Book Reflections #7: Exceptional Talent

So much has been going on with pandemic parenting these days that I haven’t spent as much time exploring giftedness in adults – with one exception: reading Frans Corten’s delightful book Exceptional Talent: A Guide for the Gifted, The Inventors, and Other Birds of a Rare Feather (2021), recently translated into English from Dutch.*

Corten opens his book with the following quote:

“If you stick a bird in a cage, flying will become a disorder instead of a talent.”

This reminds me of the following oft-used cartoon in educational circles:

The Education System: “Now Climb That Tree” | The Marquette Educator

By “birds of a rare feather”, Corten is referring to people with exceptional talents – i.e.,  rainforest minded people, or gifted adults. Corten has spent years coaching such individuals, and shares his many insights and experiences in this beautifully illustrated text, clearly made with aesthetic appeal in mind.

Artwork from Exceptional Talent, p. 64

Corten open his book in Chapter 1 by explaining “Why This Guide?” (“to help exceptional talents find their way in their lives and work”), and sharing his own story with giftedness.

In Chapter 2 (“Exceptional Talent Does Not Flourish Of Its Own Accord”), Corten offers a valuable reminder of the reasons why gifted individuals almost always require additional support to thrive, despite widespread assumptions that “high intelligence in itself will make sure that the person finds their niche” (p. 14). On the contrary, Corten estimates that “the percentage of gifted people who are mental healthcare clients, who live on benefits or are homeless is substantially higher than the percentage in society” (p. 15) – a statistic I personally don’t doubt for a moment.

[As a brief side note, I grew up in a fringe spiritual group in which nearly all the adult members were likely gifted to some extent – and many did indeed struggle with mental health concerns, career issues, and/or ongoing financial or housing instability. In another post, I plan to write in more detail about the intriguing correlations I see between giftedness, spirituality, and life challenges.]  

Back to Corten’s book, he acknowledges that “exceptional talents have too few role models as examples” given that “the usual career pathways and tests don’t always work well” – something I’ve most definitely found to be true for myself, as well as for plenty of the rainforest-minded graduate students I’ve mentored over the years.

In Chapter 3, Corten concedes, “I can’t offer you a scientific definition of an exceptional talent. The essence is that your talent really belongs to the exceptions, leaving you to discover many things for yourself” (p. 18). He offers a useful chart on page 18 of how individuals with exceptional talent may perceive situations in their workplace, versus how their employers view them. To provide just a couple of examples:

  1. A workplace might feel that an employee has “many conflicts with management and authorities”, while the individual believes about herself, “I have a strongly developed sense of justice”.
  2. A workplace might characterize an employee as having “poor timing, in meetings for example” while the individual feels, “I’m constantly meeting resistance; it all goes so slowly.”

This chart reminds me of the ones provided by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen in her book The Gifted Adult (1999), in which she represents the two extremes (“collapsed” and “exaggerated”) of intensity, complexity, and drive as manifested in a variety of ways, while also providing a more “balanced” ideal for each. The ultimate goal of both authors is to encourage flourishing.

Corten points out that very often the “high flyers” of large organizations are flourishing; his book is not designed for them, but rather for those who exhibit the “typical characteristics” of exceptional talent:

  • heightened powers of observation
  • vulnerability
  • combinations of talents
  • uniquely innovative
  • a tendency to “think and speak too fast for other people to keep up, often without knowing” (p. 22).

He follows up on these ideas in Chapter 4 (entitled “A Large Gap”) by noting, “The essence of being exceptional is that you deviate greatly from the average” (p. 23). He reminds readers that it’s important not to assume “that people are deliberately thwarting you” but instead to keep in mind that most “people can’t see what you see, can’t easily make the connections you make, can’t think through the consequences of a decision as far ahead. You just go far too fast.”

This echoes the advice in Jim Webb’s book Searching for Meaning (2015), in which he writes: “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).

