it is for gifted adults to assume that their unique contributions to the world don’t matter because someone else will surely get to it anyway; not really true!)

In this post, I’ll provide a brief overview of the key points in Jacobsen’s meaty book (it’s 399 pages, small font), and a few of my thoughts on how they apply to my own situation as a gifted adult.

Her book is divided into the following four parts:

I. Identifying Everyday Genius™

II. Evolutionary Intelligence

III. When What’s ‘Wrong’ With You is What’s Right With You: Revealing and Healing Everyday Genius

IV. Managing Thyself: Self-Mastery and Integration

In her first chapter, Jacobsen puts forth the following five “facets of freedom”:

  1. Identify thyself: We (gifted adults) must recognize that we’re not an “ugly duckling” but rather a swan-in-disguise.
  2. Understand thyself: We must move beyond outdated notions of IQ=intelligence and explore our multiple intelligences.
  3. Reveal and heal thyself: We must let go of the need and desire to ‘fit in’, and confront the ‘false self’ that has driven us for too long.
  4. Manage thyself: We must learn to “regulate the flow of Everyday Genius™ energy, especially Intensity”, and “avoid unintentional abuse of our gifts” (p. 19).
  5. Liberate thyself: By following the above four steps, Jacobsen asserts, we will arrive at the “place where Everyday Genius™ traits and skills and vision are finally integrated” (p. 20).

Early in her book, Jacobsen makes it clear that one of her central beliefs about gifted adults is that we have a moral obligation to uncover and manifest our “Everyday Genius™” in order to “create a better world” (p. 21). This relates to Jacobsen’s notion of “Evolutionary Intelligence”, which – to reduce and simplify her work quite a bit – boils down to collective intelligence, thus potentially alleviating the immense guilt felt by many gifted individuals when considering how their own personal lives could possibly matter to the rest of humanity.

Jacobsen argues that they very much do matter – and that to allow our giftedness to lay fallow is actually the worse “sin”. To that end, I should add as an FYI that Jacobsen uses overtly Christian language several times throughout her book – not just in the Biblical use of “thyself”, but in a direct quote from Mother Teresa (“Together we can do something beautiful for God”, p. 204) and references to “the Creator’s blueprint for evolution” (p. 305).  

In Chapter 2 (“Gifted? Not Me”) Jacobsen addresses common misconceptions about giftedness: gifted people know they’re gifted; giftedness solves all of its own problems;  giftedness has nothing to do with personality; early underachievement is a sure sign that one is not gifted; the truly gifted never suffer from self-doubt or feel like imposters; a gifted person automatically grasps and aims for his or her best career direction; the gifted always do great things early in life (p. 32).

Ha!

Having explored literature on giftedness in both kids and adults for awhile now, these myths seem almost laughable in their inaccuracy – but at the time Jacobsen’s book was published (1999), I can see that these may have been critically important to surface, and she spends much time in her book providing anecdotes of clients who have struggled with overcoming these myths.

In chapters 3 through 5, Jacobsen continues to make the case for why we must tap into our Everyday Genius™, which she argues will allow us to be “fully alive” through “two distinct but inseparable missions: first, being free to be oneself, and second, being dedicated to the betterment of others’ lives” (p. 75).

She goes on to write:

“Being fully alive and liberated means embracing this two-fold life in earnest, accepting that the actualization journey is simultaneously freedom and obligation, threatening and electrifying, harassing and tranquil, crystal clear and totally confusing” (p. 75).

In other words, “liberating” one’s giftedness isn’t easy or peaceful, but is gratifying and ultimately worth it.

In Section 2, Jacobsen explores the notion of Evolutionary Intelligence in greater depth, culminating in an EvIQ test which readers can take and score for themselves. This consists of two sections: Section One: Special Abilities (Multiple Intelligences + Gifted Traits) and Section Two: Advanced Development (Humanistic Vision + Mandated Mission + Revolutionary Action).

In the first portion of Section One, readers are asked to identify aspects of their various multiple intelligences (drawing directly from Howard Gardner’s work), with “intelligence” expanded to incorporate being “body-smart”, “word-smart”, “spatial-smart”, “music-smart”, “logic-smart”, “relationship-smart”, “nature-smart”, and/or “self-smart”. The next portion of Section One asks readers to consider their gifted traits of Intensity, Complexity, and Drive (or ICD). Intensity refers to both Excitability and Sensitivity, while Complexity refers to Complex Thinking and Perception, and Drive stands on its own.

The EvIQ test (pp. 95-108) is a bit overwhelming, but does appropriately acknowledge how many facets there are to giftedness – far more than simply one’s IQ score. Jacobsen argues that “all the factors in the [EvIQ] formula can and must be put together each Everyday Genius in order to move high potential into the realm of Evolutionary Intelligence, where it can release its full power” (p. 122).

By this point in reading Jacobsen’s book, I fully understood how much of a “self-help” guide it was – one with a very specific mission: helping gifted adults “harness” their unique talents in order to advance humanity and ourselves. This allowed me to understand exactly how her book differs from Streznewski’s, which is written from more of an exploratory and ethnographic perspective.

In Part Three of her book, Jacobsen supports readers in “revealing and healing” their Everyday Genius – in part by reframing common criticisms we may have leveled at ourselves for years. In Chapter 8 (“Gifted or Cursed?”), she encourages us to uncover the powerful foundations of our “too-too” traits. Rather than referring to ourselves as “too driven”, for instance, she writes that this trait means we possess the following gifts: “advanced depth of knowledge; ability to delve into life’s largest questions; outstanding achievement and self-actualization” (p. 128). And rather than being “too complex”, we are actually capable of “visionary research and discovery; bridge-building effects on progress”. Etc.

Jacobsen closes Chapter 8 by listing the “top 10” criticisms that tend to lobbed at gifted individuals, from (in her perspective) least impactful to most impactful:

10. Why don’t you slow down?

9. You worry about everything.

8. Can’t you just stick with one thing?

7. You’re so sensitive and dramatic. 

6. You have to do everything the hard way. 

5. You’re so demanding!

4. Can’t you ever be satisfied?

3. You’re so driven!

2. Where do you get all these wild ideas?

1. Who do you think you are? 

These criticisms rang sharp and true for me, and I appreciated Jacobsen’s candor in naming them.

In Chapters 9 and 10, Jacobsen helps us begin the journey of confronting and then freeing ourselves from the “first five criticisms” (actually, numbers 10 through 6) and then the “top five criticisms” (numbers 5 through 1). In Chapter 11, she takes a deeper dive into “meeting the false self”, which includes “indulging the false self”, “denying gifts and talents”, “avoiding risks in the ‘safe life'”, “seeking approval”, and “imposterism”.

In Chapter 12 (“How Assets Can Become Liabilities”), Jacobsen introduces the idea of “teachable moments” as a way for us to reframe the more challenging aspects of our personalities.  Indeed, she is blunt in presenting the many challenges giftedness brings, and encourages readers to think about how they can emerge from the lifelong traps that our “false selves” present.  This is intense work, and Jacobsen doesn’t shy away from noting the at-times dramatic shifts that must occur in order for gifted adults to feel happy, fulfilled, and authentically engaged.

