8. Fit and Misfit - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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8. Fit and Misfit

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Odd Off Different-Cpl

Off, Odd, Different… Special? Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Aspergers Syndrome, and Giftedness in Couples and Couple Therapy

People feel compelled to fit in with peers.  To do so, they often adapt to a characteristic culture of the peers.  Internalized motivation is related to self-esteem, particularly to what Coopersmith (1967) calls moral virtue.  Coopersmith concluded that people base their self-image or self-esteem on four criteria: significance, moral virtue, power and competence.  Significance is experiencing that you are significant or important to the people significant or important to you.  Parents, later teachers, eventually peers and especially the intimate partner are the significant others.  Misunderstood individuals, especially challenged individuals become disliked and disrespected people, lacking messages of positive significance from others.  Moral virtue refers to living up to ones self-definition of being a good (moral and virtuous) person.  Self-definition begins with significant others' perceptions of individuals projected back to them.  Negative feedback causes distress, if not despair that can trigger reactive negative behavior inconsistent with individual's self-definition of being "good."  Being "good" goes beyond behavior and emphasizes attitudes, values, and beliefs underlying any choices or behavior.  Positive feedback that is internalized creates motivation to behave as one should according to ones attitudes, values, and beliefs.  When motivated to live and perform according to what one considers virtuous, other people's presence, approval, or rewards while gratifying, are not the essential measure of healthy moral living.  Self-approval or confirmation becomes the measure.  This dynamic is discussed extensively relative to children in the author's book, "The One-Minute Temper Tantrum Solution" (Corwin Press, 2008).  Challenges cause frequent loss of another key component- power and control.  Loss of power and control can occur academically, emotionally or psychologically, spiritually, socially, and beyond.  Self-definition normally includes motivation to acquire sufficient power and control, including mastery in ones communities.  Competence, the fourth component is about having skills to handle tasks, self-defined as important or compelling.  Challenged individuals are often competent in areas unvalued by others or themselves, and are horribly incompetent in areas valued by others.

To serve these four components of self-esteem and to emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually survive, challenged individuals often develop the following cultural attitudes, values, and behaviors:

1. Try to be the same as others

2. Hide or avoid their differences or difficulties (including emotional distress)

3. Deny or minimize their differences or difficulties (including emotional distress)

4. Work hard or harder than others

5. Quit trying

6. Compensate for differences, difficulties, or challenges

Unsuccessful attempts at the first five strategies can complicate individuals' lives by causing them to appear even more different than others, as well as less functional.  They may also preclude support.  Therapist awareness of these strategies is a key to successful intervention, whether the strategies are relatively effective or highly unsuccessful.  Relative effective may mean avoiding overt failure, by hiding their needs, managing but being highly stressed from working so hard, and/or having given up trying.  Unsuccessful attempts refer to failure to succeed academically, vocationally, and/or not fitting in socially.  When the therapist recognizes these unproductive strategies, therapy can then guide challenged individuals to the final strategy of socially acceptable and relationship-affirming compensations.  Such compensations often build upon their strengths.

Gifted individuals often have contradictory experiences that the therapist can investigate for with adult clients.  Some things were easy in childhood because of gifted abilities, and other things very difficult because of the same characteristics.  Precocious talents or abilities however, including cognitive awareness challenges emotional maturity.  Emotional maturity tends to be developmentally age-appropriate in childhood despite giftedness in other areas.  Religious divisiveness, global warming, poverty, genocide, and starvation are adult issues.  Sunshine or rain, allowances, nice or mean kids, and snack time are kid issues.  These can already strain children's emotions and psychology.   Motivation to survive for some gifted children means hiding their gifts and appearing the same as everyone else… not too smart, not too skilled, not too anything.  Ordinary, average, noteworthy, distinctive, or special, everyone wants to be included.  Society promotes all children being special, while maintaining that everyone is the same.  Classrooms honors and punishes uniqueness; promotes and derides conformity.  Differences are celebrated, but elicit jealousy and distrust.  Being labeled or treated special, especially by the teacher can be a curse.  Did the adult client or partner experience these conflicts or challenges in childhood?  

Faith who was fairly bright was also exceptionally gifted being in tune with and sensitive to the emotional energy of others.  It was her outstanding gift, but it also brought great distress to her especially when she could do little to help others when they were upset.  And there were times, she knew how upset, anxious, stressed, depressed, or scared someone was, but also knew no one wanted her to intervene or help.  What to do or what not to do… caring versus minding her own business was a constant challenge to her.  Another person was too smart… too good at academics to tolerate the slower instructional pace taken for the other children.  And thus, too annoying to many insecure peers.  And often still craving being accepted but yet too confused how to fit in.  Learning balance among such values requires sophisticated cost/benefit assessments beyond many adults.  Yet, adults seem surprised gifted children don't intuitively balance among complex opposing values and expectations.  If motivation to please adults means satisfying all these multi-polar values… if special is being perfect for everyone, they face an untenable challenge.

