At forty years of age, Abel Abelson discovers that he is intellectually gifted. Suddenly his eternal “otherness” is no longer a flaw. It is being called an asset, a plus, a gift … But is it really?
In the light of this discovery Abel revisits his past, unravels the present and reconstructs a future. Being intellectually gifted is just the tip of the iceberg. True meaning turns out to be hiding somewhere else, far beyond the “giftedness” concept.
Today, we talked about:
– The nuanced experience of being neuro-divergent
– The experience of dating, schooling, working, thriving… as a neuro-divergent, gifted, highly sensitive person in a neurotypical world.
– Why Abel wrote the book and titled it “How to Handle Neurotypicals”
Abel’s Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/@
His Amazon author page (https://amzn.to/3paQsmz)
THE NUANCED EXPERIENCE OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE NEURO-DIVERGENT
Imi Lo: Hi Abel. Thank you so much for agreeing to come on and speak with me. I really appreciate it.
Abel: Hi Imi. Thank you for inviting me. I’m really honored.
Imi Lo: Yeah, well I’m honored too. Our theme today is to talk about a lot of the nuanced experience of being neurodivergent, especially when you’re more intense and gifted. I mean, I use the word intense. A lot of people use the word gifted. I think people tend to feel, a lot of people tend to feel strange about identifying as gifted. But I think to many people who have come out and acknowledged that that’s what we are really talking about. Yeah. So before we start, do you mind telling us a little more about yourself?
Abel: Well, I’m a guy. I’m 50 at the moment, and I’ve always felt a bit strange, a bit out of the box or something like that. And when I was around 40 or a bit 40, 42, 43, something like that, I really had a kind of crisis with this. And then I said to myself, “I need to know now if it’s me who’s crazy or weird or if it’s them.” That’s how it was in my head at the moment.
Imi Lo: Did anything trigger that incident?
Abel: Excuse me?
Imi Lo: Did anything happen to trigger that incident?
Abel: No, not really. I think it was just a buildup of years of feeling strange and not really, I don’t know how to put it, a different animal in the zoo, a bit like that. I describe it in my book as a bonobo amongst chimps, which is not, I don’t think a bonobo is better or worse than a chimp or vice versa. It’s not about that. But they look very alike and yet they’re very different. And that was a bit the feeling I had.
Imi Lo: They look very alike, but they’re very different. I think that sums it all up.
Abel: Uh-huh. Yeah. So to the eye and to the understanding, you’d say it’s the same animal, but yet again in the experience it’s very different. So if you would imagine in the zoo – I hope people won’t be offended by my animal metaphor says it’s just a metaphor, right?
Imi Lo: Sure, sure.
Abel: But if you would put a bonobo in a group of chimps, he would be really very unhappy. And likewise, if you put a chimp in a group of bonobos, he would be really unhappy because they function differently although they are very much the same also, of course. But they would be unhappy. And I think that’s the kind of unhappiness I had. Especially if the bonobo wouldn’t know that he was a bonobo and he would think he was a chimp.
Imi Lo: Yes.
Abel: And it would be even worse. [inaudible 00:03:35]
Imi Lo: I love the analogy and I like that you qualify it by saying, “Well, I’m not saying one is better than the other.” It’s an analogy.
Abel: It’s very important. Yeah.
Imi Lo: One analogy I use sometimes when I talk to people is, it might feel a bit more neutral, is a tree. I just say like, oh, some are taller and some are shorter. I mean, some people will still hear to say, “Oh, you’re just saying the taller tree is better.” But I mean the tallest tree is difficult. You’re taller, you’re more susceptible to the wind. You might break more easily. There are difficulties in being a tall tree as well, it’s not like one is better or the other.
Abel: Of course. And it’s not as if the taller tree serves the world better than the shorter tree or vice versa.
Imi Lo: Exactly.
Abel: It’s a beautiful analogy with the trees because it’s true, the animal metaphors tend to also trigger some reactions that are not intended. Right?
Imi Lo: Yeah. Well, I think when it comes to the sensitive subject of talking about giftedness, just the word itself makes people feel very sensitive around it. But then my experience is not usually with people who don’t identify with gifted, but people who actually are sitting on the border and thinking about it, they usually have the harshest judgment.
Abel: Oh yeah. But I still struggle with it also with the “gifted” word because it seems like a plus. While it’s actually a difference, I see it as simply a difference.
Imi Lo: It’s a neural divergent phrase.
Abel: Yeah. It’s not like more, I don’t see it as something more. I see it as different. A gift is something that you receive extra. So I do have a bit of a problem with the word also, but in the end it’s just words of course.
Imi Lo: And especially when you were younger, I suspect a lot of gifted people have the experience of being attacked and being shot down when they were just being naturally themselves. So they must have internalized the idea that something about their natural self is a bit too much. That then they need to hide to be okay.
Abel: And it’s also a lot of times, well, in my experience, people think you’re being a bit snobbish or arrogant or stuff like that when you’re a kid and you investigated a lot of stuff and you know things and you talk about it, or you ask the difficult questions. And people tend to think that you are, what’s the word? You’re trying to put hierarchy in the question and stuff like that. That’s not at all what you’re doing. And then you get a lot of difficult reactions from people which are understandable. Like the teacher in class, he needs to have a certain authority in the setting where he is in. I’d call it more in a neurotypical setting.