In the next section of her book (Section III: Managing Thyself), Jacobsen takes a deeper dive into what she refers to as “the big three differences: intensity, complexity, and drive” (p. 253). She tells us:

“Years of investigating the psychology of the gifted as well as working with my Everyday Genius clientele have repeatedly revealed how gifted adults struggle at the extreme ranges of behavior that occur when no energy is flowing through and around a given trait, or how its flow can become overwhelming and out of control if not managed correctly. Both expressions are hazardous” (p. 254).

She uses the terms “collapsed” and exaggerated” to represent the two extremes of how giftedness vis-a-vis Intensity, Complexity, and Drive can manifest in toxic ways, with “balanced” as the desired goal. She provides detailed charts of what each of these can look like, referring to the various manifestations of Intensity as “quantitatively different”, those of Complexity as “qualitatively different”, and those of Drive as “motivationally different”. I’ll provide just one example of many from each chart, to give a sense of her heuristic:

Intensity: Verbal Agility

  • Collapsed: Dodges controversy; steers toward popular opinion
  • Exaggerated: Intractable opinions; dominates conversations
  • Balanced: Engaging conversationalist; comfortable with intense discussion (p. 259)

Complexity: Self-Awareness

  • Collapsed: Self-negative or self-loathing
  • Exaggerated: Distorted self-image; grandiose
  • Balanced: Honestly introspective; self-knowledgeable (p. 268)

Drive: High Standards

  • Collapsed: Chronic procrastinator; wavering and unprincipled
  • Exaggerated: Chronic perfectionist; stubbornly holds out for perfection and loses ground
  • Balanced: Holds firm to vision of the ideal; discerningly pushes for excellence; lives by solid standards (p. 280)

Each of her three charts are rich with useful examples, and I was able to clearly see myself in so many of them. As a teenager, I tended to have either a “collapsed” or “exaggerated” sense of self, whereas I’m happy to say that in my current middle age – after many years of therapy (which Jacobsen is a huge fan of) – I’m much more “balanced” in so many ways.  There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course, but Jacobsen’s charts are invaluable in allowing us (me) to chunk out and make sense of our challenges, both past and present.

In the remaining chapters of her book, Jacobsen continues to provide support and insights into how we tend to problematize our giftedness, and how we can turn it around. She argues we can be “smarter than ever” by aiming for “becoming superconscious” (p. 303) – in other words, being a more “integrated self”. As Jacobsen writes:

“Contrary to what might be expected, gifted adults often report feeling as though they are ‘coming apart’. Yet they often fail to understand the origins of their distress. It is frequently a direct response to external rule – changing masks among the different selves to meet the pressures of external demands” (p. 304).

This is exactly what I’ve dealt with my entire life. I vividly recall a session with my therapist when I was 17, telling her that I was unable to determine the best course of action because I could viscerally visualize a row of people standing in front of me who would each have different advice for me; whose should I choose? How could I make them all happy?

Again, I’ve made a ton of progress over the years, but I still occasionally catch myself wondering who in the world really has the “right” answers to the infinite number of dilemmas and choices we as individuals are faced with each day. The healthiest answer should ideally be “your inner self” – but after years of self-doubt and masking, this can be incredibly tricky.

I’ll definitely be referring back to Jacobsen’s book in coming months and years, both for my own growth-process and when writing posts for this blog. I’m grateful that her book supplements rather than mimics the knowledge I’ve gained from other literature on gifted adults, and consider it an invaluable resource in my Rainforest Minded Journey.

References:

Jacobsen, M-E. (1999). The gifted adult: A revolutionary guide for liberating everyday genius. Random House Publishing.

Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons.

Ups and Downs and In-Betweens

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging here, simply given too much going on in the world – including our country’s ongoing (but waning, hopefully!) presidential election drama, rising COVID-19 case rates across the nation, and shorter days making it easy to feel like the earth is literally getting darker.

However, there is still so much to be mindful about and grateful for. In our family we are all healthy. We get to stay and work inside our home the majority of the time. We have jobs, shelter, food, and each other. We are privileged.

Which doesn’t mean that quarantine-life – going on 9 months now – isn’t continuing to cause disruptions and challenges for all of us. Like countless other individuals and families across the globe, we are to varying degrees fatigued, burnt out, and numb. Our “new normal” is still anything but “normal”.

My 12-year-old C., for instance, seems to have forgotten about the notion of showering or brushing her hair. We’re lucky if this happens once a week, with prompting.

My 10-year-old son D. still won’t turn on his video camera during Zoom classes, no matter how much his teachers (or I) beg and plead for him to turn the camera on quickly – even just a few seconds – so they can at least see what he looks like.

Meanwhile, my 7 year old “I” – turning 8 in two days – seems to be demonstrating just as many challenges with attention, organization, and overall executive functioning skills as her older siblings.

“I” is easily distractible. She’s not keeping track of the handful of materials she’s asked to have on hand for her daily work. Papers remain strewn across her bedroom floor (and under her bed) unless or until I ask her to please place them in their “home” (i.e., a folder or designated spot) – and she rarely remembers school appointments and class sessions without explicit and timely alarms and reminders, either from me or her personal electronic device.

Yesterday morning was a  potent example of how much scaffolding “I” still really needs to be successful.

Her teacher, Ms. L., had scheduled a “lunch bunch” online time for “I” to celebrate her birthday with a couple of classmates. However, since “I” hadn’t told me about this special opportunity – and neither had Ms. L. – I didn’t know it was happening.

I didn’t find out until I checked my text messages and saw a note from Ms. L., written 26 minutes earlier, informing me that “I” hadn’t logged on yet to her lunch bunch.

I immediately called out to “I”‘s bedroom to tell her about this, and she said, “Oh, it’s okay… I have a full hour, and only half an hour has gone by.” However, when she opened her computer to log on, the meeting had been been ended: without the guest of honor present, her teacher and classmates had made the obvious and rational choice to bail early.

“I” started sobbing uncontrollably, to the point where I needed to impose on Ms. L. by giving her a quick call to let her talk with “I” one-on-one. Ms. L. kept insisting it was “no problem” and that “I” would get a redo in January. Eventually “I” calmed down enough to send Ms. L. a message reminding her who she wanted to invite to her rescheduled lunch bunch in January.

What this all brought up for me, however, was resignation and sadness that even something as exciting as a special birthday lunch time had slipped through the cracks of “I”‘s consciousness and mental schedule.

It was also a little startling that she hadn’t been able to anticipate how not showing up right away (or even within the first 20 minutes!) of her specially planned meeting would have such unpleasant ramifications.

Thankfully, the rest of “I”‘s school day yesterday turned around and was positive. Ms. L. has a calming and restorative presence, and “I” was able to let go of her disappointment and frustration at herself.

While I was busy decompressing from the emotional impact of this experience (“My kid missed her birthday lunch bunch during quarantine!”), I was reminded about a session I watched by Sarah Ward during SENG’s Fall Mini-Conference, on executive functioning challenges,  in which Ward noted that “kids with ADHD tend to experience asynchrony of about 3-3.5 years in their developmental timeline with regard to how far into the future they can anticipate and plan for.”

This is exactly “I”‘s challenge. “I” is a twice-exceptional child with a formal diagnosis of giftedness and anxiety, but/and I’m fairly certain she would also qualify for a diagnosis of ADHD-inattentive at this point, just like her older siblings. All evidence is pointing in that direction, now that she’s older and expected to “do school” in a more formal fashion.

So, with this newly in mind, I decided to very consciously build a successfully scaffolded event for “I” into the next few hours of the afternoon, both to counteract the morning’s disappointment and to feel a renewed sense of personal agency as a parent.

