Gender & Giftedness: Toward a Human-First Model of Self-Expression
First Published on InterGifted.com
Just as giftedness is not an isolated quality of your life, neither is your biological sex and the connected gender norm you received from your social and cultural environment. Both your giftedness and your inherited gender roles – individually and interconnectedly – globally affect your particular expression and experience of your intelligence, your sense of possibility, and your relationship with yourself and with the external world. In this article, InterGifted Coach Merlin Györy shares his own "positive gender disintegration" process with us as well as suggestions and insight for navigating our own.
By Merlin Györy
POSITIVE GENDER DISINTEGRATION
While I was growing up, I felt a lot of pressure to match my gender – to be “manly”. Unfortunately, as a sensitive, gifted kid, this often conflicted with my inner desires to express my high intelligence in non-stereotypically manly ways. My emotional and intellectual intelligence craved relationships in which I could seek understanding, collaboratively solve puzzles, and enjoy the connection that resulted. I was also not afraid to cry, to hug someone, or to show my intense reaction and appreciation for art. After watching a movie with friends, I wanted to talk about the concepts presented and how they made me feel; not only reenact the fight scenes, like most other boys wanted to. All of this (and more) did not fit in well with what being a boy meant in my world.
As a kid, a lot of my friends were girls and I felt very “at home” with them, but the older I got the more girls thought being friends with boys was “not okay”. Furthermore, I observed that most other boys seemed interested in destruction and “one up” behavior, while I tended to be interested in bridging differences and collaborating non-competitively – and the more I interacted primarily with boys, the more I “learned” that behavior. I also noticed that other guys seemed afraid of closeness and “feelings”. Expressions of sensitivity for them seemed to connect with a weakness reserved only for girls and women (or weak men and boys). Boys around me seemed to prefer to “break” the problem rather than admit they were interested in it, or challenged by it, in what seemed to be an effort to make it clear that they were strong enough to not have to stoop to solving it. This confused me, and at the same time hurt me, because my offers for help and understanding were often harshly rejected by them.
As you might imagine, whenever I dared try to shift my connections with male friends toward my more sensitive relational desires, they made fun of me and I ended up feeling stupid and weak. I felt forced to adapt (if not very well) to the culture around me of "women solve conflicts and relate to each other by talking, and men 'take it outside'”. In other words, men frequently related to one another and solved conflicts through aggression, dominance and the abuse of power, and I often felt like my emotional intelligence, vulnerability, and high values of connection and harmony had no place to go. Instead, I felt pushed to behave and act in ways that hurt both myself – by crossing my own boundaries and abandoning my authenticity – and the environment and people around me.
In my early twenties, as I became an adult man with all the cultural expectations that entailed, I felt myself and my mind and even the expression of my giftedness too constrained by all of these expectations and adaptations. I started to consciously reflect on my concept of gender and what it meant for my self-expression. Every time I decided I wanted to express myself in more authentic ways, I came upon hard, set-in-stone obstacles which stood in my way of doing just that. This was so much bigger than just "applying willpower" to change, and so I went on a bigger mission to deconstruct my inherited gender norm and find out which part of it (if any) I wanted to consciously adopt. I embarked on, you might say, a positive gender disintegration.
I asked myself the most basic gender question I could think of: “Do I actually identify as a man?”, which, of course, required me to ask: “From which normative model am I answering the question?” and “What exactly are the majority of people even talking about when they talk about gender?”. I distinguished “gender” from “sex”, and then roughly defined the normative gender model as: “a socio-cultural codex of behavior and expectation based on the biological sex one is born with”, which while it clearly didn’t (and still doesn’t) create a fully inclusive model that includes the diversity of all individuals, biological sexes, and genders, it at at least allowed me to start my disintegration. From this point of view, I could see just how much of the normative gender codes I had automatically adopted, and worse, how much they actually opposed most of my core values like authenticity, individuality, and connection.
CULTURAL NORMS VS. CORE VALUES
I felt an enormous amount of inner conflict when I became fully aware of just how much of my life I had been living with one foot in one world (the normative gender world) and one foot in the other (my world of core values). No wonder I had had such difficulties with self-sabotaging and dysfunctional relational patterns that, in spite of my best efforts, I hadn't been able to “cure”. It hurt to think of the time and effort lost, and I felt unsure of how to get both of my feet in the world of my core values. How could I keep being a “man” (a gifted man, at that!) and yet be guided by my own values without falling into the gender norm trap?
First, I had to fill out my values system, get very clear on what living with authenticity, a sense of individuality, and meaningful connection really looked like to me. Part of why the gender norm had been so insidious for me was that it had kept me from fully envisioning without shame or fear what my true ideal self looked like. Now that I was separating out the two influences from each other, and aiming to focus exclusively on the one that mattered most to me, I allowed myself to be fully guided by and no longer ashamed or scared of my own ideal.
But for this I needed social support. Allowing myself to explore and (re)claim my ideal was something I knew I couldn't do in a closet, and couldn't do with people who would shame me for my explorations. For me, this meant informing trusted friends and family of my process, and seeking support from my mentor with particular aspects of the disintegration. Luckily, I also had the InterGifted community, with whom I could explore these questions and find peers and role models who were in or had already gone through their own positive gender disintegration process. Being able to see others questioning and having questioned, and claiming and having reclaimed their own ideals, validated my own process significantly.
Then, based on the ideal I was reclaiming, I had to clear out the “gender norm clutter” I had gathered over the years. To do this, I started scanning my internal and external environment for trip falls with the potential to throw me back into the old normative system values which opposed my own ideal.
