Giftedness, Narcissism & Healing

 Contrary to the impression gifted literature can often give of a necessarily wise, inherently "good" and morally sensitive profile, gifted people range all the way from "saints to psychopaths", and can inhabit various expressions of all the spaces in between throughout a lifetime. Understanding narcissism and narcissistic wounding both at the individual and collective level, and how it interacts with but is distinct from giftedness, is essential for understanding gifted development, including gifted mental and relational health, throughout the lifespan. Healing narcissistic wounds is available for many of us, and gives us access to an authentic experience and expression of our giftedness. It helps us to better understand and appreciate the many forms of intelligence in and around us, and to find our unique purpose. Our individual healing also contributes to a broader systems change in a narcissistically inclined society, as intergenerational, cultural and collective narcissistic wounds are crying out to be tended to and repaired. InterGifted's founder, psychologist Jennifer Harvey Sallin explores all this and gives resources for further discovery and recovery in the article below.

by Jennifer Harvey Sallin

This is a gifted-specific version of the original article titled "Narcissism and the World" on Rediscovering Yourself


 

When narcissistic wounding and giftedness collide

The higher than average intellectual complexity of giftedness is neither a wholly positive nor a wholly negative trait. High complexity is useful for certain tasks, approaches and perspectives, just as simplicity is useful for certain tasks, approaches and perspectives. When a simple approach or perspective is needed, high complexity can actually get in the way of clarity, progress or accomplishment. Gifted people who struggle to get simple things done in their daily life will know what I’m referring to here. Gifted students or former students who have complexified school work and have gotten answers wrong for "overthinking" them (i.e. looking for more complexity in the task than was required or needed) will also remember instances when their high complexity wasn’t the right tool for the moment.

A lot of giftedness discovery and integration work is about understanding your high complexity and knowing when to rely on it - how to match it to relationships, tasks, goals and trajectories, and when to allow it to take a back seat to other more perhaps simpler aspects of yourself and your expression. Since life is a constant swirling and ever-changing mix of simplicity and complexity, it’s essential we understand how to align our complexity to moments when it’s needed and align our simplicity to moments when it’s needed. Of course, that’s just a basic human requirement, and actually a more-than-human one as well: every being adapts constantly in this way to its environment. However it’s helpful to keep in mind that the gifted version of this adaptation can be quite challenging, as the distance between the level of complexity possible (and often dominant) within the gifted person is quite far from the level of simplicity usually needed to operate in a neuronorm world.

Combine those gifted-specific challenges with narcissistic wounding, which affects one’s ability to feel safe with their vulnerable and "weak’"sides, and we have a recipe for, let’s say, highly complex narcissism. I use the term narcissism here on a non-linear spectrum, which I will define and explore in more detail below. But to introduce the ideas in this article, I want to highlight that when a gifted person struggles with narcissistic tendencies, up to the point of structural personality disordering, due to narcissistic wounding, their giftedness (high intellectual complexity) can ultimately be recruited for and confounded with a need to always be strong, special and "superior". When narcissistically wounded, gifted people often end up confused about whether their high intellectual complexity makes them better than other people; whether their giftedness is a permission slip to look down on others because of their relative "simplicity"; and whether their gifted abilities are justification for taking more attention, praise, space and social resources than others who are less complex.

Taken to an extreme, a narcissistically wounded gifted person’s complex narcissistic expression stops them from seeing others (gifted or not) as equals, and their giftedness is used as both an offensive and defensive shield to keep power over others. Again, in the extreme, this can end up meaning that gifted capacities are used to manipulate, play toxic relational games with, exploit and otherwise abuse others. Contrary to the impression gifted literature can often give of a necessarily wise, inherently "good" and morally sensitive profile, gifted people range all the way from what we could call saints to what could call psychopaths, and can inhabit various expressions of all the spaces in between throughout a lifetime.

Additionally, it’s known that people who are operating from a toxically narcissistic lens are often targeting powerful and highly capable people - for what is often called "narcissistic supply" or "narcissistic fuel". So interestingly, gifted people by nature of their extra capacity and the power that comes with it can also be quite vulnerable to narcissistic abuse.

