Release date: January 4, 2024
In episode 50, Chris and Emma talked with Dr. Deborah Ruf, author of the award-winning book 5 Levels of Gifted. In 2023, she released a follow-up book called The 5 Levels of Gifted Children Grown Up: What They Tell Us. Our conversation highlights her expertise in studying giftedness and personality across the lifespan.
We started the episode by asking Deborah to share her journey, and learned how she was first introduced to Dąbrowski’s theory in the early 1990s. Her dissertation study included the theory of positive disintegration, which she has worked with for many years. We discussed how she incorporated the theory into her work while exploring the complexities of giftedness, including its intersection with personality types and life circumstances.
Our personalities have a profound impact on our relationships with others as well as with our own self-understanding. Chris shared a few quotes from The 5 Levels of Gifted Children Grown Up during our discussion, including this one about the importance of the environment on development:
“It is not the high IQ or intellectual level that causes personal problems for many of our most intellectually gifted people. It is the ongoing presence of a poor environmental “fit” during their childhood. The better the fit, the better the social, emotional, and any other kind of well-being outcome measure, they will have.” (Ruf, 2023)
Overall, this episode underscores the multifaceted nature of intelligence and personality, shaping our interactions, self-perception, and adaptation to various environments. Embracing and understanding ourselves can lead to personal growth and improved relationships with others. We highlight the importance of adopting multiple lenses and frameworks to reach a fuller understanding. As complex individuals with diverse backgrounds, strengths, and environments, we require various perspectives to deepen our understanding, heal from past experiences, and develop.
Deborah emphasized that personality tests are not fixed and can change as we evolve. Personality tests offer insights into our current state, and by taking them multiple times, we can observe our growth and understand how different factors and periods in our lives impact our moods and responses.
Bio: Dr. Ruf is the author of the award-winning book 5 Levels of Gifted and in 2023 she released her follow-up, The 5 Levels of Gifted Children Grown Up.
For more than 40 years, Dr. Ruf has served as a keynote speaker, workshop, and conference presenter, and written chapters for 5 textbooks, more than 12 peer-reviewed journal articles, and 100 plus articles and handouts for newsletters, magazines, and websites.
Among her various roles, Dr. Ruf served as the National Gifted Children Program Coordinator for American Mensa and awarded the Mensa Foundation’s Intellectual Benefits award in 2007.
00:02:30 – Dr. Ruf's Journey to Dabrowski's Theory
00:05:42 – Personal Growth and Weaving Theories
00:08:29 – The Challenges of Funding Research
00:13:45 – Personality Matters
00:19:55 – An Example of Self-Understanding
00:23:20 – The Need for Multiple Perspectives
00:26:26 – Impact of Personality on Life Choices
00:32:41 – Importance of Environmental Fit for Gifted Individuals
00:34:48 – Round Pegs in Square Holes
00:39:25 – Environmental Fit Issues Continue in Adulthood
00:42:15 – Transcending Psychological Type
00:43:57 – The Intersection of Giftedness and Personality
00:48:17 – Levels of Giftedness
00:56:45 – The Issue of Multiple-Exceptionalities
00:59:35 – Understanding and Overcoming Trauma
01:04:39 – Apologizing Without Excuses
01:06:09 – The Complexity of Personal Identity and Labels
Resources from this episode
Gifted Through the Lifespan (Dr. Ruf on Substack)
Five Levels of Gifted (Dr. Ruf’s website)
Karen Nelson’s 1989 paper from Advanced Development Journal
Conversations on Gifted Trauma podcast
Personality Page (The price is now $6.99 per test, but worthwhile for those who are interested)
Emma: Welcome to Positive Disintegration, a path to authenticity. Today, Chris and I are talking with our guest, Dr. Deborah Ruf, author of Five Levels of Gifted. We're going to talk about how Deborah incorporates the theory of positive disintegration into her work and what it has meant for her life. We're also going to talk about all things giftedness, including how it intersects with things like personality type and circumstance. Deborah uses many tools in her work in order to understand gifted people. And if you're like me, the one thing you'll take away from this is how wonderfully complicated and marvelous human beings are.
Chris: That's right, we have Dr. Deborah Ruf with us today, and I'm so excited to have her join us because I feel like she's been a part of my thinking for a long time. Because when I was first getting to know Michael, I was reading his Rethinking 2 paper and her study is one of the ones that he included. Excited to have her with us today.
Emma: Quoted by the master himself. So today's guest is Dr. Deborah Ruf, who's the author of the award-winning book, Five Levels of Gifted. And in 2023, she released a follow-up, The Five Levels of Gifted Children Grown Up. For more than 40 years, she has served as a keynote speaker, workshop and conference presenter, and written chapters for five textbooks, more than 12 peer-reviewed journal articles, and over 100 articles and handouts for newsletters, magazines and websites. Among Deborah's various roles, she has served as the National Gifted Children Program Coordinator for American Mensa and was awarded the Mensa Foundation's Intellectual Benefits Award in 2007. Welcome to the podcast, Deborah.
Deborah: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.
Chris: Welcome. Like I've already said, I feel familiar with your work and I'm excited to talk about your new book. We have a tradition on the podcast of always asking people to tell us how they came to Dabrowski's theory. So, we're excited to hear your story.
Deborah: Well, it was a busy time in my life when I was in over my head with my children. I had started a doctoral program and had a child in show business as well. And it really made it a tense time for me to learn. I got to go to different conferences from the late 80s, throughout the 90s, and then right up until like 2017. And I haven't been to anything since. But it was at one of those that I learned about Dabrowski, and I had already been reading Linda Silverman's work. She introduced me to the Advanced Development Journal. It was in the first or second edition of that that I read Karen Nelson's explanation of positive disintegration. It really hit home for me, and reassured me that although I might from time to time think I was crazy, I was at exactly the place I wanted to be. Which meant sometimes you do feel crazy when you're rethinking your life.
I was in my late 30s, early 40s when I first discovered it. Shortly after that I, through the grapevine, heard about the first mini conference in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. And it was about Dabrowski and Michael Piechowski and Linda Silverman, and several other people very connected in the field also were there. It was like a camping experience. We did everything outside, and I got to know a lot of people as they too were learning about the theory.