I’m also reminded of the Giftedness Knows No Boundaries public awareness campaign put forth by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in 2016, which emphasizes the key phrases “See Me, Know Me, Challenge Me, Teach Me”.  In order to meet the needs of gifted individuals of all ages, we must first see them – but a key difference is that with children, the onus and moral responsibility for this lies on the adults around them,  whereas gifted adults must learn to advocate for themselves. This is tricky business – especially for those who weren’t adequately supported in their younger years.

In Chapter 5, Corten advises us not to adapt, but rather to adjust, and reminds us once again that “the first step is realising that most other people don’t see” your exceptional talent, given that they “come from another world in terms of thinking and doing and that’s just how it is” (p. 35).

Corten recommends the following strategies: looking for soulmates; opening up; using expressive language; finding your way around social media; learning to ‘mix and match’; appreciating what you get; taking your feelings seriously; speaking in the first person; making your needs the starting point; being okay with mistakes; considering the correlation (if any) between money and worth; and creating “space and peace” for yourself.

There is a lot covered in this chapter, and it’s worth reading closely while taking notes. I personally have found solace in many of the ideas here, and also recognize a number of them from other readings I’ve done. For instance, the notion of learning to “mix and match” to create a fulfilling and viable career is discussed in Emilie Wapnick’s How To Be Everything: A Guide For Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (2017), and is a direction I’ve ended up following for myself.

Meanwhile, making peace with – i.e., “finding your way around” – social media is invaluable advice; I was relieved to read Corten’s statement that he often hears his clients saying “I’m not interested in social media.” (Hear, hear!) And yet, as he points out, ignoring it completely comes at its own cost on numerous fronts. 

One more idea that stood out to me from Chapter 5 is Corten’s advice to “only commit yourself to matters which either bother you or from which you benefit” (p. 43). This directly addresses the challenge so many gifted individuals face in terms of genuine overwhelm by the countless injustices in the world, and how impossible it is to sufficiently address everything. You can’t. You must pick and choose, as Corten advises – and his metric makes sense as a way to realistically and meaningfully narrow down your scope. 

In Chapter 6 (“Your Career Path: Listening As You Go”), Corten draws upon his decades of experience as a career coach to offer “essentials for a gifted career”, which include responding to and reflecting upon the following four prompts:

  1. What is it I want?
  2. How do I truly make contact?
  3. What do I have to offer?
  4. What do I need?

Clearly, each of these questions is huge, and ideally would be done with support from a suitable counselor or coach. Corten discusses the critical concept of discovering your “core talents”, as well as the need to clearly distinguish between “burn out” and “bore out” in one’s workplace (pp. 52-54).  The list of examples provided on page 54 is an invaluable resource for those wanting insight into the unique challenges they’re facing at work – though it’s good to keep in mind, as Corten points out, that “something which forms a burn-out risk for one person may be an essential condition for achieving pleasure at work for another.”

One more key take-away from Chapter 6 is the permission Corten gives for us to “learn to carefully sense which moments or hours in the day are suited to which tasks, and act on that” (p. 58). His advice is: “Respond to your own rhythm and make things as easy as possible for yourself.” While I’ve actually been doing this for years, I’ve simultaneously felt residual guilt from a lifetime of earlier institutionalized indoctrination that humans must follow the timelines and rhythms set forth by “those in charge”. Not necessarily true by a long stretch – and certainly not the healthiest way to live, if you can help it.

In Chapter 7, Corten turns to more “Direction and Guidance”. He reassures us that “when gifted people and other exceptional talents find a trajectory that suits them, their personal and professional development can suddenly go really fast” (though he provides fair warning: finding that one “small thing” to pursue can take awhile). He advocates being open to the idea of a “higher self” in whatever fashion that takes, and finding a “balance between challenge and safety”, which he believes is “key to a successful approach”.

