Foundations for understanding the social-emotional needs of the highly gifted
Fiedler, E.
Highly Gifted Children
The Hollingworth Center
Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 3-5
Spring 1998

This article by Ellen Fiedler presents the theoretical perspective for shedding light on psychosocial correlates of gifts based on Dabrowski. According to Dabrowski, the theory has two key facets: levels of emotional development and overexcitabilities or areas of intensity that individuals may possess. Each of these two facets are explained in the article. Also addressed in the article are theories (Manaster and Powell and Festinger) concerning social-emotional issues for gifted students which are different from the general population.

It was an interesting experiment. The professor was writing an article, so she gave her graduate assistant the assignment to identify underlying theories of giftedness. She was particularly interested in the social-emotional needs of the gifted, so that was the slant that she wanted him to take. Off he went to the university library, convinced that he would find widespread agreement in the literature about what giftedness is and what the psychosocial implications of it are. However, the more research he did, the more confused he became. A dense fog seemed to settle into his brain as he read about various conceptual points of view on giftedness. And then, when he tried to find answers relating to theoretical foundations for understanding psychosocial components of giftedness, he felt as if he'd been dropped into the middle of a deep, dark forest without a compass or even a trail of breadcrumbs to follow to find his way out. Eventually, he was back in his professor's office, trying to determine if this was a trick question - one that really had no answer at all.

Widespread confusion and disagreement over concepts of giftedness seem to exist. This may be due to factors implied by Sternberg and Davidson (1986) who said, "Giftedness is something that we invent, not something we discover. It is what one society or another wants it to be, and hence its conceptualization can change over time and place" (pp. 3-4).

The field of gifted education could benefit from more conceptual clarity. As Piirto (1994) observed, "The call for a comprehensive theory of giftedness - or talent - has continued" (p. 29). Members of the Conceptual Foundations Division of the National Association for Gifted Children, among others, continue to grapple with these issues. It seems as if the structure of gifted education has been erected without much thought to the foundations upon which it rests. Relatively recent efforts to address the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of giftedness seem to be an attempt to see if the current structure can fit on top of various foundations, some of which have more obvious psychosocial implications than others.

A theoretical perspective that currently seems to offer great promise for shedding light on psychosocial correlates of giftedness is that based on Dabrowski's work (Dabrowski, 1964, Dabrowski, 1972; Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977; Piechowski, 1979, Piechowski, 1991; Piechowski, 1997, Silverman, 1993, Silverman, 1994). Kazimierz Dabrowski was a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who developed a theory of personality development, known as the Theory of Positive Disintegration. Many in the field of gifted education have found Dabrowski's theory to be particularly relevant for understanding giftedness (Fiedler, 1997).

Dabrowski's theory has two key facets: levels of emotional development and the overexcitabilities or areas of intensity that individuals may possess. The five levels of emotional development, which are shown in Figure 1, range from self-serving, egocentric self-interest through relativism and a focus on compliance with group values to a stage of dissatisfaction with discrepancies between one's actions and one's ideals leading to transformative growth, self-actualization, and at the highest level, attainment of the personality ideal.

Levels of Emotional Development According to Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration

Level V: Secondary Integration.

The struggle for self-mastery has been won. Inner conflicts regarding the self have been resolved through actualization of the personality ideal. Disintegration has been transcended by the integration of one's values into one's living and being. The life is lived in service to humanity. It is lived according to the highest, most universal principles of loving-compassionate regard for the worth of every individual.
A magnetic field in the soul- Dag Hammarskjfld

Level IV: Organized Multilevel Disintegration.
Individuals are well on the road to self-actualization. They have found a way to reach their own ideals, and they are effective leaders in society. They show high levels of responsibility, authenticity, reflective judgment, empathy for others, autonomy of thought and action, self-awareness, and other attributes associated with self-actualization.
Behind tranquility lies conquered unhappiness- Eleanor Roosevelt

Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration.
Multilevelness arises. The person develops a hierarchical sense of values. Inner conflict is vertical, a struggle to bring up one's behavior to higher standards. There is a dissatisfaction with what one is, because of a competing sense of what one could and ought to be (personality ideal). This internal struggle between higher and lower can be accompanied by existential despair: Anxiety, depression, and feelings of dissatisfaction with the self (inferiority, disquietude, astonishment).
Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor a- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Level II: Unilevel Disintegration.
Individuals are influenced primarily by their social group and by mainstream values, or they are moral relativists for whom "anything goes," morally speaking. They often exhibit ambivalent feelings and indecisive flip-flop behavior because they have no clear-cut set of self-determined internal values. Inner conflicts are horizontal, a contest between equal, competing values.
A reed shaken in the wind- Matthew, XI, 7

Level 1: Primary Integration.
Egocentrism prevails. A person at this level lacks the capacity for empathy and self-examination. When things go wrong, someone else is always to blame; self-responsibility is not encountered here. With nothing within to inhibit personal ambition, individuals at Level I often attain power in society by ruthless means. Dog-eat-dog mentality.
"I regard the better but follow the worse." (Piechowski, 1997, p. 374)

Even at an early age, gifted youngsters seem marked by an intensity that sets them apart from others. The concept of intensity seems to be the best way to think about what is meant by the word overexcitabilities, as described by Dabrowski's Theory. As Silverman (1993) observed, overexcitabilities "represent expanded awareness and a heightened capacity to respond to stimuli of various types" (p. 13), and as Piechowski (1991) described, they can be conceived of as openings through which experiences and information can flow. For some individuals, such as those who are considered gifted, the channels are wide open; for others, the opening is narrow or barely present at all. As Piechowski indicated, "Overexcitabilities contribute to the individual's psychological development, and thus their strength can be taken as a measure of developmental potential." (p. 287) Figure 2 shows the five areas of intensity or overexcitability as described by Dabrowski's Theory.