I started reaching out to some of my relatives because I still wasn't doing a lot of, well, no paid work in my field yet. One of my people I reached was my son. I think I told him about this in the late 90s when he was just getting out of college and feeling rudderless. I sent him this article from Karen Nelson, Advanced Development Journal, and he said he loved it. It made such a difference to him too. So, that's how I got involved. And then it fit into all the other things I was examining about high intelligence and intensities. I didn't look into OEs that much because I thought, well, sure, that's obvious. You know, I mean, everyone around me was moving all the time. I just thought, yeah, okay, always, but I was really interested in those stages of development and growth. So, that's how I started to weave it into my work.
Chris: It's interesting, because rarely do we hear somebody say that it's the levels that were most compelling to them. Or the theory—most people in gifted definitely come in and overexcitability is the thing that they're most interested in. So, interesting.
Deborah: Yeah, I was thinking like, yeah, yeah, but that's not interesting. To me, it was the hope. Another thing that happened around the same time was—I have more than a dozen psychology courses from graduate school, too. What I read one day is Erickson's list of the developmental stages that are natural, not just through the thinking of the people. I saw from the very beginning that I was missing important things. My mother had gone deeply into depression a month before I was born. She lost a brother to a tragic accident, and she was not there for me. When it happens that you have some trauma in the mother in the first year of the child's life, you really can miss that bonding experience with the parent. I started to put all these different things together and realized I had some recovering to do, but what I'm reading with Dabrowski and Piechowski and Silverman and Erickson is I can recover and I am going to.
I was on a mission to incorporate all of these theories. I never pay attention to just one. It's how I weave them together that makes my work probably a little more complex, but people can choose what resonates with them. And everything I write isn't going to resonate with people, but it's the different things that you provide, and I try to provide, that gives people the options of seeing where they fit.
Chris: I love that about your work. You're the only person who talks about giftedness and not only gives us that level of gifted information quantitatively, but all this qualitative detail, including their level of development. Because you coded, based on the DRI and I don't know, use Nancy's system, maybe the MACS with the values. I don't remember. I don't remember because it's been years since I read your dissertation and thought about it. But yeah, that's one of the things that I love about your work is that you bring Dabrowski into it and in the way that you do. The way that you weave it together in the new book is so cool to read. From my perspective, as somebody who studies this, all I can think of is, how have we not had this until now?
Deborah: I think it's a lifetime. It takes a lifetime for a person to be able to put it all together.
Chris: It's really special to have it. It's unfortunate that there's so little longitudinal work in the gifted field, because this is how we understand giftedness across the lifespan. It's so critical.
Deborah: One of the things I might suggest for getting more is to make people able to make a living doing it. I was fortunate enough to not have a lot of expectations for pay, but you always have to have something supporting you as you work. I took a look at what it would take to write grants and try and get funding. No, I can't do that. But some people can. I think there should be a support system for researchers who are willing to do that.
I started looking everyone up in 2014 from the first book, and I had to get memberships in all these search engines and so on to find them. It took a lot of time. When you write longitudinal studies, like my dissertation, which was a retrospective longitudinal study, and then this one, that is an actual one, you have to see what you're getting before you know what you're going to write about. So, it takes a lot of time to think about it and get it absorbed so you can make sense of it.
There were two people whose reviews of the book that I asked for ahead of time were the most meaningful to me. One of them was from Jim Delisle, who said, this is everything. It's a big book, but you've considered everything and so respectfully of the subjects. That made me feel good because I certainly tried to not make anybody feel they'd done anything wrong because people aren't doing anything wrong. They're doing what they know to do at the time.
The other one was Colleen Harsin. She wrote like ten paragraphs that I could switch around, and I thought, no, I want to use them all. We've known each other since the Davidson Foundation was set up. I was there then, and I was one of their people who talked to clients and so on, Davidson Young Scholars. She and I always had this connection. So did Jim Delisle and I—it was very intuitive between us. When I write something, it resonates with them rather quickly, and they start to see what to look for for their own personal interests.
I was fortunate to be able to contact Dr. Delisle because he's very retired. But I know Judy Galbraith, with whom he wrote some books and so on. And I said, I can't find him anywhere. And she said, why do you want to find him? And okay, I'll reach out to him for you. But it takes a certain drive and comfort, really, to be able to take all those steps. So again, we need to be aware of how to find the people who will do the work, and make sure they have a sustainable way of doing it. When possible. Otherwise, you know, they do what I did, which I just did it.
Chris: Well, that's what I do. This is what I'm doing for my work and trying to fund it and it's really challenging because there is no position. When I was finishing my PhD, I knew by the time I was done with it that this is what I wanted to do. And it was really stressful because I just had no idea how to what to do. I'm just blessed, and I feel the privilege of having a partner who can support us while I find my way.
Deborah: Yeah, it is. But that is a kind of privilege for sure. And it's great. But now that we have these membership blogs and centers and so on. The world's different than when we went to all these conferences and independent people paid their own way. Now I can reach people through my writing. And through video chats and podcasts, and it doesn't cost us as much to do that, and so I have been contributing to others like me. That's why I signed up and paid the requested but not required fee for the Positive Disintegration page on Substack.
Chris: It's very appreciated. And same, I am happy to support your work, too. I love that about Substack.
Deborah: Even if it's a total swap, it's fine.
Chris: I appreciate you and I feel that way about Substack, that it's nice to be able to help support other people. I get it. Because I live that.
Deborah: Well, I'm so glad you're doing this work. This is just great.
Chris: Well, thank you. Before we jump into more about your book, if you don't mind building on what you've already said, is there anything else that you want to say about your own gifted journey or positive disintegration journey? Even from your perspective as a parent, watching your children grow up—whatever you want to talk about, we'd love to hear more about you.
Deborah: I figured out also that personality matters. I guess I was in about first or second grade when I started really watching people, trying to figure out what made different people tick. When I went through different things in school and neighborhoods and friendship circles or not, I started to look at what was going on, what part of me made some people like me and others not. What kinds of behaviors worked for making friends. And then I looked at other people that I wanted to be kind to and like, but why did I not like them as much, you know? So I've always done that. And then, of course, trying to figure out my relatives.
