While following former President Trump’s second impeachment trial in recent weeks, I learned that the 25-year-old son of Impeachment Manager Senator Jamie Raskin passed away on New Year’s Eve. As Raskin told NPR about his son Tommy:
“Tommy was remarkable from the beginning. He had a photographic memory and, like some other kids in our family, knew all the presidents and vice presidents in order. But it wasn’t his mind that marked him as so extraordinary. It was his heart. The stories of his love and compassion are absolutely astounding.”
A remembrance written by Tommy’s parents is filled with evidence of giftedness across his life. Tommy’s actions were consistently geared towards helping others and making the world a better place. In high school, Tommy “began to follow his own piercing moral and intellectual insights looking for answers to problems of injustice, poverty and war.” He wrote precociously, eagerly performing his plays and poems “for audiences astounded by his precocious moral vision, utter authenticity of emotion, and beauty of expression.” He was an:
” . . . anti-war activist, a badass autodidact moral philosopher and progressive humanist libertarian, and a passionate vegan who composed imperishable, knock-your-socks-off poetry linking systematic animal cruelty and exploitation to militarism and war culture.”
Tommy was also deeply impacted by depression, eventually leading him to take his own life. He asked for forgiveness from his family in his farewell note.
Tommy’s many contributions to the world during the 25 years he was here are ample evidence that gifted souls care oh-so-deeply about their world, their fellow humans, and all of existence. I will end by sharing just a few more words from the Raskins’ remembrance:
“Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind. He began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless ‘disease called depression’ . . . a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.”
I remain sincerely grateful to the Raskins for their willingness to share so openly about their gifted son’s triumphs and struggles. Their remembrance not only honors Tommy, but opens a pathway for the rest of us to engage in honest and challenging discussions with our kids and each other.
To read more about gifted young adults whose lives have ended far too soon, please see this post.
In thesetwo 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.
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
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
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.
Bernstein, A. (2012). Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry (2nd Edition). McGraw-Hill Publishers.
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.
I bring this up not to be morbid, but instead to highlight once again that being gifted (with all the intensities this inevitably brings) can be just as challenging as it is rewarding. Many RFMs deal with existential angst that leads to tremendous psychological pain, anguish, and occasionally early death. (SENG was founded because of this).
I personally nearly died at age 12 from an eating disorder, dropped out of school countless times, and have struggled my entire life to varying degrees with depression and anxiety in one form or another (now thankfully being managed quite well).
RFMs may be so eager from such a young age to make a difference, to utilize our talents, to “do the right thing” – and so intolerant of a world that doesn’t generally live up to our expectations – that we get mired in the hopelessness of it all. Indeed, the third chapter of Prober’s (2016) Your Rainforest Mind is entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Saving the World?”
Not knowing other people who share our feelings and passions can make thing even lonelier. As Prober (2016) writes:
“Loneliness may be the number one challenge for the RFM. And it often starts early” (p. 105).
RFMs may reach out time and again, hoping desperately for a connection that shows us we’re not crazy for wanting MORE – and mostly being disappointed. Before meeting my RFM husband, the only people I dated (not many, and not for long; I was mostly single and lonely) were musicians. Their passion for their craft resembled what I felt about the world more broadly – and being an (amateur) musician myself, we had this love in common. However, the challenge inevitably became that they were SO invested in their music, they didn’t really have space for a long-term partner – or kids, which I wanted.
Meanwhile, my list of “good friends” has always been small and selective. I search for people who understand and accept my complexity and gifts rather than judging them.
As Prober reminds us again and again, our troubled world actually needs RFMs more than ever – “overthinkers” who dwell on society’s challenges and strive for justice at every turn. After all, we don’t settle for good enough – ever – unless forced to.
All that being said, as hard as it may be, we have to get comfortable talking about ourselves:
We need to talk about what it’s like have uniquely wired brains, heightened emotions, and a kind of intensity that can be “too much” for many (including sometimes ourselves).
We need to share what it’s like to experience the world at a different pace, often with differently calibrated senses.
We need acknowledgement that our gifts cause us both great joy AND tremendous suffering.
I’m committed to keeping myself – and like-minded RFMS – healthy and well-tended so we can turn right back around and use our gifts for others. There’s too much at stake otherwise.