After school, “I” was scheduled to participate in a remote Brownies (Girl Scouts) badge meeting in which she and the other girls in her troop were going to make pinch pots out of clay.  Rather than simply sending her to her meeting at 4:00, I talked with “I” in advance about what the session would involve, and showed her what was inside the bag of supplies that had been dropped off at our house by the parent volunteer running the session. We talked about what other supplies she might also need on hand (i.e., a flat board to work on), and made sure she had that near by.

Five minutes before the session was set to begin, I gave “I” a heads up to be ready to log onto her Zoom account, and then I went in and sat next to her while giving her the meeting number and password, staying right there until she was connected. I remained by her side until she was seen by the parent volunteer, and told her specifically, “I’ll be right in the room next door – will you be sure to come ask for help if you need it?” “I” agreed to this, and I left her happily at work, poking my head in her door briefly just a couple of times to check in.

When the meeting was over, “I” was so excited to show me her sparkly silver-and-white pinch pot – and later that evening, she proudly offered to teach both me and her brother how to make one, which we did.

I believe the pot-making event was a successful experience for “I” because her executive functioning needs had been anticipated and addressed. Simply telling “I” that she had a Brownie meeting at 4:00 and asking her to look into the bag of supplies she’d been given may have been sufficient for many kids her age – but not for “I”. She needed a little bit more preparation, prompting, boosting, and confirmation before launching on her own with her group.

Those of us parenting kids with executive functioning challenges know that they can most definitely be successful – but scaffolding is so critical in order to manage that slippery slope between accomplishment and frustrated tears.

While I can’t (and shouldn’t) be there all the time by my 2E kids, hovering or monitoring constantly, I can (and should, it seems) try to be available on the sidelines, as much as possible. Balancing this time-sucking reality with my own very-real need for plenty of personal time and space has been one of the biggest challenges of life during pandemic parenting.

Meanwhile, as usual, we’re just taking things one day at a time – and, as some friends wrote on their Pandemic Christmas card, “It’s fine. We’re fine. Everything is fine.”

It is.

Creativity, Trauma, and Processing Speed: SENG Mini-Conference Take-Aways, Part 2

https://www.sengifted.org/events/seng-online-fall-mini-conference

 

As promised, I’m returning with Part 2 of my reflections from SENG’s Fall 2020 Mini-Conference. Videos of all recorded sessions were recently shared with participants, and I had a chance to catch up on the ones I missed.

Here are the sessions I’ll be sharing my thoughts on in this post:

  • Matt Zakreski’s “Fostering Creativity In and Outside of the Classroom”
  • Jamie Castellano’s “Educating Gifted Students with Trauma”
  • Sarah Ward’s “Practical Tips and Tricks to Increase Speed of Processing”

I will save my thoughts on Heather Boorman’s “Narcissism and the Gifted Soul” because I have enough to say on that topic to fill an entire post. 

Matt Zakreski – who openly identifies as a “former gifted kid” and attendee at John Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth – began his presentation on fostering creativity with definitions and key ideas from research. Creativity has been defined in various ways – from Michael Mumford’s notion that creativity “involves the production of novel, useful products”, to E. Paul Torrance’s position that creativity is “a process of becoming sensitive to problems” and then making and testing hypotheses to solve them, to James Averill’s description of Emotional Creativity (EC) as “a pattern of cognitive abilities and personality traits related to originality and appropriateness in emotional experience.”

Each of these definitions has its challenges and limitations, so Zakreski ultimately prefers looking at creativity as simply “the ability to create” and “the use of the imagination or original ideas” – rather than including qualifiers related to crafting something useful, solving problems, or exhibiting “appropriateness in emotional experience” (!) Zakreski noted that creativity has long been studied alongside intelligence – and given that gifted individuals are “naturally divergent thinkers” who “make connections and see relationships that others would not”, it makes sense to take a closer look.

I especially appreciated learning more about James Kauffman and Roland Beghetto’s notion of the “Four Cs” of creativity and how these may play out: mini-c “creativity” refers to “personal hacks” for learning (i.e., mnemonics and metaphors), while little-c “creativity” refers to everyday problem solving and “thinking outside the box”, pro-C “Creativity” refers to those who tap into their creativity as part of their profession, and Big-C “Creativity” refers to groundbreaking insights that transform the world. Of course, we hope that at least some gifted kids will ultimately land in the latter category, using their gifts for the betterment of humanity – but Zakreski pointed out that it’s important to honor and encourage all the “c”s, given that you never know where things may lead.

Jamie Castellano‘s presentation on “Educating Gifted Students with Trauma” was a no-holds-barred look at the significant traumas many gifted kids face – specifically ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).  By sharing his personal experiences working with gifted kids and teens experiencing trauma, he demonstrated the additional layers of support and rapport needed when working with this unique group of students.

Castellano shared his newly developed “5 Minute Whole Gifted Child Assessment”, designed to help teachers quickly identify students who may be struggling with ACEs. The assessment asks teachers to rank each of their students on a scale of 1-10 on each the following ten criteria: self-understanding, emotional understanding (of self and others), social relationships, productivity, physical health, mental health (happiness), resiliency, cognitive growth, academic aptitude, and exhibition of advanced and complex learning.

An overall score of 80-100 indicates that the student is “in the green zone cognitively, academically, socially, AND emotionally” with “no major concerns manifest[ing] themselves.” An overall score of 60-79 indicates the student is “in the yellow zone either cognitively, academically, socially, OR emotionally”, and that there may be “a pattern of where the student is challenged… in one area”, thus indicating the need for intervention. Finally, an overall score of 0-59 indicates the student “is in the red zone” in one or more areas and needs not only interventions and monitoring of progress but additional support from the school’s multi-disciplinary team.

Castellano’s presentation offered an invaluable supplement to our emergent understanding of twice-exceptional kids: some students may be struggling not only with the challenges of giftedness coupled with a disability, but also significant distress from environmental factors (ACEs) such as poverty, divorce, violence in the home, etc. Castellano didn’t touch much on identification of gifted kids experiencing trauma, but it seems logical that they would be significantly under-designated for gifted services – thus compounding the situation. We clearly have a lot of work to do in this area, and Castellano rightly identifies this as a key and critical topic for future exploration in the gifted community. Given my volunteer work with incarcerated adults, I’m especially interested in learning more about how many (often undesignated) gifted kids eventually end up justice-involved, given a combination of their high intensity and intelligence combined with challenging life circumstances; I will return to this topic in a future post.

Sarah Ward‘s presentation on “Practical Tips and Tricks to Increase Speed of Processing” was creatively designed,  easy-to-follow, and offered a lot of new and useful information about executive functioning (EF). Since EF isn’t an area I struggle with myself, I’m always eager for any support I can get to “put myself in my kids’ shoes” – especially my 12-year-old daughter C., who is seriously struggling these days to keep up with online learning in middle school during the pandemic.

Early in her presentation, Ward shared a photo of a produce stall at a grocery store, and asked us to describe what we saw and how things seemed to be organized. From my perspective, I saw various types of colorful vegetables arranged in containers, with bell peppers (the prominent vegetable on display) further categorized into different colors (yellow, red, and green). Ward informed us that invariably – when she shows this photo to kids who struggle with executive functioning – they point out details in the photo (such as the “out of place” bell peppers) rather than the overall organizational schema.

