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Coping Through Awareness
A transformational tool for coping
with being highly gifted
In this article, the Four Stages
of the Awareness Model:
By Andrew S. Mahoney, M.S.,
Coping for a highly gifted person
requires knowing oneself and becoming more aware of what is truly
involved with being highly gifted. Coping is also a process that
should allow one to contend better with his giftedness throughout
life. Yet coping poses many challenges and is not free of emotional
strife or tension. The goal in coping must not rob one from his
nature, but provide a means to explore and enhance the experience
of being highly gifted. There are few models to make sense of the
extreme nature and exceptional experience in life for this special
population. So life for the highly gifted individual can be an arduous
and seemingly impossible task. We already know that meeting the
educational needs of our highly gifted is an extremely difficult
task. So when we consider the social emotional needs, the task of
meeting those needs could be exponentially even greater.
The Awareness Model described here
is a transformational tool that can help the gifted individual make
meaning of her experience and provide a process for coping and growth.
The Awareness Model describes how a transformation to acceptance
of the gifted self can occur naturally or with facilitation. It
was developed by the late Dr. Vince Sweeney, a pioneer in the field
of family therapy and transpersonal psychology. Although Dr. Sweeney
was not involved in the gifted field, he was aware of the unique
social emotional needs of highly gifted individuals and how their
giftedness was a variable to be considered in the transformation
process of growth. He developed the model to provide a framework
to understand the human experience in a way that would neither minimize
nor deny the depth or uniqueness of that experience; but would provide
a direction to begin coping naturally with the existential nature
model is a process with four stages that have a circular flow. One
stage leads directly into the next (see Figure 1). The model has
been adapted here to the experience of being highly gifted and to
the process of coping with that experience in its fullest.
Coping starts with awareness of being
highly gifted. Here awareness means more than a simple cognition.
Awareness of being highly gifted entails a richness of experiencing
"who I am as a gifted person and how my world is different and expressly
me." Gifted people experience awareness when they let down their
defenses and feel their feelings in regards to the intensity of
being highly gifted. The awareness of being gifted is not merely
having the label of gifted bestowed on them. It is taking in the
depth of feelings, intensities, behaviors and sensitivities of their
experience, having to contend with all of their experience and uniqueness.
Many people want to step over awareness.
They do not want to have what lies beneath their facades, their
denial of who they truly are. This is particularly true when being
"who I am" entails extreme difference from others and painful encounters
with the self. Awareness brings a depth of feeling and a relatedness
with the self. Without this awareness a gifted person can not fully
cope with her giftedness because she is somehow denying it from
within. Awareness will come through sharing the experience of being
highly gifted with self, others and particularly others who are
highly gifted. Awareness will come by letting feelings exist freely.
Awareness will come through appropriately challenging one's giftedness
through inquiry, rigor and discipline, therefore allowing the self
to be engaged in the process of growth. Awareness will not come
through denial of the pain, removal of challenge, or sedating the
self through work and addictions.
Others can help the highly
gifted become aware by being open to the nuances that come with
the experiences of being highly gifted, by educating themselves
and others about the experience, and by not attempting to protect
gifted individuals from their nature. "When I am aware, I am free
of denial." The experiences, feelings, behaviors and sensitivities
associated with being highly gifted are present and not resisted.
This openness can be difficult emotionally, but it frees individuals
to face themselves for who they truly are as gifted people. It is
the experience that leads to understanding and acknowledgment of
the uniqueness of being highly gifted. When people protect the highly
gifted from experiencing their essence, either through rationalizing,
pushing for conformity or just plain ignoring the pain that may
come along with giftedness, the gifted individual slides farther
from awareness and the ability to cope. We often think that being
different and the pain associated with that difference should be
taken away. Unfortunately the removal of that experience will deny
the gifted person of the richness that awareness can bring. Coping
through awareness requires honesty, feeling, experiencing and embracing
the nature of being highly gifted.
Once aware, acknowledgment is possible,
bringing with it the experience of feeling valid. "I am highly gifted,
and so are these very precious aspects of me." Acknowledgment is
the "why" of myself. It proclaims the meaning that allows me to
make sense of my giftedness and to challenge the nature of the gift.
This understanding can come only after a gifted person has awareness
and has experienced the giftedness that is unique to herself. When
a gifted person acknowledges that she has these feelings, aspects,
uniqueness and often extreme parts of herself, then she can formulate
methods to cope and grow in a manner that embraces her giftedness.
Acknowledgment provides purpose and
context to life. This is where coping becomes a real possibility.
"I have sufficiently embraced my giftedness through awareness when
my denial has subsided and I can now place a context and meaning
to my essence as it relates to being gifted." This is not a place
where pain or intensity is nonexistent or where needs are all met;
it is the place to set the foundation for growth and change. Acknowledgment
comes when one stops fighting what awareness has revealed about
the nature of being gifted. The meaning behind life's experience
then flows clear and with purpose.
