Self Determination Theory is something I often teach to twice exceptional adults. While the theory was not developed with gifted or 2e people in mind, it is an excellent way to deconstruct what motivates us and therefore helps orient gifted and 2e brains toward what they need (and what gets in the way) of feeling motivated.
Self-determination theory (SDT) grew out of the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who first introduced their ideas in their book, Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior. The theory takes three basic needs, competence, autonomy, and relatedness and connects how one succeeds in these three areas to the ability to persist and find the energy necessary to get things done. If you feel effective, you feel good about your abilities and will enjoy intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The flip side, according to SDT, is also true; if you do not feel competent, autonomous or enjoy meaningful relationships your ability to persevere is negatively impacted.
Competence, the theory explains, is the need to be effective in dealing with your environment. Questions that are important to gifted and 2e people regarding competence include: When is my brain fully engaged in what I’m doing? When do I feel like I am my best self? When am I making positive change? The environment in which a gifted or 2e person finds themselves directly affects their feelings of competence. We know that toxic environments trigger sensitivities and intensities which is why the self determination theory’s definition of competence, highlighting the importance of environment, is spot on for our population.
Twice exceptional and gifted students often find themselves in challenging environments. The fact that their brains notice multiple details at once, in addition to having deep empathy and sensitivity, means gifted and 2e students frequently experience negative reactions to classroom environments. Sarcastic teachers, snarky peers, and feeling judged all threaten students’ feelings of competency.
Adults in the workplace are also susceptible to negative reactions due to colleagues’ lack of loyalty, compromised work ethic, and surface interactions. Oftentimes, if the environment runs counter to a gifted or 2e person’s needs, they feel out of sync with others’ workplace priorities. However, if the workplace honors people’s sensitivities, differences, and learning disabilities, involving them in meaningful projects that engage their intellect, feelings of competence allows them to flourish.
According to SDT, autonomy is the need to control your life’s course. Do you feel in control? Do you have resources to address what life throws at you? Gifted and 2e folks routinely experience imposter syndrome, the feeling that they are frauds or not as capable as others see them. Ongoing struggles with asynchronous abilities leave twice exceptional people feeling very much out of control with their surroundings and destiny. In the same setting, they may demonstrate strengths in highly complicated areas, yet struggle with more foundational skills, like those in the social/emotional realm, or requiring strong executive functioning skills. This yo-yo like experience from feelings of success to failure and back, threatens the twice exceptional person’s feelings of autonomy.
2e adults who feel autonomous in their career, may feel completely out of their league as parents. Transferring leadership and high order career capabilities to raising twice exceptional children is complicated and can create a sense of frustration and failure. This mismatch of professional success and personal struggle leaves the 2e parent exhausted and feeling a lack of control.
At other times, 2e adults may feel that they cannot translate success or intellectual proclivity into strengths at work. Perceptions that their output is viewed negatively, mismatches between office and personal communication styles, and lack of awareness about sensitivities can lead to negative self-perception, stifling creativity and suppress the ability to ask for assistance.
Feeling as though you “got this,” goes a long way in allowing a gifted or 2e person to take risks, try new things and ask for help when they need it.
The need for close, affectionate relationships with others is how SDT defines relatedness. It is often said that gifted and twice exceptional people cannot tolerate small talk. From playground chatter to cocktail party banter, gifted and twice exceptional folks across the lifespan just don’t want to partake. They’d much rather engage in meaningful deep, existential conversations that lead to mental stimulation or important endeavors that positively affect their world.
2e people often feel misunderstood in social situations or as though their authentic self elicits negative responses. The amount of work it takes to feel in control is precisely why the 2e person does not feel autonomous within their social interactions. Since SDT includes relatedness as one of the three needs for motivation, the lack of success in this area can often be the missing link that threatens our ability to feel driven and push through challenges.
What can we learn from SDT? Gifted and 2e people will do well to raise their awareness around needs of autonomy, competency and relatedness. Know yourself so you recognize when an environment is toxic. If you feel out of control, get support – just the action of advocating for yourself will increase your feelings of competency and sense of control. Know that personal and meaningful relationships are important for you. If you don’t feel your best or as though you can be your authentic self with your current social group, it’s likely time to find new friends. Engaging in your passion areas yields deeper feelings of connection and is a great way to find interest and intellectual peers. Addressing these three areas leads to greater motivation and success in all areas of your life. Identifying and focusing on the need area that requires your attention will allow you to feel able and willing to push through yielding personal and professional fulfillment.