Imi Lo: Yes.
Abel: I think it’s more necessary. And then you kind of undermine it unconsciously, but it’s not intentional, but you undermine it and then of course it becomes difficult.
Imi Lo: I think you’ve just captured what a lot of people experience and they’re not able to verbalize. So I mean, let’s dive in with some more specific questions. How do you think and why are intellectually intense and gifted, or people who diverge in this way, get misunderstood? I think there are three setting where they’re most commonly misunderstood and it hurts. Number one is the most painful I feel, but also the most common, which is in their own family. And the other one is in school, and the other one, which I personally … it’s in the conventional workplace. So I know it’s a big subject, but if you can maybe talk a bit about it or maybe your own experience. So which one you connect with the most maybe.
Abel: Well, I think in general, a big basis of the problem is a blank slate paradigm, you know the blank slate paradigm?
Imi Lo: Tabula rasa? I forgot what [inaudible 00:08:05]
Abel: Yeah. Tabula rasa.
Imi Lo: Yes, thank you. But for our audience’s sake, maybe it’s good to say a bit more about it. Yeah.
Abel: Yeah. So the blank slate paradigm basically states that everyone is born equally like a blank piece of paper or a blank slate. And then during your lifetime, stuff is written on it, and that’s who you become, which is of course partially true. We’re not going to solve the nature-nurture discussion here right now. So nurture in the sense of the experiences you have has a big influence of course, on who you are at a certain moment in your life. But there’s also a big influence of nature, genetics, whatever is your biological setup. And the distinction between the two is difficult to make of course. And I’d like to say also that there’s an ongoing nature-nurture debate, which means how much is due to experience and nurture and how much is due to do genetics and stuff like that. I always have the impression that if there’s an ongoing debate that doesn’t seem to be able to get solved, then the two parts are right, but not exclusively right. So there’s this connection between these two influences.
But in the end, if you see how society is organized, it’s actually organized on the blank slate paradigm. For instance, in schools, kids are put together simply on terms of age. When you’re six, you sit together in a classroom with other kids who are six and you receive exactly the same curriculum. Nowadays they try, I think, I see that they try to differentiate a bit, but I don’t think it’s nearly enough or not in the right way. Because if I think what I would have needed as a kid, it’s a completely different approach to learning. It’s completely different. It’s not like what they do nowadays, they differentiate in the difficulty level. So they’ll give some math to the whole class and then when you’re finished early and easily, they’ll just give you a few more exercises that are a bit more difficult.
Imi Lo: Yeah.
Abel: That’s not what I would’ve needed. I would’ve needed-
Imi Lo: What would you have needed?
Abel: Well, I would’ve needed to begin with someone who really, really, really profoundly understood mathematics, because I will always go into the depths of understanding. And I’m not against schools. I think it’s okay. And it’s a bit the bonobo and chimp or large tree and short tree thing. I’m one kind of tree. And there are other kinds of trees and maybe these other kinds of trees need these kind of schools. I’m not going to criticize that actually, but I do notice that myself as a kid, I would have needed completely something else. I would’ve needed someone who really understands and who would go into the depths with it. And I mean, starting with adding and subtracting.
Imi Lo: Have you met other people or maybe young people like you? [inaudible 00:11:59]
Abel: Yeah, I meet some of them from time to time. But the problem is that we are all a bit damaged actually.
Imi Lo: Yeah, yeah.
Abel: And that makes it really … I’ve met a few very, very nice people who I felt were a lot like me and we connected in ways, we connected well. But then being a bit damaged, and maybe we can get into this later, this damaged topic, but being all a bit damaged-
Imi Lo: I like the fact that you don’t dance around the word damage because I think that’s another word, a bit like victim or things, that society doesn’t like to use. But I love the fact that you just name it, damage is damage. Damage was done.
Abel: Yeah. Yeah. Damage was done. And it’s damage, also, I don’t see it as a word that puts blame or guilt. Damage is damage. It can be a volcano that erupts and you have damage.
Imi Lo: Yes, yes.
Abel: It’s nobody’s fault.
Imi Lo: Yes, yes, yes.
Abel: Or it can be someone that attacks someone. And even there, it’s difficult to put blame and guilt because you would have to dive into what really happened. And I don’t really, in a certain sense, I don’t actually care about the guilt or blame, but I do need to see reality as it is. And as you say, damage has been done and damage needs to be seen and felt and acknowledged as the first step to do something with it.
Imi Lo: Yes, schooling.
Abel: So I would’ve needed to start with someone else as a teacher. And then the whole interaction would’ve been very much different. It makes me think about what a famous scientist, whose name I forgot, talked about understanding, I think it’s [inaudible 00:14:14] or does he exist? [edit: the person Abel refers to is Richard Feynman] I forgot the name, but it’s a Nobel Prize physicist. And he said to explain gravity, if you say “what’s gravity? Gravity is the force that makes things attract to each other or something like that”. And then you say, “so why are things attracted to each other?” And you say “it’s because of gravity” you didn’t explain anything at all. You just reworded the thing and you didn’t explain. There’s no understanding. But that’s the kind of schooling I think I received. Just wording and recipes. And if you do have to do some mathematical operation or something, it’s a recipe. And the final effect is that I had to do a lot of reverse engineering, I call it.
