Gifted ACT

 

Brooke Trenwith

President NZAGC | Director Potential to Performance Ltd
Waikato
New Zealand

 

Wellbeing_Couch

 

When the theme of Gifted Awareness Week 2020 was set, there really was no inkling as to how important the theme of Gifted Wellbeing would be. 2020 vision (pun intended) has shown us that wellbeing is actually the most important thing for us all to consider.

 

Our time in Level 4 Lockdown has reminded us of how much we value time with our friends and family, how much teachers give to our children. The “essential workers” are not those who sit in businesses behind a desk, but those you see driving the courier vans and working at the supermarkets, not to mention our doctors and nurses. 

 

In January 2020, I started learning about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy from a clinical psychologist.  I had a rough year in 2019 and to be 100% honest, I was dreading 2020 even before Covid 19 reared its pointy spikes. I deliberately chose this particular clinical psychologist as he specialises in autistic adults (and, okay, he was in a short driving distance). I thought that his experience with the neurodiverse would be of benefit to me. I didn’t want the statement that is so often given to the neurotypical - “Have you tried not thinking this way?” Gee - never thought of doing that (please read with condescending sarcasm). 

 

Our first session was interesting and, I think, pretty unnerving for him.  I don’t think he has had many sessions where the client starts off with explaining their knowledge of neural pathways, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and then talks about the various doctoral theses they have read on the subject. I wasn’t bragging, I just didn’t want to be taught how to “suck eggs.”  I wanted new and different approaches.  

 

Our first session went into the 14+ events that had made 2019 a “bad year.”  It took a while and when I finished, he put aside his notepad, leaned forward and asked me a question that sparked an immediate, and I admit, angry response -

 

“How should you be feeling?”

 

“I should be fine!”

 

Long pause.

 

“Why? People come to see me after one of these events, you have had multiple. Why should you be fine? Maybe you are feeling exactly as you should be feeling”.

 

Huh?

 

My CBT training has taught me to change my thoughts, in order to change my feelings, in order to change my actions. But what if he was right and I was feeling exactly what I “should” be feeling. I had a right to grieve. I had a right to be angry ... frustrated … sad … despondent. And every other negative emotion there was. 

 

“But … shouldn’t I be happy?”

 

“Why? None of these are events to feel happy about. They are ‘bad’ events.  You will never be happy about these no matter how you try to change your thinking.”

 

And with that statement, my life tilted and I learnt about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  On return to home, I jumped on Google and laughed as the top hit was a book that was sitting on my “to read pile” - The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. 

 

Harris (2013) tells us that the key to ACT is to help people accept what is out of their control, and commit instead to actions that enrich their lives. 

 

Consider this extract from The Happiness Trap:

 

Why is it so difficult to be happy?

 

To answer this question, let’s take a journey back in time. The modern human mind, with its amazing ability to analyze, plan, create, and communicate has largely evolved over the last hundred thousand years, since our species, Homo sapiens, first appeared on the planet. But our minds did not evolve to make us ‘feel good’ so we could tell jokes, write poems or say ‘I love you.’ Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger.”

 

Our minds are basically set up with an overriding programme of “don’t get killed”.

 

That programme is what our brain is always using as the underlying override. “Don’t get killed”.  It is pretty basic but, so is the survival section of our brain.  It doesn't over complicate things like our neocortex does.  Let’s face it, it doesn’t have time to.  It is split second decision making based on “don’t get killed”.  

 

But we are no longer facing sabre toothed tigers.  We are facing endless emails and deadlines, Covid-19,  financial insecurity, loved ones dying, our own mortality … it seems silly to say that being late to a meeting increased my stress response to that of waiting for a cancer diagnosis, but that is what my mind was doing.  Everything was a threat. 

 

James T. Webb (2011) wrote:   

“Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or ‘ultimate concerns’) – death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?”