Sure enough, when I showed the photo to my 12-year-old daughter C. and asked her “How are the peppers organized?” her immediate response was, “Badly”; she pointed to one red pepper that had fallen into the green pepper bin, and another which had fallen down into a yellow chili pepper bin. I had so instinctively looked for the overall categorization scheme in the setting that the “outliers” eluded me at first glance – but they IMMEDIATELY stood out to my daughter. So fascinating. 

Ward explained that ADHD could/should more accurately be referred to as Executive Function Development Disorder, given that kids with ADHD tend to experience asynchrony of about 3-3.5 years in their developmental timeline with regard to how far into the future they can anticipate and plan for.  For instance, kids in K-2nd grade (like my youngest daughter, I.) “should” be able to plan ahead for several hours, while kids in 3rd through 6th grade (like my son D.) “should” be able to plan ahead for 8-12 hours, and 6th-12th graders (like my 12-year-old daughter C.) “should” be able to plan ahead 2-3 days. These expectations make schooling challenging even for synchronously developing students – i.e., a high schooler who needs to plan ahead for a essay due in 3 weeks, who is really only thinking about the next few days – but it’s especially challenging for twice-exceptional kiddos.

So, what to do? Ward put forth a fascinating approach she referred to as Mimetic-Ideational Informational Processing (i.e., mental trial and error simulation). She began by explaining that Executive Functioning could be viewed as the following equation: non-verbal working memory + situational intelligence = mental dress rehearsal, or MIMEMake an image (what will it look like?), I (What will I look like?), M (How am I Moving?), Emotion (What will I feel like?).

Ward stressed numerous times that non-verbal working memory involves “visually holding information in your mind while mentally working with or updating it”, and pointed out that this is CRITICAL for managing anything that “unfolds over time”. She stressed that a checklist – even a visual checklist – doesn’t support kids in their non-verbal working memory because it’s a verbal working list. Checklists cue semantic recall, rather than episodic future memory.

Situational awareness refers to being able to “STOP and Read the Room” = that is, being aware of and navigating the space you’re entering into (what’s there? who’s there? what’s going on? what’s expected?), getting onto the timeline (what time of day is it? what’s happening at this moment?), being mindful of objects (where are critical objects located? what objects are NOT critical right now?), and reading the people in the room (what are they doing and saying with their voice and body language?).

My two biggest take-aways from Ward’s presentation were the ideas of 1) “block and box” (chunking a space or item out into discrete, labeled areas) and 2) taking a picture of the desired end result – such as a clean and organized bedroom – and using this as a “backward planning” guide (If… then) for success. If we can help kids literally picture where they want to be, they can engage in the MIME process and mentally rehearse (plan) the concrete series of steps they’ll need to take to get there. She emphasized the importance of gesturing while articulating this plan (“When we gesture, we’re pre-experiencing our plan”), which most definitely jives with recent research I’ve seen related to, just for instance, gesturing and memory.

I will report back on how these strategies work with my kiddos – and will share about one more SENG session (“Narcissism and the Gifted Soul”) in my next blog post.

 

The “Whack-A-Mole” of Parenting Three 2E Kids

https://live.staticflickr.com/3289/2651852001_36b5df8a0d_b.jpg (Creative Commons License)

Parenting three 2E kids – especially during a pandemic – is flat-out exhausting, given that they never (okay, rarely) “just do their work”.

The most visceral analogy that comes to mind is playing whack-a-mole:  as soon as I start feeling good about the progress I’ve made with helping one of my three kiddos get more confident and independent with their schooling (“Yes! They’re doing it on their own, without prompting!”), a new or lingering challenge will inevitably pop up with another.

(I don’t mean to refer to my kids’ struggles as pest-like critters needing to be pummeled into submission; this is just how it sometimes feels for me energy-wise, as their mom.)

This past week, for instance, I’ve toggled between the following concerns:

  • Realizing that my 12-year-old daughter C. will receive failing grades in several of her classes next week unless or until I: 1) go through each of her class assignment sites with her, one by one, to see what’s missing; 2) reach out to her teachers for support and understanding (please, be understanding!) that C. wants to do well but is stymied by the challenges of navigating online learning while dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and overwhelm; 3) help C. determine a plan of action for either doing (or re-doing) each missing assignment, and then ensuring that the oh-so-important “Submit” button is actually pressed and her teacher is notified by email of the late submission;
  • Seeing my 10-year-old son D. refuse to turn his video on during orchestra class this morning, then logging out early before coming to inform me he left because: 1) he had his (virtual) hand up for the entire session and his teacher didn’t see or acknowledge him; 2) when he tried speaking out loud, no one listened to him; 3) he already knows how to hold his violin bow; and 4) he wanted to eat his breakfast;
  • Knowing that nothing whatsoever in my 7-year-old daughter I.’s Seesaw Assignments folder will get done until I go in to look through it all with her, one at a time; that each assignment – especially anything involving writing – will involve a negotiation of some kind and a request to do it later; and that there will inevitably be insistent questioning about when she’ll have “done enough Seesaw assignments” that she can get back to her Minecraft world creation.

Okay, so that’s the current slate of rotating challenges with each of my kids. But, here are a few positives – there are always positives! – to balance things out:

  • Seeing the glow of pride on C.’s face when she sees a one-word comment from her art teacher that the “Shadings” assignment she submitted is “beautiful”; hearing the gratitude, relief, and excitement in C.’s voice when I read her an email from a teacher who’s written back to say they’re happy to meet with her one-on-one; sitting down with C. as she slowly works her way through overdue assignments and we watch a fascinating CNN 10 news clip together about underwater habitats with wi-fi;
  • Meeting last week with D.’s awesome team of educators to outline an IEP plan to support him with his socio-emotional learning and communication goals at school; hearing D. logging on without prompting to all his (non-orchestra) Zoom meetings throughout the day; seeing D. sitting up in bed during class time rather than lying wrapped up in a blanket;
  • Hearing I. having fun connecting and laughing with her new classmates during live Zoom sessions; listening to I. practicing her division facts confidently with a classmate; hearing I. proclaim proudly to her teacher how much she LOVES reading.

Although I’m perennially exhausted, I’m also grateful that the Whack-a-Mole of parenting during a pandemic at least allows for breaks. I’ll tackle the next critter as soon as it emerges – but for now, since I’ve gotten my own critical work-work done, I’m going to lie down and listen to a book-on-tape while playing Candy Crush. Self-care is the top order of the day.

 

 

 

Support and Knowledge: SENG Mini-Conference Take-Aways

https://www.sengifted.org/events/seng-online-fall-mini-conference

This weekend, SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) hosted its annual mini-conference – all online, of course, which made attendance even easier than usual. I liked the fact that there was an intriguing but limited array of discussions to attend (i.e., no need to make choices), and that I could miss certain sessions without too much regret or guilt given that all registrants will receive session recordings at a later date.

Whew. All boxes checked. It’s almost like SENG anticipates highly anxious, perfectionist individuals’ concerns and addresses them in advance. 

In this blog post, I’d like to share a few key take-aways from the sessions I did manage to attend “live” (in between caring for my kids and managing the inevitable array of needs that come up when five people are co-existing in one living space together).

I missed the opening remarks (by Mike Postma) and first session (by Jaime Castellano) because I failed to notice the small but important detail of all events occurring on Eastern Standard Time – whoops.

(Believe it or not, I actually appreciate making errors like this, since it helps me tap into authentic empathy for my overly busy adult students as well as my own kids, all of whom struggle with executive functioning challenges in some way.) 

