I don’t know about you, but for some reason, I’ve been feeling a little depleted lately. Maybe it’s the chronic underlying anxiety that accompanies a pandemic. Maybe it’s being cooped up in my house, staring too much at a screen, hunched over and tense and not moving enough. Maybe it’s that I’m seeing too few people in person.
These realities of the plague of 2020-21 are surely why P. Susan Jackson was posting recently to her social media on the subject of resilience. Jackson is the founder of the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted, where she works with a population she calls the exceptionally and profoundly gifted (EPG). When she first spoke to Third Factor in 2018, she elaborated on this label, describing EPGs as those with “complex emotions, acute perception, capacity for nuance, and particularly high ability.” On social media, she added that they are “hardwired to work very well but (especially the exceptionally gifted) too complicated to work perfectly.”
Capable of operating at a very high level, and yet—indeed, for that very reason—likely to stumble from time to time. Yeah, I know some people like that. So I was not at all surprised to see that Jackson was talking in 2020 about resilience. Gifted or not, who couldn’t use more of that these days?
With this in mind, I reached out to Sue Jackson to see if she’d be willing to impart some of the wisdom she’s gathered from her work with this population with our readers. We started with some basic questions: what’s special about this topic for intense, (over)sensitive, (over)thinking people? And if we don’t have much resilience already, what might we do cultivate it?
What is Resilience?
Regular readers will know that we at Third Factor like to talk about Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD). (You can learn about it here if you’re not familiar with it.) Last time I spoke to Jackson, we talked about how Dabrowski’s theory has influenced her work. This time, when I asked her to define resilience, she put it in the language of TPD: “It’s the capacity to reintegrate after disintegration, even a small one,” she told me. “And it’s a learned capacity, that you can be in difficult situations—in disintegrative states—and come out the other side. In pedestrian terms, it’s the ability to spring back.
“I believe that everyone comes into the world, barring severe prenatal harm, with this capacity,” she continued. “But it can be damaged or harmed very very early.”
To illustrate, she shared with me the stories of two clients, a preschool-aged girl and a grown man. (Note that, to protect confidentiality, some individuals are actually composites of patterns that she has seen repeatedly in this population.)
Let’s start with the little girl. When she first came to the Daimon Institute at age four, she had such severe agoraphobia that she would not leave her house at all. After a couple sessions of play therapy, however, Jackson was able to dig through the anxiety to reach what she described as a “pulsing will—a will to create, to contribute, to live.” She built the girl’s therapy around the principle of unconditional positive regard, laced with insight and humor and focused in significant part on helping her channel that will through creative activities. “I thought, if only I could meet people who show any signs of disintegrative things when they’re really young!” Jackson said. It’s easy to imagine that, left on the path she’d been on, this little girl might have grown up plagued with anxiety. With the right interventions, however, she came to represent Jackson’s archetype of resilience in the highly gifted population.
Now let’s turn to the grown man. By the time he made it through the Daimon Institute’s waiting list and began working with Jackson, he was hanging on by a thread. “This person’s connection to that will to live, his will to pursue his inborn creative stuff, was disturbingly faint,” she told me. He was not merely manifesting the classic depressive symptoms of low energy, lack of interest in things one once enjoyed, and cognitive distortions; he had taken those distortions to a level that Jackson found remarkable. “He was starting to deny even his own experience,” she explained. “So there’s an example of someone whose will toward development—toward his personality ideal—had become truncated and obfuscated.”
Rooting in the Physical
This brings us to our key question: is there hope for adults like this? If no one was there for you as a child to help you channel that pulsing will, can you learn to do so after you’ve grown up?
Jackson believes the answer is yes. That’s not to deny, however, that it’s going to take effort. And that’s why, as she told me, “The first step is to really believe in yourself and your capacity for self renewal. In your capacity for continued growth and development.”