 

Do/Did I have existential depression? No idea. Labels don’t really mean a lot to me. I like actions, I like to have some control.  I like to do something, anything, rather than just have a label. 

 

My clinical psychologist asked me

 

“What would you do if you had one day that no one was watching and you could do ANYTHING you wanted? What would you do?”

 

My response “I would lie on the couch and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” (Side note: thanks to Covid-19, I was able to do this for all seven seasons and I am really grateful for that time). This resulted in much laughter from both of us and a lot of self analysis.  What is it about a teenage girl being the chosen one and slaying evil that means I would use my “golden ticket” to watch it? 

 

Technically, I could do it anytime I wanted to. I have the DVDs. I have the couch. What did it mean that I had the opportunity to do this, every day (I am my own boss after all), and yet didn’t? The external structure that I had placed upon my life had removed all sense of “freedom,” or doing something just for me. What I valued was giving back, and I was giving SO MUCH back that there was nothing left to give me pause. Nothing left to help me separate myself from the “threats” and to find enjoyment in the moment. 

 

At the end of Season 5, when Buffy throws herself into an interdimensional portal to save the world she says, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”  In Season 6, having been brought back from the dead, she sings “Give me something to sing about*” because she was just “going through the motions”**.



 

*“Its alright if somethings come out wrong,

We’ll sing a happy song,

And you can sing along.


Where there’s life, there’s hope

Every days a gift,

Wishes can come true,

Whistle while you work,

So hard, all day…


Don’t give me songs,

Give me something to sing about”

 

**“Every single night

The same arrangement

I go out and fight the fight

Still I always feel 

This strange estrangement

Nothing here is real

Nothing here is right

I’ve been making shows of trading blows

Just hoping no one knows

That I’ve been

Going through the motions

Walking through the part

Nothing seems to penetrate my heart…”

 

 

Learning about ACT has helped me - and those I work with, as I am addicted to sharing -  find something to sing about.  I don’t go through the motions anymore.

 

The 6 steps of ACT are not linear; I think of them more like a fidget spinner.  I spin to the core process I need to focus on at that particular moment. 

 

  • Connection with the present moment
  • Clear sense of values
  • Taking committed actions
  • Meta-awareness (“self as context”)
  • Defusion from unhelpful internal events
  • Acceptance

 

All my decisions are now based on my clear sense of values and my commitment to taking action - does this support me and the life I want to live? If it doesn’t, then alas, I am unable to take part. 

 

I have begun to have internal conversations that start with “I am having the thought that ...” rather than “This is…”  It distances me from the thought, the emotion, without trying to change it. This form of “defusion” means that these thoughts have lost their “power”.  I am writing this blog despite feeling nervous because, at the core of it, it may touch or help someone. 

 

If I am judged or ridiculed for sharing this, those opinions have no power over me. I accept that I am not everyone’s cup of tea and encourage them to enjoy drinking their coffee. But if someone is drinking this tea and it helps pull them out of a bad place or allows them to seek the support that they need, then I have taken a committed action that meets my values. And that gives me something to sing about.

 

Want to learn more?

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris 

https://www.actmindfully.com.au/

https://positivepsychology.com/act-acceptance-and-commitment-therapy/

Face Covid - by Russ Harris

Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals by James T. Webb

 

About Brooke Trenwith

 

Brooke Trenwith is President of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, a 2017-2020 New Zealand Representative on the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, is on the steering committee for Gifted Aotearoa and a Ministry of Education Accredited education consultant through her own company, Potential to Performance Ltd. Brooke sat on the Reference Group for the Ministerial Review of Curriculum, Progress and Achievement (Year 1-10) in 2018-2019 and she is also a member of the Gifted Advisory Group for the Ministry of Education.

 

 

 

Posted as part of the 2020 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

The views and opinions expressed in the Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of NZCGE, their staff, and/or any/all contributors to Gifted Awareness Week.

 

Gifted ACT

 
 
 
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