Today we talk to a real expert on the subject of giftedness, Lisa Van Gamert
In this conversation we talked about:
Lisa’s definition of giftedness.
What existential depression actually is.
Lisa’s nuanced definition of perfectionism and why there can be a healthy, functioning form of perfectionism.
The existential problem of loneliness when you can not find your people and do not feel like you have anyone to lean on.
Career advice for the gifted and why autonomy is key.
In the last part of the conversation, Lisa gave us some really good, concrete advice that you can work on if you are struggling with the label, your identity, or your self-esteem.
I really appreciate Lisa sharing her expertise with us. She is a true expert in this field and it shows! This conversation helped me refine my thinking and learn.
Whether you identify with the label “gifted” or not, I think you could learn something from this.
About Lisa: Lisa grew up in California where she was a real, live gifted student. She’s been a teacher, a school administrator, a homeschooling mom, a paralegal, an Army Intelligence Analyst, and a cheerleader. Not in that order. She’s married to a software developer and has become very used to having her own IT department on call at all times. She lives in Texas, where she plays with Brody, her golden retriever, when she’s not writing about gifted ed at giftedguru.com or creating online courses for teachers at giftedguild.com. Even though she literally wrote the book on perfectionism, she loves the flawed beauty of education and is excited to share with us today.
Imi: Hi, Lisa. Thank you for coming on.
Lisa: Thank you for having me. It’s a true pleasure.
Imi: Yes. When I saw your bio, I just thought, “I have to interview her.” I probably should leave it to you to talk a bit more about your career and how you have come to this point. You work a lot with giftedness and you’ve written a book about perfectionism, which I think it’s so relevant to people I work with. So you might have seen that I work with intense and sensitive people. I think a lot of people are still dancing around the word gifted. A lot of people don’t want to identify it as such. So maybe we can also talk about why that is. But before we start, maybe you can tell us a bit more about yourself and what brought you here.
Lisa: So I would call myself technically an educational consultant because the IRS, which is the US tax authority [inaudible 00:01:03] name of my [crosstalk 00:01:04]-
Imi: That’s the [crosstalk 00:01:05] definition. Yes.
Lisa: Yeah. I have to call myself something. What I say that I’m trying to do is make the world safe for gifted kids and I do that by speaking and writing. My educational background and most of my career background is centered in this by being an educator and I was the youth and education ambassador for Mensa for six years.
Lisa: And so I have come to this profession from my own personal experiences as being a gifted kid in school, and then raising gifted children, and then being an educator as well. And you’ve already alluded to it, that there’s a problem with recognizing one’s inherent giftedness because there’s a bias against it. And this bias is different in different cultures. To some extent it’s cultural. It depends on whether the culture is one that knocks tall poppies, or whether it’s one that is more individualistic.
Lisa: So collective cultures struggle with giftedness more than cultures that are individualistic, but even in individualistic culture, you still get that idea of like, “How dare you? It sounds so arrogant.” And I think that’s so weird because giftedness, I feel like the reason we call it gifted is because it’s a gift. You didn’t do anything. You didn’t ask for it. And, like any human trait, intelligence is going to be on a bell curve, right? Some people are going to be taller. Some people are going to be shorter. Some people are going to be smarter and some people are going to struggle to learn. And that’s not good or bad. Giftedness has no moral value. Giftedness doesn’t make someone a good person or a bad person. It doesn’t make them effective. It doesn’t make them successful. It’s just another human trait.
Imi: Yes, and it being a neuro atypical trait, actually like many other atypical traits, it comes with quite a lot of suffering because you don’t know how to fit in. People don’t really understand it.
Lisa: Yeah. I have a series on my website called Interview with a Gifted Kid and normally I conduct these interviews by phone, but yesterday I was interviewing two sisters, nine years old and one about to turn 11, and so we did it through Zoom so that I could do both of them at the same time and know who was talking.
Lisa: At one point, when I was asking, “How has giftedness impacted making friends?” And at first, both of them said, “Oh, it hasn’t. It’s fine.” And then the mother reminded them, because now they attend a school that’s just for gifted kids.
Imi: Well, good for them.
Lisa: And the mother reminded them, “What was it like making friends in your old school?” And one of them started crying. It is painful. It isn’t a bed of roses and it isn’t something that people should envy. And because of that it makes it even more difficult because it’s very isolating. Nobody wants to hear a parent lament the struggles that their gifted kid is having. It feels like bragging.
