Many gifted people live out patterns of resistance and self-sabotage in their relationship with the others, themselves, and the world. Max Sawyers explores the "why" of gifted resistance and self-sabotage as well as a theory of how some of us are unwittingly living in a self-generated reality which keeps us looping around. He explores strategies for exiting that loop toward wholeness, connection and meaning.
By Max Sawyers
updated April 2021
THE WHY OF RESISTANCE & SELF-SABOTAGE
Gifted people seek coaching in order to walk the most constructive path towards their self-chosen goals. And while that may sound simple enough, the process can often be taxing for both the coach and the client, particularly when there is a misalignment between the clients’ goals and their willingness-readiness to work hard in order to achieve them; and between their need to receive external support and their openness-awareness to receiving guidance from their coach. Clients who have experienced significant wounding - both culturally and personally - often struggle with patterns of resistance, denial, and self-sabotage; this even though they are highly intelligent.
This is often because of wounds they have incurred growing up gifted. Culturally, gifted people are sometimes labelled or judged by others as "strange" or "out of place", and most have had to grow up with that social dissonance as part of everyday reality. Many have faced gifted-specific difficulties within family and social dynamics during the formative development years. Some of these wounds are detailed in Jennifer Harvey Sallin’s article on Gifted Adults & Second Childhoods: Revisiting Essential Stages of Development. These wounds can lead us as children to make decisions about "the way life is" and about how our brains "should be", which match what we were told or modeled by the world around us - or what we told ourselves in order to survive in our particular context (these decisions were usually linked to carried emotions).
The more dysfunctional the context, the more maladaptive our decisions tend to be about who we are and what we should be or do. For example, a gifted person may feel that they shouldn’t be sensitive, shouldn’t have their drive to evolve, learn and grow, and so on. And then as they grow into adulthood, they try to live by those decisions and reject anything that questions them - even when the counterfacts would actually work in favor of personal growth and thriving in life.
BEFORE I WAS "GIFTED"
As for my own gifted journey, I grew up in a very small country town, with no diversity to speak of. My family were not well educated people, and as an unrecognized gifted kid in their world, I received no healthy encouragement towards intellectual or educational goals. Moreover, arguments were considered “normal” in my family and all out fights occurred at least every few months. In, this formative environment, the development of my gifted mind was extremely stunted in terms of healthy development. But since my gifted mind by nature always wanted to expand and grow, I needed to engage in active resistance to my own mind’s evolution in my context. In order to do this, I became aggressively avoidant and resistant to anything that was new and good for me. Even the basic tasks of learning new skills or asking for help became “dangerous". By the time I entered adulthood, I felt I had completely lost my passion for creative exploration and learning.
I didn't know I was gifted back then. It wasn’t until I moved out of my family's home that I learned about it through my partner Silver Huang. It's fair to say she was the catalyst that brought me back to reality by recognizing my giftedness (and autism), and encouraging me to mindfully go through the giftedness self-discovery process. I was still avoidant/resistant to learning anything that felt new and potentially dangerous, but I slowly looked into the literature. Ironically, understanding and accepting my autism was much easier than considering the possibility that I was gifted. I was able to view my autism from the perspective of traits, behaviours and quirks that I learned to identify during social interactions. My giftedness, on the other hand, was still shrouded by my upbringing. Given that I had worked hard to shut down my gifted mind’s curiosity and openness to its own evolution, it appeared to me as though I had far more evidence that I was in no way someone with intellectual "gifts”.
My process to that point, however, had shown me my behavioral defense pattern clearly: to survive my childhood, I had lived in an endless loop of denial, resistance and self-sabotage toward my giftedness and toward the world. I knew I didn't want to stay in that destructive loop, so I pressed on learning as much as I could about giftedness. I explored the varying levels of giftedness and learned about gifted-specific psychology. It all made me acutely aware of the impact my upbringing had had on my gifted development and my self-perception. At some point along the way, the evidence became overwhelming and I could no longer deny I was gifted.
