Overexcitability in Gifted People

Yes.

(waves hand emphatically)

I’m the overexcited one.

I am on the intellectual prowl at.every.moment.

What does this mean? What the heck am I talking about?

Well, Kazimierz Dabrowski (a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist) wrote a book called “Positive Disintegration” in the 60’s and it is THICK, mama.

Like, I’d need to write several thousand words to really make it be clear to you what he was talking about. His work dealt with personality and how humans develop. He had a kind of hierarchical system, but I think that it’s really just the idea of step one, step two, like on a stair case.

I teach my students about the concept of the stairs all the time, that when you’re first learning a concept you’re on stair one. You learn a little, and you step up to stair two, and so on. It would be unreasonable to try to stretch your leg (on an actual staircase) from step one to step 5. It would probably hurt, etc.

So Dabrowski thought a lot about personality development and how people move through it. His work was similar to other psychologists that studied human development. What makes his work really interesting to the gifted education field is his research on “overexcitabilities,” in the development of a personality.

He identified five areas a person could show “overexcitability.”

For #1-#5 below,  Courtney E. Ackerman, MA, Theory of Positive Disintegration 101: On Becoming Your Authentic Self

These are Ackerman’s descriptions, and while they are quite simplified for her blog post, you can find more about them in Dabrowski’s research.

  1. Psychomotor Overexcitabilities
    Individuals with psychomotor overexcitabilities will likely have excess physical energy, talk more frequently and faster than others, tend towards impulsivity and competitiveness, and may turn to excessive work to deal with stress or other problems.
  2. Sensual Overexcitabilities
    These individuals have a heightened response to the senses and may feel an enhanced need to touch and/or be touched. They may overeat and indulge in many superficial relationships, but they will also likely have a wide range of experiences interacting with others due to an aversion to loneliness and enhanced need of attention from others.
  3. Imagination Overexcitabilities
    Those with imagination overexcitability have a tendency towards visualization, and are likely to be inventive, highly imaginative, intuitive, and have a greater capacity for the use of imagery and metaphor.
  4. Intellectual Overexcitabilities
    Intellectually overexcitable individuals are persistent and voracious learners with a capacity for intense concentration and theoretical thinking. They will likely ask many questions and have an affinity for logic, puzzles, and mysteries.
  5. Emotional Overexcitabilities
    Those with emotional overexcitability will likely form strong attachments to people, places, and things. They may be highly inhibited, enthusiastic, and concerned about others, social justice, and their own sense of responsibility. Generally, these individuals are able to effectively feel and internalize the emotions of others.

So, yes, friend.

I identify as someone with all these damn overexcitabilities.

When I got my talented and gifted teaching license, we studied Dabrowski in depth. I felt as if someone had finally unlocked the door to a room filled with books that explained ME. I spent a lifetime before my second MA program thinking I was broken because I had ADHD. It was the thing from pre-K ballet to high school Algebra that teachers thought about me first.

One of the primary things I explain repeatedly to parents of gifted children is that gifted children are more often than not more sensitive in some way than their peers. Dabrowski’s “overexcitabilities” are basically handy explanations of how person can be wired for more sensitivity. Additionally- often children are misdiagnosed or misunderstood because their behavior in school or at home can look like ADHD or Autism or other neurologically diverse diagnoses. Misdiagnosis by James T. Webb is a great book about this.

This was delivered today. I had an intense day at school, and got home at 5:30 having stayed late. AND I WAS STILL GONNA STUDY. That’s when I started writing this post instead.

What am I saying in all of this? Giftedness is so misunderstood. It has been my passion for 20 years, and I still sometimes feel ill prepared to explain it and advocate for it.

The overexcitabilities HIT ME OVER THE HEAD when I got home today.

This week (mind you, it’s Tuesday) I have already had 4 books delivered to me, and have 3 on hold at the library. I have every intention of reading all of them. None of them are novels. All of them are about self-development as a human or as a teacher.

Seriously. I live in a constant state of “how can I do this better?”

I feel like I’m rambling all of my thoughts out at the moment, but it is really important to me that gifted students and gifted/ADHD combos like me aren’t seen for only our neurological “weaknesses” or “challenges.” People with ADHD have so many childhood stories of being in the principal’s office at school. So do the gifted kids.

I was in the principal’s office a bit. I mean, I went to a log cabin school so the office was kinda “sit at your desk and don’t talk to anyone,” but you get the idea.

(Also, as a mama of two children on the autism spectrum that are also gifted, I can say being twice exceptional (2e) is a real thing, and it’s important educators know how to show up for humans like us.)

SO it is especially hard for me when gifted and 2e students struggle in my class. My empathy (and emotional overexcitability) want to help them and do anything I can think of to make it work.

Yes. It is exhausting.

But hey, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about overexcitability.

I usually just think of myself as highly sensitive and work on coping strategies. When I see myself in my students (like attracts like, it’s been the theme of my career, lol) I help them learn coping strategies.

It ain’t my job to save anyone, though. And that’s where I get in trouble. I want all kids to leave me so much better off than they entered my classroom. I need to work on that savior thing a bit.

Perhaps this will help you frame some feelings and thoughts you are having about yourself or someone you love.

Namaste.

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(PS, there is nothing wrong with being sent to see the principal. The point I’m making in this article is the common misunderstanding of gifted sensitivity and twice exceptional students. Also, everyone has free will. The little buttercups in my classroom that are INTENSE right now have had every opportunity to shift their choices and they have chosen not to. I am not thinking about these friends when I write this. I’m thinking about my intensity. Carry on.)

2 comments

  1. I am intellectually overexcited. I have 4 books on my bedside table, another in Libby, and seven waiting for me at the library. And one coming via Amazon. Never fewer than ten tabs open on my laptop. I am intellectually bingeing most of the time. And sometimes with food too. But that’s another story. You and I are VERY similar. Would love to meet sometime. Namaste

    • I LOVE hearing this, Becky! Yes. It’s a wacky world to be so overexcited about things, but I wouldn’t change it for a second. <3

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