The intersection of trauma and giftedness is not a fun topic to explore. But it’s a real one, because there are many gifted adults in the world trying hard to heal from their past trauma. I’ve been wanting to write an article on this topic for a long time, but I’ve struggled to do so, ironically, because of my own painful past. If you’re working through trauma, I hope reading my story and healing journey will help you on yours.
By Jennifer Harvey Sallin
I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!
I’ve had the idea of writing an article about giftedness and trauma for several years now. Looking back, I can see why it’s been so hard for me, despite how much I write about and coach on giftedness and self-development. I have worked hard for over a decade now toward healing from my own past trauma, and while I’ve healed a lot, and I’m grateful for that, there are still layers I’ve been unable to access or am still in the process of accessing. This makes it difficult to take an “expert” stance on giftedness and trauma as a writer. The other issue is that, when it comes to my own trauma, I don’t want to talk about it! I hated growing up with trauma, and swore to myself that I was going to fix it or outgrow it and live a great adult life without any sign of the effects of what I lived through. However, since trauma is stored in the recesses of the body and the mind and cannot readily be accessed and healed without proper contextual safety, some of my trauma reactions have continued to persist in my life and the subject is sometimes still very present – and sometimes still quite overwhelming – for me.
Over the last years, not only “negative” challenges, but also positive life developments have brought up old pain to work through. For example, starting InterGifted and becoming a part of a worldwide community of gifted people has been a wonderful blessing in my life, but it also triggered old pain related to my social self. Being so visible to so many people recalled the years I spent in the fishbowl of my parents’ life – my dad as the pastor of a big church, and I the little church mascot who was constantly under the moral microscope of the whole church family. And, ironically, meeting other people who got my gifted mind and mirrored back to me that it wasn’t crazy triggered not only relief and joy, but also grief and pain for all the times in my life my social world mirrored back to me how crazy my mind seemed to them.
With “negative” and “positive” life developments alike, I’m fairly often faced with the truth that, even though I’ve come so far, my work of healing is not done. In those moments, even if the messenger is a positive development, my immediate, instinctual reaction is “No!”. I feel I don’t want another iota of my being to be devoted to the darkness and the evil in trauma, and so far, it seems that each time I’ve tried to write about giftedness and trauma, that instinctual “No!” has been triggered.
HEALING FROM TRAUMA IS RESOURCE-CONSUMING
The thing is, trauma is messy. Whether it’s pain or joy that triggers trauma reactions, they are overwhelming and chaotic, and making sense of them and working toward healing them is often very resource-consuming. After a full work-day, I want to relax, not necessarily take time to recall the pain of abuse so that I can process it and let it go in the present. Trauma drags you where it will, and its healing is not something that fits neatly into your weekly schedule (this especially if you have kids – and especially because kids and your experiences in parenting can actually trigger trauma responses!). It can also be financially costly to heal trauma, if you get professional help: sessions with psychotherapists, body healers, buying books, and coaching all cost money. And it all costs time, effort and attention as well.
Regular life – earning a living, raising a family, and “just getting by” – can be so resource-consuming, that at times, accessing and healing trauma has to get pushed to the side for more immediate concerns. But the more trauma gets pushed aside, the harder it becomes to access (and thus heal), and the cycle continues. Repressed trauma doesn’t disappear, it just gets diverted into other things – physical and mental illness, neurosis, addiction, low self-esteem, lack of self-control, etc. And for a gifted person, who may already struggle in career, relationships and life due to their giftedness alone – and all the extra thoughts and complexity, or social loneliness, that they experience – this can become very tricky. So, there is a very real need to face it, and to figure out how to fit that into the rest of life.
THE TENDENCY TO MINIMIZE
But facing it can be so hard! Throughout my life, I’ve found myself wanting to rush through healing so I can have more resources in my life for thriving (not just surviving) and more time and attention for pleasurable experiences. But, ironically, this rushing mentality has always triggered other problems, namely that rushing causes me to minimize my experience (“hurry up and forget how you feel!”). I grew up in a family in which problems were minimized, including my reactions to the major problems we had, and I learned well by imitation to minimize my own perception of these events. Getting professional help was not an option and it was equally out of the question for me to talk about what I was going through openly. I always told myself that others had it way worse than me, and even if I could have admitted the import of my experiences and my traumatic reactions, I felt somehow bound by an unspoken rule in my family: as the pastor’s family, we were not allowed to have problems.