SELF-GENERATED REALITY (SGR)
Over the course of my self-discovery journey, I developed a theory on the gifted dynamics of resistance. I have named it the Self-Generated Reality (SGR) Theory, with the working definition of resistance as "the refusal to accept or comply with something". As in my case, many of us go through a stage of resistance when we first discover our giftedness. When we feel threatened by information, we try to push away that which is unfamiliar or potentially life shattering to our current existence. This can, of course, apply to anything, such as psychological insights, awareness of our uniqueness, feedback about the harmful effects of our behaviors, and - especially for us men in these last few years - the growing awareness about abusive behaviors many of us have unwittingly been recreating in our lives and relationships.
My definition of “self-generated reality” in the case of a gifted individual is: living or behaving in a manner consistent with personal or cultural experiences of self-limiting learned behaviour; this is in such a way that the individual's capacity for awareness, openness and self-reflection both to their gifted-specific and non gifted-specific capacities and qualities is limited or, at the extreme, completely shut down. The self-limiting behavior may have been learned via family dynamics, cultural influences, educational experiences and experiences with perhaps well-meaning but off-the-mark helping professionals. It forms a basic pattern of resisting self-awareness and self-growth in favor of maintaining the past cultural or personal limiting life-pattern. What I've noticed is that the SGR experience seems particularly strong in gifted men, and I suspect that this is due to the heavy cultural conditioning that many of us men received to always be strong, never question ourselves, and always protect our egos.
To better explain this model, I’ve broken it up into three categories; causes, effects and outcomes.
The causes of SGR I’ve (so far) identified are developmental trauma, abuse or neglect, stunted growth as a result of limited educational stimulation or cultural conditioning, and a lack of healthy encouragement or mirroring from family and peers.
The effects these causes have on an individual in later adolescence and adulthood are unchecked self-opinionated beliefs leading to unhealthy, non-constructive dynamics dominating a person's behaviour, and an element of egotism born from an individual's need to be right in everything they think, feel and behave, as a manner of self-protection.
The outcome of this process is that the individual encapsulates themselves in their self-generated reality, perceiving and behaving in a reality inconsistent with that of the outside world. They project a front of resistance to any notion or suggestion that they are living outside reality and as a consequence, bar themselves from possibilities of healthy constructive change.
In a nutshell, SGR is designed to keep you in your self-contained bubble. It protects you from experiencing anything uncomfortable or inconsistent with the reality in which you’ve (often unwittingly) chosen to reside, while at the same time preventing you from being able to grow healthily as a gifted person. It can be scary to realize that you may be wrong; that you may need to change; that in order grow, heal and create fulfilling relationships, more effort is required that you felt prepared to give. Your SGR reality pushes this possibility away, as anything representing “pain” or “danger” is met with a flight or fight response. In some ways, SGR acts as a deferral mechanism, always pushing the consequences of itself till tomorrow.
WHAT SGR LOOKS LIKE IN REAL LIFE
A concrete example of what SGR looks like in real life is this: a person carrying a conscious narrative or belief that "nothing's changing but I'm doing everything right", or that “I’m doing this the right way, and if life or others aren't responding well to my way, life and others are the ones who are wrong”. Of course, sometimes others are misinformed or misguided, and sometimes you're doing everything well and things are not (yet) progressing. However, SGR blocks one's ability to see and acknowledge the possibility that the issue preventing progress lies with the self, not with others or others’ processes (which is also sometimes - and rather often - the reality of the situation). It turns every effort of personal development to achieve a goal into a loop: at the beginning of a venture, some progress may be made, but eventually SGR catches up and you find yourself rejecting the growth process in spite of yourself. To get out of the loop, it's essential to identify one's areas and patterns of resistance, denial, self-sabotage and projection, and to, as Jennifer Harvey Sallin says, come to operate in a reality-based way, so that true progress - and importantly genuine and meaningful connection with others - can be made.
Meaningful connection with others is a key issue with SGR: SGR is problematic as it by nature requires that others confirm or validate one's SGR beliefs, otherwise there is necessarily relational conflict. This causes the SGR-afflicted person to have to act by force, coercion or other manipulative tactics to get others to validate their self-perceived need to continue to be resistant. This obviously puts others in their life in a double bind: if they validate the resistance, that means the SGR person will continue to stay stuck over the long term; if they don’t validate it, they may have to deal with backlash, conflict or coercive techniques in the short term. This is not a fair social exchange, and thus individuals stuck in an SGR relational loop often find that they are operating in non-consensual and, at the extreme, abusive, ways. From this relational position, intimacy is extremely hard to create, experience or enjoy.