I thus entered into the second presentation (on nurturing creativity, by Matt Zakreski) midway, and was too discombobulated to continue. I’ll revisit the recording later.

The biggest draw for me was Seth Perler‘s talk entitled “Imagine a New Normal That Addresses Executive Functioning Needs of the Gifted”. I first heard Seth on Debbie Reber’s Tilt Parenting podcast a couple of years ago and was struck by how relevant and useful his work is – but I was also instantly overwhelmed by how much work I still need to do to help set my kids up for independent success (and so… I set it mostly aside).

As I took notes during Seth’s SENG talk this weekend, I reflected back on all the (probably similar) notes I took when first listening to him on Tilt Parenting, and was reminded about the power of revisiting concepts in a cyclical fashion, after some time has gone by. My deep dive these past two years into the challenges gifted kids face has been truly overwhelming – especially since I have three of them, my husband also struggles with executive functioning issues, and I’m busy processing my own gifted childhood and adulthood. I’m constantly reminding myself to look at this journey as a marathon, not a sprint.

In terms of take-aways from Perler’s SENG talk, here are a few:

  • Put simply, “executive functioning” (which sounds super-fancy and complicated) simply means “how you get things done.” However, executive functioning is far from simple. It’s actually enormously complex, and involves many components that all need to be in place in order for things to be moving along smoothly – including but not limited to planning, time management, organization, prioritizing, decision making, details, transitions, self-starting, and follow-through. (No wonder I was and am overwhelmed! If these things don’t come “naturally” to a person, it’s a pretty big task to tackle them one by one.) 
  • As parents, we need to consider how to personalize and customize a study routine and environment for our child while addressing their preferences and brainstorming work-arounds. In other words, “best practice means differentiation.”
  • Speaking of best practice, Seth notes that “great teachers help students feel safe, seen, and engaged.” Amen to that.

After listening to Seth’s inspirational and compassionate talk, I decided it’s finally time to outsource this critical work to an Executive Functioning coach to ensure my 12-year-old C. (struggling in middle school) gets explicit help sooner rather than later. I’m trying to shift my thinking from:

“If only I were on-top-of-it-enough, I could help C. implement all these strategies!”

to

“Thank goodness there are professionals out there experienced in this work, who we can tap into as part of our extended learning and support community”.

The closing afternoon session – entitled “Perfect is Boring. Improv Comedy for Gifted People”, hosted by members of the Improv Therapy Group – was one I attended BECAUSE it was the only option on the menu, though I quickly realized how fun and informative it actually was.  I had to turn my video ON and actively participate (!), which was all part of helping audience members feel less self-conscious and more willing to take risks.

Despite my lifelong dislike of improv (“I’m not good at that! I can’t study for it! I will embarrass myself!”), I grew to actually enjoy all the activities we engaged in – especially as the facilitators explained how and why they were each valuable learning opportunities. (“Oh, I’m learning something? Cool! I can dig it, even if it’s uncomfortable.”)

Take-aways from this session include a much deeper understanding of how valuable (indeed, therapeutic) theatrical improvisation really is, given that:

  • Improv artists have to pretend to do things they’ve NEVER done.
  • Improv teaches you sometimes there are things you just can’t ever get right.
  • Improv teaches you to be okay with whatever’s being created by the group.
  • Improv allows you to turn a seemingly awful activity into something enjoyable.

The next morning I once again missed the two earliest SENG sessions – not just because of wanting to sleep in later than 7:00 a.m., but because I had to host a “live” (by Zoom) seminar for students in a class I’m teaching this quarter. When factoring in an additional one-on-one check-in with a student, and getting my youngest child settled into a playdate with her quarantine-bubble friend, I wasn’t ready to join the SENG Mini-Conference again until it was time for the session intriguingly entitled “Gifted & 2e Students: Now is Your Chance to Change the Rules”. Okay! That sounded really good to me.

This session was co-hosted by Jacqui Byrne and Lynne Henwood, both involved with an amazing set of private schools for 2E learners called FlexSchool, with campuses in New York and New Jersey. They argue that now is actually a perfect time to rethink “how we do schooling” given how much is already changing in the world, through no fault or volition of our own.

I took fewer notes overall during this session and was more just resonating and nodding along with the concepts, all of which made complete sense to me as an educator and someone who has repeatedly rejected (or at least strongly questioned) traditional schooling models myself. I want something like FlexSchool available for my kiddos!

One note I will share, though, is that I was struck by their emphasis on how 2E kids question their elders – they don’t automatically assume that because someone is older, they’re “right”. This is a complicated reality, since it goes against so many taboos – including the deep reverence for knowledge of elders in indigenous communities. There is enough to explore in the topic of gifted kids vis-à-vis elders that I’ve just realized I’ll need to designate a separate blog post to this – but for now, I will simply state that gifted kids tend to both question authority AND seek out guidance and friendship from and with older people without hesitation. I think this is a net benefit.

The final session of the SENG Mini-Conference had a twist: the slated presenter didn’t show up, so Mike Postma pulled up one of his many presentations on twice-exceptionality and talked us through some  of his key ideas. As far as I was concerned, this was an awesome opportunity, given I still have a ton of questions about the current state of neurodiversity – both in terms of what research is being done, and how it’s being perceived more broadly by stakeholder communities. His presentation gave me a lot to ponder; just a couple of take-aways include:

  • We are currently learning a LOT more about what’s going on in neurodiverse brains. It turns out we all have a “brain fingerprint” that identifies each one of us as uniquely us.
  • Mike’s approach to neurodiversity is to emphasize that it’s “who you are: not a condition, not a mal-adaptation, not a mind set, not a syndrome.” In a previous post about my 10 year old son D., I similarly noted the need to approach neurodiversity from a strengths-based perspective, so I appreciated having this reinforced.

(Interestingly, during the seminar I held earlier that morning with my own students – before I was able to rejoin the SENG conference – one of my participants, a doctoral student in Special Education, mentioned her frustration that her textbook for a course – published as recently as last year – still approaches the autism spectrum from a purely medicalized – and hence, pathology-oriented – perspective. Grrrrr.)

Back to the SENG Conference, I left feeling “full” and grateful. I tend to resist over-stuffing my hours with too many screen-based webinars and conferences, which are all over the place right now due to COVID; the sheer amount can feel overwhelming. However, there is a true value and joy in joining people “real time” (albeit virtually) to discuss important ideas – and SENG’s offerings are exactly the type  of support I need these days, as I’m figuring out both my own past as a gifted kid AND how to understand and support my three highly unique gifted kiddos.

It’s incredible to know that people at these conferences really do have each other’s backs – or at least, that’s how it seems to me. We’re all there because we understand how much it (can) hurt to be different, and we’re driven to express our diverse perspectives on challenging issues, working through them together.

Stay tuned for Part 2, once I watch the recorded sessions I missed… 

 

Loss and Too-Soon Death

https://pixabay.com/photos/stop-teenager-suicide-white-red-rose-2369114/

My dear friend E. lost her 24-year-old son A. to a drug overdose last week.

The news could not have come as more of a shock. I still don’t know any details about what led up to this loss, and am waiting for some time to pass before reaching out.

E. and I were very close friends for years (I was present at A.’s home birth), but we drifted apart as our belief systems diverged – and I know at this point she is leaning most heavily on the people still within her spiritual group who can help her make sense of this loss through their unique lens of the world and what death means.