So they gave me the recipe and I had to try to find myself the understanding I needed, which a lot of times I didn’t even have time because they gave me so much recipes and so much stuff to memorize. And I was a perfectionist also. So I needed to always get 10/10 on my tests, which is for other reasons, which goes into the damaged stuff. But it didn’t give me really time. So at the end, I performed very well in school. But I feel now that I didn’t actually almost understood anything. Not in the way that I see it now, what is understand. But it should have been very, very different for me, school.
And also the social interactions I think would have needed to be very different. And there’s also this neurodivergent thing that comes in. I think I would call myself sensitive, something like that. So if we’re in school and we are like 20 kids and they’re a bit shouting and stuff, you don’t need to shout at me to tell me I should be more silent. You can simply – I’ll even notice – but you can simply say it and explain it, which would be even better, instead of yelling, “Everybody shuts up or we are going to have severe sanctions.”
That’s the kind of thing where I see a bit of damage also in the sense that I think for a lot of other kids, it’s not that damaging. I think. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t know. Yeah. But I know that for me it was a bit damaging. And so there you have again this blank slate. “We’re all the same. All these kids are blank slates. And then if they do some have some kind of behavior, we can react in the same way to all these kids.” And so every time there was a kind of too severe reaction for my nervous system, it was unnecessarily harsh, it was a bit of damage. And that’s the kind of damage that then builds up.
Imi Lo: Absolutely. And I personally find that insistence on sameness very much exists in the way we structure our society in many, many ways. Everyone needs to … there’s such a script where at certain age we need to be doing certain things. The time of it, everyone needs to get up at 7:00 AM, go to school at 9:00 AM. And it’s the same with our workplace where we have to do 9:00. I mean, it’s a bit changing now with COVID and everything, but still by and large, everyone sits under fluorescent lights, which I really struggle with personally. Do 9:00 to 5:00. I don’t understand how people can function in an open workplace, because you mentioned sensitivities. I wonder if these are some of the things you struggle with as well, environmentally.
Abel: More or less. But to a lesser extent. Yeah, I think I have a kind of ability to shut down a part of that. But I do think you are completely right that it’s actually completely crazy that everyone should go at the same hour to do more or less the same thing.
Imi Lo: Because we have different phenotypes, don’t we? Some people are just natural night owls. And I think they’re changing now that in some countries where they find if they move the school hours one hour later, the whole average results gets elevated.
Abel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you mentioned age also, which is also a very good point. And even the different stages where you’re at, at a certain age. I think that in terms of hormonal development, and as a teenager, I think I was a bit later than the rest. So my peers as a teenager, they were already very much into sexual and that kind of stuff. And I wasn’t. I think it’s simply a difference in hormonal structures. And it’s the same, when I was 15, I was in a boys school, which I don’t think was a very good idea, but I was in a boys school only. And when I was 15, 16, I found them really all becoming very rude. And testosterone was getting heavily into the thing while I was still more like a bit of a kid. And thats also makes it very difficult. And in workplace also. Yeah, we have a lot of differences.
What I wanted to say with the age also is that teenagers apparently naturally are more towards night owls. It’s just a phase they go through, everyone. When you’re a teenager, you actually shift to, normally you would go to sleep later and get up later, which is what everyone sees. These teenagers, they haul themselves from their bed and they drag themselves to the kitchen in the morning and at night they still have a lot of energy and it’s a phase they go through. But then again, there are the individual differences. And as an adult, it’s true, you have to go to work at … nowadays, we have a bit of flexibility.
Imi Lo: A little bit, I would think. Just a little bit. Not enough.
Abel: You can arrive between 7:30 and 9:00 or something like that. But no, it’s also, yeah, it’s crazy. It’s really crazy. You ask yourself what we are doing, all those adults going en masse at the same hour to the same place, and then it’s not possible that we can all be okay in that. We’re too different. Yeah.
Imi Lo: Yeah. And I think that also applies to how we approach romantic relationships and sexual preferences. There’s still the script too for women to get married at a certain age and have babies, and then the society by and large celebrates monogamy and certain structures. Which leads on to another topic that I want to ask you about, which is romance and relationship. Do you think, what kind of struggles do you think neurodivergent people usually have?
Abel: Yeah, very interesting question. It’s such an important topic of course also, because it’s so important for humans to have a good connection, a good relationship with at least one or a few persons.
Imi Lo: Yes. But then I would point up that the shape and form of those relationships are less boxed in than many people think.
Abel: Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. You’re totally right.
Imi Lo: I don’t think everyone needs to … Yeah, go on.