Adults contribute to social exclusion by praising gifted children as exemplary examples to emulate when admonishing their peers.  "Teacher's pet" remains an insult.  Gifted individuals from childhood find it hard to fit in when they have special abilities.  Motivation to fit in, conflicts with motivation to be special- becoming difficult if not impossible.  Gifted individuals often feel different, seeing and understanding things others don't, and feeling depths of intensity others are inexplicably oblivious to.  And, have been implicitly pressured from childhood into adulthood to deny that they feel, see, and understand differently from others.  The hardest thing for gifted individuals may be wishing to relate to peers they cannot relate to.  Or, wanting to be accepted for who they are, but not accepting themselves.  Lonely or confused?  Doesn't being gifted mean they are beyond the "normal" emotional and psychological turmoil of  "normal" people?  They may conclude that they are weirdly blessed and cursed.  It was arguably worse for Faith when she was a girl when the female social culture mandated "sameness" for fitting in.  She was much more sensitive and aware of each person's feelings and needs.  She was not like the other girls, but exposing herself as gifted would have turned the group against her.  Faith had to dummy down and keep her gifts a secret… a dirty secret to be ashamed of.  Adults often stumble developmentally into maturity without ever been acknowledged or supported for the "curse" of being gifted.  Anxiety over not fitting in and being overwhelmed by precocious sensitivity and comprehension can become lifelong emotional and psychological problems.  They may deny themselves and their qualities trying to fit in.  They may hide their gifted abilities.

The therapist should be alert to overly self-deprecating attitudes and behaviors in adult clients, despite apparent gifted qualities.  Faith could not take praise or acknowledgement from the therapist or Brody.  She got visibly uncomfortable.  This interfered with therapy and her growth process as she continued to deny herself.  An inability or deep reluctance to own great personal strengths or qualities may be indicative of deeper confusion.  Developing self-hatred may on the other hand, drive superiority as a solution to psychic struggles.  If not adequately supported and guide, some gifted individuals resolve their sense of isolation by deciding that others are just stupid, beneath contempt.  Narcissism may be the result.  It is hard to find healthy ways to reconcile their gifts among diverse abilities in the larger community.  Peers, partners, and professionals such as the therapist support or retard this process with their relative sophistication about giftedness, the particular gifts, needs, motivations, and so forth of each individual.  When the therapist suspects gifted abilities of some sort, especially emotional sensitivity, therapy should explore the common adaptations of gifted individuals that may affect the relationship.  The partner may be surprised of the underlying issues or of the depth and long history of stress.  Or, have had less than complimentary suspicions as to the gifted partner's motivations.  Gifted individuals may find the therapist's knowledge and compassion unique and compelling.  Respect for the therapist for seeing through a life-long compensation of hiding their abilities would build the rapport necessary for effective therapy.

John Elder Robison in his autobiographical book "Look Me in the Eyes" (2007) expressed a common Aspergian preference in describing his lifelong affinity with machines and equipment.  He says that machines are easier to relate to than people.  A LiveScience article on MSNBC.com described digital technology using computerized human figures to successfully teach autistic children advanced social skills.  The article asserts it is easier for autistic children to interpret and learn from the computerized images than from actual children (Lloyd, 2008).  The virtual human has a much more limited presentation of verbal and non-verbal communications making it easier for autistic children to interpret versus them interpreting more complex communications from real people.  This confirms Robison's assertion that people with autistic issues, machines (or something machine-like) are easier to relate to than people.  

Many Aspergians gravitate to careers that utilize their affinity with technological and intellectual pursuits, while circumcising social options.  Brody (and his father who may have had Aspergers as well) found engineering well suited to their aptitudes.  Brody said that working on his computer all day writing software was a joy, but he would get stressed and exhausted if he had to attend meetings with… people!  Robison always found social interactions and relationships highly challenging.  Motivated to avoid social frustration, he gravitated to experiences that minimized social skills.  He was unaware he had Aspergers Syndrome until well into adulthood.  He feels he could have avoided much unnecessary turmoil if his parents and teachers had understood and guided him to be more adept and appropriate interpersonally.  The hardest thing for him was figuring out what to do.  Adults were frustrated and peers thought him odd.  Later in life, he developed greater social skills and established more fulfilling intimate, personal, and professional relationships.  It remains challenging for him to interact socially, but he is more purposeful and directed facing his challenges. He had always been motivated to have closer social relationships, but without guidance it had been too discouraging.  He had avoided social situations, and as a result he hadn't improved his skills significantly through much of his adult life.  His first marriage failed when he was a younger man.  By his second marriage, Robison had become more self-aware of his idiosyncrasies and had begun working on compensations.  Fortunately, his life-long compensation of working hard had become embedded in his personality.  With awareness, he could not just work harder at social skills but also work more purposefully.  His second wife was able intuitively to adapt to his Aspergers influenced needs.  She was more overt in her communication to help him understand what she felt and needed.  Both partners compensated for his challenged ability to read social cues. The therapist can extend intuition or make up for a lack of intuition with conceptual clarity and overtly teach or train partners to compensate for Aspergian challenges.  This was the goal for Brody and Faith in their relationship.  If the Aspergian partner has not quit trying, the therapist may be able to activate the working hard ethic with guidance towards specific compensations.  With successful social interactions rewarding the couple, both partners would tend to continue experimenting and practicing.