With that said, I wanted to take a brief moment on this blog to acknowledge the sometimes-devastating impact that creativity, giftedness, and intensity can have on young people – especially during this mind-numbingly challenging era of COVID-19, when finding one’s way through the world has suddenly become (is it possible?) even more difficult.

What I know about A. is that he studied art in college and was a talented photographer, hoping to eventually earn a living through his craft, and working temporarily as an Uber driver. What I don’t know is:

  • Had A. been struggling with drug challenges for years, or was this a tragic sudden accident?
  • Was the overdose intentional?

And, most importantly:

  • What could we, any of us, have done to prevent this?

I am grateful that life never got tough enough for me as a gifted teen and young adult to seriously consider either drugs or suicide*. At varying times I hated life, couldn’t understand life, wanted “out” of life, felt I didn’t belong in life, withdrew from life – but I thankfully made it through the roughest spots and managed to reach later adulthood.

I sincerely believe that we – society, not just individuals or families – need to do whatever we can to nurture and hold up young people (i.e., adolescents and adults under the age of 25) as their prefrontal cortices continue to develop. While they may be brilliant, creative, and independent individuals – and possibly even parents already themselves – folks in this age range are at heightened risk of making choices that are more informed by the very-real intensity of their emotions than by “rational” decision-making – and drugs can be an appealing and far-too-readily-available “option” to manage those emotions.

My own kids aren’t teenagers – not quite yet. However, we’re nearly there, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the wise practitioners and fellow parents out there who have paved the way with invaluable information and advice, which I will be readily tapping into.

In the meantime, I’m sending virtual love and support to all the gifted, sensitive, artistic, “too much” people out there who are hurting right now.

We can and will make it through this unprecedented time together.

* The Mind Matters podcast has dedicated three of its 68 episodes (episodes 39-41) to the topic of suicide in gifted populations.  They are well worth a listen. 

Book Reflections #2: “If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back?” by Jen Merrill

As my second Book Reflection blog post, I thought I would comment on If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back? Surviving in the Land of the Gifted and Twice Exceptional (2012) – a delightfully humorous and insightful book by Jen Merrill, author of the Laughing at Chaos blog and interviewee about parenting self-care on the Mind Matters Podcast.

On the back of her book, Merrill asks us:

When is life like a prize fight, a garden, and a quiz show, all hurtling down the road on an office chair, wrapped in song?

Her response:

When you’re living in the land of the gifted and twice exceptional.

The enduring theme throughout Merrill’s book is brutal honesty about how hard parenting a 2E kid (each one “more unique than snowflakes”) can be. Yes, of course it’s also rewarding, invigorating, and often fun – but more than anything, Merrill argues, you’ll need to roll with the challenges each day, allow yourself a glass of wine before conking at night, and accept that parenting doesn’t look anything like what you planned it to be.

Actually, prior to becoming a parent, I don’t recall holding many preconceptions – but I CERTAINLY didn’t anticipate how bone-crushingly exhausting it would be. There’s simply no way to know the truth of Parental Exhaustion until you enter into those shoes for yourself. And with 2E kids, Even More So.

With that as my brief introduction, here are my take-aways from Merrill’s book:

Chapter 1: Connecting the Dots 

Citing a commencement speech by Steve Jobs, Merrill notes that sometimes you can’t make sense of your child’s journey until you’re looking backwards and “connecting the dots” (p. 2). I love this framing of life as the narrative we create for and about ourselves: it empowers us to search for key points that may have seemed like insurmountable challenges, but turn into critical milestones in retrospect.

I also appreciate Merrill’s coining of “adult-onset, child-induced ADHD” – such a perfect description of what happens to even the brightest (perhaps especially the brightest?) of new parents. After admitting that she’s “been entirely unable to concentrate on one thing for longer than a few minutes” since her oldest (2E) son was born, she adds:

It’s just, well, I miss my brain. We used to go for long walks through thoughts together. Double-dated with new ideas. We used to dive into activities and barely take time to come up for air. Now my brain is crashed out on the mental couch, drooling a little, while I perch anxiously, waiting to spring into action, my Mom Radar spinning wildly 24/7 (p. 7).

This was exactly how I felt when my kids were younger, and I was desperately reaching out for daily support and assistance in as many ways as possible. Now that my kids are older, I’ve learned to tame my brain enough not to be on super high alert, given that quiet no longer means something challenging or dangerous is about to happen – it simply (ha!) means parental guilt that I’m leaving them to their own devices (literally).

Finally, Merrill offers a list of things she wishes “the world knew about parenting 2e kids”, including:

We are not making up this stuff (p. 8).

(This reminds me of how gifted kids can sometimes be “gaslit” into disbelieving their own uniquely intense reality, as described by Linda Silverman. Apparently the same is true for parents of 2E kids.)

Sometimes we appear over-protective, while sometimes we seem neglectful (p. 9).

(Every day, in every way, I need to continue to practice the art of – as my husband would put it – “not giving a f***” what other people think about my parenting decisions. As a former people-pleaser-extraordinaire, this has been a monumental challenge – one I’m still working on.)

Not every 2e kid has the same issues. Every single one of these kids presents differently, and they are not in parenting magazines or books, mainstream blogs, or general societal acceptance (p. 10).

(This is a sobering reminder of how isolating it can be to look at “mainstream” parenting sources and not see our own experiences and realities reflected – hence, the need for support groups, blogs, podcasts, and books specifically for parents of 2E kids.)

Chapter 2: One Heck of a Ride 

In her second chapter, Merrill responds with brutal honesty to the quip “Must be nice to have a gifted child” with her own “must be nice” rejoinders:

Must be nice to have a child whose racing brain doesn’t keep her awake into the wee hours (p. 13).

(My 12-year-old C has “insomnia issues”, just like me. In addition to endlessly racing minds, we each have our own laundry list of hacks and supports needed to help us fall and stay asleep. I’ll write more about insomnia in another post.)

Must be nice to not have to worry about your child making and keeping friends (p. 13).

(My number one wish for my 10-year-old neurodiverse son D. is that he’ll finally make a new and trusted friend this year – not exactly easy during a pandemic.)

Must be nice to take your kid somewhere new and not worry about having to leave early because of over-stimulation (p. 14).

(Heck, I’ve always just assumed we won’t stay long! We aim for an hour, and anything beyond that is bonus.)

Also included in this chapter is a hypothetical letter written by Merrill to her child’s teacher (“You have too many students, not enough time, and there’s just no money to do anything different… Trust that I wouldn’t tell you how he learns unless I thought it would help you help him.”), and Merrill imagining what her own Gifted and Talented Conference opening speech might sound like (“Parents, you need to remember to take care of you.”)

Chapter 3: Taking the Leap 

Here, Merrill talks about “taking the leap” to homeschooling her 2E son. In a hilarious passage, she compares a series of statements said by a teacher to “what’s actually meant” and “what is heard” by the parent on the receiving end:

What is said: Your child refuses to participate in any class activities and will not put down a single word, even when given the words to write.

What is meant: Your kid is the most passive-aggressive ODD child I’ve ever known and I haven’t the slightest clue how to motivate him…

What is heard: Your parenting skills are just below those of a psychotic hamster. (p. 31)

I resonate with Merrill’s insecurities. Like her, I was formerly a classroom teacher, and well remember what it was like to feel frustrated and exhausted by “out of the box” kids who, quite simply, made my job a lot harder. Now, as a parent, I’m constantly walking a fine line of wanting to empathize with teachers while also advocating for what my kids need – and hoping I come across as just-the-right-mixture of humble-but-proactive-and-informed parent.  It’s tricky.

