Intense inner disharmony can sometimes accompany the experience of giftedness. But rather than framing this disharmony as mental weakness or illness, Dabrowski looked at it as a catalyst for advanced personality development. Learn about Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities, Theory of Positive Disintegration and the climb toward gifted self-actualization in this article by InterGifted's founding director Jennifer Harvey Sallin.
updated July 2019
OVEREXCITABILITIES & PERSONALITY IDEAL
The bookLiving with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults is a beautiful collection of articles which offer an introduction to Kazimierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration, and its application throughout the lifespan of gifted individuals. Dabrowski was a Polish psychiatrist, psychologist and physician whose research and theoretical work centered on what he called Advanced Personal Development. As a basis for this development, he described a sort of "uncommon intensity" as a generator for the inner conflict that leads to advanced personality development. He called these heightened physiological experiences "overexcitabilities".
Profound curiosity, love of knowledge and learning, love of problem solving, probing questions, search for truth, understanding, knowledge, and discovery, keen observation, reflective thought, introspection, avid reading, sustained intellectual effort, love of theory and analysis, and independent thinking.
Depth and intensity of emotional feelings and relational attachments, wide range of complex emotions, strong memory for feelings, high concern for others, heightened sense of right, wrong, injustice and hypocrisy, empathy, responsibility, and self-examination. Tendency toward feelings of guilt, anxiety, loneliness, depression and somatic expression of emotions.
Detailed visualization, vivid dreams, love of fantasy, creativity, inventions, love of music and art, good sense of humor, preference for the unusual and unique, fear of the unknown.
Enhanced sensory experience of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, or tactile stimulus. Appreciation of beauty, need for desire or comfort. Sensual expression of emotional tension (i.e. overeating).
Physical expression of emotions. Surplus of energy, such as intense physical activity, competitiveness, rapid speech, restlessness, nervous habits and tics, and impulsiveness. Preference for fast action.
To put Dabrowski’s theory in very simple terms, he believed that innately heightened – or intense – experience in these areas of overexcitability (particularly those of emotional, imaginational and intellectual) forms the basic groundwork for the complex process of working toward our personality ideal. Given that a gifted people have a heightened intellectual experience compared to the norm (intellectual overexcitability), the reasoning goes that a gifted person may be more likely to go through a "positive disintegration". This is the start of the journey to self-actualization, or in Dabrowski's terms, the journey toward our personality ideal. I want to note here that giftedness and overexcitabilities have often been conflated with giftedness in the giftedness literature. Here is a good explanation of how they differ, and why that difference is important to understand: Giftedness & Overexcitabilities.
So why would heightened experience be the groundwork for self-actualization? Dabrowski felt that intense ways of being caused a sort of "inner conflict", and this inner conflict generated a need for introspection. Through introspection, a sort of "vertical tension" – an inner disharmony between what we are and what we believe we “ought to be” according to our own uncommonly intense ideals – arises. This phrase “according to our own ideals” is a capital distinction in Dabrowski’s theory: by "personality ideal", he wasn’t referring to the self as conformed to social or cultural norms, or any external authority, but the self as based on a self-chosen ideal.
Obviously, anyone can experience this vertical tension - one need not be gifted or even "uncommonly intense" to experience it. To some degree, it is a basic mechanism of learning and growth. However, some people - and some gifted people - are more primed to experience more tension than others, because their intensities (whatever they happen to be) cause them to reflect more on what needs to change, within themselves or within the world, in order for an equilibrium between themselves and the world to be found.
POSITIVE DISINTEGRATION: A MULTILEVEL JOURNEY
In Living with Intensity, Daniels and Piechowski liken Dabrowski’s “multilevel journey” of self-actualization to the process of climbing a mountain. Some people never develop a sense of inner, vertical conflict between who they are now (how their lives are now) and who they want to be (how they want their lives to be); so, they don't see a mountain to climb (this was Dabrowski's Level 1). Some people see a mountain, but are too scared or otherwise blocked from starting the climb (Dabrowski's Level 2); Dabrowski called this a "horizontal conflict" because it usually points to a person feeling so conflicted about how others perceive them or what others want (or society wants) from them, that they are unable to allow themselves to develop their own personality ideal based on their own values.