Imi: Exactly. Exactly. I think most people still associate it almost purely with IQ, but that’s really just one dimension and sometimes not even relevant. To my mind, it comes with many other things like excitability, intensity, deep empathy. Is that what you see as well? What are some of the traits, like complexity, that…
Lisa: So I would actually not agree that… We would have a difference of opinion in that I don’t necessarily see intensities or overexcitabilities, especially we’re talking about the work of Dąbrowski. The work of the Poles. The two Polish psychologists who did intensities and overexcitabilities. And I think that’s problematic actually connecting that to giftedness, because it is used sometimes as a diagnostic tool.
Lisa: If you see this… Now do a lot of gifted kids show these traits? Yes. Because, like any other trait, when you’re dealing with a gifted kid, you’re going to have it at a more intense level, right? You’re going to have intelligence more intense. You’re going to have emotions more intense, but that alone doesn’t help you identify. So the definition I personally would use for giftedness. And boy, if you want to cause a storm of argument, go to a conference of psychologists and ask them [crosstalk 00:06:13] right? Like nobody can [crosstalk 00:06:15] consensus, even the people who are developing the tests, right? But if you were going to ask me, what I would say is that giftedness would be someone who has a low threshold of learning, and rapid and effective creation of neural pathways. So they would learn-
Imi: Oh. Can you repeat that?
Lisa: Yeah, sure. Sure.
Imi: Thank you.
WHAT IS GIFTEDNESS?
Lisa: First trait, first thing, first definition of giftedness is a low threshold of learning. That it doesn’t take… And so I want to stay here for just one second. What that means is they learn quickly. So they don’t need as much repetition. That looks like an intensity or overexcitability because when they’re in a space where they are learning and they’re surrounded by other people and the teacher is needing everybody to learn, then that gifted kid or adult, because when you graduate from high school, you don’t get a get out of gifted free card. It’s not like it’s over. They’re going to struggle with these things the rest of their life.
Lisa: But they’re sitting in a meeting at work and the boss is going on and on and on. And some people are still not understanding. And the gifted individual is like, “I’m done. I’m out. I got it the first time you’ve said it and now I just want to stick a hot poker in my eye,” right? And so that displays as those intensities and overexcitabilities. It displays as hypersensitivity. It displays as arrogance. It displays as all these things. But the root of it, the root of it is the intelligence, the-
Imi: They learn very quickly.
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. And then the second part of that definition I said is that they are effective at creating neural pathways, and the reason that’s important is that whenever we learn something, we’re building neural pathways. If you have the ability, and it’s not even really an ability in a sense, that’s not really quite… We need a word that me means you just were born with this thing and so you have it, but it’s not anything to brag about. It just is what it is. Nobody asks me to justify why I have brown hair. It’s genetic. So when you [crosstalk 00:08:39]- Yeah.
Imi: I think what gets a lot of people confused is sometimes these intelligence are not global, meaning people can be very intelligent in one aspect, but really not okay in another aspect. And I think they have to work for it as twice exceptional or something like that, but it’s all jargons. But I do want to hear your thoughts on it. Can a gifted person be highly intelligent in some or even most subjects or domains, but really not in others?
Lisa: Well, absolutely. And especially if you start bringing in emotional intelligence, right?
Imi: I wouldn’t even stretch that far yet. I was just thinking about being really good at literature and really bad at math.
Lisa: Well, I think that what you do look at is that, in general, intelligence would have some base fundamental ability to learn. Now you’re going to definitely have people who have preferences and through those preferences… So people listening may have read books like The Talent Code or even Outliers or things like that. And we realize that the idea of prodigy is fake. And so it’s very difficult to tease out. It’s very difficult to tease out how did this person become more a math person, or more a science person, or more a literature person? Because what we don’t know is do they really naturally have ability in that area or was that ability, did someone notice something, start nurturing it and send the child the message, “You have this ability,” and then combine those messages with fundamental baseline ability, and then you get the [inaudible 00:10:32].
Lisa: So the idea of Mozart, just this piano prodigy who just sprang out of nowhere is false. The idea of those sisters who played chess is they just were born with this amazing chess ability. False. It was very much environmental. So when we’re looking at giftedness, we’re looking at this very complex interdependence of nature and nurture and all through the exploration of the psychological impact of giftedness and looking at the changing view of psychologists toward giftedness over time. And we’ve gone back, the tabula rasa, that children are blank slate, but then switching from that to it’s completely genetic, right?