Chapter 4: Our Grand Homeschooling Adventure 

When discussing her experiences with homeschooling (only chosen as an option when her designated gifted kid was denied services at his new local school due to his twice-exceptionality), Merrill shares:

I am not a patient woman. I know this about myself and barely accept it. I walk fast, I talk fast, and I want to scream when my computer isn’t as caffeinated as I am (p. 36).

Hear, hear. My nickname as a kid was Speedy (no joke), and it remains insanely challenging to slow down enough to roll with the ride of parenting and accept imperfection on a daily basis. I may know (hypothetically) all the things I “could” be doing with my kids to optimize their learning experiences, but constantly have to settle for the reality of how much I actually get done – because ultimately, self-care trumps even the illusion of “parenting perfection”; nothing is more important.

Chapter 5: Living My Walter Mitty Fantasy 

In her final chapter – after singing the praises of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) as the ultimate cinematic representation of a gifted family (love that movie!) – Merrill notes that back in her pre-kid days, as a professional flutist, she was actually living her “Walter Mitty fantasy” – that is, her daydream of a perfect alternative life. Now, as a parent of a 2E kid, she vacillates between loving and hating the work she has cut out for herself:

I love homeschooling my son… I don’t miss the fights over homework, the breathtaking anxiety about his psyche, or the conferences with teachers about everything he was doing wrong and nothing about what he was doing right.

I hate homeschooling my son. It’s all on me. (pp. 55-56)

Yes, exactly. I’m thrilled that during this learning-at-home pandemic time, it’s actually not “all on me”: I get to do a mix of both, with my kids’ teachers determining their curriculum (for better and for worse – but mostly for better), and it “simply” being up to me to supervise them and make sure it all gets done.

Back when I first attended a SENG parent support group, our facilitator reminded us repeatedly that there’s never a perfect solution to our kids’ schooling needs – there’s only compromise and striving for the “best possible”.

That’s certainly been my own experience, with plenty of highs and lows over the years. So much depends on the grace, understanding, and flexibility of our kids’ teachers – and, like Merrill, I “stand with teachers” (p. 38) while also standing with students and parents.

I appreciate Merrill’s closing reminder in her book:

“If you decide to confide in others, you’ll discover you’re not alone” (p. 58).

Speaking of that, last night I participated in a webinar and support group for parents of gifted kids (hosted by the Institute for Educational Advancement), and got multiple dopamine hits from having my experiences and challenges validated again and again – ping, ping, ping.

I was reminded that the more we come together and share honestly – as Merrill does in this book – the happier (and less alone) we’ll be.

 

Book Reflections #1: “Giftedness 101” by Linda Kreger Silverman

This is the first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing series of reflections on books related to giftedness and 2E learning.

After listening to a Mind Matters podcast interview with Linda Kreger Silverman – Episode 20, entitled “IQ Isn’t Everything: Reevaluating Evaluation” – I ordered and read Silverman’s Giftedness 101 (2013) by Springer Publishing.

This book is part of a series of “Psych 101” books, described on the back cover as “short, reader-friendly introductions to cutting-edge topics in psychology… for all students of psychology and anyone interested in the field”.

The chapter titles alone were enough to pull me in:

  1. Invisible Gifts
  2. What is Giftedness
  3. The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Gifted
  4. Life at the Extremes
  5. The Psychology of Giftedness
  6. Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness
  7. Optimal Development of the Gifted
  8. Where Do We Go From Here?

While I couldn’t help turning immediately to chapter 3 (what a tantalizing title!), I quickly realized I should start at the beginning and work my way through – which I did, in concentrated chunks over the last few days. I marked up pages like mad with my pencil, and will share a few of my thoughts – accompanied by quotes – from each chapter.

Chapter 1: Invisible Gifts

“Undetected ability is an immense loss to society; the pain borne by the individual is beyond measure” (p. 2).

Silverman’s poetic first chapter makes a case for the fact that giftedness is often hiding under the surface of the small percentage of individuals who stand out through their “eminence” – indeed, one of the most commonly used strategies to cope with giftedness is “invisibility”.

“Without being given the opportunity to soar, [gifted kids] disappear into daydreams. Thousands of extremely gifted children become so disillusioned that they drop out of school and insist on being homeschooled” (p. 6).

As the quotes selected above indicate, the consequences of not acknowledging and supporting gifted kids can be dire – both societally and individually.  Although my own giftedness was recognized at a fairly early age (through elementary school testing) – and I was placed in a weekly pull-out program – I didn’t receive counseling or other emotional support. I ended up developing a life-threatening eating disorder at the age of 12, and dropping out of school in the first semester of 7th grade. I only made it through morning classes in 9th and 10th grade before formally dropping out of K-12 schooling for good.

I insisted on being homeschooled – actually, on being an autodidact – and became obsessed with forming my own curricular path based on my unique passions and interests. This included several part-time jobs out in the “real world”, where I deeply appreciated the chance to interact with adults rather than teenagers. (My best friend was 20 years older than me.) I made it through my teenage years, just barely – but I sure wish I’d had more support earlier on.

Chapter 2: What is Giftedness? 

“Giftedness is a political football” (p. 20)

In this chapter, Silverman discusses the fascinating history of how we’ve chosen to define giftedness over the decades – and the ramifications this has had on both identification and services. While she notes that emphasis was previously placed on “eminence” (that is, gifted kids who “achieve their potential” in society), she points out how problematic this is on so many fronts.

Silverman prefers viewing giftedness as “asynchronous development”, with a focus on training “therapists and counselors who understand [gifted kids’] inner worlds and the role that giftedness plays in their identity development” (p. 49). She points out that while giftedness studies originated in psychology, they’ve drifted away towards the education realm (i.e., talent development) – and she posits that psychologists have a moral imperative to step back into the fray.

The quote I selected from this chapter stood out to me given my own professional journey in education, and how I’ve been forced to “take sides” one way or another given the political tides at play. I’m hopeful that once Marc Smolowitz’s documentary “The G Word” can finally be released, it will provoke a much-needed and overdue societal discussion about how to best meet diverse gifted kids’ needs.

Chapter 3: The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Giftedness 

“Stereotyping the gifted is commonly accepted and, in the past, has mushroomed into scapegoating… and persecution” (p. 67).

In Chapter 3, Silverman provides additional historical context for giftedness – including wading into the decidedly unpleasant waters of Sir Francis Galton’s founding of eugenics (boooooooo!) while also covering the trajectory of work by Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman, and Leta Hollingworth (who coined the challenge of “the woman problem” in giftedness – i.e., being responsibility for child-bearing and caring while also nurturing one’s own gifts).

Silverman debunks numerous myths and stereotypes about gifted individuals – both old and new. Older myths include “Early ripe, early rot” and “giftedness is akin to madness”. Newer myths – still ever-present – include “all children are gifted”, “giftedness is just a manifestation of helicopter parenting”, “acceleration is socially harmful”, “gifted programs are elitist”, and “gifted kids can make it on their own”. A recent interview with my own parents reveals that they hold several of these beliefs, and that I would not have received any special services for my giftedness unless my school had provided them.