I started to trip over different tools that I could bring into my work. I remember in third grade asking how to average grades. You know, they weren't bringing that up yet, they just gave you grades. I wanted to know how to average them, how I could keep track of them. I had pretty easy access to the kinds of grades and standardized test scores others in my class got. And I started paying attention to that and seeing how it connected to the way they were, how they were being, how they were about their schoolwork.
I also lived in different neighborhoods over my school career where sometimes there were a lot of poor people. Sometimes there was more balance of the whole spectrum of social class. I remember discovering what some people could and couldn't do because of where they came from. For instance, in high school, I got to be in activities after school. First, my parents could afford it, and they didn't really want us kids home. So, it was good to go back to school where we felt safe and liked, and that was a motivator. But I had friends, and in 11th grade, they have the first round of the people who get to be in honor society, who get the honor of being chosen to be in the Honor Society.
Well, my mother raised me to be a B+ student on purpose. She wanted me not to fixate on grades and B pluses were good enough. Handwriting doesn't count, you know, things like that. So, I didn't have the usual grades they were looking for. They were high enough. But I got in and my two best friends did not. And they were really good students and every bit as smart as I am. One was my boyfriend and one was my girlfriend. The three of us were very good friends. Well, did they have a discussion with each other when I got in and they didn't. I had to figure out and share with them, I think the reason is I was in so many activities that more teachers knew me.
That didn't occur to them naturally, but that's the kind of thing I could put together because of the way my brain works. And believe me, I am not smarter than those two. It was just that's the way I think and decipher and put things together. It isn't always helpful in grade getting. It isn't, because it means you don't even know what the teacher wants. But they felt better about that. The next year, they did both get in.
I started to realize then that they were at a disadvantage because one absolutely couldn't afford to go. And her life was so different. She couldn't be in the activities. And my good friend, the boyfriend, he had to work. He couldn't take time for those things. He worked for a family business, and he had to. I look at this kind of thing throughout my life then. Who are we meeting? It doesn't mean we're better or worse than they are. We have different opportunities. We have different options. And we have different ways of figuring things out.
I've always thought of myself as a translator. As early as third and fourth grade, a kid in the class would not understand the question the teacher was asking. I'd say—I didn't get in trouble after the first week. They all got used to me. Because I did interrupt a lot. I said, oh, what he wants to know is this. And I'd tell the teacher what the kid was really asking about. And then the teacher would answer the kid and the kid still wouldn't understand it. So, I'd translate what the teacher was saying so that the other student in my class got it. People started to count on me for that.
The last time something like that happened in a school situation was toward the end of my doctoral program. I was in a Test and Measurement class with eight men and me and then the male professor. We had a break, ran into the hall, the guys clustered around me and said, I don't understand this. I said, neither do I. And they're all saying they don't understand it. And they say, you ask him, he likes you. What they knew is, I knew how to ask the question, and then translate it. Because he liked all of us. And that's what I did, and everybody was satisfied. So, that's what my writing does, and that's what my consulting did too. It was a way of helping people decipher what's going on and how to deal with it.
Chris: I love that. It's so interesting to me because you reminded me of something that I wanted to bring up in this episode, but I don't know if I would have if you hadn't just told us that. One of the things that I learned about personality that really helped me reframe my past is understanding what you're describing—you're a thinker, right? I read somewhere, I think, that you're an INTP on the MBTI, right?
Deborah: An E/I.
Chris: Okay. Yeah. And so, I'm an INFP. And when I was growing up, because I grew up knowing—everybody knowing—that I had a really high IQ, they expected me to act like a thinker. But I don't. I am an emotionally intense, feeling person that felt broken because I couldn't do the things that they wanted me to do. That was so validating in your book. I could cry just saying this.
Actually, one of the quotes that I saved I want to read to you about personality is this—this is about perceivers, not INFPs, but perceivers.
“They seem stubborn, undependable, and unfocused. Their lack of follow-through and compliance in school is seen as a sure sign they are doomed, will never find a job, and are wasting their abilities. This kind of child is frequently an outright embarrassment to his or her parents, too, because they see the behavior as a bad reflection on their parenting.”
Thanks for describing my adolescence especially so well. I was actually a very compliant kid. School was nothing—there was no challenge for me in elementary school. There was no acceleration. I was born to teenage parents, and so they put me in gifted and never even told my parents until I brought it up someday. And they were like, what do you mean you're in gifted?
By the time I was in middle school, I was completely shut down from learning. And so, this was me. I feel lucky that I wasn't, I don't think, an embarrassment to my parents because they were young and not caught up in achieving. That's not what they cared about. But being a perceiver, a feeler, and having a very high IQ—you're underachievement material.
Deborah: Yeah. Not getting validation from others matters more to a feeler than it does to a thinker. I had this, what do they know anyway attitude. I wasn't looking to catch a teacher in a mistake, but my favorite example is when we were studying in history something about the Reformation, the Christian Reformation, and Protestants and what Protestants were. I said, oh, they were protesting. And my teacher looked at me and said, no, I don't—no. And I thought, what? I thought, oh well, okay, I’m not listening to him anymore.
Chris: Wow, that's hilarious.
Deborah: Could anything be more obvious?
Chris: Seriously, that's so funny.
Deborah: It was 7th grade, 8th grade, and I thought, well, this guy's a jerk. I'm not going to listen to him.
Emma: I'm listening to all this, Deborah, and it's making me understand why I think approaches like yours matter so much to people in understanding themselves. Because you talked about having many lenses, many frameworks with which to view yourself. Chris, you just read out the quote around P, but that's going to help you understand one little parcel of your life. I think you need many lenses sometimes to see all the different components because people are complex beings. They have different backgrounds, they have different strengths, they grow up in different environments.
I was thinking about, I read a blog of yours around how different personality types, if you're one type but you're raised by parents that are of a different type and don't get that, that can cause a tension. Also thinking about what Dabrowski says about the three factors that there's—people are complex things made up of many different parts. And what we have to try and do is find the bit of commonality or the window or the mirror that allows to see one part. And then we've got to keep repeating that process of connecting through many things.
So, if you think of one of those walls that are made out of those glass bricks, you almost end up with something like that. And that's the way you view yourself is through many lenses and many mirrors. You're not just going to get a one-to-one match immediately and go, this is the be all and end all. I can understand myself absolutely completely through this one thing. I think the more perspectives that we have on ourselves as complex humans, the better the depth of the understanding we have and the better we can deal with our past and accelerate our healing and develop our personality.
I really appreciate that about how you've basically got a philosophy on your work is that we need all those different lenses because without it, it's like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
Chris: I agree. If you don't mind, I wonder, while Emma was just saying that, it made me think, and plus also building on what I had just said about my own past—not only did it help to see what you said about being a perceiver, I guess I never connected it with those things because I was diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood. I resonate with that because I'm an INFP, especially—I have that dream way of thinking. When you're a dreamer like that, I mean, that is inattention. You're in your own head. So, understanding all of these pieces of me helped me heal the past. Again, like you're saying, when you talked about how you realized the trauma in your mother's life, it's so powerful to be able to have that awareness to be able to accept it. So many people deny reality and can't face the past or their pain. And until you can unlock that in yourself and be able to do it, you're stuck in patterns.
Deborah: I'm going through a stage right now where, as I meet different people, I've gotten to a stage of understanding that has me far more joyful far more often. There are people who I see are really stuck and they brush it off as, that's the way I am, and yet they've got one complaint after another. I'm not sure how to react anymore except, you know, I want to run away. I know when I was at those beginning stages back in my late 30s, early 40s and so on, believe me, it continues and continues.
Some of the wonderful people I met at these conferences. We were talking about several of them, and many of them are practicing psychologists and therapists. I'm not that. I felt they got me and understood me, but they certainly weren't at that event to counsel me. And that's how I started to feel about some of the places I find myself. I'm trying to learn how to be kind and interested without trying to fix. It's their journey to take. I throw out the information in my writing and speaking, but it's still their journey to take and it can't be done by someone else for you.
Chris: Oh, that's so true. That's very real. And it's a challenge when you're in the public life like this and people know your work. You do get that from people, I'm sure. I hear you.
Deborah: And a lot of people, they're in such pain. or they're so angry, or they're so disappointed, or they're so bitter. There's not enough of a psychological safety net in so many places. And yet, it's really caused my development of a belief in a real safety net for families. But, you know, everybody came from a family, it shouldn't be about repairing ourselves later, as much as it is about supporting the people in their parenting. And we don't even ask—everything requires a license, except you can have a kid anytime you want. And it's like, they're yours, and they can do with you behind closed doors whatever they think they should. That's crazy in my view. We've got to figure out how to do it so that it isn't by people who aren't really capable of being the support system.
So, what does that mean? Well, we've got to improve access to education and real-life skills to everybody. We have too many people who are left out, not just in the United States or Australia, but in other places too. There are a lot of places that we still just don't give quite the support. And here we really don't give much support. Even going to therapy is way expensive. Most people can't afford to do it. I think you could tell when you read the book I kind of believe in getting help. It comes through. Yes.
Chris: You just made me think of another quote that I had saved about education.
“We must change how we educate all students. We need a major overhaul of the system and how we train, pay and support teachers and families. And we cannot give gifted children what they need when we set up our schools in ways that don't meet the needs of most children.”
So, yes, we need to support the family, we need to support kids at school. These supports don't really exist. And not only for gifted children, but for any children.
Deborah: Right. The reason I focus on gifted children is it takes away the element of, were they smart enough? Okay, that's settled. But this is about human beings. It isn't just about gifted human beings. It's just showing if it can happen to the outliers and the really smart people. Imagine what's happening to the people who don't even have the same level of saving themselves. available.
Chris: I have seen that in my own life. I've talked before on the podcast, or even other people's podcasts about my own struggles when I was younger. I ended up in a situation where I was living homeless for a while when I was 26. And I realized how much my giftedness helped me get out of that. I had, of course, some privilege to be able to go move with my parents again eventually, but I was able to get a job working with computers and learn so fast. What I needed to do was to get a decent job, where I ended up meeting my husband. I know that my giftedness was such a huge part of all of that, figuring things out, learning, being able to suddenly work after being on disability for several years for mental illness. It’s because of my mind, and my heart, of course.
In the gifted literature, you see so often that they're like, well, there's no special vulnerabilities in being gifted. They have the same kind of issues anybody does that's not more prevalent in the gifted. This is what they say. And they give research that shows like group tests or they're not using the kind of data you use. You know, you have access because of the work you did. I say as somebody who worked with Linda Silverman, who has similar kinds of data on extremely gifted people. There are vulnerabilities in this population. It's just dead wrong to say that there's not. And the fact that these papers that make these claims—they just don't show the levels of giftedness that we need to make the case. But you can make it.
Deborah: I do, but what I also try to do is make it clear it isn't something inherently different about the gifted, it's the fit they find. If we were forever automatically in the right fit for ourselves, the way a good chunk of the middle section of the bell curve is—we have more difficulties because we are squeezed in. You know, the square peg in the round hole.
It's important to recognize that being highly intelligent doesn't mean you're going to be emotionally disturbed. It's the environment that causes the emotional disturbances when we don't get our needs met. But they don't tease that apart in the way they write and do the research on many things. And it can fool people, which actually brings us back to positive disintegration. Because when we read that there shouldn't be anything wrong with us, research shows you should be just like anyone else. And then we find we aren't. Knowing about positive disintegration gives us a real sense of relief. It's just that our thinking is getting us to places of wondering who we really are and what we're here for and all this thinking, even feeling thinking. We need to solve this for ourselves before we can be our most productive selves.
Chris: You connected well with another quote. One more thing from the book, let's see.
“It is not the high IQ or intellectual level that causes personal problems for many of our most intellectually gifted people. It is the ongoing presence of a poor environmental fit during their childhood. The better the fit, the better the social, emotional, and any other kind of well-being outcome measure they will have.”
It's so funny because I had that ready to go. How perfect was that?
Deborah: I'm glad that stood out for you because that is kind of the summary.
Emma: I'm applauding here on mute. But also, when you were talking about the whole round peg thing, that's exactly the analogy that was sitting in my mind. And it's like, even round pegs, when we're talking about individual difference, and I think this is what you're alluding to, like, if it's not a good fit, for gifted people, it's not really a good fit for anyone. Even though they're mostly round, they're probably slightly irregular, maybe a little bit egg-shaped, but when you get to the point of being square or triangular or star-shaped, and you try to get crammed into that little round hole—and I always say, if you're a star-shaped peg, and we try to cram you in a round hole, all your points are gonna fall off. And you're still gonna have gaps under your armpits.
The greater the misalignment and the inability to fit, that is what causes the psychological tension. And as you were saying, particularly with positive disintegration, that's the psychological tension that makes the difference. It's not that there's anything wrong with being a star-shaped peg. It's just that you're really, really uncomfortable when you're crammed in that round hole.
Deborah: I did teach school, too. I taught elementary school, even though sometimes I've even had a—I was an ENTJ during some years because somebody had to do it. This is kind of the way I looked at it. I was around too many others who weren't solving problems in the school. My way of solving it is pulling out my perceiver part, which is a more relaxed open. The kids would get all wiggly during the school day. I'd say, hmm, I'm thinking we need to go outside. And they'd all say yes. I got blanket permissions from the parents of my sixth graders to go outside and even on walks. I also got disposable cameras so that we could have some purpose besides just walking around. We did that a lot, and I would have them write about what they'd done and so on, and work in little groups, but I hardly ever required that my class be quiet. I wanted them to interact with each other. I individualized so that they would be working in clusters, and they would have the same kinds of readiness for the materials. I brought in materials from other places.
But teachers today, I'm not sure they have the—I mean, I always thought it's easier to get forgiven than get permission. So, I don't know even if I taught today if I wouldn't have been somewhat of a renegade. In most classrooms now, it's too narrowly prescribed what you should be doing with the students. I think that's a mistake because it doesn't matter. They should be learning. That's all. And the learning comes from all those things. It doesn't have to be one textbook. You can bring a bunch of things together and discuss it and teach writing and teach reading and teach discussion.
I quoted this one book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I'll give you a hint. It was Finland. And how they did that was by elevating the profession of teaching to be at a similar level to that of being a medical doctor. Pay, supervision, educational levels, and it became something that only had people who were really capable of learning how to teach. We now don't have those same kinds of requirements. Well, since women's liberation in the 60s, smart women knew they could get better pay going other places. Some still do teach, but they have other options. And that has made quite a difference in the whole dynamic in schools. When I say we need an overhaul, we do. I don't want names of like the education person that came before the one we have now in the country. Some people are deliberately trying to disenfranchise students and their families from getting an education at all.
Emma: Deborah, you're talking about teachers who have figured out how to make the round hole plasticine and elastic to allow more people to fit into it. And that comes from that ability to do that with life. I know you've also got a book about gifted children growing up. Do you find that lack of elasticity also continues through to adult life? often find that there's still a lot of very concrete, round places in life that extends beyond education. So, you know, when you get out into the adult world, it's still, there's still some difficulty in trying to fit in some places.
Deborah: Well, I think it's a matter of personality at that point, because in free countries— supposedly free, mostly free—you get to go where you want to be. Sometimes you have to take a job that pays the bills before you find your dream job. But I'm about giving people permission to not aim for something too concrete. Figure out what you want to do. Too many of us foreclose on our career futures by thinking. Like majoring—choosing a major when you're 19 or 20—you don't know what you want to do. But no education is wasted.
That's what I tell people. Don't feel like you made a mistake that it took you until your 40s to really know what you wanted to do, especially if you're raising a family. I want the fathers and the mothers to both be equally involved with those children, so they both might blossom after the kids get older. It's a journey. I'm not into credentialism, and I think that some people think they've got to prove they've used their brain right before they even know what it is they have to contribute.
I have a very lenient view of success and failure. You're on a journey and when it's done, it's done. Come on, let's make it count now as far as you finding out how you are gonna make a difference in this world and enjoy your life. And so, yeah, there are people who get tied into something they hate. Well, I say make some plans for how you're going to adjust that. You've got all this giftedness. You can survive. You don't have to be in that cog in a wheel that you don't like.
Chris: Yes, that's right. I love that message. It's so true. But people are afraid often to take the jump, but do it. You know, exactly.
Deborah: Yeah, and know how to budget.
Chris: It's really important that we talk about levels of giftedness with you. But when we do that, we need to somehow also address the fact that IQ is perceived by so many people as problematic, that it does have a fraught history, but it is still a useful tool. I truly believe that because of the work that I observed with Linda. I see how important it is. I see how helpful it is, especially with twice-exceptional kids.
But I also want to talk with you about another aspect of your book that builds on Dabrowski and personality. He thought that we created our personality, but he also acknowledged these types. He thought psychological types were really important, and he emphasized how important it was to overcome your psychological type, to transcend it. You address that in the book, that we can change these preferences we have and learn. You've already mentioned it, in fact, in this episode, that you could embrace the P in you. We can do this. We're not in this box. He thought that that inner transformation was critical to reaching higher levels of development. And so, I love that aspect of your book, too.
Deborah: I started giving my clients and their children personality tests in the early 2000s. When I published my first book, my publisher didn't want to deal with personality. So, we didn't put it in there, even though we had them. I was disappointed, but it was wise as far as keeping the book not so big. What happened is, I kept building my database of these personalities and people, and we became family. You work this way with people, you really have them sending you Christmas cards and reaching out and letting you know how everyone's doing. When I did the follow-up book, I had the children, who are now adults, take the Myers-Briggs, not the child's version. I still had their parents, when the parents were raising the kids, they had certain types. So, I kept those and didn't try and test them again. I changed since then, and I know that most of them might have, too. But that's not the point.
When they were raising their kids, this is where they were. What I noticed is, as people matured innerly, if they had an inner growth, if they were getting therapy or they were doing a lot of self-discovery kinds of things, they would see a change and usually the change would be toward a more laissez-faire open type rather than the more rigid prescribed types. The two middle letters don't often change from childhood to adulthood or old age, but they can soften.
So, somebody who is a sensor or an intuitive, that's the second letter in the Myers-Briggs. Sensors tend to see the world in the details, whereas intuitives only need the details long enough to get the big picture. When people say, where did you get that idea? I think I got it myself, but I might have gotten it from an amalgam of things that were the details that I incorporated into my view. It affects how you respond as a student, as a spouse or a partner. It is in reaction to the way a teacher can teach you.
Those things matter because if you are in a math class, like my best friend who didn't get into Honor Society the first go-around. She grew up to be a math teacher and a math curriculum developer and really big throughout the grades. She got math. And I said, well, I didn't have, and then I realized we were in all the same math classes from fifth grade through 12th grade. She was taught the same way I was—they weren't bad teachers. They just resonated with her because she's an S-sensor. S sensor tends to be unaware that if you don't give the big picture first to people like intuitives, they don't know what you're talking about until they somehow stumble across it. And that can really impede math instruction.
She attended some of my work and she's going to help me write the trilogy I've talked about—turning the big book into three smaller books. She's got the focus and the personality to really help with the structure. She's going to come up with discussion questions and so on. She has learned over the years that the way she taught math and the way she raised her kids was sometimes hard on some of them. And she took it okay. She's apologized to her son, for instance. It really is a helpful tool for people, just like IQs are. They're a tool. They're part of it. They aren't all of it. There we go, rabbit holes.
Chris: Well, that was perfect. It was a good segue to talk about levels of giftedness, honestly, because that is something that people have asked us to have an episode about. There's a YouTube comment, Emma, somewhere where somebody said, can't you do an episode about levels of giftedness? So, you're the perfect person to talk about that. That's another thing I love about your book that I rarely get is to be able to see myself and other people in a book. It's very special. It's something that I didn't know until I found the gifted community that there was a PG community and that you could meet people and feel mirrored for the first time in your life by a bunch of people. It's amazing. It seems criminal to me how few people get to have this experience of knowing this about themselves and feeling mirrored who are in this population.
Deborah: Well, we're all spread out. And I'm not in favor of putting us all together all the time either. It's good to have the variety, but not for the subjects that we're really ready to move ahead on. We can't always be waiting, and we can't always be rushing ahead either.
Chris: I'm not sure even what question to ask you about talking about levels of giftedness, except that they're real. A lot of my work now is around understanding neurodivergence beyond giftedness. But the reality is my giftedness feels like a kind of neurodivergence. And technically, I mean, it is because it's a different, I mean, it is a different way of being. all giftedness, even the like, all the levels of giftedness seem like a different experience of reality, right? I mean, they are. And so when we're talking about adding other kinds of neurodivergence, like ADHD, or autism, or whatever it is, I mean, it muddies the water. But I guess I have a lot of questions. I'm sorry.
Deborah: Right? I have an answer. When my kids started, we were in a kind of rural school district. When I moved for my doctorate, which was partially to get them in a different school area, we sent them to a private school because we just thought private schools would be better. They can be simply because college prep schools don't accept kids who score below average. So, they've already cut the bottom out. That means you're going to have a narrower range. And they want them to be college capable. That really starts at the first standard deviation on average.
I read the mission statement of different schools. And this one talked about how they honored diversity. I assumed that included levels of giftedness. And I was really disappointed to find out they didn't even know what I was talking about. All of our kids are gifted. And I thought, well, this clearly is not true. And part of the reason for me is that I had three children and they were different. I came from a family that we were different. We were all pretty darn smart, but it wasn't at the same levels. That's what drove me in my doctoral studies to find out everything I could about what is intelligence, where does it come from, how is it studied, how does it affect people? And again, my kind of brain and personality pulled it all together.
Now listen, my kind of work causes a lot of crying on the part of the author. I may have a sense of humor, but I get real emotional when I'm dealing with the lives of real people, even if it's in private. I felt there had to be a way to explain it. I kept having to repay for an extension because it took me almost, let's see, it took me seven years to do my dissertation. It took me seven years to write my book, this second book. But I was formulating all the stuff for the first book, the first Five Levels of Gifted.
I had note cards, you know the kind—index cards—where I wrote down key behaviors and abilities and achievements of all the children in the book. I remember I took them on a visit to my parents where I had time and I just sat there and shuffled through them, kept reading them and rereading them to put them in an order. Computers were just kind of starting in the early 90s, I mean for us common folk, but I just sorted them and started to see—are there any distinctions? What kinds of things are there? It was the onset of different interests that mattered. I started to see it wasn't necessarily across the board. I started to categorize them.
When I wrote the second book, first of all, I was dismayed to find out they left out a big part of the level three kids. They were in the chapter, but they weren't in the chart. I have that if anyone needs it. Because they're in the second book and they might say, hey, where's that kid in this book? Their test scores are in the first book. But I don't want to out anybody, you know, it's anonymous.
As I did that, writing the second book, I moved a bunch of people up into higher levels. I did that because it became clear that the parents and their personalities related to this, the parents gave me the input, not the kids. I wasn't watching the kids, it was from the parents. I knew all the kids, I'd tested them all and so on, but that's not the same as living with them. I didn't know them when they were one and two and three and four. What happened was some of these parents were looking for academic stuff despite the questions I asked them. They would think, well, they know this many words, and they said that many words, and they're reading these things, and they're doing, oh, and they can count. I'm thinking, that's not everything. That's not everything, people. There's a spark. There's some kind of thing that shows up.
I was trying to encapsulate that essence, not just the achievement that looks school-worthy. By the time I got to talk to them myself as young adults and even middle-aged adults, they could tell me themselves what they were like, and I could see. And again, it wasn't just achievement. It was how they were. I don't know how I would train someone to do that, but I'd recognize someone who could do that. My mother used to look at our classroom pictures when we brought them home from school. She'd point to the kids and say who was smart. And she was right. You know that as a student in the class who the brightest kids are. Most people thought I was really smart. They assumed I had good grades. And as I said, I was bred to have B pluses. So, they were always shocked that I didn't have straight A's, but I didn't have to worry about straight A's because my family was all right with my just doing my thing.
If people follow my free blog on Substack, I keep talking about the levels, the relativity of intelligence, all those things that I hope will resonate. Not everything will resonate with every reader, I'm looking for that connection that people can feel.
Chris: I guess the question that I am trying to think of how to ask is around like the twice exceptional issue and levels of giftedness. How often are kids misdiagnosed? You know, how often is it? that a kid is autistic and doesn't get the autism diagnosis because they're PG and their parents are discouraged from giving them a diagnosis. I have heard that a lot personally.
Deborah: Okay. My issue is I'm so used to being around really smart people that to me, I just recognize them as my geeky peeps. And so to me, it isn't that important to diagnose some things. We're looking for the right environment and whatever support they might need. But you do that anyway. I never really got into the 2E stuff for that reason. If somebody is having trouble reading and they should be reading, that’s a little more obvious to me that maybe they’ve got eye tracking that can be straightened out easily or glasses. And dyslexia, that should be diagnosed. But as far as the spectrum, if they're just kind of in a world of their own, that's a real advantage for a lot of work.
Chris: You know, that's hilarious. It really is. Honestly, as somebody who's like that—
Deborah: I don't see it as a real problem.
Chris: I don't see it as a problem either. That's the neurodiversity issue—that's that paradigm of, it's not something wrong with you. It's just a different way of being. I discourage people from worrying too much about labels, and yet I know personally that it helps you find community and find other people like you to have the language around what's going on with you, because it's rarely just one thing. If you go looking for labels, you're going to find a ton of them. I can say that for my own life and my kid’s and lots of people.
I realize that you're not aware of this because you're not in these circles of being in groups that are neurodiversity related groups where the conversation is really around diagnoses more than giftedness, and yet us gifted people are in those spaces. We find often that we're invalidated by these other folks who are like, it's not gifted, it's autistic. They’re saying giftedness isn't a real thing. It's a social construct. It's what you do in the classroom. There's so much misunderstanding and lack of awareness around giftedness that it means that we get denied and invalidated as a population, even by people who should be our allies as other neurodivergent people. It's frustrating.
Deborah: You and I had a little back alley talk about that. Because sometimes, and I don't know where the heck I came from really, you know, why I am the way I am. But I do know that when I heard about how we should really support our gifted girls, I wondered why I wasn't getting any support from the very same people who were talking that way. You know, I was struggling for a lot of my adult life because of a really hectic childhood. I really was a people pleaser. My excessive smiling is still a part of it. I mean, it works, but to keep people calm and feeling like I'm probably not insulting them, and I don't ever purposely insult anyone.
I was not getting the kind of understanding because I was so high functioning in general. I learned in my late 60s that if somebody asked me what I wanted to do, I had no idea. I wanted to write, I wanted to explain things, but if we were talking about going somewhere, I knew it was always somebody else deciding. When somebody would nastily say, well, what do you want to do? I realized I didn't know. That's because I had a family where I had to not be thinking for myself.
When that happens, that can derail you for a long time. You attract people who love being able to boss you around, and I had that problem, and that was only in my closest relationships. In my real life, outside of the close relationships, I knew what I wanted I knew what I wanted to do, and I didn't want to do, but not in a relationship. And that that may have been a function of the dysfunction generationally in a family that has a lot of really smart people who were all pretty much toxic and dysfunctional. Because I share that openly, it's not a complaint, it's an observation. It helps other people also share because they realize I had no idea, and I went through this. And a lot of people do, and that helped my writing to know that.
We can't just look at people and say they're not living up to their potential. We don't even know what their potential is if they're still struggling with something that's keeping them down. Keeping them from believing in themselves, or thinking they have a chance. We have so many systems right now that are absolutely keeping people down. So, I quit believing in what the actual IQs of the world are. And I've helped norm three main tests. I know what test and measurement is, there's too much trauma in too many people to have this be realistic.
Chris: That's a great way to put it. And yeah, the trauma aspect is really fascinating to me, too. My friend Jen has a podcast, Conversations on Gifted Trauma, and talks about how many gifted people grow up, you know, kind of what you just described. It's generational, too, where you don't realize that you have this difference, you don't realize these aspects of yourself, and you revisit your trauma on your children. It's like a cycle.
Deborah: It is a cycle.
Chris: It's a cycle. When I went on her podcast, I talked about—I am happy that I've been able to break the cycle, I think, with my son to some extent. But not before causing the trauma first. My grandmother died six weeks before he was born, and I'm an only child—an only grandchild on that side. To lose my grandmother was a devastating blow right before having my child. And so, that's how we started. A few years later, my alcoholic father died—trauma after trauma throughout my kid's life. And then I discovered Michael's book, Mellow Out, read it and went, Oh my God. That was the wake up call of I'm revisiting my trauma on my poor son. Oh my God, like really kick things off for me figuring out where I needed to go to work on myself, how to repair my relationship with my son. What can I do? I have misunderstood this kid. Holy shit.
Deborah: Well, I hope you read the part in the book where I teach people how to apologize without excuses. Believe me, I went to something called Landmark Worldwide. You can get coaching through your volunteering to be there, pretty much. One of the things that it took me a long time to get, and I wasn't unusual in that way, is when you start to realize why you've made mistakes, what the past was that made you make these mistakes, you try and bring those up with the apology, and it isn't effective. It's got to be that you own what you did. And that's hard. It's hard because you want to be let down easy for your mistakes, but with your kids in particular, truly just saying, I realized what I said hurt you, or I realized what I did was bad for you, and I am so sorry. End of discussion. If they want to talk, they can. But no defending yourself during that.
Chris: I'm so glad you said that. I feel like people need to hear that. And it's so true. That is what's helped us is that ability to take accountability and apologize. I do believe that gifted people have their own kind of traumas because of this experience of being so different and other people aren't getting you.