Lisa: And now we’re more and more realizing it’s almost impossible to tease out nature from nurture. Although identical twin studies are very helpful with this and identical twins who have been separated at birth and yet have astonishingly similar lives and career paths and things like that. So we do know that genetics is stronger than we would like it to be, right? Because we like to believe that if we just put enough, if we could just make every home that a child grew up in equal, then everybody would be equal. But that’s just simply not the case. Humans are much less egalitarian than we wish we could be.
Imi: Yeah. What did the identical twin study find?
Lisa: So identical twin studies find that even when you separate children, separate identical twins at birth, or soon after, and they’re raised completely separately often with no knowledge of the other person, when you meet them as adults, you will find shocking similarities down to they frequently have the same career. In one of the famous studies, they ended up marrying women with same name, and they drove the same car and they had like weird things that you wouldn’t think of. There is one identical twin study that was done in Canada that was quite interesting. Identical twin studies focus on case studies, right? Because you’re not going to have some group of separated, identical twins in a town near a university where a researcher could research like 4,000 separated identical twins. But one of the studies that was done in Canada was done on two girls who were adopted from China by Canadian couples.
Lisa: And there was this kind of King Solomon moment where one of the families said, “We’ll give our daughter up so that she could be raised with her sister,” but the government would not allow it. And so they each took the daughters home and they lived apart. They didn’t live near each other, but they intentionally had the girls get together, they raised them knowing they were sisters. The girls knew.
Lisa: But what was astonishing is just even miles and miles apart. How very, very similar, I’m not going to say identical, but shockingly similar their development was. The words that they first said, the developmental milestones that they hit, even though they were being raised in different homes. And so we find that genetics is not insurmountable.
Lisa: It isn’t not malleable. Intelligence is absolutely malleable. And I don’t think you can really separate, completely, emotional intelligence from cognitive intelligence because people with more emotional intelligence will learn more. And there are other aspects to it too. If you look at the studies that have been done at the University of Toronto and also at Harvard on latent inhibition, like does your reticular activating system tune a lot of stuff out? What they find is that creative individuals with high IQ, creative individuals tend to be people with a high IQ who don’t tune as much stuff out as other people do. But if you don’t have a high IQ and you do tune stuff out, if you don’t have a high IQ and you don’t tune stuff out, it’s associated with psychosis. And so it becomes very, very complicated.
Imi: It’s really interesting. So on a spectrum, it depends on how you fell of the other spectrum. It’s like cooking. Depends what ingredients. Oh wow. Interesting. Mm.
Lisa: And it’s very difficult to say, “This is what human intelligence is,” because we can’t look at the brain in the way that we look at other structures. And we can test eyesight, and we can test other ability, we could test hearing acuity. We could test all of these things, but testing intelligence cannot be done without subjectivity.
Imi: Yeah. Yeah. And cultural influences and all that. Context. Yeah.
Lisa: Absolutely. Yeah, exactly. If you look at any score, even a very good test, it is still… And there are very good tests that do give you a nice picture of how this person is thinking and how effective they are in their thinking. But in the end, it’s still how that person looked on that day with that particular test giver and that particular instrument. And kids will do much better on certain instruments than others. One of my favorite, probably my favorite instrument really, is not very popularly used anymore. And that’s the Stanford-Binet. And the reason I like it with gifted kids to evaluate them is because it switches around.
GIFTED GROWN-UPS AND TRAUMA WITH A SMALL T
Imi: I know you mostly work as an education consultant, but I mostly work with people who are gifted grownups and many of them don’t realize that until they are grown up and they look back and go, “And look at all those things. Oh.” And then they go through this process of grief. And well, first of all, a lot of them struggle with the label. And then they may go and do a test or they may not. But then they look at all the description and everything suddenly makes sense.
Lisa: Yes. Whenever I’m training teachers, almost always, I haven’t never had this experience when I talk about identification and assessment of gifted children, then I will always have someone come up and say, “I finally understand my husband,” or, “I realize…” And I tell people [crosstalk 00:17:19]-
Imi: Because gifted parents have gifted kids, don’t they?
Lisa: Oh yeah. I tell people, “When you are working,” I tell teachers, “When you’re working with a gifted child, you’re working with a gifted parent, and that gifted parent has had trauma.”
