Gifted people experience unique challenges in the field of relationships. Some of our challenges are internal and arise from the particular make-up of our intensities; others are external and result from a lack of knowledge of our special needs as a minority population. In this article, Karin Eglinton shares her story on how she learned to respond in constructive ways to both the internal and external relational challenges we gifted people face.
By Karin Eglinton
DISCONNECTION AND ITS UNEXPECTED GIFTS
Relationships – social, professional and romantic – have been a real struggle for me in the past. Growing up, I didn’t know I was gifted, and as I got older, I felt there was something everyone else seemed to “get” and I didn’t. People I was fond of stopped talking to me without explanation. I was unhappy with the friends I did have because I felt I couldn’t show my true self around them, but I didn’t understand why. When I was “just myself”, I seemed to bring a sense of mental strain, emotional and existential chaos to the lives of almost every boyfriend I had, which led to hearing, more than once, “I love you, but life would be easier without you”.
It led me to feeling a pervasive sense of disconnection with others, with the world, and – in the absence of adequate social mirroring – myself. I had a deep longing for nourishing and reciprocal connection, but had no way to articulate my needs and no idea how to meet them. It put me in a mixed state of desperation and curiousity. I was desperate to find ways to meet my needs, but also extremely curious to understand the inner workings of relationships: how did they work under the surface, and how was I going to be able to use that knowledge to meet my needs?
I started collecting a treasure trove of tools and frameworks to understand how relationships work, and for practicing the skills necessary to facilitating the kind of intense and deep connection I sought. And while I made some progress through the years, I still kept getting stuck overwhelming others, or feeling underwhelmed by them. My main problem in relationships, I now know, had been that I did not have the self-knowledge of the many dimensions of my giftedness, nor the language to communicate this to friends or partners.
It is perhaps ironic that it was the pain of disconnection which pushed me to discover the key information I needed in order to find the connection I had been looking for my whole life. When I discovered my giftedness at the age of twenty-nine, I finally realized that there was nothing “wrong” with me at all, and I was not a relational failure! I saw, however, that there was work ahead, because knowing I was gifted was not enough to change my relational dynamics. I needed to adapt all I thought I knew about myself, and how I had been relating to others.
THE GIFTED SOCIAL ECOLOGY
One of the big realizations I’ve had since then, has been that we are all – gifted and non-gifted alike – held and shaped by a complex matrix of relationships. It’s as if we lived in a series of nestled ecosystems: life-consciousness-humanity-society-culture-family-friends- and so on. And each of those ecosystems provide its own version of psychological-social support for us. Multiple “others” support and challenge us as we evolve through life. The same is true, of course, in the reverse: we are one part of the ecosystem who surround, support and challenge those around us.
This can be hard for gifted people, because once we reach the society-culture-family-friends end of the psychological-social ecosystem, the non-gifted majority – the “others” – may not support or challenge us in the ways that help us to feel, well, truly supported or challenged. And conversely, the ways we support or challenge them may not be what they are looking for or need. What they offer us and we offer them may be sincere and well-meant, but it may not fit the needs of the other.
But since the psycho-social ecosystem is non-gifted dominant, it can feel particularly challenging for a gifted person to feel connected. I can certainly say that I felt cut-off from a sense of deep belonging to that rich ecology. I didn’t know where I fit, or if I fit, and didn’t know how to give to and receive from my own psychosocial ecological context without feeling like I ended up in a spiderweb, trapped in repeating iterations of miscommunication, misunderstanding and disconnect. It’s a feeling I’ve heard echoed from countless gifted peers and clients I’ve worked with. But there is so much that we can do to improve our own personal psychosocial ecosystem once we know about and accept our giftedness and all of its particularities.
GETTING TO KNOW OUR INNER GIFTED ECOLOGY
As paradoxical as it may seem, constructing a beneficial psychosocial ecosystem for ourselves as gifted people starts with focusing internally: taking stock of our inner ecology first before we try to change what’s on the outside. Gifted or not, projection bias says that we are biased to imagine everyone else thinks and feels the way we do. If we don’t recognize or admit the degree of difference between the way we taken in and process the world as gifted people, we will be missing the mark by quite a bit, and maybe not even getting feedback from our environment as to why we are so far off. Getting to know ourselves well and learning the many ways our minds differ “from the norm” offers much-needed perspective. But this is more than just impersonal knowledge (such as that gifted people have an uncommon level of curiosity): this is about knowledge of your particular brand of giftedness. What makes your mind the way it is? You might, for instance, study one or more models on personality types, or track your overexcitabilities and see how they differ from those of other gifted individuals. You might benefit from a giftedness assessment to fully understand your unique congitive style as a gifted person, or giftedness integration coaching which helps you explore your inner terrain with a knowledgeable guide.
