Aliveness is a core quality that impacts all dimensions of who we are and how we show up in the world, including how we can access and express our giftedness. In this article, Karin Eglinton explores how we can center and organize ourselves and our giftedness around aliveness as a guiding force; and how we can start to reconnect with it if we have lost connection to that inner fire.
WHAT IS ALIVENESS?
Aliveness is our inner fire, our life-force; an absolutely essential quality of our experience. It describes our vitality, our vibrancy, both as we feel it within us, and as it radiates outward.
Aliveness describes a visceral, felt experience of our self-hood: below the layers of our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and identities, we find our own life’s fire running through it all, distinct, yet connected, to each part of our inner experience. If we had no name, no history, no access to a mirror (or electronic device), we could still connect to this felt vitality. If we imagine quantifying the amount of “life” in each of us, running through us, with our body as the container, aliveness would be a measure of our whole being’s “volume” or capacity to maintain this current.
Whether we consciously notice it or not, most of us are tracking our own and other people’s aliveness all the time, at a nervous system level. You may have noticed someone else’s vibrancy without them even having to say a word, through subtle cues such as their breathing rhythm, their gait, and the movement of their eyes and face. Conversely, you may physically have felt the strength of a friend’s, family member’s or coworker’s inner fire dampened through periods of adversity, stress or struggle. We feel aliveness in other living beings as well: for those of us who connect with animals easily, our animal companions' vitality (or lack thereof) is immediately apparent to us.
Given its close connection with our health, aliveness is an experience that’s deeply grounded in the body: it tells us how well our bodies (and our nervous systems) are thriving. Yet it’s not “just” a sensation; it’s also a psychological experience that shapes our thoughts and emotions; it even determines the expression of our personality. Our aliveness can flow freely in harmonious ways, or become blocked or distorted by the ways we’ve needed to adapt to adverse experiences. This shows up as whether we can feel and channel, in healthy ways, the more “raw” aspects of our emotional world, such as aggression and passion. Our life force also fuels our impulses to reach out for connection, to create, to set healthy boundaries, and to express ourselves in authentic ways.
ALIVENESS HAPPENS IN SYSTEMS (NOT IN A VACCUUM)
By necessity, all living systems are “open systems”; meaning that, from cells to ecosystems (with individual living beings somewhere in between), we all interact with our environments to take in what each of us needs to live, grow, heal, and maintain our well being. Closed systems, in contrast, don’t interact with their environment.
Simultaneously, we release or produce “byproducts” of our living, which others in our environment benefit from for their thriving. Plants bear fruit, which is nourishing and essential to the survival of many species. Many animals, us humans included, "produce" caring, creative and play behaviors instinctively, with others and for the well-being of others. Even what our bodies release as waste contains life-giving nutrients for other organisms. This, in a very oversimplified way, represents the essence of our interconnectedness with life: we can’t help but share the life-fire among us. We both depend on the thriving life force of our worlds to help us be in optimal health and well being, and the world around us depends on us to maintain and generate life force for the well being of all.
This understanding highlights some of the ways our dominant cultural narratives mislead us when it comes to aliveness. It also gives context to some of the personal distortions of aliveness we may each experience, as we’ll find them, most often, rooted in our collective relationship to aliveness. Our culture is ambiguous about cultivating aliveness: it prizes the effects and outcomes of aliveness -- for instance, at the individual level, a vibrant appearance, good mental health, and success in our work and creative endeavors, are all outcomes fueled in large part by the robustness and vitality of our social and natural environment. Yet we are simultaneously asked to achieve these outcomes as though we were closed (or as though we could at times behave as closed) rather than open systems -- functioning well, growing, thriving and succeeding regardless of whether our ecosystem is equally well and whole. This is akin to imagining that we could shut down our own breathing at times, when it’s “convenient” to do so: even if we tried, at best this would leave us in a state of half-life, chronically declining toward death.
This implicit, unrealistic ideal -- which I’m only sketching out here in a broad manner -- would have us conceive of ourselves as isolated experiencers, enclosed in our own hermetic bubble; rising and falling, succeeding and failing in life, based on a combination of inner resources: drive and innate talent, discipline, mindset and grit.