Imi: The family. Yeah. Yes.
Lisa: Because I don’t know any, I mean, some times it’s lower case T trauma, right?
Imi: I understand, yeah. Yeah.
Lisa: Sometimes it’s not capital T trauma. But a educational system not designed for you, but where you had to spend all of your formative years, even if you were identified as gifted. And even if you got good services, I don’t know a single gifted individual who came out of their education unscathed. And those are people who were identified. If you realize as an adult, “I wasn’t identified,” whether because there was something working against you or whether you came from a rural school district that didn’t actually have a gifted program. Or people my age, I’m 55, people my age, gifted programming was very, very spotty. Gifted services didn’t really become a thing until after 1957. In 1957, when the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik, that was when everybody went, “Wait a minute, they’re getting ahead of us. Maybe we better find out who our smart people are and teach them stuff.”
Lisa: Nobody cares about gifted kids. They only have gifted services so that they can eke out something that benefits society from them, right? It’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. And so gifted kids, even the ones who’ve had a good education, realize, “Oh, they were really just trying to train me as essentially like a work robot, so that I could go to the jet propulsion laboratory and send rockets into space for them,” right? This is all conspiracy. And gifted kids and adults are more prone, and this is primarily the work of Dr. James Webb, are prone to existential depression. So a form of-
Imi: Can we talk about what that means and what that looks like?
Lisa: Yeah. So existential depression would on the surface look very much like MDD, would look very much like major depressive disorder, in the sense that it would check all the diagnostic criteria in the DSM the same. However, the difference would be that in existential depression, it’s where you have a deep and accurate understanding of the world around you and you find the very existence depressing. Existential depression, a person is unable to be comforted by things that might comfort someone else, right? Like, “Oh, in the end it’ll all be okay,” no, like, “No. I’m on a planet that’s hurtling through space in an ever expanding universe and the only way off of it is to die. And everyone surrounding me is in varying processes of dying. And what is the point of this?” And this feeling can come with children like three years old, who their intelligence is enabling them to think thoughts, this is kind of like Wizard of Oz, “With the thoughts that I’ll be thinking,” right?
Lisa: They think these thoughts that are too deep for them because they can’t see what the other aspects of it are. And if that doesn’t get addressed… And of course you know, that it hasn’t been that long that we even admitted that children could have depression. And so if we have this and it goes unrecognized, and we just have adults around them giving platitudes, then they can just have this low level sense of otherness that, “I don’t really fit in here, I don’t really belong here.”
Lisa: One time I was working with a group of children in Mensa and this little boy tugged on my side, I will never forget this moment, he tugged on my side and I looked down and I said, “Hey, what’s going on?” And he said, “Mensa is my species.” Four years old. Four years old. And it sounds cute. Like, “Oh, Mensa is my species.” And for people unfamiliar, Mensa is a high IQ society for people who are in the top 2%, right? But I thought it was tragic because he already, at the age of four, felt so different from other people that he didn’t even feel like he was the same species. And that feeling leads to this existential depression of, “Even if I like my job, and even if I love my family, it’s all still a hot mess,” right? And they get very overwhelmed by circumstances in the world. Very overwhelmed.
Lisa: I mean, I think we’ve focused on COVID primarily as a physical health pandemic, but the result of how we’ve dealt with it has created a mental health crisis. And it’s very similar to the mental health crisis that a lot of gifted individuals have done. One of the things I recently was asked, a couple years ago I was asked, “What is your number one piece of advice for parents of gifted children?” And I said, “Get counseling.” because you’ve got to-
Imi: Yes. Specialized ones as well.
Lisa: Yeah. You’ve got to heal yourself before you can help your child. It’s just like on an airplane where you got to put your mask on first, right? You’ve got to be healed. And giftedness comes from somewhere and whether it’s nature or nurture, it’s you. And you’ve got to make sure that you have addressed the pain of otherness. Whether you were identified as gifted or not, the pain exists. I tell people you want a really inexpensive way to identify gifted kids, walk into a kindergarten and ask the class. Who’s the smartest kid in the class. They’ll all point at one kid they’ll point at the same kid. They know.
Imi: Let’s talk about perfectionism. What does perfectionism look like in people you work with?