In this article, I explore narcissism in a more general way, looking at the ways we can understand this complex part of human development, wounding, healing, and systems evolution. I’ve made some notes within the text about how these general themes show up in the context of giftedness and gifted development. There’s much more to explore on this topic, as we collectively become increasingly aware of where narcissism shows up in ourselves, in our giftedness, in our culture and society, and in our systems, and as we heal individually and collectively. With this article, I hope to open up a collective dialog and space for healing on both levels.

Narcissism as a coping strategy

At the core of structural personality disordering is a rigid coping strategy which was very functional for restrictive developmental environments, but which later in life causes all kinds of trouble for the person in contexts which don't require that rigid form of coping. Taking narcissism as an example, a person with a high level of narcissism relies on consistently trying to prove they are superior to and more special than others to avoid feeling existentially annihilated (emotionally or even sometimes physically). As mentioned above, the high potential and intellectual complexity that comes with giftedness can be used as a narcissistic tool for feeling "better than" others, if we stay in a black and white stance that “more complexity is always better”.

Feeling superior can be an ego-saving and life-saving strategy in times when we need to mobilize our energy to get out of or endure situations or relationships that grossly compromise our authenticity or integrity. And certainly our giftedness can help us feel superior and can propel us “to the top of” or entirely out of situations where high complexity is an advantage. But when stuck in the "on" position, this "better than" strategy becomes a personality trait, or more literally the structural ordering of our life's energy. In the case of giftedness, this can also extend to the structural ordering of the energy of our giftedness. Of course, the longer we need the strategy (i.e. throughout our childhood), the more entrenched, dominant and fixed it becomes. Then, even when our current context doesn't demand the strategy and there is no longer a true relational threat, the person stuck in a pattern of narcissism will still organize their life's energy around proving themselves "superior to" and "more special than” the person or people they are relating to. For people who grew up with narcissism in their family of origin, this can be quite the dilemma, as they often have to keep the strategy active to continue to relate within their family system, and yet the active presence of the strategy causes all sorts of collateral damage to their other relationships and obstacles to building a thriving future of their own.

And the people around them feel it: whether it shows up through overt/grandiose, covert/vulnerable, communal, antagonistic or malignant narcissistic behaviors (here's a short explainer of these types of narcissism), they will be aware, sooner or later, that they have only one possible position relative to the more narcissistic person: "inferior" and "less special". Other people will feel, if they have to or want to stay around the narcissistic person in their lives, that their own life energy has to organize or order itself around the fixed position of the narcissistic person. We could more precisely put it this way: their life’s energy has to disorganize itself or disorder itself in order to fit the rigid relational mold offered by the more narcissistic person.

It's worth noting here that since it can be easy for people to hold an implicit cultural belief that a higher IQ is “better” than a lower IQ, a pre-existing form of this societal dynamic can already be in place. Therefore, in the case of a gifted person, it might only take a very minor expression or presence of a narcissistic style to deeply entrench this relational dynamic. Or narcissism can be projected where there is none. This can be seen, for example, in those not-so-uncommon cases when psychiatrists and other mental health professionals misdiagnose giftedness as narcissistic personality disorder.

Why is it a disorder?

Hence, we get a better sense of what it really means to call something a personality disorder. The more narcissistic person has had to create a disordered (rigid) life energy in the short-term (if we can consider childhood short-term), relative to the kind of flexible life energy ordering required to thrive intra- and interpersonally over the long-term (throughout adulthood). It’s an organization of life force that limits the person to a relatively narrow focus or aspect of existence, at the expense of all the rest. When giftedness is used as one of the main “narcissistic tools”, this means focusing on high complexity to feed and protect the narcissistic image, and putting down simplicity in the self and in others which would threaten that image.

