The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Parenting Sensitive Children:
Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy

This piece was inspired by an article in The New Yorker titled "Prairie Fire," about the suicide of a gifted early-adolescent boy. His death came as a complete surprise to everyone who knew him. His parents came home one day and found he had killed himself. There was no note, no advance indication--in fact, that very day the boy had been full of plans for his future.

I read this story even more closely because Linda Silverman was mentioned as having known the boy well and was working with the parents to develop his extraordinary talents. Linda Silverman ran the conference on giftedness at which I was the keynote speaker a few years ago, so I was especially sorry to think of the impact this would have on her as well--she doing a great service helping parents with gifted children now that most schools have dropped their programs for these children.

I became involved in all of this because, when I first searched for the term "sensitivity" in the social science literature, her work came up. Linda is convinced that all gifted children are highly sensitive, and perhaps the reverse as well. I wrote about sensitivity and giftedness in the third issue of the online Comfort Zone, so I will not repeat that here. But my mind has often returned to the article about this suicide, so I thought it would be worth writing something more on the subject of the problems of HSCs who have been noticed for their giftedness.

A Complex About Giftedness

As I told the audience in my address to the gifted development conference, I was somewhat glad I had overlooked the giftedness of HSCs when I was writing about them, ironic as it was, since I had begun my study of sensitivity there. But I suppose because I am a clinical psychologist, I was always more concerned about their emotional well being. After all, giftedness needs a firm foundation in a strong personality. The parents of gifted children are often raising those kids well, but I have had too many sensitive patients who were gifted but too distressed to ever show their talents because their parents and teachers had no idea about how to meet the special needs of an HSC. Hence in my book and my talk I focused on their emotional life and what parents can do to help them manage overstimulating or emotionally provoking situations--for example, parties, bullies, vacations, moves, being "corrected" (punishment is out!), and perfectionism.

Given the weird tone of the New Yorker article, however, I realized that even with the best-intended parents, gifted children are vulnerable to effects of the collective complex our culture has about them. Gifted people and geniuses are peculiar, fascinating, in possession of a valuable commodity. They're almost celebrities. Certainly oddities. Like an athlete or a race horse or any star, we want to see how far they can go, how fast they can rise to the top. It's not just curiosity, but empathy, I think. How horrible it would be to have a talent one could not express. How many Beethovens or Einsteins have been born in places like Sudan refugee camps or the streets of Calcutta, without the chance to even know about their talents? For that matter, how many Seabiscuits lived their lives as cart horses? We're glad when the talented can show their talents, but we also know we need these special ones. Adore them. We too will benefit, often in extraordinary ways, from whatever they can do.

So what does it mean to have this collective complex about giftedness and how does it relate to HSCs? Elsewhere I have discussed complexes as issues around which we have very strong feelings. Interestingly, whole cultures can have a complex, hence "collective complex." And at the bottom of most complexes, whether personal or collective, there's an archetype, which I have also written about (paper version, Vol. 5, Issue 3).

In brief, an archetype is an innate, latent organizing form in the brain. When the right circumstances arise, circumstances eliciting the archetype, we begin to have ideas and feelings typical of most humans in that circumstance. Attachment is actually an example if an archetype. Hence when we are born, we see our mother and begin to want to be around her, to smile at her, to be held by her. We feel enormously soothed by her presence and upset by her absence. It's not just that she feeds us--children fed by machines do not attach to them! The archetype involves bonding with another human being, specifically one who seems inclined to take care of us.

I think our collective complex about gifted children brings us into the realm of the Divine Child archetype. The "organizing" idea of the Divine Child is found in many cultures in some form--for example, Moses, Christ, Krishna, King Arthur, and Hiawatha. Their childhoods fascinate us almost as much as their adulthood. There were special signs at their birth (just as parents of gifted children often notice their giftedness in the first days of life), giving a strong sense that they were born to fulfill an important mission, even to do God's work. In them is born our hope for salvation from the problems we cannot solve on our own. Also part of the archetype is that the Divine Child is hunted by jealous, evil men, as if such hope is always threatened by our own narrow thinking. So the child is raised in secret (home schooling?), until he steps forth and proves who he is. It's my thought that it's partly the archetypal hope inspired by gifted children that causes us to give them so much energized attention. (The idea of Indigo Children is another good example of this.)

But There's Not Going to be any Divine Intervention for These Kids

There's one thing about archetypes: No one can be identified with an archetype without being greatly damaged by it. It's just too much. Women who identify with the Great Mother, or are identified by others with Aphrodite (e.g. Marilyn Monroe), for example, or men who identify with the Hero (JFK, Martin Luther King Jr.) will sooner or later try to do things or be expected to do things beyond human capabilities, or be scapegoated for failing, or martyred in some way. Keeping in mind the danger of burdening an ordinary, human child with an archetype, let's talk about real children who happen to be gifted and what problems they face.