One example of such a trip fall was the media I consumed, and the male body image promoted there. I noticed whenever I saw ruggedly handsome, muscular and mysterious-looking men in movies, comics, ads, books, etc., it only added more pressure to the idea that this is how all men should be – or rather, that those who are not like that don’t have any place in our culture, because they are not “proper” men. (You might have guessed it by now, I am not a ruggedly handsome, muscular man). Realizing how much pressure I felt to conform on this issue, I also saw how much resentment I had built up over the years for men that did look that way. Out of lack of appreciation for myself, I felt overshadowed by them. It was a sort of “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” positioning, from a place of lack of self-awareness and self-validation. There was even a time in which I did look more like the rugged, muscular man, and instead of feeling like I had finally arrived into my “manhood”, I felt embarrassed and an ironic sense of self-hatred about it.
Of course I didn’t stop consuming media altogether, but I did cut back a bit for a while and made a point of being aware that the normative model I often saw was not broadcasting my values. And in the case of body-image, I made a point of being aware that I didn’t need to put myself down for not looking like a movie star. With that pressure gone, it was already a lot easier not to fall back into the old normative view.
This, of course, didn’t only apply to looks, it also applied to normative behavior models. Using my updated values system as a guide, I also confronted outdated or mismatching thought models, behavioral templates, and other normative pressures. I went as far as changing some of my wardrobe, ending some relationships that were based on an image of me being a normative model guy, and ceasing to pretend to like I felt something just because other guys did. I also consciously stopped participating in disrespectful male dominance behavior with my friends and made a priority of ensuring that my immediate environment contains interaction and input which reminds me more of the man I want to be than of the man the external world tells me I should be.
SHIFTING TOWARD A PERSON-FIRST MODEL
Through continued reflection – and lots of letting go – I came to adopt a model in which I think of myself (and others) as “human/person” first. As such, we all – no matter our biological sex or gender orientation – have the potential for expression, experience, and growth that we each carry within ourselves, which is not restricted by gender norms. Of course, our biology may restrict us in some practical ways, but in terms of living out our values and authentically expressing our intelligence and creativity, gender doesn’t need to be a restrictive force. Thus, ideas that a man or woman “has to be” or “is supposed to be” like this or that, or that certain behaviors are more or less “manly” or “womanly” no longer need to predominate or control how we explore our authentic self-expression.
And while it is typical for a gifted mind to identify a concept that is too narrow or static to be functional, and then get rid of it and replace it with a new more inclusive and flexible model, I also know it is important to be aware that it takes time for us to completely update the old concepts under which we were operating. This is especially true when it comes to positively influencing the world around us toward our new model. Shifting concepts is one thing (usually done on the intellectual level first), but removing the imprints of the concept we have been living under till that moment of intellectual shift is usually a longer rewriting of our behavior and thought processes (and includes a change in the physiological experience of, in this case, gender norm restrictiveness). This shift and the need for time to integrate it is the same kind of transition that happens for most of us when we discover our giftedness or twice/multiple-exceptionality. While the initial shift is the crucial first step, the following dis- and reassembling is what takes the most energy, space, and focus – and where support is most needed.
Socially, after such shifts toward expansion, freedom and personal growth, I want to run out and tell everyone the good news, to change the world and make it better right now! But I’ve learned through much trial and error that it is important to take time to heal and “catch up” internally, before pushing paradigm shifts out externally. You can think of it as giving birth to a new part of you, acknowledging that it needs some time to learn how to be in the world and to be safe before it ventures out to explore and (co)create with the external world.
For me, that has meant finding ways to focus on myself and cultivate my own internal transformation, rather than trying to transform every person I encounter who still adheres to concepts from which I have chosen to “unsubscribe”. In doing so, I’ve noticed that even the desire to convert and control others is in some ways a form of the old gender norm I’m working to disassociate from. Another insidious gender-norm pattern within has been a tendency toward self-punishment whenever I notice pieces of the old residue still inside me and my behaviors. There seem to be layers upon layers, and trying not to get tangled within them is a big enough job in itself. Facing the task of shifting to a human-first model has indeed in itself been an exercise for me in practicing some of the very things I feel are essential to me as a human-first person: sensitivity, self-compassion, respect and humility.
YOUR OWN GENDER-NORM EXPLORATION
If you have ever felt limited in your giftedness expression by gender-norm expectations and would like to do some exploring of your own unique ideal self and ideal values, here are a few of the key questions I have asked myself along the way which you may find useful in your explorations. I spent hours, days, weeks, and months writing in my journal, discussing the answers to these questions with friends, asking my friends their own answers, and in general immersing myself in the beauty of the exploration. Where do these questions lead you?
- How does/did my giftedness influence, change, or affect my idea and concept of “gender”? And vice versa?
- How much of my concept of “gender” did I socially or culturally inherit? And how much have I considered whether my inherited gender norm is in alignment with my own values?
- How much awareness do I have of how I subconsciously perpetuate destructive or suppressive gender models or behaviors, through my own gender bias, and do I want to do something about that?
- What healthy self-expression or behavior do I see as strictly “manly” or “womanly”, and how can I imagine their opposites as equally fitting and beautiful? (i.e. I saw nurturing as womanly, and sought to think up beautiful examples of nurturing behaviors in men)
If you're looking for good mirroring and healthy discussion on these issues, consider working with me in the generative and safe atmosphere of one-to-one coaching and/or joining my Gifted Men's Group. You may also enjoy becoming a part of our InterGifted community, where these kinds of challenging and generative questions and discussion are, happily, the norm! To further explore these topics, I invite you to read my article on Gifted Men and Self Leadership and listen in on my talk on "About Being a Gifted Man".