Though I won't elaborate on other disorders in the rest of this article, briefly I'll mention that outside of narcissism, we see disorder of life energy in a rigid focus toward, in broad strokes, creating chaos (borderline or emotionally unstable personality disorder), being perfect (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder), avoiding engagement (avoidant personality disorder), living in fantasy (schizotypal personality disorder), hypervigilance to threat (paranoid personality disorder), taking up all the available social space and attention (histrionic personality disorder), taking up no social space and attention (schizoid personality disorder), attacking and offensive protecting (antisocial personality disorder), and excessive dependence on others (dependent personality disorder). Obviously, when giftedness is involved, it can play an important in complexifying any of these disorganizations of life energy.

Of course it should be said here that since the disordering arose as a response (survival strategy) to threat, the pattern will be experienced and seen most strongly when the person is once again under stress and feeling threatened (i.e. in the case of narcissism, becoming controlling and forceful when perceived superiority is under threat). For a gifted person, this could mean being able to appreciate simplicity when the narcissistic self-image is not threatened, but when threatened, the intellectual complexity is again recruited to defend and protect. That's not in itself a bad thing, of course; our complexity can be a great protector for us. It only becomes problematic, as I describe below, when we can't allow ourselves to be vulnerable and our complexity is overused as a defense against anything that threatens a rigid need for "superiority".

What also contributes to it being a disorder is that when we have unresolved trauma, we see the world, even benign aspects of it, through a lens of threat. So the disordered brain actually predicts a threatening world, and often sees one where it is not, or even actively creates one where there wasn't. What I’ve seen with gifted people is that if we project threat onto the world, we project highly complex threat. Thus we can feel compelled to use our complexity to anticipatorily defend and protect against perceived highly complex threats to our self-image.

All of this points to personality disordering being on a spectrum, and being a matter of degree and direction (more on this below). Coming back to narcissism, as mentioned above, when feeling threatened, narcissism keeps other people and the rest of the world in the realm not of equals, but in the realm of "tools" for maintaining the narrow, restricted and rigid focus on “being superior” or “more special”. There is limited, and sometimes no, possibility for others to just be “the same as” or maybe sometimes even better than (in a given context) the more narcissistic person. Or if they are perceived as such, this can cause a huge reaction and, at the extreme, all of the classic forms of “narcissistic abuse" that have been described in great detail in the psychological and popular literature in recent decades: gaslighting, stonewalling, emotional blackmail, coercion, criticism and humiliation, narcissistic rage, intimidation, exploitation, smear campaigns and so on.

You can get a sense here of why someone feels less like a unique person of value in their own right and more like “narcissistic supply" when interacting long-term, and even sometimes short-term, with someone who is stuck in the “on” position of narcissistic disordering. But you can also get a sense, and this is important, of how challenging it must be for a person stuck in the “on” position of narcissism to navigate life. As explored above, everyone is a unique person, no one is actually “superior” to anyone else or, as extreme narcissism would have it, “superior to everyone else”. We’re all valuable in our own unique way, and our vulnerabilities and weaknesses are as valuable to our life’s experience and to our giftedness as our strengths and our areas of resilience. This basic fact is experienced by a person ordered toward an existential need to feel superior to others, as an existential threat. Maybe if we simplify the narcissistic dilemma in this light, it could sound something like this: “It’s me or them, but not both. So it's gotta be me.” If we specify this to a gifted person using their giftedness as part of their narcissistically “superior” identity, we could put it like this: “It’s my intelligence or theirs, but not both. So it’s gotta be mine.”

Think about the loneliness of that fixed position, and the loneliness of the gifted child who is needing to make that awful choice to sacrifice so much of themselves (i.e. their capacity to feel safe with vulnerability and to embrace weakness compassionately; their capacity to express their giftedness as an authentic life energy rather than as a protective shield) to stay out of what is or was for them a real danger zone (i.e. equality or vulnerability with other people). We can say a lot about narcissism and people who struggle with it (i.e. they hurt people, they cause relational damage, etc), but one thing we cannot say is that they had it easy. A child doesn’t spontaneously opt for loneliness as a first choice; they are coerced by their early ecosystem into making a survival choice that results in loneliness. We can hardly assign blame to their ecosystem, however, as those adults who make up their ecosystem were once children navigating their own probably impossible survival dilemmas, and on and on up the cycle of intergenerational and collective trauma transmission. Each generation disordered its own energy to fit into a family system of disordered energies. When gifted-specific wounding, hiding, masking, and shame is part of the intergenerational and collective story, this predisposes a gifted person to a gifted-specific layer of narcissistic coping.

