Positive Living Newsletter

Part 4 on Dąbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration: Overexcitability

William Tillier, MSc

I begin this fourth instalment on Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration with a summary. Dąbrowski proposed his theory to account for individuals he observed who suffered psychoneurotic crises involving existential anxiety and depression but then went on to show exemplary personality development. Using a positive definition of mental health, Dąbrowski saw that health was more than simple adjustment; in fact, as Dąbrowski said, those who are adjusted to a sick and primitive society are not healthy. In his theory, maladjustment to a lower-level society is a positive feature, often a step toward a positive adjustment to an individually created value system. This hierarchy of values reflects the core essence of the personality of the individual—one’s personality ideal.

The majority of people remain in lockstep at a socialized level. Why? Dąbrowski’s answer was given in his approach to development. He recognized that psychological integration based on socialization largely inhibits and constrains the parameters of individual development. In order to allow for the growth of autonomy, individuals must break down social integrations—disintegrate them. The mechanisms of disintegration follow from the three factors and the construct of developmental potential (introduced in the last issue of Positive Living in Difficult Times). “Developmental potential describes the relationships between individual development and three [sets of] factors which control development” (Dąbrowski, 1996, p. 14).

Each individual has given genetic potentials that set the parameters of development: the first factor. Where developmental potential is negative or very weak, individual development will be severely constrained and egocentrism will dominate. These individuals may be asocial or even antisocial. Often, the pressure of social conformity will constrain the behavior of these individuals, but clearly, their impulses are to run amok to satisfy their wants and urges. On the other hand, the average person seems to start out as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s child in The Little Prince (one of Dąbrowski’s favourite books). The child, drawing a boa constrictor that has eaten an elephant, finds few able to understand or appreciate the drawing and soon the child simply gives up. The dreams and imagination of the child are sacrificed in order to become a socialized “adult,” living under the influence of the second factor. Dąbrowski bemoaned the fact that many people in our society end up beginning to “fit in and get along” and to rapidly mature; many easily and quickly give up not only their dreams but also their individuality in the quest to become “a well-adjusted adult.”

Now, what about those troublesome others, those who are not content or unable to conform to the expectations and lines drawn by society? Or those with very strong developmental potential, who feel the urge, the need, to express their individuality—a strong third factor? Just exactly how do these individuals break free of socialization to develop uniqueness and personality? Let’s have a look.

In the last issue of Positive Living in Difficult Times, we mentioned that overexcitability was synonymous with nervousness and was characterized by two features: a lowered threshold to react to stimuli and a higher than average reaction to stimuli. Dąbrowski described five major forms of overexcitability. In a hierarchy, first comes psychomotor overexcitability, characterized by an excess of energy expressed in rapid talk, restlessness, the pressure to act and to be mobile, the need to move about, and inability to sit still. Second is sensual overexcitability, characterized by heightened sensory experiences. For example, take pleasure from or be bothered by the feel of things, the smell of things, or visual stimulation. Next, is imaginational overexcitability—the ability to visualize, to live in the world of fantasy, and to plan and foresee outcomes. To be able to see things others don’t—to be able to create something new in the world. The fourth is intellectual overexcitability. This does not refer to intellectual ability; rather, it deals with the zest for learning, curiosity, a drive to understand and to know, to collect knowledge, and to be able to appreciate and enjoy logical answers. Finally, and perhaps the most important of all, emotional overexcitability. This is manifested in the ability to experience emotional relations with the other. This other may be another person or even a place or thing. It is manifested in an understanding of one’s own emotional experiences. These emotional connections and insights are the foundation of empathy. There is a strong sensitivity and a strong concern for the other, often involving a protective element.

An individual who experiences strong overexcitabilities often has a hard time in life because most people simply judge them as being too soft or too sensitive—not tough enough to survive in this world. They may be ridiculed, especially males who show sensitivity or show emotion. Returning to the criteria of overexcitability, we can see that the slightest thing may create an emotional or imaginational crisis for an overexcitable child that would not even be noticed by a child lacking overexcitability. As well, when other people see someone having very strong reactions to everyday stimuli, they are often misunderstood, leading them to feel an outcast, different, or even somehow crazy.

In 2000, my wife and I went to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with another couple. Being a movie buff, I appreciated this Ang Lee film from the beginning, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional experience I was in for. At the end of the movie, I was sitting beside my wife and I was crying, and my friend said to me, “Boy, that was a good kung fu movie.” I could barely move. I couldn’t speak. As everyone left the theatre, there was another couple about 10 rows in front of us who also remained seated. Both were sobbing. I was comforted that my wife and I were not the only ones who were moved so emotionally by this movie. I can recall so many times from school when something happened and I got upset while my classmates just sat there—it made me feel isolated and as if something was wrong with me (and made me the subject of scorn and teasing from the other kids).

My thoughts went back to a strange experience I had had when I was about five. My mother had taken me to the local theatre to see the movie Bambi. When Bambi was threatened by fire, I became hysterical, and I remember distinctly first being taken out to the lobby where the theatre manager and my mother tried to console me. They literally had to stop the movie, and I then remember being taken out onto the street into the afternoon sunshine where I continued to scream my head off. I would not say that took me only a few hours or even days to get over. It took me years.

The vignette above is an illustration of the power of overexcitability to disconnect us from “simply fitting in” or fitting in simply. Overexcitability is a disrupter in life. It’s a strong force that upsets the applecart and challenges us. What are we to make of this? How are we going to handle this? How are we to react to ourselves? How are we to react to others who are looking askance at us? What are we going to make of ourselves? Overexcitability is a strong trigger for existential anxiety? Is everything right with the world? And if not, how are we to deal with this knowledge? Existential anxiety is the opposite side of the depression coin. What must we feel when confronted with tragedy? One of Dąbrowski’s assistants, Marlene Rankel, used to say, “If you can watch the news and not be depressed, you must not be an authentic human being.” All in all, that’s a pretty depressing and sad view, isn’t it?

One day I was walking with Dąbrowski. I was 23 years old and I told him that I had always felt strong anxiety and often felt like my emotions were going to overwhelm me and be too much to handle. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Ah, but this is not so negative. There is much potential for growth in this anxiety.” And, indeed, reading Dąbrowski’s works gave me the encouragement to look at things differently and, for the first time, to really understand my history and my “strange reactions” to everyday life. It was the beginning of learning not to fear my sensitivity or my psychoneuroses. Dąbrowski’s theory gave me a context that allowed me to frame my future becoming.

In the next column we will talk about Plato (of all people!) and the contrast between the unilevel life and the multilevel experience.