Working with therapists, coaches, and mentors in my twenties (once I was on my own), as well as training as a psychologist and coach and dedicating myself to a regular meditation practice, was extremely helpful in allowing me to slow down enough to see the grandeur of the task I faced. My ACE score (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study – an assessment which measures childhood traumatic experiences) is five, and as ACE scores increase, so does the ongoing risk of lifelong social, emotional and health problems – major problems typically start at the score of four and go up from there.
I was grateful for the healing that came from all my self-development work, but I have to admit that as soon as I had reached some sort of mid-term healing plateau, I went right back to wanting to move on so I could get on to that trauma-free life I had dreamed of. To this day, each instance of trauma trigger that’s come up since then, both positive and negative, has tempted me (often strongly!) to minimize again and to try to rush past the pain. Often, I have falsely believed I could be some sort of superwoman and rely on my gifted mind and my fierce determination to get me past it all in fast-forward. Sometimes I still try, but more and more often I find I can more easily welcome and process the trauma reactions – challenging and time-consuming as that may be. I actively cultivate my capacity to sit with the proverbial elephant (trauma) in my room, and figure out how I can help him to get back out to the safari jungle, where he belongs. Sometimes I have to restructure the house, or take out the door frame…
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
Yet isn’t it interesting that, still, after everything, the voice in my head, upon writing this all today (with the intent to publish it), picks back up on its old well-worn melody, “Well, with an ACE score of ‘just’ five, what are you complaining about? You’re just over the border of ‘bad’ – lots of people have it way worse! Why are you even writing about your meager problems?”. What I experienced was real, and continues to affect me to this day. It may not be the worst possible scenario, yet why would “less bad” somehow not be legitimate? I would never feel this way about one of my clients, so why the double standard against myself – even after so many years of cultivating self-compassion and patience? One reason is carried emotion – the voice in my head that tells me that if I could have had it worse, then I have no reason to complain (and certainly no right to do so in public!). As in the carried emotions article, I can look at that voice, realize it’s not mine, and give it back now, but each time, it’s a task I must do with conscious awareness. It’s still not always automatic for me to feel justified in stating my truth, or my perception of what is true for me.
In fact, this is all hard to talk about exactly because of that. Though I discussed my past and my trauma and journey toward healing in detail in my memoirs (not yet published), I had honestly hoped that it would be the only place I would need to publicly talk about it. Like, it would be all wrapped up in this nice, pretty package and I could send it out into the world like a message in a bottle without ever having to claim it was my message. I had even intended to publish under a pseudonym, but lately, based on these reflections, I’ve been rethinking the decision. Why am I so ashamed of my trauma and the ways it still affects me today?
Partly it’s shame, and partly it’s what I said earlier: I’m sick of having to think about trauma, and having to feel it and work through it. There is a very real fear that if I say it aloud, it’s going to amplify my need to focus on it, when rationally, that’s the thing I want least in my life! Yet, my experience has shown me that not saying it aloud (and trying to minimize it or deny it or “superwoman” it out of my life) hasn’t made it disappear at all – in fact, I’ve noticed that it’s the opposite effect: the more I’m forthright and direct with it, the more quickly I heal and the less space it takes up in my life.
FEAR OF TALKING ABOUT IT
But there are blocks to forthrightness that I think many gifted people who have lived through trauma will understand:
First, I don’t want to give people more of a reason to judge me – I’m already weird enough as a gifted person who has strong autistic and OCD tendencies to deal with. I don’t want to give fodder to the fire at all! So much of my life has been about looking odd and not fitting into normal societal expectations. If I add on trauma – and talking about it publicly! – how much more bullying and insults will I have to endure?
Second, carried emotions tell me that I’m being overdramatic and oversensitive (insults hurled on me many times as a teenager), that I’m inventing stories, and so on. (And, yes, I can work with each of those carried emotions one by one. But, see, here are the resource costs I’m talking about!). Even without carried emotions, I do have a strong resistance to inventing stories, trying to garner attention and sympathy through hyperbole or narcissistic or histrionic dramatism, and my gifted mind could always see the possibility that I could be doing that. So, it often doesn’t want to let me say anything at all, and threatens me with all the things that might happen if I do. For example:
Third, I worry about how people will use this information against me, which I realize in my own case, is a very real fear that comes from real life traumatic experiences of having my truths be used to humiliate me (sometimes even publicly) when I was younger. I know with my idealistic tendencies, I’ve been taken advantage of many, many times. Plus, there’s something in trauma called trauma bonding, which makes the trauma victim more loyal to the perpetrator than to himself. When someone is being mean to me, it’s hard not to resort back into the trauma bonding mind-pattern: trying to be better for the mean person, rather than staying true to myself and getting away. I’ve gotten much better about that over the years, but it is a real fear and dealing with it while negotiating my needs for authentic self-expression as a gifted person, adult, professional, partner, friend, writer and person who suffered significant trauma, takes a lot of effort. Again, it’s still not completely automatic, and this negotiation and courage-finding requires frequent system checks and “software” updates in my mind.