Corten concludes his book in Chapter 8 by offering five portraits of individuals he’s worked with over the years (two female and three male, ages ranging from 43 to 62 – thus all in either the Exploring or Navigating stages of their life, according to Fiedler [2015]). I saw much of myself and others I know in these portraits, and found myself highlighting certain quotes that specifically stood out to me, which I’ll share below:

  • Jantien (age 52): “I always wanted to work in a broader perspective and with strategic issues, but logically speaking that’s often not possible at a young age” (p. 74). Yes, exactly. I, too, have always wanted to skip straight to the interesting and complex challenges of life – whereas in reality, we can’t do everything at once, and must accept that some stages are indeed both linear and necessary. Later, Jantien adds, “The internet has helped me enormously. I can go to it with everything that’s happening in my head” (p. 76). What a wonderful way to put it! Despite the many challenges the internet has brought, I’m ultimately a huge fan – it’s been a true game-changer on so many levels.
  • Gustave (age 50) writes, “If I immerse myself in a subject, I keep going and associate everything with everything else until I understand the system behind it. That takes a lot of time, but not much effort” (p. 87). Here’s to the value of enjoyably immersive deep dives for gifted adults! Meanwhile, echoing my rainforest-minded husband, Gustave also writes, “I can apparently reach a level of knowledge which equals that of experts in associated subjects” (p. 88); this has happened repeatedly to my husband, who is often mistaken for a professional in areas which he simply has a (gifted) layperson’s interest in.
  • Irani (age 43) shares about her hypersensitivity (yep) and her desire to do “everything at once” (yep), while telling us that her clients “often say that they love the fact that I don’t judge. I do, by the way, but I can also quickly let go of such a judgment. My attitude in life is that I take things as they are” (p. 95). I respect and relate to this pragmatic approach to life, which is my preferred m.o. as well.
  • Finally, Willibrord (age 62) – a choir conductor and composer among numerous other skills and responsibilities – writes that, “As far as I’m concerned, God is in people. I see God as a kind of language, or platform for communication for all those subjects we do not understand or are unable to explain, and which matter in life. We started calling that God and that makes it possible to talk about them” (pp. 101-102). This perspective echoes that made by Corten in Chapter 7, and rings very true as a creative conceptualization of “why God exists”.

I strongly recommend Corten’s book to “birds of a rare feather” seeking affirmation and advice as they explore what their next steps may be, career-wise. It’s a valuable addition to the far-too-limited literature on conditions necessary for gifted adults to thrive – and as Corten writes, “All of society will benefit if we learn to interact better with exceptional talents” (p. 10).

To purchase a copy of this book, go to: www.exceptionaltalent.eu

Please note that shipping to the United States currently takes about six weeks from the Netherlands. 

Artwork from Exceptional Talent, p. 49

References

  • Corten, F. (2021). Exceptional talent: A guide for the gifted, the inventors and other birds of a rare feather. Werk en Waarde.
  • Jacobsen, M-E. (1999). The gifted adult: A revolutionary guide for liberating everyday genius. Random House Publishing.
  • Wapnick, E. (2017) How to be everything: A guide for those who (still) don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. HarperOne.
  • Webb, J.T. (2015). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Great Potential Press.

NB 

* On the copyright page of his book, Corten writes:

Dear Publisher,

I published this first edition independently so that the world could see it. I’m now looking for a publisher who is willing to distribute a second edition worldwide. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please get in touch with me.

Thank you, Frans Corten

publisher@exceptionaltalent.eu

Copyright © 2021 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

Copyright © 2021 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

References:

  • Webb, J.T. (2015). Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope. Great Potential Press.

Copyright © 2021 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

References

  • Merrill, J. (2012). If this is a gift, can I send it back? Surviving in the land of the gifted and twice exceptional. Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Press.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.  

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.

References:

  • Silverman, L. (2013). Giftedness 101. Springer Publishing.

Copyright © 2020 by HalfoftheTruth.org. Please feel free to share with attribution.