Honoring Tommy Raskin

Image from: https://repraskin.medium.com/statement-of-congressman-jamie-raskin-and-sarah-bloom-raskin-on-the-remarkable-life-of-tommy-raskin-f93b0bb5d184

While following former President Trump’s second impeachment trial in recent weeks, I learned that the 25-year-old son of Impeachment Manager Senator Jamie Raskin passed away on New Year’s Eve. As Raskin told NPR about his son Tommy:

“Tommy was remarkable from the beginning. He had a photographic memory and, like some other kids in our family, knew all the presidents and vice presidents in order. But it wasn’t his mind that marked him as so extraordinary. It was his heart. The stories of his love and compassion are absolutely astounding.”

A remembrance written by Tommy’s parents is filled with evidence of giftedness across his life. Tommy’s actions were consistently geared towards helping others and making the world a better place. In high school, Tommy “began to follow his own piercing moral and intellectual insights looking for answers to problems of injustice, poverty and war.” He wrote precociously, eagerly performing his plays and poems “for audiences astounded by his precocious moral vision, utter authenticity of emotion, and beauty of expression.” He was an:

” . . . anti-war activist, a badass autodidact moral philosopher and progressive humanist libertarian, and a passionate vegan who composed imperishable, knock-your-socks-off poetry linking systematic animal cruelty and exploitation to militarism and war culture.”

Tommy was also deeply impacted by depression, eventually leading him to take his own life. He asked for forgiveness from his family in his farewell note.

Tommy’s many contributions to the world during the 25 years he was here are ample evidence that gifted souls care oh-so-deeply about their world, their fellow humans, and all of existence.  I will end by sharing just a few more words from the Raskins’ remembrance:

“Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind. He began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless ‘disease called depression’ . . .  a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.”

I remain sincerely grateful to the Raskins for their willingness to share so openly about their gifted son’s triumphs and struggles. Their remembrance not only honors Tommy, but opens a pathway for the rest of us to engage in honest and challenging discussions with our kids and each other.

Thank you.

To read more about gifted young adults whose lives have ended far too soon, please see this post

Book Reflections #6: Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students

“When you struggle, when you feel like you have failed… remember, there is no way you can fail… if you are continuously trying to help your child move in the direction of mastery and acceptance of [their] emotional intensity” (p. 197). 

In her book Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope With Explosive Feelings (2016), Christine Fonseca offers a powerful resource to parents and teachers seeking guidance on how to support gifted children through their emotional intensities.

In Part One (What is Really Means to Be Gifted), Fonseca defines emotional intensity as “strong and intense emotional reactions to various situations”, often characterized by “frequent wavering between happiness and anxiety” (p. 28). While emotional intensity can manifest as “explosive outbursts, crying jags, paralyzing anxiety, or fear”, it also shows up as “giddiness, highly frenetic energy, laughter, and general happiness.”

Fonseca points out that “another aspect of emotional intensity lies in a strong affective memory” – “not just the events of a situation, but the feelings associated with the event as well.” Indeed, “some of the negative aspects of emotional intensity . . . include excessive fear in seemingly normal situations, highly critical self-talk, extreme guilt and shame related to perceived imperfections, and the feeling of being out of control” (p. 29). These can have serious ramifications on a person’s life, and are a powerful reminder of why it’s so important to help kids learn to manage their strong emotions effectively. (I sure wish I’d had more of this support earlier on in my life . . . )

Fonseca also discusses temperament (introversion and extroversion), gender, and twice-exceptionality as variables that can impact how we manifest and deal with emotional intensity.

(What’s missing from this section is an emphasis on how cultural diversity and race can impact the ways in which gifted kids’ emotional intensity is expressed and perceived by others. Emotionally ‘explosive’ behavior by kids from communities of color, for instance, can place them especially at risk in school. I’ll be addressing other resources available on this topic in future posts.) 

In Part Two (Great Information, But Now What?) Fonseca turns to specific strategies for supporting emotionally intense kids, starting with Building a Solid Foundation (Ch. 6). This involves “creating a space that allows the child to develop the positive aspects of giftedness while also mediating the negative aspects” (p. 59). Steps include: 1) providing clear expectations and consequences for behavior, 2) setting appropriate boundaries, and 3) offering authentic opportunities for involvement in the household (or classroom). Fonseca recommends holding family (or classroom) meetings, doing regular household/classroom “inventories”, and maintaining continuous communication between school and home.

