In particular, the following article draws on Dabrowski’s 1967 book, Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, recently republished in a new edition (all quotations from Dabrowski are from this edition, Red Pill Press, 2015).
Overexcitabilities Are Not the Whole Picture
Many parents of highly gifted children are aware of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s concept of excessive excitability or overexcitabilities (often shortened to OEs). People with OEs have extremely heightened intellectual, emotional, imaginational, psychomotor, and sensual experiences.
What often gets lost, especially for people who learn about Dabrowski from writings on giftedness, is that OEs are only one part of his larger Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).
OEs are important because they indicate high potential for personal growth when experienced in combination with other factors—such as self-awareness, an ability to view oneself objectively, and even a prolonged period of what we think of as negativity. OEs also lead to conflict, especially internal conflict in which we recognize different levels of development within oneself (a kind of asynchrony), conflict that is to be embraced rather than avoided if we are to become better versions of ourselves.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration
Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration is complex, and even experts in the field do not always agree on its interpretation and application. However, these are some of the main ideas of TPD (see the resources at the end of this article to learn more).
First, it is important to know that Dabrowski used terms in very specific ways. For example, “development” in Dabrowski’s theory occurs only in some individuals and is not the same as the kind of development we all experience throughout life. “Personality” in TPD refers not to individual quirks and traits but to an ideal personality of lasting values such as love, truthfulness, and courage.
Dabrowskian development involves the journey from social conformity and automatic behavior to self-awareness and the ability to make choices based on an inner hierarchy of values. He proposed five levels of development. Both the first and the last levels are “integrated” levels, meaning they are free from major inner conflict. However, the integration of the first level is because one has no inner hierarchy of values—there is no conflict because nothing is questioned. The integration of the fifth level, on the other hand, occurs after a long and painful process of disintegrations and conflicts. Very few people reach level five—the level of personality—and many if not most people, according to Dabrowski, do not move out of level one. The middle levels all involve some type of disintegration, from externally-provoked conflict to a conscious participation in the disintegrative process in order to gain more self-knowledge and personality.
Overexcitabilities—especially emotional, intellectual, and imaginational OEs—are indications that one may have developmental potential. When combined with “dynamisms” such as shame, guilt, feeling inferior to oneself, astonishment at one’s self, and a creative impulse (among others), OEs contribute to positive disintegration, or the kind of inner conflict that helps us to move from who we are to who we know we should be.
Levels of development in TPD are based not on age but are sparked by periods of positive disintegration. The process of positive disintegration can occur at almost any time but is often triggered by the physical changes of adolescence and mid-life. Much of Dabrowski’s work focuses on how to support young people, in particular, in their experience of disintegration.
What Parents Can Do
Watching a child struggle with OEs and dynamisms such as shame and guilt can be heart-wrenching, but TPD provides a broader context to help parents not only understand their children better, but also to support them more effectively. As a bonus, adults can also learn to understand and support themselves in their own positive disintegration.
The goal is not to force development. In fact, much of a child’s development in the Dabrowskian sense will occur long after he or she leaves home. Dabrowski cautions that adults should not “intensify tensions, unrest, fear, and the feeling of guilt with an individual possessing indicators of personality.” Instead, we can make it more likely that inevitable inner conflict and disintegration occur “in a positive way,” through “the strengthening of the individual’s positive traits, his interests, and capabilities, by falling back upon his closest patterns.”
In addition, because the important process that Dabrowski terms “self-education” requires a willingness and ability to examine one’s own impulses, choices, and thoughts, we can encourage children not to shy from their imperfections and failings. Mindfulness meditation, with the aim of watching one’s thoughts from the perspective of a higher inner consciousness, can be very beneficial in this regard.
Dabrowski also suggests that adults expose children to the world of art, museums, books, and stories (especially those that feature heroes and magical elements to nurture, in the phrase of Philip Zimbardo’s phrase, “heroes in training”). In addition, a child’s own “fundamental trend of interests and capabilities” can be a pathway toward greater self-understanding and a quality of personality:
A Different Perspective on Giftedness
Dabrowski’s theory of OEs has gained such a strong foothold in the gifted community because much of what the theory does fit the experience of identified gifted individuals. However, his is not a “gifted education” theory. His concept of intellectual overexcitability, for example, is not the same as being test-smart, but rather has to do with a drive to understand, synthesize, analyze, and intellectualize. The two can co-exist, but they don’t have to.
One value of TPD for parents—especially parents of gifted children—is that it offers a counterbalance to the temptation to focus too narrowly or single-mindedly on classroom success. Grades, honors, college applications, and high profile careers have as their goal a form of perfection that are at odds Dabrowskian development of personality.
Parents can also feel an unrealistic pressure to make their children’s lives as free from conflict—as perfect—as possible, especially if they have already watched their children suffer in school or social situations. We may feel that we have failed if our children are in inner pain. The Theory of Positive Disintegration reminds us that life’s inevitable curveballs, our own failings, and inner conflict are necessary for our eventual growth.
We can focus on helping children to live with and recognize their feelings rather than reason them away or ignore them (Sal Mendaglio offers excellent advice on this). A good first step is simply to talk to children about our own difficult feelings and to be a model of someone who doesn't run from or mask those feelings.
The most important role a parent or other adult can play is that of being someone who understands. The following is from an article by Anna Mróz (“Theory of Positive Disintegration as a Basis for Research on Assisting Development,” Roeper Review, 31:96–102, 2009):
It sounds too simple to be effective--the idea of making sure a child has at least one affirming, accepting, understanding adult--but we all know it's not always easy and requires a lot of time and mental and emotional energy, not to mention our own self-care. It doesn't have to be a parent, but it needs to be someone. By already providing this for your child, you are already doing the most important thing.
Recommended Resources for Learning More About Dabrowski
Bill Tillier’s Theory of Positive Disintegration Website: http://www.positivedisintegration.com
Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, edited by Sal Mendaglio, Great Potential Press, 2010
Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults, edited by Susan Daniels and Michael M. Piechowski, Great Potential Press, 2010
Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, by Kazimierz Dabrowski, Red Pill Press, 2015
Videos of Seminars from the 2014 Dabrowski Congress: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL56_KS-4nlYYIm04Ifjq6UFsjJxrIAr2q
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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