The key practice here is becoming aware of what’s going on for you: your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, needs and wants. It’s about becoming curious about what you encounter inside – like a scientist or an explorer, and about offering validation to all parts of you that come into your awareness. While certain learned “shoulds” or idealistic impulses might make us want to cut off from parts of ourselves that seem unacceptable, embracing only the “good parts” leads to fragmentation and unhelpful coping mechanisms. Self-validation not only prevents this, but also provides the sustenance for all entities in our inner ecology – even the seemingly ugly parts – to reveal more and more of themselves and their value to the whole.
There is an almost magical process that can take place when we learn to give ourselves the loving attention and validation that we most crave, especially when it comes to the parts of us we have most believed to be flawed or wrong. You are likely to find real treasure there. Remember what I said about my giftedness discovery? How it was the very phenomenon that led me to feeling that there was something deeply wrong with me? I’ve found it to be true time and time again: as I learned to accept the parts of me that I had disowned (many, if not most of them directly related to my gifted overexcitabilities), I found out that they, though they were still raw and unrefined, carried qualities and impulses that could make a unique and positive contribution to my life and my world. It was up to me to learn to harness them.
To tie this back to the ecosystem analogy: inside a thriving ecosystem, every living being is nourished by others, and nourishes others in turn. Each being’s basic activities of existence are beneficial – not as arduous work, but simply as a by-product of what is most natural to them. The key is context: take an animal outside of their natural habitat and they become a pest somewhere else. Similarly, our own most negative-seeming traits can reveal themselves to be true assets, or even the seeds of a calling, when given the right context and constructive avenues of expression. Release enough of those self-parts in fitting contexts to do what is inherent to them, and a picture starts to emerge: a “blueprint of possibility” to contribute to life – however that uniquely looks for you.
CONSTRUCTING A NOURISHING EXTERNAL GIFTED ECOLOGY
Once you’ve connected with and validated yourself internally, you can begin to do the work of negotiating and navigating connection externally – connecting your inner world to your outer world. As with yourself, you have an opportunity to listen deeply, maintaining an attitude of warm curiosity. Having overcome your projection bias via your internal listening will allow you to appreciate the diversity of the world, and to better identify who and what in the world helps you to feel truly connected. You will likely find that many of your relationships with non-gifted people do not satisfy your need for high-intensity relating – whether that be emotional, intellectual, imaginational or some combination of these and other areas of focus, and that is okay. Through your internal listening (validating your needs) and your external listening (validating the differences and value of others as they are), you can start to shift, seek, and construct relationships that match your discovered reality.
In fact, even among gifted people, there is a huge array of diversity. We have differences in our giftedness levels, our personal mix of overexcitabilities or areas of intelligence, our values, levels of interest or disinterest in self-development, and more. We cannot even count on “gifted” as being a guaranteed strong connection point, if it is expressed in ways that are too far from our own version of “gifted”. If you’re a gifted person whose intensity leans very strongly toward the relational-emotional sphere (emotional overexcitability), you may seek a kind of intense, synergistic intimacy when connecting with others; however, you may find that you don’t connect particularly well with gifted individuals who tend more toward intensity in the intellectual or imaginational realm and need less in the way of empathic mirroring. And vice versa.
For those who do seek a deep sense of togetherness, as I shared from my own story, this may have been misunderstood by others in your life who do not share this need. If you’re anything like I was, you might be carrying quite a bit of shame around about the uncommon level of attunement, intensity and mirroring you need to feel “seen” and truly connected. With that shame, it can be tempting to try to “put all our eggs in one basket” when it comes to relating. Our unusually high relational needs seem to be a social liability, so we hope one or two people (often a partner) will fulfill all our relational needs, keeping us from needing to risk rejection with too many others. The problem is, this makes for a very fragile ecosystem, and puts far too much pressure on the one or two people you are relying on.
No matter how your own particular flavor of giftedness shows up, the opportunity when connecting externally in this discerning and compassionate way, is to end the unfortunate dichotomy many of us experience between authenticity and belonging – between being fully ourselves and being fully connected. We need both to thrive.
We all deserve a nourishing, reciprocal psychosocial ecosystem, and because we live in our non-gifted majority world, a lot of the onus is on us to construct it for ourselves. Initiatives like InterGifted are making it so much easier for us, by giving us tools, support and access to gifted peers around the world. But it is still up to us to commit to learning about ourselves, admitting and embracing our giftedness, admitting and embracing the world as it is, and then advocating for ourselves and connecting with others who match our needs and our most authentic offerings. When you seek to orchestrate creative and beneficial ways to meet your gifted needs, you are cultivating a resilient matrix that will keep you bolstered and nourished – and you will be contributing meaningfully to the larger gifted-ecosystem, at the same time.