Understanding Overexcitabilities: The Basics

Overexcitability is part of the larger Theory of Positive Disintegration. (TPD) developed by Kazmierz Dabrowski. TPD is an important theory offering insight into personality development and the role anxiety and psychoneuroses play in reaching one’s developmental potential. Looking at the overexcitabilities independent of TPD is problematic as they drive developmental potential and need to be understood and supported in that context.

WHO experiences TPD? At the 2014 International Dabrowski Congress there seemed to be some controversy over the use overexcitability scales particularly as a predictor of giftedness. This makes sense as Dabrowski believed that the percentage of the population that experience positive disintegration is somewhere around 30-35% while giftedness is considered to occur in 2% of the population. While research indicates that the overexcitabilities occur to a larger degree within the gifted population, they are not exclusive to gifted individuals.

WHAT is “overexcitability”? “Overexcitability is a characteristic of the nervous system involving higher than average sensitivity to stimuli (a lower threshold to stimuli) and a higher than average response to stimuli.  Dabrowski described five main types of overexcitability: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional, and emphasized that the latter three are critical to development and in particular, that emotional overexcitability drives and guides higher development.” (Taken from PositiveDisintegration.com.)

WHEN is it an overexcitability vs “something else”?  The key element here is focus. A child with an intellectual overexcitability may exhibit ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) behaviors until they are given a task that they find intellectually stimulating at which time they are able to focus. Sometimes this incredible focus can look like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). There are also times when an emotional excitability can look like a trauma response. And there are also times when there can be a dual diagnosis where an individual has been diagnosed with ADHD and be gifted as well. Webb et al. have done a great job of working through Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of the Gifted which you can find here. This article does a great job of describing how the intensities and sensitivities can manifest themselves in gifted children.

WHERE can you find strategies to cope? Again, as I work through understanding Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration it is very important to note that the overexcitabilities are not distributed in equal measure and the various dynamisms do not contribute to developmental potential in the same way. Every child is unique so there is no cookie cutter fix. That said, this article at SENGifted is a great place to start to put together something that may work for you and your child. There are also some specific strategies relevant to specific overexcitabilities here.

WHY does it help to have an understanding of Dabrowski’s theory? In my experience of working with individuals who experience emotional and intellectual overexcitabilities, the danger of seeing this independent of personality development through positive disintegration is that there can be a tendency to pathologize it into a behavior problem rather than work to understand and acknowledge the transformative work that is taking place.  The approach we use in supporting children with overexcitabilities is the difference between them seeing their sensitivities as “bad” “immature” or  “overreactions” and developing a self-understanding to how they experience the world as part of a quest to become their best person. For parents and teachers here is the gift/burden: “The richer the developmental potential, the greater number and variety of conflicting and mutually opposing elements are brought into play, and the more disequilibrium is produced.” (p. 64. Theory of Levels of Emotional Development, 1977.)

HOW we handle overexcitabilities can make all the difference. The first and most important step is to manage our own reactions. How we respond to that “intense response to stimuli” will go a long way to nurturing the safety and trust required to build a relationship where the adult can empower the child through finding strategies that will help regulate responses but not inhibit developmental potential.

For more information/perspectives on overexcitabilities you can follow Hoagies Blog Hop at the link below.

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