Abel: Well, I think one of the big challenges for neurodivergent people is, to start with, you don’t know you are neurodivergent. That’s I think the start of it. So at least I didn’t know. I was a kid and a teenager and an adult. And then I didn’t know. I didn’t see myself as neurodivergent. I just had a lot of confusion in a lot of things. And what my strategy became unconsciously, and I think it’s a strategy of a lot of neurodivergent people, is to blend in. We try to blend in because the difference becomes, a lot of times, if you openly always are your complete different self, people can’t handle it and you can’t handle it. Also, basically because there’s this blank slate paradigm. If we would all know and agree that there are these differences, and that’s okay… It’s all locked in a bit. But the final effect is that we try to blend in, I think, and the problem with blending in-
Imi Lo: A lot of people might have already been wounded before they knew they were neurodivergent, and they bring their natural full self into dating, for instance, the people they met, let’s say on the dating app, and then they feel very wounded because of the reactions they get.
Abel: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That’s also this kind of damage you get, right? You can be very emotionally open and just be yourself. And then you get a very, very painful reaction. And then you build up a hardness [I actually did a Dutchism here and meant “armour”, which in Dutch is “harnas”]. Or in my case, I did a lot of things. I think I built up a hardness [armour] and I built up a cloaking device. Where I just-
Imi Lo: Cloaking device.
Abel: A cloaking device. Yeah. I’m quite good at my cloaking device, I think, sadly enough.
Imi Lo: Actually a mask. Yeah.
Abel: Yeah. I just emulate what you could call a neurotypical – doesn’t really exist, right – but I emulate, and I do it all the time. And I think partly it’s not a problem because it helps. But we were into this dating and romance and relationship topic, and there it becomes a huge problem because to put it a bit shortly, we all go about cloaked in the streets and in meetings and then we don’t recognize each other because we’re masked. And of course [inaudible 00:26:12]
Imi Lo: That is such a good point.
Abel: And you can sense something behind the mask, but who will have the courage to take off the mask first? We don’t have that courage often. And then also, again, we are so damaged that we don’t dare to take off the mask because we think we will get hurt. Even if rationally you could say, “Okay, this person is probably not going to hurt me.” It still is very difficult to just get over all this just like that. You don’t just get over it like that. And so the final effect is that we don’t meet.
Imi Lo: Yeah, exactly. If it’s a bit like … I mean, the analogy I used with people, it’s just very natural, where if you are gay and then you pretend to be straight, it’s going to be way harder for you to meet that gay man of your life.
Abel: Yeah, exactly. That’s it. How are you going to connect if you emulate someone not gay? Someone straight.
Imi Lo: Saying that though, there are a lot less well made or already made communities for neurodivergents or gifted people, so it’s not like you can just go to gay bar or something. There’s no gifted bars.
Abel: Yeah, and then you have also the problem that, or the challenge that neurodivergent communities are fractally, neurodivergent again. You see what I mean?
Imi Lo: Fractally? No, can you expand on that?
Abel: Like a fractal. You know in mathematics, the fractal where you have to [inaudible 00:27:54].
Imi Lo: Mathematics is the one thing in the world that I’ve struggled with the most.
Abel: Oh yeah. But I’m not a mathematician or a … I’m not too deeply into it. I just think about, but maybe you are too young for that, but you used to have these screensavers with all these crazy images on them.
Imi Lo: I am certainly not too young for that. Thank you for the praise.
Abel: Okay. Okay. And there are these things that they call fractals, and a fractal is a graphical representation of something mathematical. And then if you zoom in, you see again something like the same image. Or to put it very simply, you could think of a tree. A tree does have a kind of fractal aspect to it. The form of a tree can be the form of the shape of the leaf of the tree. And then if you take the leaf, maybe the border of the leaf, again, looks a bit like points of the leaf. So that’s the fractal image. And what I wanted to say with that is that in my experience, neurodivergent communities still are quite divergent within them. So I joined for a brief time the Mensa community.
Imi Lo: Me too.
Abel: Here, the local one. And I still didn’t feel like, okay, here to get my [inaudible 00:29:40]
Imi Lo: Me too. It was a disaster for me.
Abel: For me too. So as you say, you know… Maybe it’s the same even for gay and heterosexual.
Imi Lo: That’s true.
Abel: I don’t know. But not every gay person is the same kind of … has the same kind of romantic set up, right?
Imi Lo: It is so true, isn’t it? Because there are many ways I’m different apart from this trait. And I remember how much I struggle where I went in there and everyone seemed to be into STEM and math. And also I was the only non-white person back then under 30. So it was so odd. It was a terrible experience for me. Also, it was no one’s fault.
Abel: Yeah, same for me. And so that makes it difficult also. And I have the idea that if we talk about giftedness, intellectual giftedness, which is a bit of a thing now, a concept. I think there are two types of intellectual giftedness, which is not really taken into account. And you have the bell curve. And in the middle you have the 100. It’s not the IQ I want to go to. You have the bell curve for giftedness, and then on you would have two sides where you could go to a kind of mathematical, memory giftedness. And then you have another side where you have people who are really thinking in a different way and in a very creative…
Imi Lo: Is that the maternal fraternal thing you talked about in some of your-
Abel: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s very, how would I say, I started thinking about this because of a theory by a scientist called Baron-Cohen who has a theory about male brain and female brain. But to start with it’s, I think it should be masculine and feminine, not male and female. And then again, even that is very complicated, because you get into gender and stuff like that. I think it’s an unhappy term, masculine, feminine; male, female. But he did notice that there are two kinds of ways in which brains are set up. And one way is, in the more extremes, one way is very mathematical and structured and things like that. And the other is the opposite. It’s extremely flexible and maybe a bit chaotic. And it goes into all directions and it links everything to everything. And then it forgets again. And then it remakes it, which is also very neurodivergent.