Forms and Expressions of Psychic Overexcitability

Surplus of energy
Rapid speech, marked enthusiasm, fast games and sports, pressure for action, acting out
Psychomotor expression of emotional tension
Compulsive talking and chattering, impulsive actions, nervous habits (tics, nail biting), workaholism, acting out, compulsive organizing, competitiveness

Sensory pleasure
Seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing
Sensual expression of emotional tension
Overeating, sexual overindulgence, buying sprees, wanting to be in the limelight
Aesthetic pleasures
Appreciation of beautiful objects (gems, jewelry, etc.), writing styles, words

Probing questions; problem solving; learning
Curiosity, concentration, capacity of sustained intellectual effort, avid reading, detailed planning
Theoretical thinking
Thinking about thinking, analytical thinking, introspection, love of theory and analysis, moral thinking and development of a hierarchy of values, conceptual and intuitive integration

Free play of the imagination
Frequent use of image and metaphor, facility for invention and fantasy, facility for detailed visualization, poetic and dramatic perception, animistic and magical thinking
Spontaneous imagery as an expression of emotional tension

Intensity of feeling
Positive feelings, negative feelings, extremes of emotion, complex emotions and feelings, identification with others feelings, laughing and crying together
Somatic expressions
Tense stomach, sinking heart, blushing, flushing
Inhibition (timidity, shyness)
Fears and anxieties, feelings of guilt
Concern with death, depressive and suicidal moods
Relationship feelings
Emotional ties and attachments, concern for others (empathy), sensitivity in relationships, attachment to animals, difficulty adjusting to new environments, loneliness, conflicts with others over depth of relationship
Feelings toward self
Self-evaluation and self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority
(Silverman, 1993, p. 14)

Much of the extensive literature surrounding social-emotional issues for gifted students reflects concern about conflicts resulting from their being different from the general population. Manaster and Powell (1983) considered psychological difficulties for gifted adolescents to be based on two theoretical assumptions: 1) that people want to belong, and 2) that people want to know where or how they fit. Their assumptions are, in part, based upon the work of Leon Festinger (1957) and his theory of cognitive dissonance. At the heart of dissonance theory is the idea that dissonance leads to pressure that results in action, either to reduce the dissonance or to avoid any increases in it.

Manaster and Powell (1983) connected this with specific conditions that place gifted adolescents particularly at risk, psychosocially. They defined gifted adolescents as being out of stage, out of phase, and/or out of sync (p. 71) in relationship to the dissonance that they experience. Gifted adolescents are described as being out of stage when they are not in tune with their immediate environment because their attention is focused on goals and concepts that are advanced well beyond those of the others around them. Those who are out of phase are very aware of being different from others, are detached from appropriate peer groups, and are often alienated. Gifted adolescents become out of sync within their environment when they see differences within themselves as the source of problems resulting from being out of stage and out of phase. Leroux (1988) commented on the intensity with which gifted adolescents interact with their environment and noted the impact of situational factors in school and socially which affect the students' levels of motivation and self-acceptance. She stated, "The behaviors of others are weighted against personal values in the mind of the gifted adolescent and dissonance may result in internal conflicts which can interfere with the adolescent's acquisition of identity" (p. 4).

This is consistent with Festinger's contention that a major source of cognitive dissonance for individuals ties within the social domain. Among the alternatives described for reducing or eliminating dissonance, Festinger included the concept of controlling environmental elements. Since the social environment of schools can be a primary source of dissonance for gifted students (Cross, Coleman, and Stewart, 1993; Harvey and Seeley, 1984; Johnston, 1988; McDowell, 1984; and Roedell, 1984), attention needs to be directed toward uncovering dissonance within the educational environment. However, as Ziv (1977) noted, "in general, the school pays little attention to the child who is out of tune with its usual expectations. The philosophy, objectives, and methodology of the school explicitly state that the orientation and focus are on the 'average' child. The gifted child has two choices: he can revolt or he can hide his giftedness." (p. 50).

Given the degree to which highly gifted students differ, not only from the general population but even from the majority of the gifted population, these theoretical and conceptual issues have major implications for them. Advocacy efforts for those who are highly gifted need to be built on as solid a foundation of theory as can be found.

Permission Statement


Contributed by: Parent on 12/6/2007
I believe that gifted adults often mass together in certain fields, such as high-profile programming and astrophysics.

Contributed by: Other on 9/10/2007
It would be interesting to see how the gifted manage as adults in the real world, where often hyper-intelligence and sensitivity are seen as a personality problem or even a threat. What are the coping mechanisms available for these children (or for adults who have not made the adjustment) and how do we teach them how to manage among the "normals"?

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