Josh Shaine (joshwriting) wrote,
Josh Shaine

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Overexcitabilities, Dabrowski, and “The Rest of the Story”

(Today's blog entry is dedicated to the late Sharon Lind, a passionate defender of and guide for the gifted, whose succinct explanations of Dabrowski continue to echo in my head.)

For almost 25 years I have been hearing and reading about gifted kids and Overexcitabilities (OEs). Dr. Linda Silverman provided my first view of them at a conference run by the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children, then my second view of them in her (wonderful) book, Counseling the Gifted and Talented (Love Publishing, 1991).

The thing is that both of those presented me with the OEs but also with Dynamisms, Factors, and Levels, all parts of Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD). These days, as I read articles on Overexcitabilities, it’s a fortunate event when Dabrowski is mentioned and a pleasant surprise to see TPD mentioned even in passing. Dynamisms, Factors, and Levels do not show up at all and there is very rarely an intimation as to what is being disintegrated, why it might be disintegrated, and what the OEs have to do with any of it!

I understand the attraction of the OEs, really I do. They have a face validity to a substantial majority of parents who have gifted kids and almost as surely for themselves when they reflect on their childhoods or even their current daily lives. “Oh! That’s me!” comes almost as quickly and often as “That’s my kid(s)!”

Having a label for the twitching and bobbing, the sensitivities, the endless questions, the wild stories, the melt downs over seemingly trivial issues or unmanageably large issues, provides a degree of calm for at least a moment and a language for discussing these bits with other people where before it was almost always pure defensiveness. An honest–to-god theory that talks about this stuff?! Hooray!

I get it.

Unfortunately, the purveyors of Overexcitability information are largely doing you a disservice, in my opinion, by perhaps giving just a link to more information or, more often, not. There is so much more to the OEs than that first blush would suggest!

To get a small taste of what I am talking about, check out the beginning of Cait Fitz’s OE blog entry on My Little Poppies, where she dives deeper than most into the Theory of Positive Disintegration. (But then come back!)

The Rest of the Story (with apologies to the late Paul Harvey)

Welcome back. :-) Let’s start with a few basic background pieces that might be of interest, that might be obvious to many a reader, or at least won’t bore you too much:
  • Before Dabrowski called it overexcitability he called it hyperstimulatability and then nervousness.

  • The Polish word that Dr. Dabrowski used for this set of traits, nadpobudliwość, is now one of the translations for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

  • Just as it is the first part of TPD to catch most people’s eyes, it was the first to catch Dabrowski’s attention.

  • From a Dabrowskian perspective, OEs exist for several reasons; the reasons vary with the specific OE and one’s Level of Personality Development. (More on this later.)

  • One specific purpose, at lower levels, is to create conflict in one’s world. The stronger the OE the greater the chance and degree of disruption and, as Cait pointed out, Dabrowski was a great believer in the “no pain, no gain” school of thought.

  • Where there is an individual with more than one OE, there is an individual whose OEs do not exist in isolation from each other. For example, children with both imaginational and emotional OEs might be distraught on behalf of the last leaf of a tree, feeling its loneliness and fear deep in their being.

  • With the Intellectual OE seems to travel a ‘sense of justice,’ that looks at unfairness beyond how it might serve or offend one's personal needs.

These points are important and largely disagree with most of what I read:
  • There were times when Dabrowski felt a client’s Overexcitabilities might indicate the need for medication and/or psychotherapy.

  • Dabrowski believed that the development of inhibition of expression of the Overexcitabilities was appropriate and necessary for development of Personality.


To say that the gifted seem to show more OEs than the average person is not exactly true, though you will read statements to that effect all over the internet. Sensual and Psychomotor OEs seem to be spread out across the population, with no particular regard for giftedness. It’s harder to be sure with Emotional, Imaginational, and Intellectual OEs because a) there is conflicting data and b) our instruments are largely inadequate, at best. (That also means that all those internet questionnaires that purport to tell you how much OE you or your child has are not worth the electrons they are not printed with, because they have not been normed or validated in appropriate ways, IMO.)