And I think intellectual giftedness tends to … So, and these two kinds of, … The important thing is that these two kinds of divergence can score highly on IQ tests, but they have a completely different approach. The one kind will solve a mathematical problem in one way, and the other kind will come from a completely other side and solve it also. And in the middle, what we could call the neurotypical wouldn’t be able to solve it because they’re into other things.
It’s not because you can’t solve the problem that you’re less, I always need to really point it out. When I say neurotypical – there are no neurotypicals to start with -, but when I say neurotypical, there’s nothing less in there. They are perfect life forms also. Every life form is perfect. And then you have these two types of intellectual giftedness. And then you have a society which says, okay, everybody that’s scores more than whatever figure it is on the IQ test is part of our [gifted] community. But then you have this clash again. Clash is maybe too strong a word, but you don’t really feel connected. The two sides [two kinds of gifted people] I think they see each other as weird also, or feel each other as “You’re not my kind of animal,” really. So it’s difficult also to connect.
Imi Lo: So how have you solved this problem? What would you propose? Starting a dating app for the neuro-atypical?
Abel: No, I think it all-
Imi Lo: I think I know know your views on dating apps. What are your views on dating apps?
Abel: Yeah. Well, it’s not for me, that’s for sure. And I don’t think, I haven’t met any people that I feel are more or less like me or that are neurodivergent even in another kind of way that I think would be helped by a dating app. Because if I talk about myself, I really need to connect more in depth with people. And a dating app is such an awkward tool for that. It’s really not made for that. And dating as such, as a concept, I find it really strange. I would find it really awkward if someone would like to date with me. I don’t know what they would want to do with me. You know what I mean? If someone would really like to get to know me and do things with me, and…, I understand that. But dating, it’s such a weird concept for me.
Imi Lo: Yeah. Yeah. I grew up without this concept. So I grew up in an Asian context, and I think back then there really wasn’t such a thing. You don’t meet a person for the sake of that, apart from arranged marriage or something. I grew up with reading lots of manga and I have all these fantasies about meeting people naturally. But then when I was thrown into Western context, I had to learn how to date. And then I had to, I remember Googling like, “Oh yeah, after three dates you are supposed to do this. And then after five dates you’re supposed to,” in some cultures already be having sex. And I’m just like, “How? I do not understand.”
Abel: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I think again, it’s something like the large and the short trees, maybe for the one kind of tree, it’s how they connect, how do it, I don’t get into it. And for your question, how to solve it, I think there’s a lot of aspects to it. One is really get over the blank slate paradigm yourself, which is already a huge work actually.
Imi Lo: Yes.
Abel: Because to start with, in my case, I ended up having built up a lot of anger and frustration and confusion and fear and hurt and all those kind of things. So that makes that when you start really, really, really questioning this blank slate paradigm and incorporating another kind of view in your personal worldview, the first thing you get is a lot of confusion about all this anger and stuff comes up because the blank slate paradigm kind of flattens it out. “There’s nothing to be angry about because we’re all the same. There’s nothing to be hurt about because we are all the same.” You know what I mean? So when you start to really incorporate that it’s not like that … In my case, I felt like I had to revisit every second of my past and reinterpret it and reunderstand it.
We come back to the damage. I received a lot of damage, which was not intentional, most of it, but I did receive it. And when you receive damage, your natural reaction is fight or flight or one of those. Anger, fear, things like that. And when you start reinterpreting your past in the light of a non-blank slate paradigm, you need to do something with all this anger and this fear and this and this sadness also. And you’re there, you’re like 40 and you have a life and you have complications and you have work to do every day, have to go to work because you have to pay the rent and all these things. And you have a family. And then all this comes up and it’s really, really, really a lot. But you can’t … It’s unimaginable for me that you could start to connect with other people like you if you don’t go through all that. So that’s the first thing.
So it’s not about the dating app, or not the dating app. It’s really about you in the world and you towards yourself, how you see yourself and others in the world, et cetera. I really see it kind of like a rebirth. Not in the concept of rebirthing. It’s a thing that exists, but it does feel like a rebirth. I think. That’s why, my name Abel Abelson, it’s a pen name. Yeah, it’s a pen name. And I chose it because it’s kind of Abel, the son of Abel, I reparented or I’m in the process of reparenting myself.
Imi Lo: Oh, that’s so cool. [inaudible 00:41:10] Sorry, go on.
Abel: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
Imi Lo: And in this process, I would imagine there’s a grief that’s involved.
Abel: Oh, it’s terrible.
Imi Lo: Me personally, I feel like I spend my whole life mourning the fact that I’m not normal. And sometimes I still fall into the trap, especially when I have too much time in my hands and I go look at Facebook and then I’ll look at what my childhood pals are doing. And then I’ve got stuck back into that whole thing of, “Oh, that’s not the script that I’m living. And they all look so happy.”