Chapter 4: Life at the Extremes

“The higher the individual’s IQ, the more intense the struggle for identity, meaning, and connection” (p. 87).

In this chapter, Silverman compares and contrasts the atypical developmental needs of kids at both ends of the intellectual spectrum. She argues that just like intellectual disability, giftedness should be seen as an “organizing principle” that would allow behaviors to be “perceived within the context of those with similar abilities, rather than viewing them as ‘aberrant’ in relation to those in the average range” (p. 93). She names such challenges of extreme giftedness as advanced vocabulary (which “hinders communication”), depression, loneliness, so-called “mania” (i.e., intense focus and enthusiasm), and “perfectionism” (actually a common character trait of giftedness, rather than a defect to be overcome).

Silverman discusses the various levels of giftedness, noting that “gifted educators have been so focused on the development of talented children (approximately 120 IQ and above) that they have not taken seriously the needs of children in the higher extremes of ability” (p. 101) – many of whom are “hidden” due to being homeschooled.

Finally, in this chapter Silverman discusses giftedness throughout the lifespan, beginning with the earliest potential indicators in infancy (including the high value of early identification – especially for kids who may not otherwise be given services to nurture their gifts), and giftedness in adults – which I’ve written about quite a bit already on this blog. (Naturally, much of this portion of the chapter is heavily underlined… )

Chapter 5: The Psychology of Giftedness

“It is time for a psychology of giftedness – time to recognize the developmental differences, personality traits, lifespan development, particular issues and struggles of the gifted, as well as the consequences of not being acceptable” (p. 121).

Silverman covers quite a few topics in chapter 5, including: feeling different (and what this means for “stages of friendship”); gifted kids’ quintessential adaptability (“Who would you like me to be today?”); the inner experience of being gifted; Dabrowski’s “theory of positive disintegration”; perfectionism (both healthy and unhealthy); and introversion.

So many ideas in this chapter resonated with me – perhaps most especially the idea that gifted kids “quickly learn what is expected of them and how to elicit the responses they desire from adults” (p. 129). This was enough the Story of My Childhood that I’ll devote a specific blog post to it later on, since it played a pivotal role in my eventual disintegration into an eating disorder and “failure to thrive”.  Briefly, I spent so many years being who others thought I was – or wanted me to be – or needed me to be – that I was unable to make it safely across the bridge of adolescence without crashing and burning numerous times.

In Silverman’s discussion about the “inner experience of giftedness”, countless ideas stood out; here are just a few, rat-a-tat:

“Excitement with new insights is dampened when there’s no one with whom to share them. Social exchange becomes a minefield when one is attuned to a symphony of nuance” (p. 131).

“It isn’t fun or funny to be laughed at for who you are. The dread of being ‘abnormal’ impels the gifted to lead a double life. They feign normalcy attempting to mask their vulnerability” (p. 132).

“Anti-intellectualism, under the guise of egalitarianism, is pervasive worldwide” (p. 132).

“The tall poppies syndrome is a social phenomenon of attacking those with exceptional ability” (p. 133).

“Benign neglect of the gifted is customary, with the rationale that they can take care of themselves and other students are in more need” (p. 133).

Yikes – and, yes!

Silverman undeniably has her pulse on the inner worlds of gifted kids – and how many challenges they face that most would consider insignificant. It’s tiring “feigning normalcy”, feeling unheard, trying not to “stand out”, and knowing that your needs are considered much less important than others’.

However, I really stood up and took notice during the next portion of this section, in which Silverman discusses various “personality characteristics” associated with gifted kids – and I saw my own challenging history in each one:

First:

“The gifted are gullible. Their first inclination is to be truthful, so they tend to believe nearly anything anyone tells them… Early humiliations leave deep scars…” (p. 134).

I was relentlessly bullied (by my so-called friends) in second grade, and will write about that in a separate post – but yes, the scars ran deep.

Second:

“When gifted individuals cannot find anyone who understands their reality, they begin to doubt their sanity” (p. 134).

Because others “do not observe, apprehend, feel, experience, or intuit in the same manner” as gifted kids, they may tend to feel “gaslit”.  So interesting. I hadn’t made that connection before, but it rings very true.

Third:

Gifted kids tend to have a “logical imperative”, leading to “imposter syndrome” because they:

“… compare their knowledge with all there is to be known about a subject” and “soon become aware that they’ve barely scratched the surface… The gifted often feel like they’ve just fooled everybody into thinking that they are smart, and at any moment they will be found out” (p. 135).

Ummm… Yes. Exactly. And, making things even worse:

“The gifted hate hypocrisy and they have uncanny perception, which often puts them at odds with bosses, co-workers, teachers, and parents who sport inauthentic facades” (p. 135).

I can’t stand in-authenticity!!!!  I’ve had to intellectualize and compartmentalize its social necessity in order to function. (FWIW, studying sociology and evolutionary psychology has been a godsend for this.)

Furthermore, Silverman notes:

“[Gifted kids] are paradoxical: self-assured and insecure, bold and timid, idealistic and practical, compassionate to others and unkind to themselves, mature and immature” (p. 135).

How is it that so many contradictions mutually co-exist? And yet, they do.

Moving on, Dabrowski’s work deserves its own blog post, especially given how much controversy there is in the “gifted world” around his concept of “overexcitabilities” or OEs. Perfectionism and introversion are also blog-worthy entries in their own right, so I’ll also pause on those for now.

Chapter 6: Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness 

“IQ scores are never an end in themselves; they are simply tools to be used wisely in the hands of professionals who understand giftedness” (p. 190).

As someone completely unversed in psychometrics, I learned the most from – and feel most humbled by – this chapter. There is a LOT that goes into accurately assessing giftedness, and I finished this chapter with more questions than answers. This is clearly a growth area for me; in the meantime; I’m grateful for all the individuals who dedicate their lives to doing this important work, and doing it well.

Chapter 7: Optimal Development of the Gifted 

Silverman begins her penultimate chapter by emphasizing the need to stop “bashing” parents of gifted kids, instead focusing on the critical role they play in their children’s development – and pointing out that they need support (yes!).

She discusses how to foster an optimal home environment (primarily by being responsive to kids’ needs and interests) and the fact that giftedness tends to “run in families”. (Unfortunately, she seems to take genetic relatedness among all members for granted, which is far from always the case; or, if I’m misreading her, the importance of environmental influences rather than or in addition to heritability should be called out more explicitly.)

She also briefly covers elements of an “optimal school environment”, which among other things boils down to listening to what kids want and need – and then listening some more.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here? 

Silverman’s short closing chapter is a “call to work” for fledgling psychology students to join the fray of the giftedness sphere – which she acknowledges has “no truce in sight”. She reminds the reader:

“If the gifted and twice exceptional should become your passion… you will be paid in appreciation. Your work will be a wellspring of creativity. You’ll be outside the box anyway, eyed suspiciously by the system, so you might as well enjoy the freedom to access your creativity” (p. 232).

I appreciate that Silverman doesn’t sugarcoat the realistic challenges of working with and for gifted individuals. I’m writing this blog anonymously (for now) for a reason. I need more time to make peace with my passion for giftedness – which has always been there, but wasn’t allowed to blossom until I finally had kids of my own and needed to find ways to help them.

In closing, I recommend Giftedness 101 for anybody just stepping into this world, who wants a concise yet compassionate overview of where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we should head.

As Silverman notes, there’s plenty of work left to do.