Lisa: So how I define perfectionism is an unreasonably high expectation combined with a lack of self love. So if you have very high expectations of yourself, but those expectations are reasonable, that is fine, right? As long as that’s combined with mercy. So where it becomes problematic is when you have an expectation that’s higher than what you’re really capable of, or you expect that you’ll be able to work at that level of capacity all the time. Without recognizing that we all go through peaks and valleys of levels of energy, mental, and physical. So having a high expectation is okay, but if your expectation is too high or unreasonable, that’s a problem, especially if you combine it with an unwillingness to show love for yourself, patience with yourself, mercy for yourself, a lack of self love. So if you feel like your whole self worth is tied up in performance.
Lisa: So we see this manifest itself in individuals through risk avoidance, right? Where like, “If I can’t do it perfectly the first time, I don’t want to even try.” So they tend to kind of undermine themselves by embracing professions where they don’t feel like they’ll really have to take a risk because they might not do well, but then they’re bored. And then they create problems. And then they’re constantly changing jobs. And that makes them feel even more like a failure and they go into this death spiral. In the book I talk about how one time my husband and I were watching a show called Hoarders. I don’t know if any of the listeners have seen this, but it’s about people with a particular form of an anxiety disorder and they surround themselves with things, and what’s interesting is that you see these people in their everyday life, like if you saw them in the grocery store, you would never know, right?
Lisa: But they were interviewing in this episode this one woman and they asked her like, “Where do you think this started?” And she said, “Well, I was a perfectionist,” and my husband is laughing like, “She is absolutely not a perfectionist,” but it made total sense to me because a lot of times perfectionists will come to this realization where, “I know I can’t be perfect. And so I’m just going to give up,” right? It’s all or nothing. This mentality of, “I can either do it perfectly or I’m not going it at all.” And that is a very unhealthy place to be.
Lisa: So perfectionism, technically, if we want to look at it technically, it does show up as diagnostic criteria for a couple of mental health disorders, including obsessive compulsive personality disorder, but lower case P perfectionism, I think is like any other human trait where it’s on a bell curve, right? So we can be more or less perfectionistic. And it doesn’t mean… I actually try to resist calling people perfectionists because hardly anybody is perfectionistic in all areas of their life. So they may be perfectionistic about their appearance or they may be perfectionistic about their house or they may be perfectionistic about a certain aspect of their work or the way they want their coffee made, but not necessarily perfectionistic about all of these things simultaneously that would lead to neurosis.
Imi: Yeah. So is there a healthy, functioning way of perfectionism are you saying?
Lisa: So that’s is a big argument in the field. So some psychologists believe, and the term they would use is adaptive perfectionism, and other psychologists believe that all perfectionism is maladaptive. So I am a believer in the idea of adaptive perfectionism. So for instance if you have-
Imi: Me too.
Lisa: Yeah. I think if it works for you, right? Anything else. Are you just really, really organized or is it obsessive compulsive? Well, does it work for you? Does it cause you pain? Is it interfering with your ability to live your life? Do other people avoid you because of it? Do you avoid situations you would otherwise engage in because of it? If the answer to all those things is no, it’s not a disorder for you, right? It’s just your way.
Lisa: And so one time my husband and I were watching a video of, we don’t watch that much TV, it sounds like we watch TV all the time but we don’t watch that much TV, but we were watching an episode of some like CSI show. They went into a victim’s home and opened up a drawer and all the pencils were lined up and they were super sharp, and my husband was like, “Wow, that person is sick.” And I was like, “That’s gorgeous,” right? We just had very different views of it. And I absolutely do not have a disorder. But I like things neat. I like my pencils sharp. It’s just how I am, right? So with perfectionism, you can have adaptive perfectionism where you like to do things well. You take pride in your work. You enjoy the process of the work. You like the result of the work. You clean your kitchen. You clean it really well. Other people think you’re obsessive about how clean your kitchen is, but it’s a daily joy to you.
Lisa: And I think to some extent, Marie Kondo has normalized that, that it’s okay to find joy in the everyday. But there are some areas of life where it’s actually important to be perfectionistic. So for example, if you have type 1 diabetes, we want you to be perfectionistic about testing your blood sugar and eating correctly and having your insulin levels be correct, right? If you’re prescribed an antibiotic, we want you to be perfectionistic about taking the full course of the antibiotics. Because if you don’t, you’ll develop antibiotic resistance. If you’re a parent, we want you to be perfectionistic about making sure that you take your child out of a car when you get out, right? You can’t leave your child in a hot car. We want you to get that right 100% of the time. So there are lots of areas of human life where perfectionism is not perfectionism in the sense of, “We want you to do this exactly right every time,” where it’s an expectation.