Abel: But they’re not. They’re not. But yeah, they look very happy. But that’s another subject. But it’s true, there’s an enormous amount of grief to do. And it’s in all directions. It’s also in all my confusion, I also caused a lot of damage actually, maybe even to other people like me while I was trying to blend in. And I maybe-
Imi Lo: How so?
Abel: … damaged them. Yeah. Because imagine you’re in a group. There are six people around the table, and there’s this kind of discussion, which I don’t like. It can be a discussion I don’t like, they’re like being very cynical or misogynistic or whatever. And I won’t be myself. Maybe I will have laughed with them at their not very kind jokes. And then there may be this person, one of the six people is actually also someone a bit like me who is getting hurt by these jokes. And I participate by not having … It’s not a thing of guilt and blame, again. I end up not having the courage to do something about it. And in a certain sense, I grieve about that also because it’s so sad that all these neurodivergent and some of them very sensitive people and we can’t even help each other because, because we are too damaged. Then again, because we can’t help each other, we get even more damaged. It’s all so sad actually, but it’s not sad in the sense that there’s nothing we can do. But there’s really a lot of emotional stuff to handle, to get into.
And that’s the start of all this, when to go back to this dating and romance and things like that. I think if I think about the romance between two neurodivergent people, I think in the ideal case, these two people are in, they may be, they can be in their grieving process. It’s okay, you don’t have to have finished it. Maybe you’ll never finish it. It’s okay. But you need to be somewhere in there and not before. Because before that you are really just surviving. You’re in survival mode.
When we talked a bit before this interview, I said I was more into CPTSD for the moment, complex post-traumatic stress disorder. And that’s one of the concepts in that thing that you can be in survival mode. And when you’re in survival mode, you just simply try to survive and you can’t really connect with people, with the world. You survive. And while you’re in survival mode, that’s all you can do. So for the whole dating and romance and finding meaning in your life and being happy and all that, it’s definitely one of, how to say, the necessary things to have happened or to start trying to do. It’s enough if you start trying to do it. It’s get into that, get out of survival mode or not even get out of survival mode, just notice. Just notice that you’re in survival mode. It’s already enough also, because at that moment you drop into reality. You see things as they are. And starting from that you can connect. Because otherwise, I have the image at times that we are people with a cardboard image before us, and we go around and we show this cardboard image to everyone and then these cardboard images interact. And that’s been a bit my life when I think before my 40s.
Imi Lo: Oh, that’s great.
Abel: Yeah. And the neurodivergent people have to succeed in meeting each other behind the cardboard. And I think we shouldn’t beat ourselves about the fact that we have a cardboard image. It’s okay. It’s good. It’s okay. If you need it, do it. And you can be fake. It’s okay if that’s necessary for-
Imi Lo: I love that you say that. I love that you say there’s no way to blame yourself. And I love that you say it’s okay to put your mask on as long as it’s conscious.
Abel: Yeah, yeah. It’s okay. There’s also this thing that putting your mask on, it doesn’t really, it’s not aggressive, you know what I mean? You protect yourself and it’s okay, but it’s just sad if two people with a mask can’t really connect behind the mask, that’s that’s a bit sad. And we should try to solve that.
Imi Lo: Yes. Yeah. Wow. So reaching this stage of your life, if you were to change one thing about the neurodivergent community, what would you say or do?
Abel: Oh wow. As I said, I think it’s really difficult, a neurodivergent community. Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s as such, it’s a very good project. But in another way, neurodivergent community is, it’s like it refers to something that it isn’t to define itself. You know what I mean? It refers to, like, “neurodivergent” is saying “we are not neurotypical”, to put it briefly.
And then you define your own identity around a negative and not being neurotypical, and it’s the same to for the dating and the romance and stuff like that. In a very practical sense, what I do in my life, I just go and get into things that interest me and that involve other people. And then we meet around those and it’s very changeable. I’m someone who also, I kind of evolve a lot in my tastes and what I like and don’t like. I investigate something and then I go on to the next. And for me, but I can only talk for me, it’s a very flexible and movable and tourist kind of thing. Exploration, it’s not a tourist, it’s exploration actually. I go and explore and at the best moments you meet another explorer. It’s like you go exploring in the jungle or in the mountains, and then you meet another explorer. And that’s a great moment. And there you connect and maybe you and that other explorer, you can just go explore together for a while or for many years or for the rest of your life or whatever it may be. And that’s how I get into connection.
Imi Lo: Oh, that’s great. That’s great. It’s a great solution. Or at least a different direction that people can go in rather than forcing themselves into the mold. I mean, you could say in some of the public platforms that life can become easy and fun if neurodivergent people can find a way to live alongside or amongst neurotypical people.
Abel: Yeah, that’s why I wrote my book, How to Handle Neurotypicals, because you have to understand them in a sense. It’s not like understand them, but you have to know a bit how they function. And then there’s a lot of logic to it and it’s really okay. But you just simply have to not expect things that they are not. It’s as easy as that. But it starts again with the blank slate paradigm. First you get out of the blank slate paradigm because if it’s blank slate, then it becomes a whole other thing you have to do. Blank slate is about education and convincing and argumenting, you know what I mean?