I noted above both the conflict function and that there are other uses for OEs according to the Theory of Positive Disintegration. One example of that is Psychomotor, which provides the energy and impetus for growth. Without that energy, a traumatic, potentially transformative experience is likely to result in an individual’s settling back into a familiar life, rather than disintegrating.

Huh – there’s that word again! Disintegrating is a description of the process of growth in personality through a series of transformations in world view:

  1. Primary Integration: No sense of alternative world views, no sense of hierarchies of values. A substantial number of Level 1 individuals are about self-aggrandizement. No internal conflict, just external.

  2. Unilevel Disintegration: Recognition of alternative world views, but still no hierarchization. (Hence unilevel.) Dabrowski represents Level II as very unstable for the majority of people there. Internal conflict and external conflict as well.

  3. Spontaneous Multi-level Disintegration: The realization that some values are higher than others, with the nearly crippling conviction that they are unattainable. Predominantly internal conflict, increasingly so as one develops.

  4. Organized Multi-level Disintegration: Generally living without much external conflict, but usually an ongoing drive to grow. Living far more closely in accordance to one’s ideals.

  5. Secondary Integration: Personality Ideal; living for the purpose of making the world a better place. Self-promotion is no longer a valid self-concept or goal.

It’s all well and good to list these as if they are clear, distinct ways of being, but one can have a foot in more than one. And even the concept of “being in one” is not really valid because one progresses within each of these, as if there were dozens of steps along the way, even though they are not commonly identified as such in Dabrowski’s works, with the exception of Level 1 for which there is a beginning exploration of the shades of “oneness” one might have gone through or at least which one can identify.

Some brief points about the Levels and how other pieces of TPD and of life fit with them:
  • The chances of going past Level 1 or Level II (which seem to have 60-80% of the folks) depend on “Developmental Potential,” again as Cait noted. The more and the stronger the OEs, the more likely there will be progress. But no Psychomotor means reduced chance of development from lower levels.

  • Self-Shame and Self-Astonishment and other modes of internal dialog/awareness (referred to as Dynamisms) reflect and affect the growth of the individual. (Dynamisms could be a year of blog posts all by themselves!)

  • First Factor is one’s genetic component. A strong first factor is important. A weak one may be impossible to overcome. Second Factor is environmental. More feasible to overcome a weak Second Factor, but it is hard. Third Factor is autonomous drive – to this author’s mind, one of the most poorly defined elements, but dealing with the internal push toward self-perfection.

  • OEs (remember them) change in manifestation as one develops, shifting from running an individual’s life to providing some background richness. Where Psychomotor was vital before, the others become far more important for development.

  • Everything else in life changes, too, as one becomes less caught up in the regular human/rat race – and the theory includes explanations of just what those look like along the way.

  • Yes, there is such a thing as Negative Disintegration. No, no explanation tonight!

  • Along the way, as you look at yourselves or your kids, keep an eye out for Positive Maladjustment – when you go against your immediate community or group because what they are doing feels wrong to you. The opposite, negative adjustment, is when you go along to get along, even though what is being done is hurtful and/or inappropriate.

Some of Dabrowski’s material is available currently, though not a lot of it. More is on its way, however!

To get more of my sense of Dabrowski and the Theory of Positive Disintegration, check out either of these links: From overt behavior to developing potential: The gifted underachiever was written in the 1990’s and reflects my first real exploration of the OEs in application. Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration - A Narrative Overview was written in 2010 and is a more comprehensive look at TPD.

For far more material, wander over to Bill Tillier’s site,

Acknowledgements and Credits

This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overexcitabilities. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions. In particular, I would like to thank Linda Silverman, Cheryl Ackerman, Bill Tillier, Patti Rae Miliotis, Leslie Forstadt, and always Susan Shaine for their parts in this journey into Dabrowski.

Please click on the graphic above (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants, or cut and paste this URL into your browser:

(And stay tuned for a few big announcements in the next few months on this topic!)
Tags: blog, dabrowski, gifted, gifted education, tpd

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