When we are each a “closed bubble in a world of closed bubbles”, we both overestimate and underestimate our impact on our social and natural environment, as we imagine others won’t receive/notice/feel our impact, and that we will achieve what we want if only we set our mind to it. All of this can make us feel insular as well: we don’t know what’s going on inside another person’s world, and we may not even know exactly what’s going on within ourselves. When we are collectively trying to live up to this ambiguous narrative, we live with a pervasive fragility in our relational lives, where we can easily threaten the status quo and feel a sense of social risk or even danger of being shamed or shut down, if we show signs of healthy “open system behavior”.
When we attempt to live up to the “closed system standard”, we effectively cut off or tune out many of the necessary, natural connections we have within ourselves and with others: for instance, our connection to the richness of sensory data that our body provides, and its “hunger signals” -- whether for (variety in) food, touch, water, movement, breath, time spent in nature, or other essential nutrient. Interpersonally, we may cut off from seeing and responding to our close loved ones in ways that strengthen our bonds; prioritizing instead relating on a more surface level, or focusing on work and tasks, “shoulds” and “have-to’s” instead of mutual well being. The very channels through which our shared aliveness can be stoked and maintained at its full radiance are compromised.
Naturally, it’s impossible to truly imagine ourselves and others as fully closed systems -- we see evidence to the contrary every day, even if it’s just in the fact that we must breathe air, drink water, and eat food. So the veil of life-disconnected cultural narratives can put us in a kind of limbo where we struggle to know which “model” to follow. We may consciously or unconsciously ask, “Am I ‘allowed’ to be just human, to be alive, to feel, to be vulnerable? Do I need to be a closed system some days, and an open one others, depending on whether I’m at work or with friends, at school or by myself?”
Becoming stewards and advocates of aliveness offers us, instead, a clear focus on which to rest our attention and to guide our actions. Learning about and aligning ourselves with the realities and necessities of our biological and ecological selves, and learning to re-connect with each other and our worlds as the complex, ecological (open) systems that we are, can be the work of a lifetime. At a global, cultural level, many now recognize our dominant culture’s destruction of life, both human and non-human, and are enacting change to ensure our survival on the planet. We each become generative co-creators of this global change, at the personal level, which feeds into the collective, when we choose to engage in this process. For gifted people, this process has some specific challenges and opportunities.
GIFTEDNESS & ALIVENESS
We can imagine our life force flowing through six different pathways, each of them showing up as different aliveness expressions: Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Existential, Sensual and Creative. These expressions of our aliveness match the Areas of Intelligence in the model of giftedness developed by Jennifer Harvey Sallin.
Physically: Movement and flow of energy in our bodies (versus stagnation or immobility), connection to our breath; circadian rhythms, appetite and libido that reflect your body’s individual pattern of health; having the inner fuel and resources to care for ourselves and our lives.
Intellectually: Curiosity, mental stamina, openness to learning, exploration, flexible thinking.
Emotionally: Feeling and being able to express in respectful ways, feelings such as passion, excitement, joy, healthy aggression and assertiveness; an ability to be with our full range of emotional experience.
Existentially: Feelings of connections to life, human and non-human others; respect and reverence for our own life and that of others; experiencing a felt sense of the intrinsic value of life.
Sensually: Experiencing pleasure, joy and delight in our senses; connection to our sensory experience; noticing and taking in the information our bodies provide as rich and valuable input.
Creatively: Desire and drive to express ourselves creatively, whether spontaneously, in structured projects or in any type of endeavor, be it our day to day tasks, our social life, our career, in artistic pursuits, or in any discipline that sparks our imagination.
For us gifted, twice- or multi-exceptional (2e/m-e) people, our aliveness can become distorted or blocked in these areas, through overlapping experiences of gifted trauma, developmental trauma, and/or twice-exceptional and other intersecting forms of trauma, depending on the social context we’ve lived in.
When we’ve experienced social and/or physical danger for the way our giftedness showed up at different developmental stages, we’ll be likely to shut down, contain or control our aliveness; or act out certain gifted traits in exaggerated “overdrive” as a way to protect ourselves from social or internally felt vulnerability. This can look “lively” or “fiery” from the outside, but inside it leaves us empty of the nourishment that felt aliveness brings.
Another way this shows up is that gifted people are often very “well endowed” with stamina -- mental and emotional energy for learning, problem-solving and solution-finding, and for supporting projects and seeing through situations. We may tell ourselves or hear from others that, having more than our “fair share”, it’s our place to give those resources away freely, whether we like to or not. Or we may have heard there’s something wrong about our gifted needs and areas of increased sensitivity, or about the things we love and are passionate about, especially at times in our early life when we didn’t yet have ways to advocate for ourselves and our unique minds.