In Chapter 7, Fonseca directly addresses “Working With the Explosion”, noting that “explosions are not always aggressive outbursts of behavior” but instead can sometimes be “more passive, subtle expressions of protest” such as “anxious and sad behavior” (p. 79). (This is a really important and powerful distinction; it makes me wonder whether “explosive” is the most appropriate term to use, given that “implosive” seems equally relevant.) What these reactions have in common, however, is children expressing their (natural) desire for “power and control, or autonomy, in their lives”.

Fonseca points out that the best strategy for managing explosive outbursts is to prevent or defuse them by recognizing warning signs of escalation – including “an agitated tone of voice, a change in body language, or tears welling in the eyes” (p. 81) – and helping kids to recognize these in themselves. She suggests “developing an emotional language” to use with your child (working collaboratively to identify key phrases and words), and providing kids with a variety of techniques to calm their emotions.

During the crisis, Fonseca recommends disengaging “from the emotional aspect of the crisis”, ensuring “everyone is safe”, providing a “cooling off” period, and remembering that “some things are best ignored” (p. 96). After the crisis (during what Fonseca refers to as the “cleaning up” stage), it’s important to remember that “all explosions are teachable moments”, that we can “debrief and strategize” with our kids, and that consequences (either natural or contrived) should occur.

In Part Three (Being Your Child’s Coach: Specific Strategies), Fonseca walks us through various “explosive” scenarios with kids and helps us think about reframing our language. She discusses what it means to be a coach for our kids (including effective communication, effective facilitation, and being a source of inspiration), and then addresses a variety of different challenges related to Relationships, Performance, and Behavior.  Fonseca is compassionate and generous in naming the various ways we may be tempted to handle a situation with our child, while also providing and explaining reasonable alternatives to try next time. What her reframes all have in common is aiming towards the goal of helping “your child learn to master his own emotions” (p. 197).

Fonseca closes her book by reminding us:

“Raising gifted children is a difficult job. More often than not, we feel overwhelmed – both because of the intensity we are confronted with every day and our own guilt when we are unsuccessful in our dealings with our children” (p. 197).

This most definitely rings true. Each time I support one of my kids through an emotionally intense situation, I end up feeling completely drained myself, like I need the rest of the day to recover. With that said, this is obviously some of the most important work we can do with and for our kids – and knowing that our actions and words can help set them up for future success and autonomy makes the commitment more than worthwhile.

I’ll be returning to concepts from Fonseca’s book in future blog posts, relating them back to specific (challenging) moments from my own childhood as well as current parenting (and partnering!) scenarios. Stay tuned!

References:

Fonseca, C. (2016). Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope With Explosive Feelings (2nd Edition). Prufrock Press Inc.

Book Reflections #5: “Searching for Meaning” by James T. Webb

“Among bright and caring people, disillusionment is not rare, and it can lead to feelings of despair and aloneness” (p. 9). 

For my fifth Book Reflections overview, I’ll be discussing my thoughts on James T. Webb’s Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope (2015). Dr. Webb, who passed away in 2018, is well-known in gifted circles as the founder of SENG and co-author of A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (2007).  As described by Austina De Bonte (former President of the Northwest Gifted Child Association) in her August 2018 newsletter:

[Jim Webb] was a truly remarkable person – the spiritual leader of many in the gifted community, and the kindest, most welcoming soul I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. [He] founded SENGifted.org, wrote some of the most important books in the field, started the “Misdiagnosis and Missed Diagnosis” initiative, and was extremely generous with his time, speaking often at conferences and in various communities – including a west coast tour last spring that included several stops in our area. Jim‘s work dramatically increased the awareness and support of the emotional needs of gifted individuals – and his legacy invites each of us to carry on and do our part in continuing this vital mission.

Like Austina, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Webb on so many fronts – and I write this blog post with keen appreciation and happiness that he was able to pass along his values and ideas through this book, as part of his own “ethical will” (a concept he proposes and discusses in Chapter 8).

I’ll begin with a brief overview of how this book is structured. [The teacher in me likes to prep readers for what’s to come…] 

In Chapter 1 (“Searching for Meaning”), Webb provides a succinct overview of key ideas from his book. He then moves directly into discussing idealism and illusions in Chapter 2 (“Idealism: Do You Get it From Your Parents, or Does it Just Come Naturally?”), and in Chapter 3 (“Bright and Inquiring Minds Want to Know!”) he describes how and why gifted individuals are more likely to be idealists who become disillusioned.

Webb turns to the “heavy topic” of depression and despair in Chapter 4 (“Gloom and Misery and Despair: So Much Depression Everywhere”), which I’ll only touch on briefly here, but will return to in a future blog post given how much there is to say on this topic. He shifts to “personal meaning” in Chapter 5 (“Life Meaning and Existential Concerns”), and in Chapter 6 (“Awareness and Acceptance”) he addresses life stages (covered in further depth in Ellen Fiedler’s subsequent Bright Adults [2015]).

