Living with Intensity: Understanding Giftedness through Dabrowski’s Eyes
Often accompanied by an intense inner disharmony, giftedness has more than once been confused with pathology in the course of history. Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration offers an astoundingly positive and hopeful approach to understanding the seemingly pathological disharmony that the gifted often experience. Rather than mental weakness or illness, he argues that this inner disharmony is the great catalyst of self-actualization.
I borrow the title of this article from the book: Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults – a collection of articles published by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski which offers us a great introduction to Dabrowski’s theories and their application throughout the lifespan of gifted individuals, a subject which is worth our attention. Dabrowski (1902-1980) was a Polish psychiatrist, psychologist, physician – and if we can believe Wikipedia, the “Godfather of Intellectual Giftedness Research.” He was an advanced thinker who understood that the experience of giftedness is much more than just an intellectual measure; it is, rather, a multi-dimensional, multi-layered, complex and variable experience and process.
The term “multi-dimensional” makes reference to the fact that Dabrowski saw giftedness as an intensity of global experience rather than just an intensity of intellectual experience; in his theory, he delineated five areas of intensity or “overexcitability” present in some combination in gifted individuals. These areas of overexcitability include: intellectual, emotional, imaginational, sensual and psychomotor. Below are some common characteristics:
Intellectual – 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.
Emotional – 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.
Imaginational – 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.
Sensual – 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).
Psychomotor – 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 self-actualization. Why? Because these intense “ways of being” typically generate introspection.
The logic goes like this:
Without introspection, there is little inner conflict;
Without inner conflict, there is no perceived need or energy catalyst for growth;
Intensity of inner experience and awareness leads to introspection, which leads to inner conflict;
Inner conflict can lead to higher resolution (Dabrowski argued that this was its purpose)
Perceived need for growth comes from what Dabrowksi called vertical tension – an inner disharmony between what we are and what we believe we “ought to be” according to our own ideals. This phrase “according to our own ideals” is a capital distinction in Dabrowski’s theory: his idea of self-actualization wasn’t referring to the self as conformed to social or cultural norms, or any external authority, but self-actualization based on a self-chosen ideal.
And so enters the “multilevelness” of his theory:
In Dabrowski’s language, the process of development starts at a unilevel (non-vertical) place. For example, as children, we experience no inner conflict about who we are; the rules of life are clear and we live them without much thought or reflection.
For some of us, some event or thought – a tragedy, an injustice, or a growing inner confusion about the rules of life as we have known them – awakens a doubt or curiosity in us. This inner questioning leads us to begin the process of introspection. Though it’s often very hard for the gifted person to believe or understand (clients challenge me on this point regularly), the reality is that some people never seem to reach a point of questioning and introspection. For these individuals, though they may be the kindest people in the world (or the meanest, or anywhere on the spectrum), their lives unfold more or less on the same “level” of non-conflicted acceptance of “the way things are”.
For those who do experience this “inner calling” toward introspection, many respond by developing horizontal conflict – a conflict that unfolds between who they are and who they feel they should be according to social or cultural expectations. Many gifted people spend a significant period of their lives stuck here, where the conflict remains unilevel, as there is only horizontal tension within the self as related to outer expectations.
In Living with Intensity, Daniels and Piechowski quote J.D. Salinger as an example of a highly gifted individual who was stuck in this unilevel conflict: he tried many religions, belief systems, extreme diets and fasting, etc, always looking for the external solution to his inner disharmony. “Experiencing feelings of inferiority, [these individuals] seek approval from others,” Daniels and Piechowski explain. “Vacillating between self-centeredness and concerns about others’ opinions, their self-concept rests on shifting sands” (pg. 23). It is only moving beyond this horizontal conflict that allows our journey toward self-actualization to truly commence.
Daniels and Piechowski liken Dabrowski’s “multilevel journey” of self-actualization to the process of climbing a mountain.
Some people never even consider starting the journey; are they even aware that the mountain exists? Others, like J.D. Salinger, seem to be aware of the mountain and are moving, but they just keep hiking around its base, never starting the climb. And then there are those who are climbing…
Those who break through the horizontal tension of being at the base of the mountain are those who are awakened to a different kind of conflict – the vertical conflict: an inner awareness of who we are now (at the base or lower levels of the mountain) and an equal inner awareness of who we want to be according to our highest vision of ourselves (when we will have completed the climb). This is the vertical tension that Dabrowksi credited as the catalyst for self-actualization.
The idea behind Positive Disintegration, as he formally called his theory, is this process we go through when we try to resolve the difference between our “lower” and “higher” (or ideal) selves; it is the “disintegration” or deconstruction that our lower self experiences in order to be rebuilt into our ideal self. In the analogy of the mountain, this could be likened to the letting go of the “baggage” that is holding us back from either starting or continuing the climb, and to the reorganizing of what remains in a way that supports our continued journey.
As it can be intensely disharmonious, this disintegration process can look very much like pathology – people in this phase are known to go through agonizing and frightening periods of self-doubt, anxiety, frustration, depression, and sometimes extreme disorientation. They may feel they are going crazy, are alien, that their lives have little meaning or hope, or they are intensely lonely, as if they were the only ones living this indescribable pain – this, especially if they are surrounded by people uninterested in the climb, since no one seems to understand why they aren’t simply satisfied with life as it is.
But Dabrowski (and many others who have challenged modern notions of brain pathology) considered this disintegration to be very positive: our deconstruction allows us to reconstruct ourselves, based on our own highest vision of our lives. Once we see what we are carrying, we can let go of what no longer serves us, and we can reorganize and reconstruct ourselves (which takes considerable time, effort and loving support) according to our own self-chosen highest expression. This is the “top of the mountain,” as the analogy goes. Beyond this level are the masters, the self-actualized ones who now support the self-actualization of others. 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 an historical lack of understanding in our culture about the value of the disintegration of our selves, and about the 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 is to support those who are ready to take the journey or are struggling somewhere along the path. Thanks to Dabrowski, Susan Daniels, Michael 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. Please, pass the word along.
For more information, see:
Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults, by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski