I have spent my career working with gifted students, their teachers, and their parents. In that time, I have had many discussions concerning the world as is it should be, the world as it is, and finding one’s place. When I have this dialogue with a gifted student, the disillusionment of what ought to be versus the real-world circumstances of what is all too often ends up with a conversation about what it means to “play the game” and how to keep your ideals without “selling out.” When I have this chat with teachers of the gifted, the focus often shifts to student versus teacher power struggles followed by brainstorming sessions on strategies for addressing negative coping mechanisms in the classroom. This exchange with parents of gifted students frequently dances around the subject of depression and emotions. I recently read a book that addresses the concerns of each of these populations while assuring me that there is hope for these students to whom I have dedicated so much of my life.
In his most recent book, Search for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, Dr. James T. Webb brings his considerable experience as a clinical psychologist, professor, author, and founder of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) together to shed light on topics which have hidden in dark corners for far too long. Dr. Webb addresses the subjects with a style that is at once both welcoming and reassuring while at the same time being thought-provoking and inspirational. The entire book is well worth a thorough read, but I would recommend specific chapters for the specific groups of individuals I work with on a daily basis.
For students, I would suggest a focused read of Chapter 1 – Searching for Meaning and Chapter 2 – Idealism: Do You Get It from Your Parents, or Does It Just Come Naturally? In these chapters Dr. Webb highlights the characteristics of bright individuals (e.g., heightened sense of justice, intensity, sensitivity) which often contribute to children and young adults having an idealistic world view. This idealism may lead to frustration; “As bright, curious, and observant children grow up, they become aware that so mat of the things that parents, teachers, and community leaders claim about the world are false, or at least highly colored. The result is that they are disappointed, hurt, angry, disillusioned, and even depressed” (p. 12). Dr. Webb continues by explaining the cycle that may occur when that disillusionment manifests into existential depression. I recommend Chapter 6 – Awareness and Acceptance for students as well. In it, Dr. Webb suggests activities to help “manage your existential anxiety and depression” (p. 107).
I believe teachers will be most interested in Chapter 7 – Some Not-So-Healthy Coping Styles that Feed Illusions and Chapter 8 – Healthier Coping Styles that Go Beyond Illusions in order to address their immediate concerns regarding classroom management and teaching strategies. In Chapter 7, Dr. Webb chronicles a litany of maladaptive coping methods that many bright students who are dealing with issues involving disillusionment and/or existential depression employ such as, black and white thinking, control, overscheduling, distraction, clinging, narcissism, not caring, numbing the mind, seeking novelty, camouflaging, withdrawal, and anger. Do any of these sound familiar to you? While Dr. Webb does not discuss how to counteract these behaviors, as an educator, being able to identify the behavior and understanding the possible motivation behind it is a starting point – a place to begin a discussion. Chapter 8 is a compilation of 13 suggested positive coping skills intended to help individuals successfully manage the emotions that typically accompany disillusionment. Several of these activities with some creativity and adaptation could easily be incorporated into the classroom.
Many of the parents with whom I have spoken would be inclined to start with Chapter 3 – Bright and Inquiring Minds Want to Know!, Chapter 4 – Gloom and Misery and Despair: So Much Depression Everywhere, and Chapter 5 – Life Meaning and Existential Concerns. These three chapters combined provide an excellent overview of the characteristics of gifted students which may increase their propensity for existential angst at an early age and how that angst can manifest into depression. One take away that I believe many parents will find comforting is that their child is not alone in what he or she is experiencing.
I found Chapter 9 – Hope, Happiness, and Contentment to be my personal favorite and one that students, teachers, and parents would benefit from reading. In it Dr. Webb weaves the topical threads of the book together to form a very personal tapestry – the texture and pattern of which is unique to the individual reading and internalizing the information Dr. Webb provides. For me, the take away, appropriately enough, was an aspect of finding fit, interestingly enough…specifically finding my sense of place in the world and the fact is…I probably won’t ever “find” it, but I do have all the tools I need to “create” it. Or, as George Bernard Shaw so aptly stated, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
Webb, J. T. (2013). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tuscon, AZ: Great Potential Press. ISBN: 978-1-935067-22-1 224 pages 6” x 9” $24.95
Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) is an organization that seeks to inform gifted individuals, their families, and the professionals who work with them, about the unique social and emotional needs of gifted persons. For more information, please visit their website.
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