To give an example, not everyone is equally empathetic. And in the blank slate paradigm, that would be 100% caused by experiences and education and nurture. So in the blank slate paradigm, what do you have to do? You have to go and try to fix what you see as a perceived, how would I call it?, a perceived problem with education that not everyone is equally empathetic. If you’re not in the blank slate paradigm, some people are just not as empathetic as others or in other ways or whatever. There are these differences and it’s okay. And then you just don’t expect them to be more empathetic. And they’re not less of a human being for it. They’re not less of a perfect life form actually for it. Apart from humans, there are so many life forms on earth and in the universe, and they’re all really splendid. And definitely not all of them are empathetic, but that’s okay. It’s really okay. And you don’t have to try to change that.
I sometimes compare it with, if you go to a killer whale and you would try to turn it into a dolphin, as another metaphor, you don’t love the killer whale, you don’t love it. That’s not love. You don’t like it, you hate it, actually. And it’s an act of hatred in a certain sense to try to turn it into a dolphin. So let the killer whale be a killer whale. Maybe it’s a very extreme example because the image of a killer whale is really extreme, but you have ants and you have birds and you have all kinds of animals that have all kinds of ways to be. And you have humans that have all kinds of ways to be, and that changes the whole game. And that’s I think how you can be happy among neurotypicals, you leave them be, actually, that’s one of the first things. Rule number one, get off their back because they’re okay.
Imi Lo: I think it’s hard, especially if you’ve married a neurotypical person or if your own parents are very different.
Abel: Oh yeah. Well that’s really hard. The neurotypical parents if you’re neurodivergent. Oh wow. I think it’s sad to say, but there’s-
Imi Lo: It’s so common though.
Abel: Yeah. I think it was my case also to a large extent. And they, it’s really tragic in a certain sense, because they can’t understand you and they would like to understand you, I think.
Imi Lo: Exactly.
Abel: And they simply can’t. And they try to do their best in so many bad ways, which is so tragic.
Imi Lo: Yeah, I hear you.
Abel: And I don’t know what I could propose to kids of neurotypical parents apart from the same that I just said. Don’t expect from them what they can’t do.
Imi Lo: And that goes back to the grief that we were talking about.
Abel: But it’s not much of a solution actually. I’m sorry to say. But yeah.
Imi Lo: It’s a path. I think just having you name it as a path and have people hearing that, knowing that they’re not the only one is comforting.
Abel: Yeah. Yeah. There’s also that the feeling felt that’s so important that you can feel felt. And if it’s not by your parents, then by someone else. Maybe that’s something I would say to kids of neurotypical parents. Go out and try to find people that you can connect with. And I knew an a neurodivergent friend of mine, and he said his grandfather, he had a really good connection with his grandfather, which is possible. Or it can be a neighbor or it can be anyone. Or sometimes it’s-
Imi Lo: A pet.
Abel: A pet also. Yeah. Right. Yeah, why not? But the thing is that we are sometimes so entangled with our parents. It’s also a term that comes back in CPTSD a lot of times. Entangled.
Imi Lo: I think especially a loss of, oh, I just use the word gifted. People are also highly empathic and loyal, and they have high values. And that makes it really hard sometimes to wiggle out of, I’ll basically call it dependency with their parents.
Abel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s also very difficult problem. Which maybe it’s interesting to know how, for me personally, I don’t have any contact anymore with my parents. I don’t say it’s good. I don’t know. It’s what happens. And maybe it’s okay for people. It can help for people to know that it’s not like it’s all rosy. And some things don’t get solved actually. But it’s okay also. I don’t hate them. I don’t think they hate me. It’s just that we can’t seem to get along. And it’s a big world. It’s okay. There’s room for me, there’s room for them. They can meet lots of people. I can meet lots of people. And sometimes I’m sad because I’d like to have a father or a mother I could go to and connect with. But it’s okay also. That’s how it is. It’s okay. Yeah.
Imi Lo: I’m sorry that that is the case. And I can hear the sense of, come to term-ness in your voice, and I like that kind of calm compassion you have. It’s like I don’t hate them. It’s just it is, it’s not happy, happy. But it doesn’t really traumatize me to the degree that it affects my life.
Abel: And it’s a kind of understanding them in the sense of, I understand. I understand how it is for them, I think. And it’s really hard for them also. They would like a good connection with their son, I’m very sure. But things are as they are also. And it has to do with the, in a certain sense, I think they expect from me a bit to get into the cardboard stuff. “Just put your cardboard stuff in front of you and we’ll go on.” And I can’t allow that towards myself. I can’t really do that. It wouldn’t be good towards myself. So that’s where we ended up. Well, for the moment.
Imi Lo: Thank you so much for sharing that with me and for being vulnerable here. I really appreciate it.
Abel: No, yeah, it’s no problem. I do that because I know it’s what helps me also.
Imi Lo: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m aware of time and thank you for addressing so many difficult subjects with me and being so honest and congruent.
Abel: Not a problem.
Imi Lo: Is there any final advice? I know you’ve already given lots, or maybe not advice, but some words, or some pointers. Do you say to a person or maybe a younger person who’s sitting on the fence wondering, “Oh, I’m not sure. I’ve always felt different all my life, but I don’t think I want to identify with this word. Should I go get an IQ test? What should I do?”
Abel: Well, the IQ test and things, I did it.