Lisa: If we’re having brain surgery or someone we love is having brain surgery, we definitely do not want a neurosurgeon to say to us in their office, “I do my best, but sometimes I mess up and I could mess up on you. It happens. I try to be patient with myself.” Where, like, no, every time you’re operating on someone’s brain, I want you to be doing your very, very best and see a mistake as a real problem. And so a lot of this has to do with the environment and the situation, and so that’s why I believe that perfectionism is appropriate in some areas of our lives and that the difficulty comes when we’re trying to be perfectionistic in areas where it’s not appropriate or where our view of what looks like perfectionism is wrong. So the-
Imi: Why do gifted people have a hard time accepting failure?
Lisa: I think because of other people’s expectations of them from a very early age that they may not have even noticed. You’ll see it happen with little children where they’ll do something one time and then the parent wants them to perform it. And so then we get these gifted cocktail party tricks. And so then it’s like if you can’t do it, you’ve somehow failed. And over time and over repetition, it leads to a deep seated fear of failure.
Lisa: It also comes from a belief that if you’re gifted, everything should come easy to you. And so for those people, I would say, read Anders Ericsson’s work. He published a book called Peak on the science of expert performance, and you will learn better about what this looks like and that we have unreasonable expectations that because we have high ability, everything should come easily. And other people have that expectation of us as well. I’ve had to write articles on my website about how gifted kids still do need teachers, right? So…
THE LONELINESS OF BEING ALONE
Imi: Yes of course. I think one of the biggest pain is the disappointment in grownups from a young age and not feeling like they can really lean on anyone.
Lisa: Well, that’s that existential issue, right? Am I really alone here? I’m really alone here. And I don’t really have anyone to lean on. I’m too afraid to lean on people because they might let me down and I’d rather do it all myself than be let down because I have very high expectations of myself and others and that causes problems. It causes problems in interpersonal relationships. So I think back to your question about what should someone do who wasn’t identified as gifted when they were in school, but now as an adult would find value in that, I think that looking at it trait by trait and seeing, “Is this causing you pain? Is this causing you pain?” Is where the real help lies rather than a number. Because giftedness is not… Not all gifted individuals, even those who are identified as gifted, they don’t all look alike. They don’t all behave the same. It doesn’t manifest itself the same. I have three gifted kids and they all function very differently socially and intellectually.
Imi: From your observation do they struggle with relationships or finding, I didn’t just mean friendship. I mean intimate relationship. Is the intensity or intelligence or the complexity creates a problem?
Lisa: Yes, it does create a problem. And one of the ways it creates a problem is that gifted individuals from a very young age are ready for a level of intimacy and intensity in relationships earlier than usually the other person in the relationship. And that causes a lot of problems-
Imi: Yes. Yes. That really resonates.
Lisa: Yeah. It causes a lot of problems. They’re ready to… There’s no such thing as a relationship that’s moving too fast. They’ll meet someone and feel like, within moments, “Oh, this is my best friend,” right? And in children this is really damaging because the other children aren’t ready for that and then distance themselves, like they’re put off by it, right?
Imi: Yes. Yes. Repeatedly as well. Absolutely.
Lisa: Yeah. Yes. And so I find that most gifted individuals seek someone in their best friend relationship and in their spouse who is within maybe 10 or 12 IQ points of them. Even if they haven’t been tested, if you went and tested them, you would find that. We just think differently. So my best friend and I are within… We both were tested. We’re the same age. We’re six weeks apart. We were tested the same time with the same instrument. We were in different schools, we didn’t know each other then, but we tested within three IQ points of each other. And we didn’t know it. My husband is, I would say smarter than I am. He has a higher IQ than I do. But we’re within 10 points of each other. My children are choosing spouses that way too.
Lisa: And so I think it does impact relationships because it isn’t Darwin. It isn’t like you’re trying to deepen… It’s that you want to be with someone who understands you. You want to be with someone, to put it at its most [inaudible 00:35:30] level. Yeah, you don’t want to have to alter your language and you don’t want to have to explain your jokes. Gifted individuals tend to have very strong verbal skills and they tend to like word play, so they want somebody who gets the puns and they want somebody who understands that. And they don’t want to constantly have to be dumbing themselves down because they have to do that all day. They have to do that in their everyday, all day life. And they want to not have to do that at home.
