What Do Political Activism, Giftedness, and Your Dysfunctional Family Have in Common?

photo courtesy of Alice Donovan Rouse, Unsplash

Your rainforest mind is often thinking or overthinking or maybe even obsessing about changing the world. Perhaps you were told that because you’re so smart, you have a responsibility to do something important. Or maybe you’ve just felt responsible on your own. Since you were 5, or thereabouts.

Maybe you’ve become politically active. Joined an organization. Run for office. Or perhaps you’re more introverted and quietly spreading compassion around in your family and community. Or you might be composing a concerto or inventing a more efficient battery.

If you’ve chosen an extraverted, activist approach, I have some ideas that might help:

Being a political activist can be discouraging, disturbing, and discombobulating. For so many reasons. The work is often thankless, exhausting, and endless.

You’ve likely heard of the need for self-care. That you should take time to rest your weary bones and nourish your aching soul. That if you’re depleted and despairing, you will not be the most effective or influential.

Perhaps you understand this and are able to take breaks and find ways to stay energized and hopeful. Good. But even self-care may not be enough.

If you find that you’re constantly angry, frustrated, and fearful, and if your fellow activists are often acting like your dysfunctional family, I have a suggestion for you.

You know what I’m about to say.

Try psychotherapy.

Now I know what you may be thinking: I don’t have the time or the money for years of analysis. Or: I know that my family was full of crazies. Why do I need to rehash old stories? What good will it do? Or: The past is over. Live in the now. Think positive thoughts. People in therapy are too self-absorbed.

I get it. And I know that I’m biased. I’m a psychotherapist, after all. But let me tell you what I’ve seen. In myself and my clients.

Our families shape our perceptions of ourselves. If our parents are fearful, shame-based, angry, or abusive, our vulnerable young selves can’t help but absorb variations of that same fear, shame, and anger. We can’t help but interpret the dysfunction to mean that there’s something wrong with us or that we’re at fault because we are being abused or neglected or misunderstood. The effects can be deep and lasting because our parents are all-powerful to us, we’re in these families for years, and our sense of identity is heavily influenced by the behaviors, beliefs, and emotions of our caretakers.

What often happens when we become adults, is that we relive and re-enact these patterns and beliefs, even when we swear we’ll never be like our parents and we move miles away from them. We may unconsciously pick abusive partners, passive-aggressive friends, or angry bosses. We may live in fear of disappointing our parents, have recurring panic attacks, abuse substances, hate our jobs, or live depressed and desperate lives always seeking but never finding the parental acceptance and love that we were denied.

What can you do? Not only for yourself but for the world that you’re out to change?

Unravel this misunderstanding of who you are. Undo the damage. Heal your broken heart. 

And, in my humble opinion, that includes good psychotherapy. Or Diving into the Wreck as poet Adrienne Rich describes it.

This can be a scary proposition. Diving into your wreck. It can take time. Even if you’re a fast learner. The process is often slow and complicated. You may get impatient and think you’re doing it wrong. You may have times when you’re feeling overwhelming sadness. You may wonder why the hell you thought that hanging out in a wreck was such a good idea.

But, eventually, you’ll find that it’s worth the time, money, and tears. You’ll notice changes in your inner and outer worlds. Healthy relationships. Less anxiety. Good boundaries. Moments of gratitude and joy. Well-adjusted kids. Expanded creativity, intuition, and spirituality.

You’ll discover who you really are. Your authentic, smart, creative self. You will have stopped the legacy of dysfunction that was handed down to you from your parents and their parents before them. You will have interrupted deep-seated unhealthy patterns in your family line.

And trust me. This is a big accomplishment.

And that’s not all.

As a social change-maker, your energy and enthusiasm will return. You’ll be more effective. You will act out of this healthier place rather than from a place of need, rage, fear, or guilt. Your fellow activists will stop acting like your dysfunctional family.

And even if your cohorts still do look a little like your needy mother or your angry father, it’ll be OK. You’ll be OK. Because, while swimming around in your wreck, you will have found the jewels.

