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

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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.

 

Loss and Too-Soon Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, most importantly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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