Imi Lo: Do you find it validating?
Abel: Excuse me?
Imi Lo: Do you find it validating?
Abel: Oh, I think it’s really complicated, an IQ test. I had this friend who was very, very smart, and when he was like 12 or something, they did an IQ test. It’s a bit different. He didn’t look for it himself. But then they sent a letter to his home and his mother told him that he didn’t have any right to make errors anymore because he was intellectually gifted.
Imi Lo: Oh, that’s crazy. That is crazy.
Abel: Yeah. That’s [inaudible 01:00:34]
Imi Lo: That’s such a huge misunderstanding of gifted. Yeah. Oh my God, I’m so shocked.
Abel: Yeah. It’s terrible. And he told me that he was still shocked about it, of course. So it can be, I think it depends. The IQ test, I think it depends on how and why you go into this, into the topic. I went into it in a kind of, “I don’t care. I don’t care if I get 180 or 80, I don’t care. I am fed up with being confused and not knowing. And maybe it will say something.” And in my case it kind of did. But I think if I would have gotten 100, the typical score, I would’ve gone to the next investigation of what was different with me.
Imi Lo: Yeah. So it’s a quest of you finding answers for why you feel different all your life.
Abel: Yeah. And I think you have to, it would be really sad if you would go to, if you’re different. I think first thing to know is if you feel different, you are different. I think that’s the first thing. So if you feel different and you’re confused about this-
Imi Lo: I love that you say that because so many people would say, “Oh, I must just be making this up. I’m trying to say I’m gifted. I’m making it up.”
Abel: Yeah, yeah. No, I’m 100% convinced of this. If you feel different, you are different. There’s no reason for you to feel different if you are not different.
Imi Lo: Thank you for saying that. Really. Thank you for saying that. Yeah. Yeah.
Abel: And then if you go and you take an IQ test, go and take the IQ test. First off, it’ll only say what it says. So they have tried to devise something to compare IQs, it’s really, in the end, controversial and a bit flawed and all kind of things. So you have to know that it’s not like a score given by God, it’s just a measure of something.
Imi Lo: And even then they have got different kinds of tests, it all gets very confusing.
Abel: Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s really-
Imi Lo: And do you just do the one in Mensa or do you get a psychologist? It all gets so complicated.
Abel: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really, it’s a messy topic if you dive into it.
Imi Lo: Yes, yes.
Abel: But you can go and do it. And then if it turns out that it points to a difference, it’s a good start. And if it turns out that you feel different and then they say, “No, your IQ is really normal,” then go on and go look further in all kinds of directions. And investigate. Investigate this difference. And also very importantly, I think that’s that the others very important thing. Be curious about yourself in a very positive way, in a kind of-
Imi Lo: Compassionate, maybe.
Abel: Yeah. Yeah. Compassion is a good word also. But not, it can become … Compassionate can also become a kind of duty. It’s just like… You don’t know yourself. That’s the start. You don’t know yourself. And then I would say, try to be interested in yourself in a very curious and kind way. Don’t look for flaws. Don’t look to become someone else. Because that’s also, I was, during a long time in this kind of move, trying to become better, trying to solve my flaws and then become someone X or Y or whatever. No, just you don’t know yourself and be interested in yourself and in a curious and kind way. And whatever you find there, and you’ll find lots of things in yourself. Whatever you find there is there for a reason. And it’s there to help you, actually. Even hate and anger and cynicism and frustration and everything that’s called negative, it’s all there in the end to help you.
So if you can go into this kind of exploration, it’ll really be a very constructive and a very kind of positive experience with a lot of difficult moments also.
Imi Lo: Thank you in so much.
Abel: But in the end it is something very positive. Yeah. Well, it’s my experience.
Imi Lo: I find your-
Abel: I say this … Yeah, go ahead.
Imi Lo: I find your experience, I find your perspective to be really wise and compassionate and balanced. You clearly have done a lot of work on yourself.
Abel: Yeah. Well, that’s because I also did it all wrong to start with. Yeah. And I think a lot of, I know that a lot of things that may appear like, “Oh wow, he’s right”, I have that with other people also, mostly it’s because these people have tried a lot and made all the mistakes. And then after having made all the mistakes, or a lot of the mistakes, you kind of kind of know where it’s at. But yeah.
Imi Lo: I hear you.
Abel: But I wouldn’t call myself wise at all, actually.
Imi Lo: Really?
Abel: But I hit a lot of … No, yeah, no. Not at all. But I hit a lot of walls and bottoms and-
Imi Lo: That’s how you become wise.
Abel: Maybe. Yeah. I don’t know. I’ll leave it up to you.
Imi Lo: Okay. You’ll leave it up to me. That’s my opinion.
Abel: Yeah, yeah.
Imi Lo: But thank you so much for your time today. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you for being-
Abel: No, no problem.
Imi Lo: … so wise and sharing you wisdom and your experience and, yeah, let’s stay in touch.
Abel: Thank you for listening to me. I did a lot of talking. I think I should have done a bit more listening, but-
Imi Lo: Oh my God, no. You are a guest of the podcast. That’s your job.
Abel: Okay then.
Imi Lo: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. Let’s stay in touch.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.