Once you’ve established this faith in yourself, you must begin to address that truncated, obfuscated will through a practice that Jackson called radical self-care. And when she says “radical,” she doesn’t mean it in the sense that those marketing bath salts to stressed-out millennial mean it; she’s using its original Latin meaning of the root. It’s their roots that she advises her clients to address first—and as physical beings, our bodies are our primary root.
I’ve no doubt that you’ve heard it before—exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep!—but from what Jackson has seen, it’s a message that bears emphasizing to a group whose members have a tendency to favor the mind over the body. “Encouraging yourself to have good sleep patterns, good nutrition, low-inflammation diets—that’s very important to this population,” she said. “I’ll have people come to me in these depressive states. They’re in chronic pain; they have poor nutrition and poor physicality. And there’s no hope of accessing psychological resiliency if chronic pain is blocking it.”
This disconnection from the physical is a particular problem for Jackson’s intellectually gifted clientele because of how they tend to conceive of themselves, their strengths, and their purpose. After all, when we think about “giftedness,” as she told me, we tend to focus so much on the intellect that other parts of life can get lost. And that’s part of why bright people can get stuck in those restricted ruts.
Nourishing the Body
Take food, for instance. Many intellectually inclined people will not find it as interesting as discussing politics or science or literature or values. They may see food as mere fuel—perhaps even as an annoyance that gets in the way of pursuing a harder-to-meet need of engaging their ravenous intellects. But if it’s the life of the mind you care about, Jackson suggests you pay some special attention to your diet.
“The gut is the second mind,” she told me, noting that recent research suggests that depression has the same biomarkers for inflammation. Food sensitivities, however, are a recurring issue for Jackson’s EPG clients, who frequently fall under the umbrella of the “superstimulable” or “highly sensitive.” Therefore, those who fit her clients’ general profile and seek to bolster their resilience should consider whether any foods might be triggering inflammation in their bodies.
“It seems that eighty percent of the folks I work with have dairy sensitivities,” she told me. “Wheat and gluten are often brought up as culprits, as are soy and eggs, but dairy is something for people to have a look at.”
It was striking for me to hear this. I hadn’t anticipated that this was what Jackson would say when I asked her about strategies for building resilience, but a few months back, I had noticed the mango smoothies I relied on for a protein boost in the middle of the day was triggering symptoms akin to severe respiratory allergies. (After some experimentation, mango was ruled acceptable but yogurt—and possibly all dairy—was out.)
Jackson offered a knowing sympathy when I shared this anecdote. For people already depleted in resilience, it can seem at first like just another burden when the quick and easy food you’ve relied on for some other important benefit is suddenly off the table. Moreover, in contrast with the “food is mere fuel” contingent, another part of Jackson’s clientele is used to deriving a particular joy from their favorite foods.
“It’s not always easy to be self-disciplined when we’re talking about restricting food,” Jackson said, “because of our sensual overexcitabilities and our love of culture and experience. And I have so much compassion for that.” She therefore urged patience and experimentation when dealing with this daunting question. It is true that some people will require significant restrictions; a member of her own family has to avoid thirty separate foods, including some that trigger extreme reactions. Often, however, the restriction will not be as strict as one might fear. When she experimented with her own diet, she found that while she felt better when she excluded dairy from cows, she was still able to eat sheep’s cheese. I myself am in the process of working out whether the same restriction works for me, or whether I can even include other cheeses, even as I have to give up my yogurt smoothies.
Putting Out New Branches
Since we’re speaking of overexcitability in the context of our physiological roots, it’s worth noting that this, too, is a physiological trait. In keeping with our metaphor, then, it also emerges from our roots—but it’s in our branches that we observe it.
For those who are new to the concept, Dabrowski (1972) defined overexcitability as a higher than average responsiveness to stimuli, manifesting in any (or all) of five domains—the psychomotor, the senses, the emotions, the imagination, or the intellect. And though he said that OE (especially intellectual, imaginational, and emotion) gives rise to developmental potential, mastering that potential is a huge challenge. So I asked Jackson: in her experience, does OE offer raw material for building resilience, or is it in fact the hindrance that we must overcome?