Individuals who operate with an SGR show a consistent pattern of unhealthy expectations regarding others’ opinions and perceptions of their contributions to relationships and to their work content. Naturally, if an individual wants intimacy with friends, family and partners, or wants good working relationships with bosses, colleagues or helping professionals, they will need to be open to honest feedback and ready to co-weave the fabric of the relationships. However, SGR makes feedback, opinions, demands and even help and connection from others "dangerous" and thus the SGR-afflicted individual usually has preconceived expectations on what others' opinions should be and avoids any feedback, demands or offers that do not match their self-determined loop. If they feel the data coming their way doesn’t match with their reality, they will likely disregard it, or even attack it; consequently, people in their lives often feel manipulated, ignored, neglected, attacked or disregarded rather than welcomed, loved, seen and appreciated. This creates a dangerous cycle, as the individual will refuse or ignore healthy guidance and criticism regarding their efforts in relationships and at work, then wonder why they aren't making the progress they want to make or creating the intimacy they want to create.
OPENING TO AN INTERPERSONALLY-GENERATED REALITY
If you suspect that you may be exhibiting SGR behavior, or if you directly see yourself clearly as I’ve described SGR here, here are a few ways to start to tackle SGR dynamics, and some resources and support structures for you to explore:
Develop a Practice of Self-Reflection
One of the best ways to become more self-aware of your blocks is to engage in a regular practice of self-reflection - specifically reflecting on how your thoughts, actions, feelings and attitudes are helping or not helping any given situation. When we reflect on our actions, thoughts and feelings over time in response to any given situation or problem, we gain experience in our own awareness. Often, it is the simple questions that lead us to the biggest revelations that help us move forward. For example, if you are frustrated with a process or relationship not working in your life, rather than asking yourself, “why isn’t this process/relationship working?” - which can be too vague a question in this context and can take attention away from the self -, try asking “is there something I’m doing that’s hindering this process?”. This is in no way to encourage self-blame or self-pity, but rather to encourage self-honesty and self-responsibility.
One way to develop an honest and empowered practice of self-reflection is through mindfulness. Our InterGifted coach Kelly Pryde is doing important, ground-breaking work toward uniting mindfulness with gifted-specific psychology via InterGifted's partner project The Gifted Mindfulness Collective. There you can learn more about mindfulness, take a course, join the community & events, or have mindfulness coaching with Kelly.
Build a Diverse and Gifted-Specific Social Structure
One of the best ways to tackle SGR is to build a diverse social structure where you engage with many different people, including and especially fellow gifted people (especially those whose giftedness level matches, or comes close to matching, yours). Everyone has an experience, perception or piece of data to offer others, and it is in social situations that we learn and grow as individuals. It is in gifted-matching social situations that we find others who can spot inconsistencies in our logic and challenge our SGR at an intellectual level that gets through our resistance. Sometimes, as gifted people, we can trick (manipulate) less intellectually-agile people into taking our word for it, and thus continue to “fool” ourselves. The more accurate and intellectually-matched data coming your way, the more chances you have to build a mountain of accurate self-knowledge to better yourself in every aspect. If you are constantly on your own, or only on your own among non-gifted or less-gifted peers, then no one will challenge you at your level, and seldom do we challenge ourselves when we are “safe” and “comfortable” in our own realities. You can learn more about the value of interacting with same-level intellectual peers here and more about giftedness levels here.
Understand Your Giftedness
If your struggles with resistance or self-sabotage come from your rejection or denial of being gifted or twice-/multi-exceptional, it is worth taking the time to open yourself up to learning about and being honest with yourself about your unique brain and what it needs. Continuing to reject your giftedness and/or other exceptionalities can harm you, your relationships and your self-expression in ways that only ingrain your resistance and self-sabotage patterns more. You may want to explore having a qualitative giftedness assessment and exploring our blog & community ebooks, which detail what giftedness is and what it looks and feels like to live with a gifted brain.
Embrace Professional Support
Don’t pressure yourself to figure it all out on your own. After all, SGR is a problem of aloneness to begin with, and since it is based on patterns of resistance and denial, it is likely that you won't be able to identify all the patterns and ways out of it on your own. Gifted therapy helps you to "get out of your own way", so to speak, to change your patterns and to find ways toward wholeness and healing.