In Chapters 7 and 8 (“Some Not-So-Healthy Coping Styles that Feed Illusions” and “Healthier Coping Styles that Go Beyond Illusions”), Webb discusses the variety of ways in which we tend to cope with disillusionment and despair – some less helpful, some more helpful, and some dangerous. Webb wraps his book up in Chapter 9 (“Hope, Happiness, and Contentment”) by reminding us that he can’t provide us with answers, but can hopefully provide a framework for our own unique journey towards a life of personal meaning.

Webb’s book – written from both a personal and professional stance in his own life – was a straightforward and useful read for me, neatly summarizing many key ideas I’ve incorporated over the years from various sources (many of which Webb cites). As someone who’s spent decades searching for meaning, managing my idealism and disillusionment, and finally emerging in recent years with tentative hope (albeit intermingled with ongoing questioning and challenges), I was gratified to see that the unwieldy paths I’ve followed seem to map onto Dr. Webb’s recommendations. I’m grateful to have an invaluable resource (this book) to recommend to those in the midst of crippling confusion and despair (as I once was – many times), and I appreciate Webb’s validation that none of us will ever be “done” with existential despair. Instead, it’s something we must learn to live with.

Below, I’ll briefly share just a few of the key ideas and quotes that stood out to me from each chapter of Webb’s book:

Chapter 1: “When metacognition is combined with idealism, intensity, and sensitivity, it often results in people feeling separated from the world around them” (p. 15).

This powerful quote stood out to me instantly as I started reading Webb’s book. I’ve used the terms “disembodied” and “dissociated” to describe how I’ve felt at times when I’ve (metaphorically) looked down at myself and wondered who I am, what I’m doing, and what the point of it all is. Existential musings and concerns have been an inextricable component of my life from a very early age – and I hear similar echoes in statements from my three gifted kids. My 8 year old daughter I., for instance, mused out loud the other day while doing schoolwork: “I wonder how life happened? I wonder how my hand is moving?” And during read-aloud time at night, my 10 year old son D. has said to me numerous times, “I keep waiting for the book that will show us this is all a dream we’re going to wake up from one day.” He says this with bemusement and wonder rather than distress, though I anticipate this might change as he gets older; we’ll see.

Chapter 2: “We create illusions and beliefs about things that we cannot see, prove, nor disprove… ‘Fictional finalisms’ . . . are part of our idealism [and]  lessen our anxiety because they help us feel more in control of our world and of things we do not understand” (p. 31).

I appreciate Webb’s mentioning of the term fictional finalisms (coined by psychotherapist Alfred Adler), since this acknowledges humans’ need to create illusions that we can hold on to for security – as well as the challenges that emerge when said illusions are questioned and/or confronted. I can recall many such instances in my own life, each filled with just as much pain and anguish as Webb outlines in his book. It’s not easy to confront and overcome “convenient fictions”, but it’s also often inevitable. This topic merits numerous additional blog posts in the future, so I’ll leave it at this for now. 

Chapter 3: “Not surprisingly, bright minds are usually also high achievers. These individuals set goals and want to succeed at things that give their lives meaning and that satisfy the questions ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’ But therein lies a problem. Achievement in what? Should they try to reach their potential in all of the areas they’re involved in? What really is success?” (p. 56)

Here, Webb accurately identifies the stickiest of challenges facing many gifted individuals: the meta-questioning behind our strivings. Even once we determine our next goal, there’s no guarantee we won’t question the “veracity” of that, too. This leads me to the quote I selected from the following chapter…

Chapter 4:  “Even when [gifted individuals] make progress toward a goal, they focus on what is still left to do. Their idealism prompts them to engage in ‘goal vaulting’. That is, they set a goal, but then when they get close to achieving it, they vault over it and set a new and loftier goal, meanwhile forgetting that they have accomplished the original goal they set for themselves. They continually raise the bar on their level of aspiration” (p. 73).

In a recent episode of Emily Kircher-Morris’s “Neurodiversity Podcast (formerly known as the “Mind Matters Podcast”), she talks with a doctoral student researching “imposterism” (a.k.a. “imposter syndrome”), and during their talk, Webb’s concept of goal vaulting is referenced. I’ve been doing this my entire life without realizing it has a name. I received my doctoral degree in 2007 and immediately thought, “Okay, that’s done – now what? Where’s the coveted professorship I’m supposed to embark on next?” Goal vaulting is a bedeviling tendency – one that never allows a person to rest or celebrate (at least for long). 