A matter of degrees and directions

Many people, especially those of us who have been in the position of receiving narcissistic abuse (and to a degree, we are in a society with high narcissism, so the narcissistic abuse is built into our daily lives via the systems we interact with) might say, “Yes, but I had difficulty as a child, and I didn’t turn it into narcissism and abuse of others”. Sure, but this is where all of this is a matter of degrees and also directions. I, for one, can point to many coping mechanisms I adopted to survive early developmental trauma, which relied on a sort of internalized narcissism, where I was outwardly very servile, while inwardly using many of the same tactics you’d see on the list of narcissistic abuse to get parts of myself to conform to the rigid version of me the (developmentally healthy) narcissistic part of me thought I needed to be to survive: lack of empathy, criticism, rage, exploitation. Essentially, one part of me believed she was better than other parts of me, and felt she had the right to boss the other parts around without empathy. She was a "protector", in the language of Internal Family Systems, who helped me survive; she was a form of developmental intra-personal narcissism. And in my case, she used my gifted complexity to prove that she knew better than the “dumber”, in her eyes, parts of myself.

Fortunately, I had enough personality flexibility to recognize these patterns and continue to seek help in my adulthood to repair my sense of relational safety within myself. But I consider myself, in spite of my early suffering and the relative resulting internal disordering that continued into my adult life in various forms, privileged. I was able to study psychology and spend most of my days learning about the inner world and the inner workings of people from all walks of life. I have a mind which can take in a lot of information and resources and actively use them for personal transformation. With support, I've been able to transmute my relationship with my giftedness so that it became an ally in my healing from internalized narcissism. In the context of the depths of disordering I’ve seen throughout my decades of working with clients, I know how much deeper the disordering can go and how much more complex and rigid it can be. But I also know how much re-integrated giftedness can be a source for healing.

The point here is that most of us know what it’s like, at minimum, for one part of our "inner family" to sometimes be "the boss" of the other parts, and for the boss part to lack empathy, be ruthless in criticism, and to use the other parts of our self in service of a false self constructed to help us through relationally dangerous contexts. Or we know what it's like to resort to externalized narcissistic strategies, including using our giftedness as a shield, to "rise above" people who would otherwise pull us into toxicity or chaos. Maybe it’s only happened to you once or twice in your life to survive a limited-scope threatening relational situation, and if so, you're lucky! If you can imagine being compelled to live like that all the time, without recourse to other relational strategies, and to have your giftedness at the constant service of this rigid “war”, you can get a small sense of the daily dilemma of living with a more serious level of structural personality disordering. Can you imagine not knowing how or not feeling safe enough to choose other strategies, not knowing how to to free your giftedness from this “war”, not having the internal and external resources to do so, or even being considered as "incurable" by those who are tasked to help you (a common problem in the old psychiatric and psychological schools)? Again, we can say many things about the harms that personality disordering can bring to relationships, and that is very real, but at the same time, it is true that living with a personality disorder is not an easy cross to bear.

Healing a narcissistic system: healing trauma, understanding intelligence 

Recognizing that narcissism is a healthy survival strategy when it’s needed, and that we all have relied on it internally or externally at least once in our lives (even if you’re lucky enough to have a life that hasn’t required this coping strategy as an adult, you for sure used it when you were an infant as a healthy part of egoic development), takes us out of the classic polarization against it. We realize it’s needed when it’s needed, and that when it’s not needed, we can pursue other options and, with compassion, tend to any wounds which may have caused us to overuse it. This extends to any way that we’ve used or overused our giftedness to cope with narcissistically threatening situations.