And they are magnificent.


To my bloggEEs: As you know, I’m not wanting us to get into a specific political discussion. But I do suspect that some of you are experiencing the frustrations of activism and the challenges interacting with other humans who also want to change the world. Let us know how you deal with your particular brand of social responsibility. And if you’d like more thoughts about psychotherapy that are not written by a psychotherapist, go to this Ask Polly column. Thank you, as always, for being here.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

17 responses to “What Do Political Activism, Giftedness, and Your Dysfunctional Family Have in Common?”

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  1. Gabriela Montoya-eyerman Avatar
    Gabriela Montoya-eyerman

    Sometimes Extreme rural location makes it very difficult to find mental health treatment. I am well, but worry about others not getting the help they need.
    People think I am an extrovert because I like to get involved and even take charge, but I do need that recharge. Exercise, sleep, and other stress balancers help so much. Also living in an extreme rural location. … 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Ah, the pros and cons of the extreme rural location! Thanks Gabriela.

  2. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    finding good friends with big hearts made me realise what I’d been doing with the passive aggressive ones. I eventually learned that i don’t need to spend time with people whoa re invested in knocking me back and making me smaller.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m so glad that you’ve found the big-hearted folks, Nimue!

  3. Marina Berts Avatar
    Marina Berts

    Hi Paula, thanks for your post. I recognize this so well, wanting to do something to save the world, and getting really frustrated when I realize that most people get involved politically for quite selfish reasons (like using the political party as a personal career springboard). Because of all the anger that I felt and have felt most of my life, I tried therapy. Unfortunately, there are too few therapists around who can truly understand and help gifted people, at least here in Switzerland. I tried at least three therapists and a coach, and they only made me feel worse. What they said was ‘You live in your bubble, you need to get out of this distorted perception of the world’ and ‘It’s your fault that you’re depressed because all you need to do is think positively and you’ll be ok’. So if you want therapy, choose your therapist wisely! Make sure he or she is specialized for gifted people!

    1. Jessie Avatar

      Oh yes, and it’s hard even then. I once found a psychotherapist who specialized in giftedness, and is probably gifted himself, but then, seemed to have in his mind that all gifted people have trouble recognizing and understanding their emotions. Oh dear.

      Others here might relate to my story, so I’ll share: It all started when I said I wanted to work on physical symptoms of stress, and that I had health anxiety over these things; I went to the therapist because my doctor insisted that this would help with the symptoms that she had diagnosed as stress. One of these mysterious symptoms was that my eyes would occasionally fill with tears, with no connection to emotion whatsoever. The therapist clearly took this to mean that I couldn’t tell when I was sad. But what it actually meant was that I needed to find a new primary care doctor, who didn’t just write off people who came in looking anxious and overthinking because they had persistent brain fog and couldn’t breathe. When I finally did try a new doctor, she looked in my ears (something my old doctor never did) and said, “yikes, you’ve had a chronic sinus infection for a long time!”

      And the mysterious tearing up? Excessive lacrimation is common when your frontal sinus is full of yuck. Trust me, I know when I’m crying because I’m sad!

      To be fair to the therapist, I live in Washington, DC, where I think there are a lot of emotionally repressed gifted people who feel like they’re not allowed to cry. In fact, I think about 80% of everyone in DC is in therapy. It’s an emotionally messed-up place.

      (As for me? The neti pot works wonders, and the health anxiety evaporated as soon as I found a doctor who didn’t brush me off for being worried and overthinking my symptoms. In this case, the overthinking is what led me to finally figure out what was wrong and what to do about it! But DC is also a place where people are always stressed to the point of illness, so perhaps I should forgive her, too….)

      But yeah. Even if a therapist says they understand giftedness, they may only know a slice of it. So Marina’s point is doubly important. I recommend Paula’s book whenever I can. 🙂

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Thanks for recommending my book, Jessie. And your example is a good one. It can be an on-going challenge to find the right practitioners in any field. So I recommend that people keep looking until it feels right even though the process can be very frustrating.