Chapter 5: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” (Stephen Hawking, p. 87)

In Chapter 5, Webb argues that while “most people seem… reasonably content in life” (are they? I’ll have to trust him on this one), gifted individuals must decide:

“How will we choose to spend the time we have in this life in ways that matter to us?” (p. 88).

When our “intensity is combined with multipotentiality” (that is, “brightness in several areas”), gifted individuals “… may become frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time… They have to make choices, but the choices among so many possibilities feel unfair because they seem arbitrary; there is no ‘ultimately right’ choice” (p. 98).

Again, this circles back to meta-questions of ultimate “authority” and “correctness”. Without fictional finalisms to rely on, we must determine alternative methods for making peace with our choices.

Chapter 6: In this chapter, Webb discusses Vince Sweeney and Andrew Mahoney’s “Awareness Model”, consisting of the following As: Awareness, Acknowledgment, Appreciation, and Acceptance.

“Once you stop denying the differences that exist between yourself and others, you can appreciate your abilities. You also may find that you appreciate the uniqueness of others…” (p. 119).

The “four As” of the Awareness model sound deceptively simplistic. In reality, each of these critical stages can take years to address, but can also help move a gifted individual closer to happiness, peace, and meaningful contributions to society.

I understand at least part of the 4 As process as follows: the inherent “narcissism” of childhood must eventually be overcome (in a completely developmentally appropriate fashion) in order to recognize that our own “lived reality” isn’t universal, and that we can (and should/must) learn to get along with a diverse array of humans while maintaining integrity of our own complex identity. (Here I use the term “integrity” in the sense of keeping one’s sense of self intact rather than descending into permanent disintegration – a concept discussed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, and covered briefly by Webb in Chapter 5, where I humbly refer the reader for more detailed information.)

Chapter 7: “Some individuals avoid facing difficult personal issues by keeping busy. Their inner voice tells them, If I stay frantically busy, then I don’t have time to think about life or about the meaning of my behaviors” (p. 132).

There are many strategies used by bright individuals to keep the demons of disillusionment at bay. Webb names the following twelve:

1) insisting on knowing The Truth; 2) “trying to control life, or at least label it”; 3) “keeping busy”; 4) “deliberately not thinking and using distractions”; 5) “clinging to things”; 6) “becoming narcissistic”; 7) “learning to not care”; 8) “numbing your mind”; 9) “seeking novelty and adrenaline rushes”; 10) “camouflaging to keep others from knowing you and your ideals”; 11) “withdrawal and detachment”;  and 12) “anger”.

Keeping (overly) busy (#3) is one way I coped with existential angst as a teenager – though I eventually (inevitably) crashed and burned into #11 (more specifically, I dropped out of school and couldn’t figure out what to do next).  Paralysis – either from too many choices, or from intense self-doubt about one’s ultimate efficacy and value to the world – must be addressed and overcome in order for gifted individuals to thrive… Which leads to the following chapter.

Chapter 8: Here, Webb offers numerous positive strategies for dealing with disillusionment, including the following:

“creating your own life script”, “becoming involved in causes”, “using bibliotherapy and journaling”, “maintaining a sense of humor”, “touching and feeling connected”, “developing authentic relationships”, “compartmentalizing”, “letting go”, “living in the present moment”, “learning optimism and resiliency”, “focusing on the continuity of generations”, “mentoring and teaching”, and “rippling”.

These are all excellent strategies – ones I’ve dabbled with and found solace in over the years – but the final strategy (‘rippling’) merits further mention. Webb writes that rippling – that is, the influence of one’s life rippling “out widely to affect the lives of people”, many of whom you don’t know –

“… is one of the most powerful realizations that can help people manage their idealism and even their disillusionment… Each of us, during our lives, creates ripples that have the potential to spread far…” (pp. 159-160).

I’ll return to the topic of ‘rippling’ in a future blog post.

Chapter 9: “Choose what you want out of your life and start working your way there… You may be concerned that your direction is not the best one or the perfect one for you, or you may doubt that it really has any ultimate meaning. Even so, make a decision to engage in something that seems meaningful to you or to others… The research indicates that making a decision will increase the likelihood that you will experience a sense of contentment happiness, and hope” (p. 164).

For better and/or for worse, existential angst and questioning are an integral part of many gifted adults’ existence – nonetheless, we must make choices.

Finally, Webb posits that “people who are best able to maintain hope – and their idealism” in the midst of “unhappy or disturbing truths” are:

“… those who have been emotionally supported along the way in their lives, who are able to connect to other idealists, and who have learned how to be resilient in the face of disappointment and failure” (p. 26).

These are powerful words to end on (for now). Support, connection, and resilience are key. Let’s make sure we continue to promote these, even through the most challenging of times.

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…