“It’s two sides of the same coin,” she replied immediately. “OEs are disintegrative processes. They are also the building blocks of the creative processes toward a personality ideal.” The personality ideal, of course, is another construct from TPD, defined by Dabrowski as “an individual standard against which one evaluates one’s actual personality structure. It arises out of one’s experience and development.” (1972)
To accept a disintegrated state, however, is a mistake. “In harmony with Dabrowski, my attitude gives off that disintegration is a wonderful opportunity,” Jackson told me. “But very quickly—the pivot is lightning quick—we need to work toward an integrative state. We need to accept the experience you’re having, but we do not want to over-identify with it.”
So how can one harness and channel that higher-than-average response to stimuli for reintegration?
“What I would think of in framing this answer is some kind of dynamic balance with the OEs,” Jackson said. If she notices that a client is heavily favoring the intellect (say, by observing a shelf full of books behind her on a Skype-based intake session, as she did with me), she might begin by exploring whether that client was favoring the intellectual domain at the expense of others. If so, as she explained to me, “one of the goals of a therapist is to shock the system by inviting the person into a different area of exploration.”
“The key is finding the dynamic balance of the OEs,” she continued. Sometimes it is as simple as encouraging an emotionally intense but bottled-up young person to explore writing poetry.
Sometimes, however, the client first needs to be convinced that overexcitability can be harnessed and channeled effectively at all. “I was talking to a brand new kid, and somehow the message had come across to him that he couldn’t ‘help it’ because he has these overexcitabilities,” Jackson said. This child was surrounded by adults who saw it this way—who had no understanding that psychomotor OE could be used as a fuel for growth. In cases like this, Jackson helps the client uncover creative ways to use that intensity. For instance, if team sports aren’t a match, what about an individual athletic practice like swimming? If formal athletics aren’t right at all, what about drumming? For someone who’s disintegrated, “The goal is to literally help form something else,” Jackson said. In this way, this process of putting out new branches “becomes a metaphor for the dynamic process of development.”
What Can We Do For Others?
Echoing Dabrowski’s faith in the power of what he termed “creative dynamisms” to help this population reinvent themselves, Jackson said that her work suggests that the exceptionally and profoundly gifted are truly rich in creative capacities, and that this is a strength that underlies her faith in their resilience.
As I talked with Jackson about her work with this population—the highly gifted, highly sensitive people, orchids, the overexcitable; you may pick whatever term works for you—I thought about my own role as a content creator conversing with this audience. So many people I have encountered through Third Factor do indeed seem to be struggling with some kind of thwarted will. They know they want to put out branches, to bloom, but they could use some help figuring out how.
Not content to leave this all to the therapists, I have asked myself, what can we in the Third Factor community do for our friends who are feeling thwarted and out of balance in this way? Here Jackson’s comments on her approach to her clients may be of use. “Part of my own work is to shrink myself as small as I can be and allow that person in their time with me to tap into what they need to do to access their creativity,” she explained.
And indeed, this is a thing that friends can do for one another. Friendship is a two-way relationship of equals, of course; no one is being paid for their time and no one is assumed to be the provider and the recipient. But this, of course, is an average over time. Sometimes one person in a friendship is the friend in need, looking for the proverbial friend indeed.
Moreover, where a caring adult can get a preschool-aged girl’s pulsing will on track by drawing pictures of unicorns with her, many adults have come to believe that no one wants their unicorn drawings. “Adults may need permission or resources or space to just dabble creatively with their core template,” Jackson told me. “We all have this capacity, but it can get blanketed.”
Resilience can be learned: this much is clear from Jackson’s work. What is also clear is that we learn it most readily when we have a teacher, a partner, or a friend holding out a hand and helping us lift ourselves up.
In our next issue, Sue Jackson and I talk more about the importance of community, the cultivation of the body to support cultivation of the mind, and the huge impact of socioeconomic class on the trajectory of exceptionally and profoundly gifted people.