CAREER ADVICE FOR GIFTED PEOPLE
Imi: Do you have any generic career advice for gifted people? This is a very hard question because I talk as though they’re all the same, but…
Lisa: So I don’t think they need to have… I don’t think they need to work for themselves. But I do think they’ll be happier if they have a job where they have a lot of autonomy.
Imi: Autonomy. Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa: So teaching. So I was a teacher. Teaching is a great profession for gifted individuals because you [inaudible 00:36:22] so much freedom in your classroom. You’re in your classroom and you can be [crosstalk 00:36:27]-
Imi: And you can be really creative too. Absolutely.
Lisa: Yeah. And the better you are at it-
Imi: And the reward is immediate and you [crosstalk 00:36:36]-
Lisa: Yeah. And you get rewarded for it. They want you to be good at it. I would say that for professions, anything with autonomy. So obviously working for yourself is great, but it doesn’t need to be that way because a lot of gifted individuals are still very social.
Imi: Yeah. I was going to say they get energy from people as well. A lot of them.
Lisa: Yeah. But pick a profession that attracts other gifted individuals. Don’t put yourself where you’re the only gifted individual in a group that is in a profession that doesn’t necessarily attract other gifted individuals. This is why Silicon valley looks really [inaudible 00:37:17]. And because you go to Silicon valley and it looks like a convention of people with what would’ve previously been diagnosed as Asperger’s, right? But it’s not, it’s just gifted, and high giftedness looks Aspie. But you get all these people together and they’re functioning fine because they’re with everybody else who thinks that same way too. They work at the jet propulsion laboratories. They’re professors. Where it’s okay to be that. So I would say it’s very important to pick a profession where it’s okay.
Lisa: So therapists actually, I would encourage gifted individuals to consider becoming therapists and counselors because we need so many more who are the familiar with it. And we need people who are really smart and quick because differential diagnosis of mental health is much more difficult, I think, than diagnosis of physical health, because it doesn’t have the blood test. With very rare exceptions, it’s very difficult to test. So I would encourage it. And also therapists essentially work in that same way, right? Alone, but maybe you’re in a group, but it’s… Because you need an advanced degree. It’s already self-selecting. But my piano tuner is in Mensa. Autonomy.
SPECIFIC ADVICE FROM LISA
Imi: Yeah. Thank you. Gosh, I love our discussion. These are things that you can’t actually just pick anyone on the street to talk about and your experience and your wealth of knowledge, and your honesty really contributed to how rich this conversation has been.
Imi: What are some of the coping strategies or advice you can give people who are struggling? They feel like they might be, but they don’t really know what to do and not sure if they should go and take a test. Don’t really want the label. I mean anything actually really from career advice to relationship, I know it’s hard when you don’t have a specific person, but you’ve written books. So yeah.
Lisa: No I’ve got some ideas. So the one thing I would say is the label, let me address that label issue because it really wouldn’t matter what we called it, right? We call it gifted and people have tried to change it. They’ll call it high ability, high capability, in the State of Washington, they, like, HiCap kids. They don’t say gifted. But everybody knows very quickly what it is. You could call it purple and everybody would know what it is, right?
Lisa: So the label problem is just a symptom of a broader social issue that we don’t like to accept that some people just are smarter than other people and that bothers us. And so whatever we called that would be problematic. So label aside, my advice. I’m going to give a couple practical tips. The first thing I would do is that I would suggest that the person make a list of what they consider to be the five character traits they have that cause them the most problem with either their intra or interpersonal relationships.
Lisa: So what are the five traits you have that cause you the most problem? For me, I could tell you off the bat, first one, impatience. Impatience. Number one. Right? Okay. So then after you’ve listed those five… These are the ones that, not the things that bother you the most, but the things that get in your way in your relationship with other people or in your relationship with yourself. Meaning they lead to you being unreasonable with yourself or down on yourself. So list those five things. Then think about what is the other side of that coin? So for instance, if you are impatient, usually it’s because you quickly see a better way to do something. You have an ease of abstraction. You see something that’s abstract and you’re easily able to see, “Oh, I know how this could be better.” And you do that more quickly.
