Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guiding the gifted through difficult times: James Webb's, "Searching for Meaning"

We know that gifted, high ability individuals have intellectual skills well above the norm. We know that they often possess overexcitabilities and heightened sensitivities. But disillusionment and existential depression?

Clinical psychologist, professor, author, and founder of SENG, Dr. James Webb vividly captures the difficult journey many gifted individuals traverse in his most recent book, Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment and hope.”
"Existential depression arises from idealism, disillusionment, and feelings of alienation, emptiness, and aloneness, and it is more common among gifted individuals. The gifted become depressed particularly because their high intellect allows them to contemplate the cosmos and their very small place within it” (pp. 79-80).
Webb highlights common features of giftedness, such as heightened sensitivity, intensity, concern with fairness and justice, and curiosity about the meaning of life, often manifest at an early age. Gifted children frequently develop a sense of idealism and purpose, and a drive to solve and remedy the problems of the world. Unfortunately, this passion may lead to frustration:
“As bright, curious and observant children grow up, they become aware that so many of the things that parents, teachers, and community leaders claim about the world are false…” (p.12).

Even at a young age, gifted children may be passionately concerned about war, poverty and injustice, and also cognizant of the hypocrisy, insincerity and lack of compassion demonstrated by others. They quickly learn that they don’t quite fit in with mainstream thinking or with many of their peers, and adult authority figures and religious and cultural institutions may offer little guidance. As Webb states, "perhaps the most extensive problem for idealists is… recognizing, managing and living with the disillusionment and loneliness that often come with being an idealist” (p.28). 

According to Webb, existential depression occurs when an individual becomes aware of four fundamental issues: 1) the realities of existence – we are mortal and ultimately alone; 2) that meaning and value are what we assign them to be; 3) human connection - that attachment and social identity are issues we must resolve; and 4) freedom and free will involve choices that can be both enlivening and also terrifying. Gifted individuals' intellectual abilities and overexcitabilities make them more sensitive to existential issues and affect their response to them.

“Disillusionment is a necessary first step toward enlightenment and self-growth” (p.80).

Dr. Webb incorporates the wisdom of philosophers, researchers, psychologists, and a wealth of clinical experience into his writing. While he outlines the trajectory from youthful idealism to disillusionment and existential depression, he ends with a hopeful outlook and recommendations for arriving at self-acceptance. He provides examples of maladaptive coping, and then offers healthy strategies for managing disillusionment and depression that are both inspiring and motivational. It is well-written, easy to read, and as reassuring as it is thought-provoking. And while many will pick up this book to understand more about their child or student, most will also come away with greater clarity and awareness about themselves.  

Webb, J. (2013). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.

For other blog reviews of this book, see Wendy Skinner and Gifted Parenting Support. 

If you have read this book, please leave a comment about what you think.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?

Parents want the best for their children. They dream, worry and search for answers. Are google inquiries a reflection of parents’ greatest hopes and fears? Are these searches the repository of our culture’s collective views about what is most important for our children?

A recent New York Times op-ed article by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz highlighted a troubling finding: a higher proportion of google searches were directed toward finding out whether boys were gifted, and whether girls were pretty or overweight.

Is intelligence less important for families of girls?

At first glance, this finding stands in contrast to recent academic successes among women. More girls than boys graduate from high school, attend college, and graduate from college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by 2010, women received 58% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees and 52% of doctoral degrees in the U.S. And an international survey of 34 countries in 2009 by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (summarized in the Economist) reported that more girls (58%) than boys completed secondary education in 32 of these countries.

Girls are typically more verbally skilled at an early age and are less likely to exhibit learning disabilities. They are often more socially mature, and adapt more easily to typical classroom settings than boys. Gifted programs often contain a higher proportion of girls. Nevertheless, Stephens-Davidowitz’s study suggests that parents as a whole are more likely to invest energy into questions about their sons’ intellectual talents and potential.

Do these results also imply that as a culture, we are still more concerned with girls’ beauty and less with their abilities? Are we more worried about whether our boys will be smart than we are about our girls?

There is no question that many girls feel conflicted about their abilities. Many dumb themselves down to be popular, avoid traditionally male careers, such as the STEM fields, and conform to social pressure. Girls are frequently influenced by the media and society’s pressure to be thin, fit and tan. Airbrushed, photoshopped images of models and celebrities create unattainable expectations of perfection. Ninety-eight percent of American women are heavier than most models, yet they frequently aspire to these impossible standards. According to the Social Issues Research Centre, eighty percent of adult women are unhappy with their appearance. Many women internalize the media’s standards of an ideal body, and this can be a risk factor for poor body esteem, depressed mood, and eating disorders.