In the places where our cultural and collective distortions of aliveness meet the gifted experience, some aspects are thrown into sharp contrast and intensified. Trauma keeps us disconnected from ourselves and from others, which makes us more vulnerable to believing that we are, in fact, closed systems. Our gifted mental, emotional and creative high abilities can heighten this illusion, making it seem as though we’re succeeding as closed systems, far beyond what might be circumstantially or temporarily helpful, or healthy for our connected aliveness.
Inhabiting the “closed systems world” can, ironically, cause us to unwittingly flood and overwhelm others, as the resulting insularity doesn’t allow us to interpret social (and even empathic) information accurately. Acting as if we were closed systems, we lack “exposure” to the amount of felt connection and mirroring that would provide us with enough “high-resolution”, nuanced and differentiated understanding, to navigate the social feedback we receive.
NAVIGATING BY ALIVENESS
When I’m assessing my clients’ giftedness profiles, we look at how they may not have had the experiences that supported them in feeling and acting like open systems. We explore each of their areas of intelligence, and interrelationship of those intelligences to one another, to see how they may have become deadened or blocked by acting as closed systems. In this way, we start to restore their capacity to get back in contact with their own inner aliveness where it may have been deadened.
In coaching, I help clients learn to track how their our own (gifted) aliveness ebbs and flows. This helps them to feel intuitively guided by what feeds their life force, and helps them discern how much of their gifted thought explorations, situational analyses, or problem solving processes are life-giving, and when they cross the line into genuine over-thinking, as they feel their life force start to diminish. In that same way, I help clients learn to rely on those inner aliveness signals to tell the difference between the kind of “perfectionism” that shuts down their inner fire (and/or that of others around them) and the kind of drive for improvement that is part of an enlivening process of learning, mastery and authentic expression. In coaching, I help clients practice tuning into their body’s sensations. For example, when they feel a bout of gifted boredom, we explore whether they are “shutting down” because something in their experience felt too intense to bear or whether they need to feed their inner fire some fresh fuel, and their feeling of boredom is the way they know it’s dimming down.
Sometimes it takes a lot more than just tuning in and tracking, though, as aliveness itself can be triggering and feel threatening for those of us who have worked so hard to keep ourselves safe by shutting our aliveness down in the past. One of the biggest stumbling blocks I experienced in my own process of reclaiming aliveness -- and I’ve heard this echoed in the stories of many gifted clients and peers -- is that opening up to aliveness feels extremely vulnerable at first. This makes sense, as we’re opening or softening the defenses that have successfully protected us during difficult and traumatic moments of our lives. However, if the feelings of vulnerability that result from opening to our aliveness are overwhelming, they might push us out of the range of our capacity for the discomfort necessary to growth and expansion, and make us want to backtrack into more "closed system" states.
This is where working with a gifted-specific professional can be invaluable in negotiating the hard parts of restoring aliveness, as it offers a safe state in between closed and open systems. Therapy is designed to allow you to open up slowly, in the safety of the therapeutic space by increasing capacity and tolerance for coming into contact with your aliveness. When our feelings of vulnerability are tinged by shame, fear, rage or paralysis around being who we are, it's especially helpful to explore those feelings with an attuned therapist who can help us gently peel the layers of defenses around our aliveness. Coaching as a modality is designed more to allow you to be playful and creative, and to be guided and held accountable by another in the process of opening up. It fits the stage in your process when you feel relatively safe in contacting and expressing your aliveness, but still benefit from having a guide and partner in bringing your aliveness to the front and center of your life and attention. Assessments are a way to establish where you are now in accessing and expressing your gifted-specific aliveness; they help you look at the big picture of your giftedness profile, shining light on where your (gifted) aliveness is thriving, where it is struggling and needing support, and the next steps you can take to contact and express that gifted fire within.
Making aliveness a center point of our experience can be a life-long journey, and there may be a lot to learn to make the necessary changes that will support that ongoing process. If you're wanting to learn more about the topic, I invite you to listen to the InterGifted Conversations on Gifted Trauma podcast, especially episode 6, which is all about aliveness and its role in cultivating healthy relational boundaries (in fact, that episode inspired me to write this article). You may also enjoy reading my article on Being Gifted in a Changing World, where I explore integration and mapping of your gifted inner ecosystem. For a bigger picture view of the ecological and systems science underpinnings which have inspired this article, I recommend starting with the book The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra.