We All Need (And Need To Be) A James Taylor Kind Of Friend

seasons image

Those who have studied and published on the subject are almost uniform in their assessment that when it comes to staving off loneliness in children and adults (young and old) it is the quality and not the quantity of friends that matters most. In fact, many researchers believe that as few as 1 – 3 close friends are all that is required to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of loneliness. Viewed from this perspective, our war on loneliness seems eminently “win-able” save for one fairly significant obstacle: People seem to have forgotten what it means and how critical it is to be a true friend.

Friends take the time to get to know one another.  They take a genuine interest in learning each other’s likes and dislikes, their interests, the things that matter to them, where they’ve been, where they are and where they aspire to be, the things that make them angry or sad – and, most importantly, the things that bring them joy.  They appreciate the fact that getting to truly know one another takes time and patience, but they also realize how essential this step is in building the foundation of a lasting friendship and to their ability to support, encourage, comfort, understand and enjoy each other’s company down the road.

Over time, friends learn to trust one another – implicitly – and to value and honor that trust.  They would never consider disparaging one another behind the other’s back or, worse yet, breaching the confidences with which they have been entrusted.  Friends are loyal to and respect one another.  They don’t make plans to do something with one another and then cancel for no reason or simply fail to show up, without an explanation, having forgotten they made plans at all. When they make a commitment to each other, friends follow through on it, absent a compelling reason, because they understand their value to one another.

Friends don’t support unhealthy behaviors in one another – even if it is one they may share.  Instead, they care enough about each of other to work to be an instrument of change in the other’s life.  They support each other.  They are always seeking first to build the other up, rather than searching for ways to (or through their indifference) tear the other down.  Friends are sufficiently comfortable in their own skin to be able to share in each other’s joys and successes – without jealousy.  Friends understand the importance of truth telling and of communication – it is the cornerstone of their relationship.  When they communicate, they do it lovingly – not with hurtful words.

Friends are grateful to have someone in their life with whom they can feel comfortable sharing their problems and frustrations, even if they pertain to one another.  But, they never take that gift for granted and they certainly don’t abuse it.  To the contrary, friends are just as focused on giving as they are on receiving in all aspects of their friendship, but especially when it comes to being a loving (and non-judgmental) listener, someone who is fully present when it’s the other’s “turn” to speak, when their friend is in need, when their friend’s heart longs to express itself.  Simply put, friends understand (and embrace) the importance of selflessness in relationship.

Forty years ago (really, Don – it was 40 years ago?!?), Carole King wrote “You’ve Got A Friend.” In it, she observed that:  “People can be so cold.  They’ll hurt you, yes, and desert you.  They’ll take your soul if you let them.  Oh, BUT DON’T YOU LET THEM.  You’ve got a friend” – someone who is committed to being there in the barrenness of Winter, in the creativity and newness of Spring, in the sometimes seemingly unbearable “heat” of Summer and in the beauty of Fall.  In short, someone you can count on to be there in every “season” of your life.  Maybe that someone is already on your “List.”  Maybe it’s someone you will meet today.  If not, keep searching.  It’s important.


Re-Visiting The Land Mines That Dot The Landscape Of Loneliness

Landscape of Loneliness

No “battlefield” is free of land mines and the landscape upon which we’re waging our campaign to root out and destroy loneliness is certainly no exception.  So I thought I’d take a minute to touch on what I consider to be several obstacles that all of us have encountered (or are likely to encounter) in our ongoing struggle to feel more connected and less alone – and share my thoughts on some strategies for overcoming them.  First, it’s important to understand that none of the things we’ve “talked” about thus far are going to happen overnight.  It is terribly unrealistic to expect that we are going to go to bed one night with a distorted or broken view of “me” and wake up the next morning to find our new “best friend” smiling back at us in the mirror.  Make no mistake:  I believe we are all capable of making the transition to a healthier, more gentle, life-affirming acceptance of ourselves.  I also am convinced that it is essential that we do so if we are to achieve victory over this enemy called loneliness.  But, it is very much a process that takes time, effort, desire and commitment on our part – all of which, in turn, require PATIENCE. Don’t abandon the mission over this one.  Trust me, it will be well worth it in the end.

If you’re like most, the second obstacle you’re likely to encounter, which is closely tied to the first, is one borne of impatience.  It typically arises when our real or imagined sense that we are (albeit temporarily) alone and our corresponding desire/need for companionship combine to create a sense of desperation.  The result: We convince ourselves that we simply “can’t wait” any longer for the proverbial “knock on the door,” for the phone to ring or our text messages to be answered. We have to have company and we have to have it NOW!  And so we set out “in search of” or, worse yet, reach out to someone who already (likely time and time again) has demonstrated that they don’t have our best interests at heart. Sometimes, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves clinging to them, fearful that without them we will once again be alone.  Inevitably, however, these “forays” leave us feeling wholly unsatisfied.  They add to, rather than satiate, our (very human) need for real/true companionship.  In time, our increasing love of self should diminish this sense of restlessness.  In the meantime, simply be sensitive to and try to fight the urge – or, better yet, refer to “The List” I suggested creating yesterday and send someone on it a note telling them how much you value them.

This next “land mine” is hard for me to write about objectively, because it is one that strikes very close to home.  Some (mistakenly I believe) attribute it to pride and ego. Others to stubbornness.  But, in my mind, it’s much more complicated than that – its roots much more deep seated.  Simply put, it is a “willingness” to “choose” being alone, rather than once again be the one who always has to be the relationship-initiator.  It is the voice inside that says: “Why am I always the one reaching out?  Why doesn’t ______________ pick up the phone and call me to suggest we get together?  They must not care, so why should I?”  I get it and there is merit in those sentiments.  But there are also lots of potentially mistaken assumptions built into them.  What if . . . that someone is sitting next to their phone harboring the same thoughts?  What if . . . that someone is hurting and alone and simply can’t muster the “strength” to reach out?  What if . . . that someone is simply absent-minded or preoccupied and, while they might love to “hang out” if asked, simply hasn’t thought to call?  Bottom line:  There is a time (and you likely will know when it is), when you have reached out to someone “often enough” to warrant not taking the initiative any more.  When that time comes, listen to your heart.  Until then, go ahead and take the initiative.

Finally, at least for today, beware of this tripwire:  While the person who dies with the most “Facebook Friends” may win some award, quantity does not equal quality when it comes to the winning the war on loneliness.  Simply put, one really good friend is far more valuable than dozens of “not so good” friends or acquaintances.  More on this later!

Spending Quality Time With Your “New” Best Friend

Enjoying Time Alone

Now that we’re well on our way to developing a healthy and self-affirming relationship with our constant companion and “new” best friend – OURSELVES – implementing the second strategic step in our battle to rid our (and others’) lives of loneliness should be relatively easy: Learning to embrace, rather than lament, the time we spend by ourselves (with ourselves). Simply put, we have to be careful not to confuse loneliness with the fact that we, like most of our fellow Earth-occupiers, often find ourselves outside the physical or “electronic” company of others. There IS a difference and it’s very important that we understand that distinction if we are to avoid stepping into the quick sand of despair that can often accompany confusing the two.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post (“Learning To Be Your Own Best Friend”), it’s an objective and irrefutable fact that, whether you currently are in a relationship with someone or not, most of your day will be spent by (and with) yourself. Obviously, that’s equally (if not even more likely to be) true if you happen to be single at the moment. However, that doesn’t mean you’re “alone” and it certainly doesn’t have to lead to the common misperception that if you aren’t in the company of a friend (or some other “random” human being) or being bombarded by text messages every waking moment of your day you’re destined for loneliness.

To the contrary, the truth is there are a number of people in the world – your world – who love and care about you, who are (or, if offered the chance, would be) there to support you, who value you, who want you to be healthy, happy and successful – people who, on a moment’s notice, would drop what they’re doing if they learned that you needed them at your side. The fact those people aren’t at your side at a particular moment in time or, perhaps, haven’t been present or “checked-in” for an extended period of time because of geography, circumstance, your or their “life stuff,” relational neglect (which all of us are guilty of at one time or another). etc. doesn’t mean they don’t care or that they want you to be alone.

If you don’t believe those people exist in your life, take a piece of paper and going back 10 years if you’re in your 20′s and 30′s (20 if you’re in your 40′s and 50′s) jot down the names of everyone who you believe cares or cared about you during that time period. There likely will be a few dozen people on that list – or more. If there aren’t ask a parent or a friend who has known you that long to help, because you’re likely not being objective in surveying the landscape of your life. Once you’ve collected the names, try and find current contact information for each of them – an e-mail address or phone number will suffice – and use the opportunity your information gathering initiative affords to just say “hi” and let them know how and what you’re doing. When the list is finished, keep it handy as a “reminder” that though you may be by yourself, you’re not alone.

Finally, rather than lamenting the time you have to yourself, embrace it and use the time wisely. It’s a great opportunity to reflect, in a positive way, on where you are and where you want to go in life. It’s a chance to organize your thoughts, your calendar and your living space. It’s a chance to relationship build (with yourself and via e-mail or phone call with someone you may have fallen out of touch with or been meaning to reach out to – someone who you sense might be in need of a kind word or a friendly voice.  Maybe it’s a time to catch up on some much needed rest, to watch or go see a movie you’ve been wanting to see or to simply “chill” on the coach with your dog and the music you enjoy. Maybe it’s a time to write, to get caught up on world events, to paint, to play or take a walk. Maybe it’s all of these things – and more.

But what intermittent “alone time” is not, even on a Friday or Saturday night when you may be convinced that “everyone” else in the world is out doing something fun with someone, is a sign that you are all alone in the world, because you’re not – I promise!

Learning To Be Your Own Best Friend (Rewind)

Own Best Friend

Several months ago, I published a series of posts as part of my “grass roots” campaign to try and eradicate loneliness in my lifetime.  Since there were few “followers” at the time, I thought, given the importance of the issue, that I would “re-visit” those posts over the next few days, rather than hope that newer followers will “find” them amid the 180+ posts that have been published since.  This is the first in that series:

Several years ago, when my son was being recruited to play major college golf, a prospective coach came up to me at a junior tournament and offered this unsolicited observation:  “Don, Once Greg learns to be his own best friend on the golf course, the sky will be the limit!”  The comment, which was well-intended, was precipitated by our both having watched Greg express obvious displeasure over a beautiful 4-iron shot that he had just hit 195 yards over a ravine to a spot on the green 20 feet below a guarded pin placement, believing, I suspect, that he could/should have gotten it inside 15 feet!  The coach was really saying two things:  (1) your son is an exceptionally talented young man; and (2) competitive golf is often a very singular pursuit (i.e., while fellow competitors will (or should) be quick to acknowledge a “good shot” or “a round well-played,” at the end of day, most would rather not see you succeed or at least not succeed to the level they aspire to).  Consequently, to be a successful competitive golfer at any level you have to be able to rely on yourself to be your most dependable, unconditional and enthusiastic supporter and cheerleader – or the game will consume you.

I believe the coach’s comment applies with equal (if not greater) force to the “game of life.” In fact, I am convinced that “learning to be your own best friend” is the single most critical (and achievable) first line of attack in the battle to overcome loneliness.  Why?  Because no matter how “connected” you may be (or think you are), no matter how many “real” or Facebook friends you may have, no matter how much others may want you to be part of their lives and their social calendars, the inescapable reality is that if you’re like most of us (and you are!) you will spend the majority of the 24 hours each of us is allotted today engaged in very singular pursuits (e.g., getting up, getting ready, eating breakfast, sitting at an office desk, sitting in a classroom, doing homework, walking the dog, reading, writing, hanging out around the house, going to bed, etc.), during which your closest companion, the person you will have to rely on to entertain you, to motivate you, to provide you with the emotional support you need, to reinforce a positive self-image is – wait for it – YOU!  Consequently, you have to learn to always be there for “you.”  You have to be willing to recognize the good in “you.”  You have to embrace the fact that “you” are imperfect – and be O.K. with that.

I don’t believe “learning to be your own best friend” comes naturally.  To the contrary, I believe most of us are more inclined to be (and have a much easier time being) critical of ourselves.  Consciously or subconsciously, we seek out what we perceive to be our “deficiencies.” We dwell on, even obsess about, the mistakes we make (or have made), while barely pausing over all the good that we do, all we have to be proud of, our many accomplishments, large and small, our talents – the things that make us unique.  For that reason, at least in the beginning, becoming our own best friend will require a conscious effort on our part.  Just like we do in forming friendships with others, we will need to seek out the good in ourselves, the things we like, if not love, about ourselves, the things that, if we saw them in another, we would immediately be attracted to, want more of.  When we find them (and, believe me, they’re there to be found!), we need to nurture them, constantly “remind” ourselves of their existence, give ourselves the credit we deserve for them and appreciate them, so that, in time, they will dwarf/suffocate our disproportionately smaller/fewer “shortcomings.”  Perhaps a final illustration, borrowed again from my son and the game of golf, will illustrate these points.

A year after the encounter I used to introduce this post, I was watching my son play a round at Colbert Hills, one of the most beautiful (and difficult) courses in the United States.  He hit an approach shot into the par 4 9th hole with a 9-iron from approximately 140 yards that came to rest 6 inches from the hole!  It was a spectacular shot – one that maybe .01% of the golfers in the United States are capable of hitting.  In response, Greg simply tapped down his small divot and headed towards the cart.  Not a pause, not a smile, just sort of a “that’s just what I do and expect from myself” response.  He may remember me stopping him in his tracks from 50 yards away.  “Excuse me,” I said.  “Do you realize just how magnificent that shot is?”  A slight smile.  “You have to allow yourself to appreciate the fact that it was ‘you’ that just hit that shot.”  A slightly bigger smile – some positive “relationship building with self” beginning to take place.  “I’m going to have to insist that you pause for a moment and allow that shot to sink in, to take up residence in your soul.”  And so it is with each of us.  Our ability to succeed in this battle we have decided to wage against loneliness in our own lives and, ultimately, in the lives of others, depends first on our ability to love ourselves.  It can’t happen without it!


Another Step Removed From The Path Of Least Resistance

Path of Least Resistance

As individuals and as a society, we have choices.  We can continue to pretend that eating disorders aren’t real or at least not “as real” as other life-threatening illnesses that rightfully command so much of our individual, societal and charitable attention, despite overwhelming medical and scientific evidence to the contrary and the alarming mortality rates associated with them.  We also can convince ourselves that eating disorders are not “our problem” – at least until, God forbid, one affects someone we love or the loved one of someone we love – or, if it makes us feel better, that, as one person, we are powerless to make a meaningful difference in this heart-breaking epidemic.

The truth is, however, there is much we can do.  We can educate ourselves to better understand these insidious and powerful diseases, so that we can speak intelligently on the subject and, if the occasion presents itself, educate others.  With our vote and our voices we can support legislative initiatives that, directly or indirectly, benefit those suffering from eating disorders, by, among other things, affording them the full extent of insurance coverage(s) offered to those afflicted with more “traditional” physical ailments.  Where possible, we can provide financial assistance to organizations and foundations dedicated to eating disorder awareness, research and support.

As for me, between my book, this blog, my presentation at NEDA’s Annual Conference, this afternoon’s talk at the Houston Eating Disorder Specialists Conference and, above all else, my undying love for my daughter, I’ve decided that “silence” is not the right course, nor is turning a blind eye.  Instead, no matter how far from my comfort zone (read: “the path of least resistance”) my own personal “Journey of Hope” takes me, I am committed to trying to make a difference in the hope that someday one fewer tear will be shed by a beautiful young woman temporarily unable to see the truth about herself:  that she is loved, that she is infinitely lovable for who she is and that she is worthy of love.  I’m all in.


Through Another’s Loving Eyes

papillon sur l'eau

In the early stages of our daughter’s illness, while I was desperately scouring the medical landscape in search of guidance and insight into the  complex and multifaceted world of eating disorders, I was fortunate to be referred to a compassionate and knowledgeable physician on the West Coast, who had dedicated much of his professional life to the diagnosis, treatment and study of these diseases. After patiently and attentively listening to Ashley’s and our family’s story, he asked me one “simple” question: “Don, who is the person Ashley trusts more than anyone in the world?” “I’m not sure,” I responded, “I’ve never really thought about it. Why do you ask?” “Because,” he replied, “my experience has taught me that, when Ashley is ready, that’s the person she will allow to take her hand and help lead her out of her eating disorder.”

It was much too early in the process for me to grasp the full import of his words, but, over time, I began to appreciate the critical role that trust plays at both ends of the eating disorder spectrum.  When breached, trust can serve as a “trigger” for the disease to manifest itself.  More importantly, however, when restored or re-discovered, trust can be a lantern that helps illuminate the path leading out of the disease’s dark and deadly maze.  In fact, those who have read my book know that trust is a recurrent theme.  Last week, I was reminded of the criticality of trust in a humbling e-mail I received from Carolyn Costin (http://www.carolyncostin.com), a woman whose own courage, writings and selfless dedication to others I have long admired (http://tinyurl.com/bwrt5j2).

I was fortunate to meet Carolyn briefly at the NEDA Conference in October and took the opportunity to give her a copy of my book.  Last Monday, she wrote to share her thoughts, which were quite reaffirming.  In commenting on one of the chapters in particular (Chapter 9: Junnuh), Carolyn expressed her long-standing conviction that “everyone needs to find someone they can trust to show them to themselves.”  It’s a phrase I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since, in part, because it beautifully and concisely captures a profoundly important truth that I suspect is too often overlooked in treating those who suffer from eating disorders and, in part, because I believe it is equally true in all of our lives, irrespective of whether we have suffered or had a loved one suffer from an eating disorder.

The fact is that, while those suffering from eating disorders have a particularly difficult time “interpreting” the images of self that they see reflected back in many “mirrors” of their lives – most of us, left to our own devices, also are very poor “perceivers” of ourselves, of the gifts that make us unique, of our “love-ability” and of our value as human beings.  Ideally, that would not be the case – and for a very select few, it’s not.  They are able to see the truth about themselves clearly and accurately – and they like what they see!  For the rest of us, however, the images are not as clear – indeed, some are hidden from our view entirely, while others are grossly distorted.  Often, the insensitivity or callousness of others, even those who profess to care about us, reinforces those distortions or further obscures the “truth” about us from view.

But, I believe, eventually, if we’re patient, that “someone” Carolyn speaks of will come along – a special someone who we can trust implicitly.  They will “show us to ourselves,” perhaps for the first time, and through their loving eyes, rather than own, we too will finally (rightfully!) like what we see!  Who knows, that “special someone” may already be somewhere in our life.  It’s certainly worth a second look.


Empathy – Shame’s Kryptonite


Shame is a word we seldom associate with life-threatening physical illnesses.  In fact, despite racking my brain over the past two days’ walks, I can’t think of a single instance in my lifetime when I’ve heard a loved one, friend, colleague or celebrity express feelings of shame in connection with their having been diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cystic fibrosis or Hepatitis B – and for good reason. Indeed, it is ludicrous to even think of someone uttering the words, “I’m so filled with shame because I have breast cancer.”  Moreover, the concept of shame is similarly foreign to the family members, loved ones, colleagues and classmates of those afflicted with such diseases.  To the contrary, such afflictions often serve as a rallying cry for those who love the sufferer, which, in turn, leads to an outpouring of empathy and of emotional, financial and spiritual support.  At times, it even convinces one or more of them to dedicate their lives to promoting public awareness of the disease and the need to remain vigilant in marshaling and applying the resources necessary to combat it. 

And yet, there is a category of equally life-threatening, but admittedly less “objectively-verifiable” diseases (i.e., eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction and clinical depression – to name a few) where shame is at the epicenter.  In fact, many researchers and clinicians agree that shame is the fertilizer that allows these diseases to take root and flourish in the souls of those afflicted – the “gremlin,” as Brené Brown so cleverly and eloquently describes it in her TEDx talk entitled “Listening to Shame,” (link below), who aggressively and unrelentingly bombards the sufferer until their own spoken and unspoken mantras echo those of their tormentor.  That’s why it’s not at all unusual to hear those suffering from these diseases so matter-of-factly, but no less heartbreakingly, say things like: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not pretty enough,” “I’m not talented enough,” “I’m a mistake,” “I’m worthless,” etc.  Just as disturbingly, however, and unlike their “physical” counterparts, the shame-based component of this group of diseases seems to be “contagious.” 

Rather than rallying around those who suffer from eating disorders, addictions, clinical depression, etc., and allowing them to bathe in an outpouring of our love, support and empathy, we tend to “runaway” from them, to be judgmental (i.e., to actually openly or silently suggest that these are “diseases of choice”) and, in the case of an afflicted family member, to cast a veil of secrecy over them, hoping that others won’t “discover” that our loved one and, by extension, our family is, God forbid, “not perfect.” We don’t do these things maliciously.  We’re afraid and with good reason – these diseases are downright frightening.  We’re also ignorant – not in a pejorative sense, but in a literal lack-of-knowledge” sense, which also is understandable, given the complexity of these diseases.  But, in doing them, we unknowingly exacerbate the problem, because, as it turns out: “if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs 3 things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” Conversely, “if you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”  I vote for empathy!


Where Faith and Fear Collide


There are few admonitions in the Old and New Testaments more prevalent than those imploring the faithful to avoid fear and anxiety like the plague.  Isaiah 35:4 (“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’”); Proverbs 12:25 (“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down”); Psalm 27:1-14 (“The Lord is my light . . . whom shall I fear?”). 2 Timothy 1:7  (“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”); John 14:27 (“Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid”); Matthew 6:34 (“Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself”); Philippians 4:6-7 (“Do not be anxious about anything [for] the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds”); Matthew 6:25-34 (“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on . . . which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?).

Why is it then that fear and anxiety continue to be such an integral part of the human condition?  Part of it likely has to do with the fact that we live in a far from perfect, increasingly complex, fast-paced, competitive and highly stressful world.  Moreover, with the advent of (and advances in) technology, we have immediate and unfiltered access to information and images from every corner of the world, which disproportionately highlight the myriad of things that can and often do go wrong, sometimes terribly so, in the lives of others.  Even the most faithful among us can only be exposed to so much of that before we begin to believe that it is only a matter of time before similarly anxiety-producing circumstances will find their way to our own doorstep.  Sometimes, generally when we least expect them, they actually do appear in our own living rooms and places of work, where they are superimposed on an already full plate of daily activities, demands and interpersonal struggles that occupy all of our lives.  When they do, it is hard to fault those who are caught up in the tsunami of emotions surrounding them for their fear and anxiety about possible “bad” outcomes.

And yet, in my 54 years on the planet, I can’t think of a single such situation in my life (or the life of a loved one) that has benefited from the addition of my fear and anxiety.  I can, however, think of innumerable instances where the fear and anxiety I’ve contributed to the equation made an already difficult situation considerably worse and, if anything, increased, rather than minimized, the risk that a poor outcome would follow, while simultaneously carving years off my life, sucking what little color remained from my hair and generating boulder-sized knots in my stomach!  In fact, if I’m to be completely honest, to the extent that any of my behaviors have made a meaningful difference in the outcome of otherwise stressful and anxiety-filled situations over the years, they have emanated from: (1) an ability to maintain a level and peaceful head capable of charting a thoughtful course out of the rough seas – cognizant, but not fearful, of the inescapable perils associated with the journey from point A to point B; and (2) my being fully committed to acting on that plan with faith and hope that it will have the positive outcome I desire, tempered with the realization that such a result is never guaranteed.

When We Make Exceptional The Norm


When I was in elementary school about 100 years ago, there was no such thing as a “gifted” program, nor did schools give a moment’s thought to “leveling” their students according to their general or course-specific aptitude. Depending on the date you were born and the school district you happened to be living in at the time, you were either in the 2nd grade, the 4th, the 9th, etc. alongside everyone else who shared the fortuity of your birth range and place of residence. Of course, that meant that, from time to time, the more serious/better students in the class had to “suffer” through disruptions caused by the class clown, the restless and less-focused and even, on occasion, the trouble-maker or the bored who simply didn’t thrive in a traditional school setting – you know, someone like Steve Jobs.

In short, each class, regardless of the grade, was a representative cross-section of the general population – not unlike the group that has populated virtually every work environment I’ve been associated with since! However, it also meant that dedicated and hard-working students could readily distinguish themselves from their less committed peers and, in most instances, realize the truth: that, compared to the norm, they were exceptional (i.e., imagine there being A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and, regrettably, even a few F’s in the very same class!). There was a sense of pride that came with that realization. It felt good. It built confidence and self-esteem and made you want to continue to work hard. It was a just reward.  On occasion, it even meant that a struggling student came to you for help.

At some point, however, educators and likely an increasingly demanding and aggressive parent base decided that things needed to change. Parents concluded that the status quo was impeding the progress of their “gifted” children and that they (though here it’s difficult to discern whether the “they” was the parent, the child or both!) desired, indeed, deserved more – more individualized attention, more work (inside and out of the classroom) and, by definition, more competition.  School administrators agreed.  And so “gifted” programs began sprouting up in elementary, middle and high schools around the country and the “testing” and “leveling” of students (a new form of intellectual segregation) became the rule rather than the exception.

Clearly, this new academic structure has its advantages not the least of which is that in a classroom packed with high-achievers, there’s little risk of distraction from the task at hand – no need for the teacher and the class to slam on the brakes or put the educational machine in idle to attend to the needs of an “average” or even slightly above average student struggling to grasp a new concept. No, for the “gifted” it’s full speed ahead – foot firmly fixed on the accelerator at all times. But there is a price to be paid here – a substantial one at that. It’s very hard to appreciate the fact that you’re exceptional when exceptional is required/expected just to meet the class norm – not to mention the stifling pressure to perform associated with such a distorted construct.

Trust me on this one – I dried my share of “gifted” tears in my own kids over the years and, along the way, shed more than a few of my own on their behalf.

When Push Comes To Shove

Image of gifted child

Recently, I had some rather harsh words for a dad whose son just couldn’t seem to meet his dad’s expectations, let alone elicit his praise (http://tinyurl.com/cygmvst). However, it later occurred to me that the lines between “pushing” and “shoving” are not always so clearly defined for a parent, particularly parents whose children exhibit obvious academic, athletic or artistic talents at a very young age. It’s relatively easy to deal with those gifts in their “infancy” (i.e., when, like a new toy on Christmas morning, everyone is basking in the excitement associated with “unwrapping” them and the joy that spontaneously flows from “playing” with them the first several times).

But, as the “newness” of the gift wears off and the child and the parent struggle with all that typically is involved in nurturing and developing it things get considerably more complicated. The parent realizes their child’s potential (or has it explained to them by a teacher, coach or director), as well as the hard work, commitment and single-mindedness of purpose that often is necessary to take that gift to the next level. They also appreciate the unfortunate reality that, often times, that commitment needs to begin at a very early age, when the parent is intent on preserving and enjoying the simplicity, spontaneity and innocence of the only childhood their child will ever have.

The academic, artistic and athletic landscapes are littered with “horror” stories of the highly-gifted individuals whose parents, coaches, and artistic directors pushed too early, too hard or in the wrong way.  However, there are an equal number of highly accomplished students, performing artists and athletes, who, when asked, are quick to acknowledge those who gave them a critical “nudge” and, even on occasion, dragged their sometimes kicking, screaming and rebellious selves to the next step on the journey that led to the realization of their dreams.  What is considerably less well-documented are those whose gifts were never realized due to a lack of appropriate support and encouragement.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here, no “how-to” books or manuals to ensure a “right” decision.  Knowing whether to push and, if so, how, when and how much are, like so many parental decisions, ones that have to be made on an individual basis.  Regrettably, at times, it involves trial and error and “mistakes” are inevitable.  What is critically important from my perspective is that the paths chosen be constantly and objectively re-evaluated by all involved to ensure that, to the extent possible, some semblance of balance is maintained and that the heart, spirit and true desires of the gifted one are being heard, properly respected and seen as the paramount considerations at all times.