Overexcitability

Are you familiar with the works and theories of Kazimierz Dabrowski? Dąbrowski was a Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician, and is most popularly known for his theory of “positive disintegration”, which includes, among other things, the premise of overexcitability, particularly as it relates to gifted children.

Overexcitabilities are inborn intensities indicating a heightened ability to respond to stimuli. Found to a greater degree in creative and gifted individuals, overexcitabilities are expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity, and represent a real difference in the fabric of life and quality of experience. Dabrowski identified five areas of intensity-Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. A person may possess one or more of these. “One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 7).1

One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner. -Kazimierz Dabrowski

I bring this up because I was identified as “gifted” early in life, although I do not care for that term (I recently came across the term “Rainforest Mind” and although it’s a bit of a mouthful, feels better to me). It’s funny how it all started: my parents told me that they received a call from the school where I was in 2nd grade, and the teacher wanted to let them know that they had placed me in the T.A.G. program (which stood for talented and gifted). I don’t think the teacher explained it well; my mom thought they were trying to tell her that I had severe emotional or educational problems! At any rate, I continued in the program for a few years, although as I recall it was not extraordinary or stimulating (ironic, I know).

Fast forward many, many years to Thanksgiving 2021, and I am sitting in my living room with my brother-in-law, who is a college professor and teaches “gifted” children (again, that word, ugh) who are of high school age. Our dog passed through the room and started drinking out of a bowl of water that somebody had put down for him, and I plugged my ears with my fingers as I always do, trying to not look like too much of a freak. Why do I plug my ears? Because the sound of lapping water, or chewing or swallowing drives me into a Hulk-like rage. Honestly, it makes me super aggressive and angry, two things that I am normally not. I’ve always known that isn’t normal, and so I just try to work my life around it as best I can. My BIL asked me why I did that, and I explained to him my little issue with sounds like dogs drinking water. I found out several years ago it is called misophonia, and while not terribly common, I’ve met several other people who have the same issue. I don’t think he even broke stride when I told him this, he simply asked, “are you familiar with Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration?” I replied that I wasnot, and that is when we started going down the rabbit hole.

The more I read about TPD, the more I can see myself in the stories and examples, and wished so desperately that I had known about this (or better yet, that my teachers and parents had known about this) while I was still developing. Now that I know about it, it’s pretty much impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube…I can’t unknow it, and although it feels a bit daunting (“Are you saying I have special needs?” I asked my brother-in-law quite seriously), it also helps me to understand why I react the way I do to some things. Of the five categories in OE, I strongly identify with four: sensual, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional. The fifth, psychomotor, is unclear to me, in as far as it applies to how I act in life. It’s typically associated with nervous energy, fidgeting and the like, which doesn’t really apply to me. However, “workaholism” also may be included in the list by some psychiatrists, and if that is the case, then I do fit in, however narrowly as compared to the other physical traits.

I’m looking forward to learning more, and thus writing more, about the four areas that I feel really impact me. It’s interesting to see, after so many years, a theory that is older than I am so accurately define my plusses and minuses anecdotally. It’s helpful to me personally to understand my own reactions, particularly as they relate to other people. For years, my Twitter bio has said, “I can’t pass the Turing Test, but I’m hopeful”, and now I know why I think that is so funny (and true).

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