Levels 3 represents the start of the climb. This is when we start letting go of the societal and negatively self-centered "baggage" that is holding us back from moving actively toward our ideal. This level has a "spontaneous" quality to it, as we are not yet fully aware of how the climbing process works. This lack of predictability and control in the process, combined with the fact that we are literally "disintegrating" personality-wise, can be very frightening and frustrating. Periods of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and extreme disorientation can occur - so much so that at times, it can look very much like pathology. This is especially true if we are surrounded by people who are operating at Levels 1 or 2 and are uninterested in the climb, since they don't understand our need for change. The process can feel like a betrayal of what others around us have upheld as important rules for life.
But Dabrowski considered this disintegration to be very positive: our deconstruction allows us to reconstruct ourselves, based on our own highest personality ideal. This is not to say that Dabrowski believed we could become a "perfect" version of ourselves. Rather, he believed that, with enough willingness to disintegrate and reintegrate, we could learn to act according to our highest principles in a self-directed and relatively consistent manner. Many people in the process of learning this self-directed way of living struggle to always see it as positive, as it can be extremely confrontational to ourselves and to society, and can at times feel lonely, impossible or agonizingly frustrating.
But once we are able to consistently see the positive side of positive disintegration, we move to Level 4, which is no longer spontaneous and out of our control. This is where directed multilevel development begins, because we have enough practice and experiential data to know - experientially, and not just intellectually - that the letting go and disintegrating doesn't destroy us, but rather clears the path for our continued development and gives us access to parts of ourselves that come to feel increasingly essential to our own thriving and relationship with ourselves. Thus, we actively choose to confront challenging situations or let go of outdated beliefs or actions, even when it is painful to do so, because we know that doing so serves our higher ideal. Since we have a stronger sense of how to help ourselves on the climb, we are better able to regulate ourselves when we're feeling scared or overwhelmed, and better able find the right social support that we need to continue walking our path.
Level 5 is “the top of the mountain,” as the metaphor goes. At this level are those who have mastered the art of the climb. They are the self-actualized ones who are able to consistently live out their personality ideal - again, not perfectly, but persistently and with a certain ease and grace in the process. Often, those who reach this level choose to support others in their self-actualization process. I like to think of them as the guides who, having mastered the path, continue to climb up and down the mountain joyfully supporting others who are on their first journey up.
There has been a historical lack of understanding in our culture about the value of the disintegration of our selves, and about a gifted person’s inner need to go through the process. For those who have entered the vertical tension phase, “the mountain” is always there in the mind’s eye, in the heart, waiting and calling. The goal of my own work, and my work via InterGifted, is to support those who are ready to take the journey or are struggling somewhere along the path. Thanks to Dabrowski, Daniels, Piechowski, and many other voices in the field of gifted and advanced personal development, my work and the journey for us all is becoming more possible, collaborative, and joyful.
Here are some helpful places to start learning more about Dabrowski's theory and how it applies to you:
- Living with Intensity by Michael Piechowski and Susan Daniels
- The Positive Disintegration Podcast
- The Dabrowski Center
- Third Factor Magazine
- As noted in the article above, giftedness and overexcitabilities have often been conflated with giftedness in the giftedness literature. Here is a good explanation of how they differ, and why that difference is important to understand: Giftedness & Overexcitabilities.
- On our Conversations on Gifted Trauma Podcast, we have an episode on Giftedness, Positive Dinisintegration & Mental Health.
- If you've recently found out about being gifted, and are struggling to integrate that knowledge in your life, your self-discovery may have triggered a positive disintegration (of the spontaneous kind). It is not at all uncommon, as you have to restructure your sense of self and identity to include what you are learning about your mind. A helpful article to read if this is the case for you is my article on The Stages of Adult Giftedness Discovery and How Gifted Coaching Can Help.
- Better understanding your unique cognitive profile via a qualitative giftedness assessment can also provide essential insight and guidance as you begin your journey.
- Longer term gifted coaching with one of our InterGifted coaches may also provide support and direction you need to integrate your self-discovery in life-affirming and constructive ways; or gifted-specific therapy might help you deal with the painful or frightening emotions that are coming up for you.
About Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Jennifer is the founding director of InterGifted. She's a psychologist, coach and mentor who specializes in providing training for coaches, therapists and other helping professionals who support the gifted population. She also performs qualitative giftedness assessments and writes extensively on giftedness and self-development. You can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. Her climate emergency initiative is I Heart Earth. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. You can learn more about her here.