Given our society’s emphasis on weight and appearance in women, it is not surprising that parents worry about how their daughters measure up. However, as Stephens-Davidowitz aptly concludes: “How would American girls’ lives be different if parents were half as concerned with their bodies and twice as intrigued by their minds?”

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gifted and arrogant: What does "Sherlock" reveal about giftedness?

The BBC hit series, “Sherlock,” portrays a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (and his sidekick Watson, who, of course, blogs) in a witty, engaging portrayal of the master detective. What stands out, though, is a depiction of a highly gifted individual who behaves arrogantly, says whatever he thinks, and falls short in relationships. Highly gifted intellect and asynchronous development that entertains. But should we be laughing?

While engaging, and not as blatantly stereotypical, say, as Sheldon, the gifted, socially awkward scientist on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sherlock reinforces the assumption that highly gifted people are impossible to fathom, socially aberrant, and hold contempt toward those less brilliant, entertaining or talented. When Sherlock refuses to engage with people because they bore him, or chastises others for their stupidity, he conveys the arrogance often attributed to the gifted.

Yet, are highly gifted people really arrogant?

A study at the University of Nebraska conducted by Paul Silvia and colleagues identified a correlation between individuals self-identified as highly creative and a lower score representing honesty and humility on a measure of personality traits. However, the researchers noted limitations in the study, as subjects were young college students, and measures of creativity were only based on self-report. Also it is not known whether subjects in this study were actually gifted, or just inclined toward creative pursuits.

On the other hand, some famous gifted individuals have displayed signs of arrogance. Psychiatrist Neel Burton compiled a list of appalling, cringeworthy comments made by creative individuals throughout history. While a blatantly self-inflated sense of self is not common, when someone possesses extraordinary talents, whether intellectual, artistic, or athletic, the individual may lose perspective. 

And gifted individuals may have the same difficulty as anyone else with perspective-taking, or recognizing that others don’t see the world as they do. Their impatience and frustration can quickly progress to a lack of compassion for others who are less capable. While young children may vocalize their irritation without censor, adults may be more circumspect, yet still convey disapproval or boredom through nonverbal communication. Condescension and disdain typically arise from surprise or even disappointment when others can’t keep up with their thinking.  What do you mean you can’t figure that out? How can you not see the point of that book? You really didn’t get that joke?

So, what differentiates arrogance from honest self-reflection in the highly gifted?

Arrogance is the same for gifted individuals as it is for anyone else: it is evident when someone assumes he or she is intrinsically better than others. Arrogance is displayed through self-absorption, entitlement, an air of superiority, and a lack of empathy or caring for others’ opinions or feelings. Whether the result of excessive unwarranted praise, underlying insecurity, or lack of perspective, arrogance can reflect a distorted view of oneself, a level of detachment from others, and at times, more serious emotional disturbance. However, arrogance should not be assumed just because a careful and sober assessment of facts finds that intellect, skills or accomplishments are exceptional.

In fact, while some gifted children and adults may bask in the glow of their abilities, most are actually too self-aware to indulge in this for long. Once they develop the maturity and insight to appreciate the nature of their abilities, gifted individuals typically recognize that with these talents come the burden of expectations, the need for rigor and hard work, and the social and emotional components of giftedness that make life more complicated. Most gifted individuals expect a lot from themselves; they know when they are underperforming and can be highly critical of a finished product, scrutinizing every detail or flaw. Many hide their talents by downplaying their abilities, "dumbing themselves down" as teens, or becoming chronic underachievers.

Gifted children, teens and adults may be wrongly perceived as arrogant when they accurately and matter-of-factly state the obvious; they excel at certain things. They possess exceptional intellectual and/or artistic/musical abilities, and when they calmly mention their strengths, express competitive desires, or are pleased with their accomplishments, they may be accused of being arrogant. While humility and modesty are admirable traits, there also must be a time and place for simple acknowledgement of one's strengths. Gifted individuals may be under particular scrutiny when they communicate their abilities or frustrations. Others may become angry or intimidated when a gifted child questions her teacher's accuracy, when a gifted teen makes no attempt to hide his boredom in class, or when a gifted adult acknowledges success.

Gifted children benefit from the same parental and social support as other children with respect to perspective-taking, empathy, and values. They can learn how to express their initiative, passion, impatience, frustration, and excitement over achievements using kindness and tact. They can be reminded that their exceptional abilities are an accident of birth, and make them no more special than others. They can be guided to respect and appreciate another person's perspective, even if they do not agree.

What are your opinions about arrogance and giftedness?

Silvia, P, Kaufman, J., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Weigert, B. (2011). Cantakerous creativity: Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and the HEXACO structure of creative achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 687-689.