Lisa: So you do that with all of those traits. So maybe one of the traits is that you… One of the things that you do or a trait that you have that causes you problems interpersonally is that intensity, that you want this super intense relationship. But usually what goes along with that is an extreme loyalty. Gifted individuals can make the most loyal of friends because they’re used to standing alone. So they’ll stand with you in the worst of times. So when you do that and you take these five traits and we look at them always from this negative perspective. Like, “I’m impatient and I’m overly intense and it’s hard on people,” and then you associate all of those with what the corresponding strength is.
Imi: Ah, that’s so good.
Lisa: And then you recognize that if you dialed back the trait you’re seeing as negative, you can’t pick up one end of that stick without picking up the other. That your strengths and your weaknesses are just two sides of the exact same coin. And that what you need to do is if you’re in a moment where that trait that is perceived as negative is causing a problem for you. Like, “I’m really impatient right now and I said something I shouldn’t have said,” then you think to yourself, “Okay. Is it still working for me, right? Can I dial back my level of impatience whilst still keeping the good trait?” And if the answer is yes, then get help on that specific trait, right? Talk to your counselor about it, read some books, work on it. But if not, if, “No, I need this at this level in order to perform the good side at this level,” then just accept that humans aren’t perfect and sometimes you’re going to irritate people. And learn to be really good at apologies. But that’s what I said, good piece of advice. [crosstalk 00:44:14]-
Imi: It think it’s wonderful. I think it’s a wonderful piece of advice. Basically. Be honest with yourself, look at the positive side of it. Try and alchemize it if you can. And if you’ve done as much as you can and it’s still a pain in the eyes of other people then accept it.
Lisa: Yeah. Well, because I think the tendency is to catastrophize it. The tendency is to say, “I’m so impatient. I hate myself,” right? I’ll share one trait that’s very, very common in gifted individuals, which is hypercriticism. Hypercriticism is a very common trait because they easily see how things could be done better. They go into every situation, restaurants, in-laws’ houses, everything, right? And they see how it can be done better. And they look like they’re jerks, right? So then what you have to do is say, “Okay, I’m feeling this. I need an outlet for it that’s socially acceptable.” And finding that, right? These are all tools. And so it isn’t necessarily, I loved your phrase that to alchemize it, you’re not necessarily going to do that in this situation, with this strategy. What you’re going to do with this strategy is figure out, like water takes the path of least resistance. Think of how you’re or trait can take the path of least resistance. If you exhibit that trait to other people, that’s a lot of resistance. You’re going to meet resistance.
Lisa: Is there journaling? Can you have a voice app on your phone where you go for a walk for 10 minutes every day and just vent all this stuff just into that, right? Do you have a friend who’s willing to listen to this? So where can you let it out? You need to have, I think, that would be my second piece is to make sure that if you have a trait that you need, but it needs a socially acceptable outlet that you really figure out a way that works for you, that can make that happen.
Lisa: My last piece of advice would be don’t apologize for who you are. Recognize you don’t owe anybody an apology because you were born with a neurological trait, any more than you would feel the need to apologize if you had psoriasis or eczema. It’s just a human trait. You take no credit. You take no blame. And move forward in the peace that comes from that. And if you do feel like that’s oversimplification, then it can be helpful to simply write… Say oversimplification then I say, “Simply,” but it can be helpful to write a letter to yourself granting yourself permission to be who you are and then read it occasionally.
Lisa: Just this morning I called one of my kids. I texted one of my kids and said, don’t pick up your phone. I’m going to call you, but don’t answer. And I wanted it to go to voicemail. And I left him a message. And I just said, I want you to have this message that you can save it on your phone so that if you’re ever having a down day, you can listen to it. And I just told him all the things that I loved about him and all the things that I felt were powerful for him and how blessed I felt that he was my child and how much I loved him and that I will love him forever.
Lisa: And I feel like we’re willing to do that for other people. But my last tip would be, be willing to show love to yourself. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself and make that patience manifest. Maybe leave a message on your phone for yourself and listen to it, right? And, really, counseling. I can’t say enough about the value of counseling in helping you manage the things that are causing you pain, because giftedness doesn’t come with a manual, but at the same time, find someone who understands giftedness. I hate to say gifted people should find a gifted counselor, but I actually feel like that’s probably true. Because if your counselor isn’t willing to say that they are, they’re not the right person for you. Because if they’re ashamed of their own identity, how are they going to help you be okay with yours?
Imi: Thank you so much. You’ve given us knowledge, insights, research, and really practical tips, which is valuable. Very few people can do that.
Lisa: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for the opportunity. I really do appreciate it.