The work of Kazimierz Dabrowski has been embraced by the gifted community for the last 35 years and this summer I wanted to gain a better understanding of how it relates to giftedness by attending the Dabrowski Congress in Canmore AB. While it became easy to see how his work in the area of overexcitabilities (OE) and developmental potential (DP) through positive disintegration explains many of the attributes we see in gifted students, it also became clear that these attributes which have often been considered hallmarks of giftedness, are part of a broader conceptual framework and to use them as discretely could be problematic. You can learn more about the Dabrowski’s work here.
Though I hesitate doing this, in a nutshell, Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration is a theory that attempts to explain personality development through a combination of psychological tension (anxiety to neurosis), emotional reactions (overexcitabilities), expressive talents and abilities and a drive toward individual growth and autonomy. It is the journey of someone who is committed to becoming their own person in a world where many are comfortable ascribing to an unquestioned belief system. It can be a journey fraught with, intensity, self-doubt, frustration and cognitive dissonance as the individual struggles to craft their “personality” into their ideal of who they “should be” in a world that falls short of what it “could be”.
At the Congress it was shared that Dabrowski believed that somewhere between 30-35% of the population had developmental potential (DP) which is not only the route to shaping your own personality or character, but a route in which anxiety and depression can cause the initial disintegration which is the first step in personality development. While Dabrowski reported that a disproportionate number of gifted individuals may experience positive disintegration, it is not a theory that relates specifically to gifted and since giftedness generally refers to 2% of the population, there are many who may display OE’s and DP whose IQ’s may not reflect giftedness. Still we tend to use the OE’s as a potential marker for giftedness.
So what are these OE’s? They are described by Dabrowski as extreme neural receptivity in five domains: intellectual, imaginational, emotional, sensual and psychomotor. If IQ tests measure predominantly in the “intellectual” domain you can see where OE’s and ergo “extreme receptivity” in other areas may not be recognized but those individuals may face some of the same challenges we see with our intellectually “gifted” individuals. It is important to remember that individuals could experience OE’s in a single or more than one domain.
So taking Dabrowski’s work into consideration, who are our gifted? I like the definition written inn 1991 by the Columbus Group who described giftedness in the following way: “Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” In the book, Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child edited by Christine S. Neville, Michael M. Piechowski and Stephanie Tolan, Stephanie Tolan shares that the Columbus Group which consisted of five leaders in the study of giftedness had just attended the Dabrowski Congress in Ohio and met afterwards to craft a definition that would adequately describe what they were seeing in their work with thousands of gifted children. p.14
When I view giftedness through a Dabrowskian lens I begin to see how an achievement based understanding of giftedness is not enough…some of our gifted students will need support that responds to their sensitivities and struggles in a way that recognizes it is part of their giftedness. I also see how measuring giftedness in a single domain also has limitations. Should/could extreme neural receptivity in the emotional or imaginational domains be considered a form of giftedness? We are becoming more and more aware of the levels of anxiety and depression in our children, and I can’t help but wonder how many might be struggling with who they think they should be in a world that is not all it could be?
I think it is very important to remember that Dabrowski called this psychological tension the first step “positive” disintegration so that we would not pathologize this process into a negative framework as it is the first step in forging our own character. And yes, I did say first step. Dabrowski identified five levels in the process and those who continue past the first disintegration may be in for a life of questioning, doubting and dis-ease (along with their parents!). But Socrates did say that an unexamined life is not worth living and the Ghandi and Mendala’s of the world who learned to be the change that they wanted to see have demonstrated the value of that journey.
For more exploration of how people may be gifted, go to Hoagies’s Gifted Blog hop by clicking on the graphic below: