Supergirl On a mission to save the world One Person at a time

It's funny how perceptions change - funny strange rather than funny 'ha ha'. Reading some of the New Zealand Gifted Awareness blogs as they have been published, I suddenly and unexpectedly became acutely aware of some of the tragedies of my past and how tightly knitted these are with the very core of experiencing the world with the deep levels of sensitivity, empathy, passion and compassion that are often an integral part being gifted.

How I viewed the world as a teenager impacted on the decisions I made, and therefore the consequences for myself, friends and family. In trying to save one - because easing the suffering of another human is the right thing to do - I unwittingly began on a journey that would damage myself and others I cared deeply for.

Shoved away in a box for a long time, one particular series of events is no longer my burden alone; I have recently had the courage to share it. The result has been astonishing. Not only has it lifted a weight, but also opened up a way to reflect and reframe these experiences for my only healing. Furthermore, it has left me contemplating how well we equip our young people to keep safe, especially our teenage girls who are naturally driven to 'save' others.

Intensity and sensitivity are common traits among the gifted. Lovecky (2011) talks about passion and compassion being two components of sensitivity, the former relating to levels of intensity and complexity of feelings, while the latter is the sense of caring "enabling them to make commitments to social causes from a desire to decrease the pain they see others suffering." We often hear of highly sensitive gifted children, who need to be shielded from the atrocities in the news, and hear how we can help these kids see that they are able to effect change in manageable ways to help others. But what happens as our kids start to become more independent and we are no longer able to shield them in this way? How, when immersed in empathy and a need for action, not to mention the hormones, can we equip these kids to be emotionally safe and avoid unforseen dangers?

"Compassionate gifted children suffer too, and are apt to relate intensely to the suffering of the world around them"

I remember my Mum telling me once that as a very young child I would get very upset if I heard a baby or child crying. That I seemed to be somehow innately attuned to them and desperate to stop their suffering. I never really thought anything of it. But as I got older and entered into my teens, I soon found myself blurring the lines between outpourings of love that were associated with crushes, and the outpourings of love through empathy for someone hurting. I seemed to have a radar for hidden emotional hurt, but absolutely no clue about how to differentiate my emotional responses to these. (I am glad to say that over time I have developed these abilities).

However, over the years I ended up in a number of relationships with highly wounded individuals who expressed their needs in less than desirable ways. What appeared from the outside, to be a 'good girl' after some excitement, going after the 'bad boys', was really a clear sign of an empathetic individual needing help. What I needed was a deeper level of self-understanding as a gifted individual, and to be equipped to stand strong and hold fast so as not to be swept out with the undercurrent of emotions and need to heal others.

"This great empathy may mean that they feel so many feelings that they cannot distinguish whose feelings are whose. To use their great empathy without risking being overwhelmed by strong feelings, they need to learn how to separate their feelings from those of others and to understand that they need to feel “with” rather than “for” the other person."

High levels of perception also have a big role to play in such circumstances, not only in seeing beyond the superficial to know the hurt, but also the deep awareness of right, wrong and fairness. How can one right these wrongs of the world? How is it that others seem to fail to see the need, or fail to care enough?

If you have a teenager, then you likely appreciate how quickly relationships become a central part of their identity. So for the gifted teen who is highly perceptive and empathetic, it can be a very dramatic progression from needing to 'make' a change, to 'being' the change, to being stuck in a situation that is over their heads. As Lovecky says, "This sense of passionate commitment is powerful, and far outweighs all the conflict that might occur before the goal is attained", in this case the goal to heal somone.

It is important that we instil a clear sense in our children and teens, of the signs of "too much", along with the knowledge of how and where to access support, whether from home, school, friends' parents, mentors, professionals or other safe adults. They need lots of options available to them, because as Brene Brown establishes in her TED Talk, shame and vulnerability go hand in hand, often making it very difficult for our teens to open up, and bridge what can at times, seem like an insurmountable divide, to ask for (non-judgemental) help.

A substantial level of conflict and often self-blame, accompanies high levels of perceptiveness. While it brings an unusual depth of insight, it can also bring a very strong sense of responsibility and ownership over choices and their accompanying consequences. If you think about this in terms of an abusive relationship, it is easy to see how easily these teens might slip into a victim mentality of "I deserve it", and struggle to see that a/ they need to extricate themselves from a situation that is damaging, and b/ find a way out.

One way to help prevent this outcome is to role-model and explicitly teach the skill of holding space for others. Tara Bliss likens holding space to holding a seat for someone. "You don’t feel any particular attachment or feeling towards the seat, but your intention is that she has somewhere to land that is hers. It is an offering to her". You hold space, baring witness but without getting emotionally involved. It is a delicate balance of deep listening and care, with boundaries. Samantha Nolan-Smith adds to this, expressing that "When you give someone your energy, either consciously or unconsciously, you’re not helping them". We cannot help another person by joining them in their chaos and becoming emotionally drained. Rather we need to make space so that they have the opportunity to be drawn into a sense of peace and calm.

I have found the process of sharing, reflection and reframing to be very reassuring. I sense the beginning of true healing, thanks to those who have been holding space for me as I work through this. Reading my journalling I have begun to recognise why I could not see how my relationship was abusive, and why I have failed after all this time, to heal as a result of holding onto the victim mentality of deserving the consequences of my choices - even all these years later. While I may not be ready to share my story more widely for the benefit of others yet, I am ready to stand strong and hold fast in empowering our gifted girls and boys to know how to feel "with" rather than "for", and how to make a difference in a way that both preserves and strengthens their sense of identity and resolve.

Join me in making this difference, to ensure that our kids don't grow up feeling so much, that they end up feeling nothing, but rather grow up empowered to hold space, and in doing so, make a true difference.

For practical approaches to supporting gifted children who are highly sensitive, empathetic and/or perceptive, check out "interventions for parents" here in Lovecky's article.

Posted as part of the 2017 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour #NZGAW, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

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Created with images by AnneCN - "Supergirl!" • deovolenti - "Hugs!" • Eva Luedin - "Ocean" • uberculture - "seats"