This is not just on an individual level. I mentioned above that our society, at least in the West, is highly narcissistic. We are in a system created to cover over rather than heal narcissistic wounding, which therefore perpetuates and selects for additional toxic narcissism. In fact, we can see that many of the people in power struggle with at least some forms of toxic narcissism, the gifted leaders included! Both on the internal and external level, I think the key to our own healthy personal development and societal systems change is to figure out how to create systems where narcissism is not needed much outside of the healthy bounds of early childhood development, and when it is needed, that it does not need to resort to becoming a toxic version of itself.

What would a system look like if toxic narcissism wasn’t needed? On the global scale, Capitalism would certainly take a back seat in such a system, if not be replaced altogether (i.e. Degrowth). On a family and personal (intrapsychic) scale, intergenerational and collective traumas, as well as individual traumas, would be understood and addressed, with a commitment to not perpetuating intergenerational narcissism and violence (for this I highly recommend the work of psychologist Thomas Hübl and physician Gabor Maté). On an educational scale, we would educate society and our children about what true, holistic intelligence is, and how while narcissism and other personality disordering are intelligent from a developmental survival perspective, there are also intelligent paths to healing the long-term fragmentation and rigidity that these survival mechanisms engendered. In the gifted field specifically, we would be clear that giftedness is not the same as narcissism, and provide education and tools for people to liberate their giftedness from toxic narcissism through personal and societal healing.

The heart of my work lies at the crossroads of these three domains: systems change, trauma healing, and education about intelligence. In essence, what I’ve learned or reaffirmed for myself in doing this work is that we need to make sense of our relationships - to the world, across generations, to our minds, and to intelligence and meaning. I know we can't do that in any sort of “it’s all fixed now” kind of way. Being a psychologist has taught me that there are no pretty packages with pretty bows that don’t get reopened and reconfigured in life, neither on the level of the individual nor on the level of the collective. But still, each of us can start wherever we are, in our intrapersonal healing (healing between the parts of ourselves, for which I can recommend Internal Family Systems Therapy and Compassionate Inquiry), in healing within our families (intergenerational trauma) and within our communities (collective trauma), and in informing ourselves, our children and our society about how we can each understand our own unique intelligences as well as the panoply of intelligences around us (this is the main purpose of my work via InterGifted and Rediscovering Yourself).

If narcissistic rigidity is present in our own intra- or interpersonal relationships, in the way we lead others, in the way we parent, or in the way we relate to our inner worlds, including how we express, value and share our giftedness, we can explore healing the wounds that created this disorganization of our life’s energy. Of course, this leads us back to intergenerational, collective, educational and systemic healing. None of us are struggling with narcissism (generated within or received from without) on our own. We’re in a whole systemic web that predisposes us to and selects for toxic narcissism and other forms of personality disordering. So each of our healing, regardless of scale, contributes to the healing of the whole.

If one takes a transpersonal, contemplative and quantum-oriented view of these matters, which I’ve tended to do, where every one of our actions will take us and how they will influence the greater system to which we belong is yet open to discover. I find that exciting and hopeful.


Resources, inspirations and links for further exploration

I’ve been developing this work with the influence of a lot of inspiring and powerful minds, among them: Kael Cockcroft, Aurélien Sallin, Gabor Maté, Richard Schwartz, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Zak Stein, Sam Vaknin, Jason Hickel, Erin Remblance, Jan Provoost, Kelly Pryde, Terry Real, Paul Levy and Karen O’Brien. I feel I have just scratched the surface here, and plan to continue to write on these matters in the future.

Throughout this article, you’ll find hyperlinks to the various references and works of a number of the above-mentioned people. Here I want to make special mention of the following:


Title photo thanks to Inga Gazelian via unsplash.

 

 

 

 

About Jennifer Harvey Sallin

Jennifer is the founding director of InterGifted. She's a psychologist, coach and mentor who specializes in providing training for coaches, therapists and other helping professionals who support the gifted population. She also performs giftedness assessments and writes extensively on giftedness and self-development. You can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. Her climate psychology project is at I Heart Earth. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. You can learn more about her here.

 

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