It's lonely, for one thing, since most children of their own age find them strange, and the gifted child find his or her peers boring. Of course there are always adults wanting to play chess with them, or listen to them play music, or converse with them and hear "such fresh insights" coming from a child able to think about adult concerns. But adults are not peers and do not share the same culture. Plus it's clear to these children that for most adults only one thing is interesting about them: Their gifts. That they have ordinary teen age interests, fears, romances, and what not is disappointing to these adults. It doesn't fit with being a Divine Child. In fact, too often adults are shy around gifted children, not wanting to ask about these "ordinary" areas of their life, or assume having a high I.Q. means they have these matters worked out brilliantly.

If you are a parent of a gifted child, you will have to examine closely how much you are pushing your child in some areas, and doing enough about his or her development in social and emotional areas. Of course this is much better understood than a hundred years ago, when gifted children were sent to Oxford or Harvard. But gifted children can seem so mature that we and they forget they are children. Be sure you are interested and available for "childish" activities. And see that your child has friends, either among other gifted children or non-gifted peers. In the latter case, your child will benefit a great deal from learning to be socially skilled when interacting with the rest of the world, and to both accept that their own talents are unusual and still not look down on (or look up to) the rest of humanity. There's plenty to observe and learn about while relating to those with other, seemingly lesser gifts, including what makes others comfortable and what feels good about being around them, even if the conversations are dull.

Balance in life is such a trite idea. But it was made real to me at the Phi Beta Kappa banquet the year I graduated from the University of California. The highlight of the evening was supposed to be the speech that would be made by the student with the highest GPA in the graduating class. It certainly was unforgettable, although I don't know how the faculty viewed it. He stood up, declared it was not worth it, and cried.

The young man went on to describe weekend after weekend in the library, looking out the window and watching other students going out to "waste time"--and to learn skills he knew he lacked, to enjoy the special moments of college life that he had now lost, and just to have friends. I don't know why he made the choices he did, but I'm sure plenty of adults were delighted with his achievements, starting in kindergarten if not before. Yet it seemed that the project almost broke his heart. I'm sure none of the adults wanted that for him.

Not that this student's social life would have necessarily been all fun. Again, gifted children are often rejected by others, and they can be as hurt by social rejection as anyone. In fact, more so.

Negative Intuition versus the Meaning of Life

Early in my research on sensitivity--while I was studying its relationship to introversion and the four Jungian functions of sensing, thinking, feeling, and intuition--I discovered several studies reporting that intuitive types are the most likely to have suicidal thoughts when they are depressed. This makes great sense--intuitive types tend to take things to their full conclusion, often without knowing the steps of reasoning that got them there. HSPs are often intuitive types (or else introverts, who tend to do the same thing--to me, Jung never fully clarified the difference between introversion and intuition). Hence when they begin to think about themselves or the state of their relationships or the state of the world, or all three at once, they can often come to very dark conclusions. Hence the term, "negative intuition."

I maintain that all but the most planned suicides are actually accidents, in that they result from the random dovetailing of events, each of which alone would not have sufficed. Fatigue, low serotonin, a failure, a criticism, being alone, being alone late at night with no one you can call, being stood up by a friend or date, a mind muddled by drugs or alcohol, lack of sleep, poor health. The list goes on and on, of course.

One certain factor in the case of the suicide of this gifted boy was that he was too young to have much experience with sudden mood shifts in the direction of the unbearable emotions I've also written about in this issue. Every HSC needs help learning to handle their particularly strong emotions. As my own parenting mentor told me, "It's great to see them succeed, but just hope they also fail while they are still at home and you can help them learn how to cope with it." Her comment was very helpful when I found myself lucky in that unlucky way a number of times as a parent. And looking back, I know she was right.

There's an epidemic of adolescent depression and suicide, and therefore an understandable rush to medicate depressed teenagers to prevent their taking their lives. It's interesting that the whole effort has recently backfired in that very rarely, but sometimes, these medications actually lead to suicide in young people. I think it points out how confusing emotions can be, and when weird new ones occur due to a medication, that can be as distressing as anything else. My worry is that if we are too quick to medicate the young, they may not learn how to handle life's emotional ups and downs, not to mention the odd side steps that occur as the result of, say, dieting, PMS, jet lag, drug side effects, or even the flu. HSCs are always going to have intense emotions. Will they always have to be medicated? What a thought.

I am not totally opposed to antidepressants by any means. Each case is unique, requiring careful consultation with several professionals and a long look at the latest research. I just find it interesting that humans are the only species, as far as we know, that doesn't just want to live no matter what. We have to find life meaningful, so that even in the lowest mood, that meaning holds us like a safety net. That's the ultimate protection parents can provide an HSC, especially a gifted one. And if all of the meaning of life is the expression of one's talents, no matter how great those talents, that's missing a lot of potential safety net. Family, friends, falling in love, service, beauty, nature, spiritual insights, laughter, satisfying work, curiosity about how humanity will handle the next few decades, dark as they may seem, and the awareness of the wrenching blow dealt to those left behind when one of us falls into the darkness--these are pretty good reasons to live. Notice that none of them require being gifted. And the very best reason to live is knowing someone totally loves you and wants the best for you, for no special reason. It's just that you like each other. It's chemistry. Or it's just the way parents are.

February 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Reflections on Research: Ignored No Longer: New Interest in Us, New Theories about Us
Parenting Sensitive Children: Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy
Sensitive Emotion: HSPs and the Problem of Bearing an Unbearable Emotion

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