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m so sorry finding a therapist has been so difficult, Marina. Do you know about Patricia Mauerhofer? (http://patriciamauerhofer.com) She’s a coach in Switzerland who knows about giftedness. And Jennifer Harvey Sallin who runs http://www.intergifted.com from there?

      1. Marina Berts Avatar
        Marina Berts

        Hi Paula, I believe Patricia is a coach, not a therapist. We’ve got a special kind of health care system over here, and coaching is not part of the medical services included in that system. So perhaps we are not talking about the same thing? To us over here, therapy is provided by psychiatrist and specialised psychologists.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Oh, I know Patricia is a coach but since you mentioned that you’d seen a coach, I thought I’d tell you about her. My other thought is that she or Jennifer might know of a psychotherapist that could be a better match.

  4. the glimmering girl Avatar
    the glimmering girl

    This post is like a deep breath. Much needed, good reminders. Good thing I started therapy a while back, I know it’s saved me over and over in all aspects of my life and work.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, glimmering girl, therapy can save us. Good to have you here!

  5. medleymisty Avatar

    Just a quick note to say that as a more introverted type, it was nice to have some validation that it’s okay to be that way too. Because sometimes I let the American cultural expectation of constant work and constant action and doing big things get to me, and I think maybe I don’t have very much worth because my personality and life circumstances are not conducive to that sort of thing.

    But my writing and my presence in the communities I choose can make a difference too, even if it’s not a big splashy one, and maybe it’s okay to do what I can in the way that best suits me and my personality and my particular array of gifts.

    Four months into the new writing community, it’s still healthy and safe and so much better for me than the Sims community. So I think I am making progress, maybe.

    I will be quiet now and let the extroverted activists talk. 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Hey Medleymisty, I’m guessing that there are a whole lot of introverts here, including me! An impact doesn’t have to be splashy. I’m so happy to hear that your new community is going well!

    2. Jessie Avatar

      Oh yeah, I’m no extravert. I get SO burned out by the constant activity of social change activists. Learning to pace myself has been a real trick! And writing is an excellent way for introverts to contribute. It can even be splashy (too much so sometimes…as in, thinking you want your article to go viral, and then wanting to hide under the couch when it actually does and everyone is talking about it).

      All the best to you in finding a good community! I know what a challenge that can be.

  6. Jessie Avatar

    This is such an important post. I’m the leadership of a local chapter of a political activist organization that’s seen a lot of growth in the past year or so. So many people are coming in because they are hurt and frustrated, and of course, we sympathize with their frustrations and want to work to alleviate their hurt! But there is a huge difference between working as diplomat, messenger, advocate, or evangelist and healing your own hurts. The dynamic of the internal organization is different, and its ability to effect change in the world outside is different, too. Many in our organization have observed that may new activists are coming to create a safe space for themselves; this is of course something we all are entitled to try to create, but it can conflict with our ability to convince others.

    Of course, it’s hard when you’re in a leadership position to say to someone, “You know, I think what might actually help you is to go talk to someone….” If only therapy didn’t have such an unfair stigma attached to it. Though on that note, some very wise and mature people who otherwise have been wounded by life are realizing the situation they’re in, and are approaching this topic within activist circles. I’m very impressed with those people. I think they’re going to go on to do real change in the world. And you’re right, Paula: it starts with changing themselves.

    On that note, some of the longtime activists, now senior citizens, in our organization are some of the wisest people I know. They’ve been through the Dabrowskian disintegrations and now have so much insight on going through the process. The ones who are still around, of course, are the ones who figured out how to do it. (Activist burnout is a real problem, and these older members were the first ones I heard mention it….) If you’re an activist and you have older members in your organization, I’d really recommend getting to know them and chatting with them about their experiences!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks, Jessie. Good points. Yes, it does seem that people still feel a stigma against therapy. And, of course, it’s important to be selective when looking for someone. Here’s my post about how to find a good one: https://yourrainforestmindbbwpc.wpcomstaging.com/2015/08/27/how-to-find-a-psychotherapist-who-loves-your-rainforest-mind/

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