It’s a jungle out there. And we the gifted? We’re the moose.
Now, it goes without saying that we moose don’t really fit-in in the jungle.
Social norms don’t often make room for our ways of behaving or interacting and so we’re misjudged or misunderstood… a lot. So we learn to stifle or hold back our intense instincts in order to connect. And that hurts.
Parts of mainstream culture and conversations can be painful for those of us who are highly empathetic (cue the Kleenex and xanax). They can be frustrating to those of us who prefer to skip past the superficial and get right to talking about the space-time continuum. Or they can be downright confusing to those of us with high ethical and moral standards who simply cannot understand Why in Goodness’ Name They Would Do/Say/Tweet That!!! Whyyyyyyyyy?!?!?
And when we try to find ourselves in the narratives delivered by TV, movies, and even YouTube, we get only occasional glimpses of that quirky, intense spark we recognize in ourselves. Just a glimpse. And it’s almost never called out by name. Never owned or explained, or presented in the full context of its real nature. Our nature.
So, a few changes need to be made if we’re going to thrive in the jungle (because surviving simply isn’t enough anymore). Moose deserve to be genuinely happy being their not-so-inconspicuous, uniquely intense selves among the tropical birds and ferns. We deserve to have a voice in how the jungle operates, and we need to be able to climb to the tops of the highest trees to get the bigger perspective that we need to navigate this unintuitive terrain.
There are two rules that my 10-plus years of academic and professional experience have taught me about the ways of the jungle. Two brave and important exercises that have become daily practices for me, and while I may be a long way from perfecting them, that’s ok because perfection was never the point. I practice to set myself free from the limits and faults that I was taught by cultures that didn’t know how to make sense of me. I practice because just like there are systems and ‘rules’ that leave-out our way of being, there are even more ways for adding new ideas and meaning to those systems- for making new rules.
Rule #1: We must understand our gifted experience
If I told you that your giftedness came with a unique ability to perceive the world, you’d probably believe me. But what if I told you that with that unique perception came gifted culture?
Culture is really not much more than stories and information that we’re taught to use to ensure our physical and social survival. It’s because of culture that we learn to perceive certain things (like some Alaska Natives* who can see 50 different kinds of snow) and ignore others (like the same Alaska Natives who might get totally confused by 50 different kinds of flip-flops). And it’s based on culture that we create complex systems of values, behaviors, and perception to cope with real-world environments and challenges.
For the gifted brain, a unique neuroanatomy means a unique set of needs for survival, and thus, a unique set of stories and information that we need to help ensure that our gifted brains live to see another day. Understanding and learning to adapt this system means we can get more creative about how we meet our needs in the real world and how we talk to other people about it. And in the bigger picture, we can marry our many identities and values with our gifted ones to more intentionally integrate our giftedness as a strength and a part of ourselves that we love, and love to share with others.
But as it stands now, when the cultures that we’re exposed to (through upbringing, real-life experiences, and media) don’t contain the information we need to protect our gifted biology, we’re left to fend for ourselves. Most of us find some gifted culture in online communities, conferences, therapy, and books. And yet we can still feel a gaping void.
That’s because as soon as we step out into the jungle, we step into a world where our gifted culture and perception isn’t recognized. What most others see instead are things to fix or correct, or behaviors that are simply out-of-place or rude, which is why…
Rule #2: We need to be better negotiators of difference
“In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Mean making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar…”
Our intensities and other gifted behaviors aren’t judged negatively simply because they’re different. They’re judged negatively because everything we’ve been taught about those behaviors tells us something’s wrong or something needs to be fixed. According to our limited data, they point to an underlying issue- an imbalance, rude or hurtful intentions, or a misunderstanding of the situation.
One way to handle this is to provide more data; more possible, underlying reasons for the behavior. And the best way to do that isn’t to launch into a mini-lecture about neurodiversity and overexcitabilities (friends don’t let friends lecture strangers). It’s to figure out how your intensity might be making someone uncomfortable and acknowledging that, even indirectly. You’re providing the extra data needed to help others see new reasons and intentions behind that intensity. (pssst… want to see what adding extra data looks like in real life?)
And there are other ways to negotiate difference as well. It’s what intercultural communication is about and why it became one of my most powerful tools while I began figuring out my own communication troubles. The freedom to create and be new things, once we figure-out how what we do is related to how we see the world, is at the heart of why this is so powerful for giftedness.
It’s an art and a complex task to learn how to take charge of being different. It takes time, courage, and a sense of humor. But the pay-off is incredible: the freedom to be yourself and carefully share your authentic way of being with others… with better results.
As decidedly atypical (and a-tropical?) moose in the jungle, we must learn to be openly and lovingly different, because when we do, other people’s worlds (as well as our own) are reshaped to make space for us, the gifted.
And THAT, my beautiful, neuroatypical friends, is a cultural revolution.
* This post originally used the term ‘Eskimo’ which a reader very kindly pointed out is offensive to some. While ‘Eskimo’ is a term commonly used (for better or worse) in linguistics to label a family of languages in that region of the world, it is its use a name for a cultural group that can be very problematic. I have instead chosen to use the term Alaska Native which, to my understanding, is a more culturally sensitive term. If this difference in terms is something that is of interest to you, I discovered a few interesting articles you may want to peruse (one, two). It’s a tricky thing to represent the identity of others in one’s own words, as many gifted people can likely relate to. We will many times miss something in the process and so we look to each other for insight. ?