The Cost of Anti-Intellectualism: Anger

If my younger self had been in the room, I probably would have tried to fix it.  If my child-self had been in the room, I probably would have shrunk away. 

Sitting on the couch across from me was a very angry young man.  Voice raised, emphatic body language, satisfying use of angry “big” words, kind of angry.  I sat.  I listened.  I joined him in his anger.  I justified his anger, because, truthfully, his anger is justified.

There were lots of things that this 14-year-old was (and is) angry about, but most of them boil down to anti-intellectualism.  And, since he, like many of our gifted kids, feel like they’re in this battle alone, not to mention that I’ve been frequently angry about these things myself, I’m joining him in his anger.

We’re angry that we see the school, other students, the community come out to support athletics, but don’t show up for more intelligence or creativity based events.

We’re angry because money and faculty resources are spent on athletics and other places, but gifted kids at his school get a grand total of 45 minutes twice a week to be challenged and taught according to their needs.

We’re angry because kids like him frequently feel pressure (both externally and internally generated) to “succeed” and make a difference in the world, but are rarely supported or given the tools to do so.

We’re angry that kids like him are simultaneously told to be themselves, don’t care what others think, but then are chastised or shamed when they let their quirkiness and intensities show.

We’re angry because there are so many things like this to be angry about!

This anger is most definitely not uncommon among gifted kids, and gifted boys in particular.  In fact, Barbara Kerr and Sanford Cohn dedicate an entire chapter in their book “Smart Boys” to the anger and rage that can develop in our gifted boys.  So many of our gifted boys aren’t accepted for who they are wired to be.  As one’s self is rejected over and over, anger and despair begin to grow.  And, many of our boys will mask despair with anger.

I’ve worked with men who’ve been further down the road and I’ve seen the long-term effects of this building anger.  It hasn’t been pretty.  And, all the while it is difficult not to become frustrated, as a therapist, as I think about who these men could have been if they’d only received the support and understanding and acceptance they craved. 

One gifted man explained this angry process best.  He could identify the moment he dove head first into the anger and let it start guiding his choices.  “After so many years of trying to please and trying to be who people wanted me to be, I just said F#@k it.  I’m not going to even try anymore and I’m going to exact revenge.”  And so followed decades of letting “F@$k it!” be his guide.  Needless to say, this didn’t always lead to the most helpful of decisions, for himself or others.

And so, the big question . . . what do we do with this anger?  How do we help our gifted young men and boys live whole and well lives rather than be consumed with rage?

First, allow the anger.  Listen to it.  Sit calmly and let the anger be released.  Sometimes I’ll even poke around at the anger until it gets amped up a bit.

Second, encourage expression of anger.  Many gifted kids don’t like to lose control and are so accustomed to putting themselves on the back burner that they stuff their own anger for fear it will hurt someone else’s feeling.  Anger has energy and can easily turn into anxiety or depression if it isn’t expressed.  Encourage them to get it out in a safely out-of-control sort of way.  Scream.  Take a bat to a tree.  Punch a punching bag.  Run.  Jump.  Pound on a piano keyboard.  Scribble.  Write.  Whatever helps get it out.

Third, identify possible steps to resolve the situation that triggered the anger in the first place.  Use that anger to bring action.  Anger can be incredibly motivating.  Focus on what can be done as opposed to barriers.

And finally, but really most importantly, join them.  Let them know they aren’t fighting the good fight alone.  There are many amazing parents, professionals, and kids like them who are out there trying to quiet the voices of anti-intellectualism.

I can’t guarantee that anti-intellectualism thought will transform in my lifetime, but I can guarantee I’m going to keep advocating and teaching and confronting the anti-intellectual messages I encounter.

This post is part of an anti-intellectualism series on The Fringy Bit.  Check out the other articles in the series here.