I theoretically know that whatever anyone says or does in response to my authentic expression is their responsibility alone and that I do not have to accept meanness from them. But it’s hard. My idealism as a gifted person, my all-consuming desire for efficiency in relationships and life, and my own core value of authenticity make it so that I often get confused when people are mean. Is their meanness a reflection of an error in my logic – and if so, is it that they are being mean in order to help me positively grow? No, I’ve come to accept that the pleasure of growth doesn’t have to come as a result of meanness or trauma (though sometimes, admittedly, trauma does make us grow in real life), it’s just sometimes hard to stick to that when my (traumatized, gifted) mind can see all these possibilities, and I’m not sure which one is true.
CONTEXTS FOR HEALING
I’m writing this both as a mirror to allow myself to see my own process of healing (as a writer, writing is a natural way for me to learn, process, reorganize my thoughts, and share my inner feelings and journey with others), and to promote something specific: honesty about what one has lived, about the elephant in your house, and a group effort to rework the house so that the elephant can get back to its natural habitat and you can enjoy the sacred space that is your home. But also, so that, when an elephant pops up again, you don’t feel unable to deal with it or to talk openly about it, but rather empowered, encouraged, and supported in doing so.
I can say this all now, because I know that whatever my speaking out unleashes in the world, it will now go through my filter of highest principles rather than just my trauma triggers. I can also say this now because of the support I’ve received in facing the latest trauma triggers and reactions that have shown up in my own life. As a new elephant was growing, some true peers (from InterGifted’s community) were able to support me in restructuring my “house” to let the elephant out. They were able to do so, understanding how my giftedness came into play in the scenario, and understanding and alleviating my fears of not being taken seriously as a coach and helping professional (due to my own periods of struggle and growth), not being taken seriously as a smart person (“If I’m so smart, why am I struggling?”), being considered overdramatic (“What do you have to complain about?”), and my fears of being humiliated (“Look at how ridiculous she is to be revealing so much personal information in public!”). Having true gifted peers has allowed me to feel safer to reveal the not-so-pretty sides of what I’ve lived and how it still affects me, because I feel that they still see me and still see my mind – and don’t confuse me with my trauma.
This is an important point, because contextual safety is paramount to healing trauma. One of the big challenges of gifted people healing from trauma is finding that contextual safety. Those who have sought help with a non-gifted therapist or helping professional often find that they didn’t feel particularly understood or encouraged at their level. Those who have sought guidance and support from friends or family often have felt that the complexity of their trauma or reactions were not understood, thus they were unable to move onto the next level of healing. This is why I find my work so important, in providing services specific to gifted people, so that they can find the contextual safety they need in order to heal.
There’s something else about context that I must mention. I am passionate about self-actualization and to some degree, self-transcendence. This is the path I have been on since my teen years (if not earlier). So, I can also say all of this now, due to the prep work I’ve done on that path. Working hard to climb the ladder of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (or Dabrowksi’s mountain), I’ve legitimized my needs for survival, physical and emotional safety, belonging, self-esteem, aesthetic and cognitive stimulation, self-actualization and self-transcendence. Spending considerable time at the higher levels of the mountain requires and at the same time makes possible healing on the lower levels, by giving the perspective, energy, courage and motivation to do the hard work of healing. And it’s not linear. When you have enough of a glimpse of the higher states, working through the pain of the lower states takes on a new purpose and meaning, and is an expression of the self-love you recover by rising to the you that you find at the higher levels.
So essentially, contexts for healing from trauma include: sufficient time, energy and financial resources, social safety, social understanding (including the gifted component!), commitment to the process, willingness to accept help, acceptance of your own unique path, process and timing, and time spent at higher levels of awareness. Whenever I am tempted to hate my trauma, to minimize or deny it – to run away from my own home, or to try to party while the elephant is wreaking havoc in my sacred space – I remind myself that I can be grateful now for the trauma triggers that are coming up. Contexts provide possibilities, and if the context is allowing me to feel the pain now, it’s likely also giving me the contextual ingredients for healing this current layer of trauma (as the famous trauma healing phrase goes: “You can’t heal what you can’t feel”).
Afterthought: there’s a lot more to be said about the intersection of giftedness and trauma, or more specifically, how giftedness often heightens the feeling and results of trauma. You can learn more about this intersection in my podcast Conversations on Gifted Trauma.