When learning disabilities make reading or writing difficult, individuals often avoid reading or writing.  Motivation is to avoid humiliation, because exposure of disabilities to others can be corrosive to self-esteem.  Individuals may admit lifelong avoidance of responsibilities or jobs involving reading or writing reports.  They subsequently lose innumerable opportunities for career advancement. They were adamant however that their own children with similar issues not repeat their avoidance of short-term "hard" things to long-term detriment.  Bruce once derisively rejected a job promotion Gus felt would be good for him and which would help with the household finances. "That's a stupid job!" declared Bruce, claiming the job beneath his pride.  "Supervising all those idiots… who wants to do that?"  Explanations about gaining job experiences leading to further career opportunities were dismissed, to the bewilderment and frustration of Gus and the therapist.  Bruce did not seem to get how upset and frustrated Gus was.  Rather than labeling Bruce as in denial, irrational, or dense, the therapist sought to make sense out of Bruce's seemingly illogical stance.  The therapist remembering that a common compensation for a learning disability is avoidance.  Exploring this logical response proved to be the key.

With the therapist's prompting, Bruce admitted that he was intimidated by the writing required with the reports and evaluations the job involved.  He hated to write because he had always been frustrated at how hard it was for him.  He had an undiagnosed expressive writing learning disability that made it very difficult for him to put into written language what he readily understood and could talk about.  He was humiliated that what others readily could do was extremely hard for him, so he hid his expressive writing disability.  He avoided anything that involved writing his thoughts or compensating otherwise for his disability.  The hardest thing for Bruce was to reveal his disability and seek help.  Only when the therapist identified his disability and addressed his motivation to avoid humiliation, could therapy begin to reconcile his expressed desire to succeed and his irrational (to Gus) rejection of the promotion.  Instead of being perplexed and angered at his reticence, Gus felt compassion for Bruce's shame and frustration.  No longer holding his secret and with Gus finally understanding, they were able to join together with a unified purpose as a couple.

An ADHD child said, "It's hard to be me.  You think it's easy being different?"  People without ADHD issues often think it easy to sit still and focus.  Compensating for ADHD issues may be relatively simple for some, while extremely difficult for others.  Successful compensation depends on motivation to achieve academic, social, career, and relationship opportunities.  Dreams must be motivating enough for it to be worth the struggle to face challenges.  Otherwise quitting is easier.  The challenge for challenged individuals becomes finding dreams worth investing hope and energy.  College is presented as the optimal opportunity for everyone.  The United States Census (2006) states approximately 27% of Americans age 25 years or older have a bachelor's degree, meaning almost three-quarters of Americans age 25 or older do not acquire a bachelor degree.  For many individuals, elementary through high school was a miserable experience that ground down self-esteem.  Scolded for being distracted, fidgeting, acting out, and labeled incorrigible, school is anything but fulfilling.  Voluntarily signing on for two to four more years of misery in community college or a university is not just too hard, but ridiculous!  Agreeing to sit in couple therapy may feel just as ridiculous… and to willingly accept being criticized in the sessions.  The hardest thing to do may be to have suffered failure upon failure and still be able to risk the hope and investment in trying again.  

Individuals such as Debra get frustrated when partners struggle without accessing available assistance.  Although assistance, strategies, or support may be potentially different and more effective, it may appear to be another hope-risk-invest-failure and shame path taken so many times before.  It may be hard to admit being terrified of failure again… to admit needing special help.  It was hard for Marc to be Marc.  The therapist acknowledged Marc's courage in coming to couple therapy with Debra.  He knew Debra was unhappy with him, yet he came in ready to take his licks.  While a college degree or a professional job did not fit his aptitude, including his ADHD issues, he still wanted to be with Debra for the rest of his life.  However, he needed to get some reinforcement that therapy would be worthwhile.  Many people find too hard to admit they are different from others, wanting to be treated the same.  Yet it is hard to be the same when they do not have the same abilities of others.  The therapist can validate their experiential challenges, but only if knowledgeable about them and the consequences they have endured.  The therapist did this by bringing up Marc's difficult school experiences unexpectedly in the midst of couple therapy.  Marc probably wondered how the therapist knew he got in trouble all the time for being distracted.  Along with compensating for challenges, strengths can be added to their awareness and functional repertoire.  The process of therapy may need to be adjusted for and perhaps, to take advantage of the hyperactive energy, distractibility, and impulsiveness of the ADHD partner such as Marc.  Therapy can guide partners to make it easier for the ADHD partner to be him/herself individually and in the couple.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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