Emma: All this discussion just goes to show how complicated a tapestry that a person is. Chris, you were talking about people saying, you don't need the gifted label because you've got something else. Well, you know, if that lens helps you make sense of yourself, and there are other people out there with the same experience that can validate that, hey, maybe this is a thing. There's enough people working in the field that can substantiate that this is a valid way to talk about yourself, well, you know, too bad. If people think that the label's invalid but it's not them, like, they don't need to see themselves that way. So what? And you we have to look at those ways of seeing ourselves, ways, as you said, from your trauma-informed responses of your actual experiences within your own families or your own environment.
Have to look at how your personality is and particularly how it might shift as well. I know I've taken those personality tests a number of times and every time I get a different result. Depending on where I am in my life, depending on what I'm doing as a job for folks. If I take that in the context of my job because they've given me a personality test as part of an interview, it gets a much different result from when I do it on my own time. The results that I got when I was younger are different to the results I get today. With this constantly moving, complex, squiggly thing of threads that are waving, and as we were saying before, anything that helps us make better sense of ourselves and our journey is helpful. If it helps you, great. And if it doesn't help someone else, well, stay in your lane, dude, because this is helping me.
It's like this whole, like, openness to experience, overexcitability—whatever helps you make sense of yourself, man, like, Because isn't that the whole point of all this shit that everybody's doing is to help people? Help people break cycles of trauma. Help people develop as human beings. Help people get through their pain. Whatever helps.
Deborah: People say, well, personality tests aren't valid because they change. And I'm thinking, what Emma said. They change because we're changing. It doesn't mean the tests are bad. That's how we answered that day, and it helps us know where we are. If we take them more than once, which that's why I recommend Personality Page, you can take it for $3 every time. You start to see your own growth through that, your repressive periods and your growth periods. You start to see how that affects your mood and what you respond to, and it really helps you see.
A good therapist will have you go back and look at pictures from different times in your life. I see it as very similar, because you can see when somebody is at a happy time in their life and a depressed time, and it shows in their body language, in the pictures. So, it's a way to start to see, okay, what was going on in my life at that time? Was I lonely? Did I not have any friends? Did I lose somebody important to me? Was I being bullied? What was going on? It shows up in pictures and personality profiling.
Oh, and what you said, Emma, about the label gifted. I think the label gifted is synonymous with your height. I'm 5'3″. That's a label. But it's me, and it affects what I can reach. I fit in the seats that don't have much leg room. That's a bonus. But as far as reaching things, changing light bulbs, it's a problem. I can't eat as much as others. I mean, I could, but then I'd be the same all around. But being gifted, it's only about what parts of me are different from others that may cause problems for me or benefits for me in certain environments, in certain positions that I take or am in. The people who keep taking IQ tests and want to have tests that find the smartest person, I think is so stupid. It's a waste of time. Get a life, people. This is not what it's about. It's just a part of the complexity of who we are.
Chris: I hear you. I do think often there's been too much of an emphasis on that. One of the last questions I have is, I don't know if I saved this as one of my quotes, but I remember you saying that a difference between levels four and five gifted was the drive and intensity. I wonder if you could say something else about that.
Deborah: I created these levels because I didn't like using the labels of exceptionally and profoundly if we didn't have to. It was really about getting away from the scores and the elitist labels. But there are a lot of people who want those labels. So, I changed some of my charts to include a synonymous kind of thing, but I didn't want to, because to me, it's about meeting the needs of. Okay, over time, I learned that level four was really where I put people who were profoundly gifted in one or two things, not everything. Those are the strengths they should be using—get an assistant for the others. Level fives, they really have trouble choosing because they score high in everything. And then there is also the drive.
Sometimes there are a lot of people in my level four follow up that I have to admit, they are probably level fives. It just starts to show up. It's because of their drive, especially, and their good fortune of having the opportunity and the environment. Sometimes they created it themselves and their personalities cooperated, and their parents' personalities cooperated.
People want black and white answers a lot. I can't give those to them, except sometimes. It depends. And so people have to be able to live with that. It's a process. It's a journey. And it's okay. We're just trying to make ourselves and the world livable.
Chris: That's right. Well, that's what Michael said in his episode, right? It's the process, and development is dynamic. And we can never forget that. And I think that that was important. And that's your message, too.
Deborah: Michael—he and I, we always had a good time because we are the way we are. He and I can bounce off each other. So, it's very collaborative to be around Michael. Yet, I think he's a P perceiver. And, you know, he and I both—he was worried when he couldn't find some of those papers. I just thought, oh, well, okay. I didn't have any kind of problems. It wasn't like, oh, no, this is my life's work. No, there's plenty to do. Not worried.
Chris: People need to buy the book because it's great to have a mirror. I appreciate every good mirror book that I get. And Michael's book was like that. When I read it, I see myself and I appreciate being able to see myself in your book, too. It's a really special thing. So, thank you for doing it.
Deborah: Thank you.
Emma: Multiple lenses. It all comes back to multiple lenses of being able to see yourself. I’m gonna—can I do a Jerry Springer final thought?
Chris: Of course.
Emma: That is why sometimes I think I get annoyed with people because if we are trying to pigeonhole people and shoehorn them into black and white things—I know Deborah you said, sometimes I can give a black and white answer, but it's not always possible because humans are complicated things. Like Chris who needs many, many mirroring books in order to get some sort of self-understanding. I know that makes life seem messy and shit and maybe makes it more difficult for us to get our head around. But if we go the opposite direction, then we fail to appreciate the marvelous, beautiful, complex creatures that human beings are and everything that we're capable of. Insofar as being able to change and grow and move past the things that happened to us in the past. So, yeah, it's complicated. But isn't that a marvelous thing? Throws hands up in air in questioning.
Deborah: Yeah. It's been great to meet you and get to know you both.
Chris: It has been so great.
Emma: So thanks to Deborah. And also thanks to you, Chris. Always a pleasure.
Chris: It is always a pleasure. Thank you.
Emma: And thank you to our listeners. We always appreciate you and hope you got a whole lot out of this conversation. Continue your path to authenticity through the links in the show notes. Subscribe to our Substack newsletter for stacks of cool things delivered straight to your inbox. Explore the Dabrowski Center, email us, or join us on social media. And don't forget to show your love by liking, subscribing, grabbing some Positive Disintegration merch, or leaving us a rating or review on your podcast platform.
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