To appreciate being highly gifted
is to embrace all of "who I am" as a gifted person. Appreciation
comes only after the earlier travels through developing awareness
and acknowledging the experience of being highly gifted. What once
was seen as a struggle or as unwanted characteristics, through appreciation
becomes a valued asset. Once a gifted person cannot deny himself
and his difference, he moves into a position of appreciating both
the angst and the heightened sense of being that accompanies his
gifts. By appreciating the gifts that are his, and all that the
gifts entail, he is equipped to share those gifts with the world
in an unselfish way, in a manner infused with "who I am." Appreciation
is transcendence. It is the pinnacle for change and for the ability
to contend with giftedness. Regarding coping, appreciation is a
resting place. "When I reach a place of appreciation, I can revel
in my existence and gain new energy to move further in my development
-- where coping becomes past tense. I have moved beyond coping to
a level where mastery of the self becomes paramount and achievable."
When a gifted person is in appreciation, he no longer needs to deny
or resist his essence.
Often the highly gifted are encouraged
to accept their giftedness and what it entails without moving through
awareness, acknowledgment, and appreciation. Acceptance comes only
after the mastery of those three stages. Acceptance becomes the
byproduct of the gifted person's existence, a letting go of what
was once foreign to her awareness and without meaning and value.
"When I accept myself and the gifts that come along with me, I am
free to be and experience all of who I am." At this stage the gifted
person has fully embraced the uniqueness of being highly gifted.
"I feel it, I understand it, and I have a sense of meaning and appreciation
behind who I am." Each time the gifted person goes through this
transformational process, she deepens her experience of self as
gifted and copes with being highly gifted. Once she reaches a level
of acceptance, she has opened the doorway to even greater awareness.
The process of moving from awareness
through acceptance is a natural one. Although it can be enhanced
through facilitation by teachers, parents, counselors or facilitation
from oneself. The following story depicts Seth's experience of being
highly gifted and coping through awareness. Even though Seth had
no conscious awareness of this transformational process, he experienced
it naturally to cope and then eventually to contend with himself
as a highly gifted individual.
Seth, now a young adult, spent much
of his adolescence trying to fit in with his peers. When he was
a young child he somehow figured out he was different and did not
act or experience the world like other children his age. He felt
lonely and strange. He then developed coping mechanisms to deny
his uniqueness and the pain he associated with it. Actively pursuing
a way out of his pain, he decided to fit in and get other children
to like him by conforming. He refused to face his giftedness and
the feelings that came with being gifted. He feared rejection if
others experienced him as different. His energy was spent doing
whatever he could to conform and not to appear different or strange.
Seth's denial of his nature went well into his adolescence.
As he grew through his adolescence
he was not consciously aware that his behavior and attitude were
affected by his denial of being gifted. Awareness on an unconscious
level was his deepest fear, but consciously he knew something about
how he faced the world was not right. As a young adult and after
many years of not facing himself, he felt empty and without purpose
in his life. He was having more trouble coping with life. The people
Seth once tried so hard to impress had now gone on to college and
other pursuits. Seth was left feeling more alone than ever before.
He started to question his loneliness and lack of purpose. The pain
began to creep up on him and he started to feel the feelings of
betraying himself throughout his youth.
Awareness for Seth began to emerge
as he allowed himself to face some of his pain. He did not know
why he had these feelings, just that they were there and that he
had no place to hide from this existential awakening. One day he
gave himself permission to not fight the feelings. So the feelings
came, and for several days, even weeks, he felt them. As the feelings
flowed freely into his awareness, he noticed this newfound awareness
was evolving into understanding, an acknowledgment. He realized
that somehow his denial of being gifted was involved with his deep
feelings of betrayal. For the first time, Seth felt he was going
to survive his pain, to cope with what it means to be a highly gifted
young man. The more he acknowledged the feelings he had, the more
insight and understanding emerged. He now felt answers to his questions
of why things happened the way they did. Why he escaped the reality
and pain of being with his giftedness early on in life. Why he tried
so hard to fit in with his peers, betraying much of who he was during
his adolescence, ignoring his deeper feelings and denying his abilities.
As Seth continued to feel and acknowledge
his true self, his sense of purpose began to emerge. He started
to appreciate his struggle. Going beyond just coping with these
feelings, he started to have a desire to face his potential, perhaps
to return to college or to create like he did prior to his adolescence.
It was this sense of deep appreciation of who he truly was that
lead him to cope and grow with less fear and more knowledge. As
he returned to challenge his giftedness, he then reached a level
of acceptance. Accepting who he is and has always been involves
accepting being highly gifted, and with this acceptance he no longer
felt the need to betray or deny his self.
The acceptance of his giftedness
has now opened Seth to a new level of awareness about himself as
a highly gifted individual. Even though Seth discovered the awareness
to cope and contend naturally, awareness of this transformational
process model may be one way to precipitate coping for the highly
gifted sooner in life and add a richness to the experience.
© Copyright 2001
| Andrew S. Mahoney and Associates | All rights reserved.
Andrew S. Mahoney, MS, L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is
director of The Counseling Practice of Andrew S. Mahoney , a
counseling center for the gifted and talented. In addition, he
is past chair of the Counseling and Guidance Division of the
National Association of Gifted Children, and a trainer and supervisor
of counselors. For 20 plus years, Mr. Mahoney has explored and
developed frameworks for the counseling and psychotherapy of
Gifted and Talented individuals. His work offers a new and original
perspective for those interested in better serving this unique
population. He is also a professional pastel artist. To view
his online web porfolio, click
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