by Cheryl Ackerman
It seems that certain phrases repeatedly arise in conversations among people when they talk about the gifted people they know. It is common to hear: “He is soooo sensitive and feels other people’s pain as his own.” “Why can’t she just do what everyone else does?” “She is incredibly analytic and identifies the inconsistencies so easily.” “Their values are out of step with society’s.” No matter what your relationships to gifted individuals, it is usually a relief to find new way to understand them. Whether we want better self understanding, new ideas on interacting with our work associates or the professionals who have contact with our children and relatives, or insights into the important people in our lives, new information can often help.
Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration provides a framework through which the lives of gifted individuals can be viewed with greater understanding. Many people with connections to gifted individuals have had some exposure to one aspect of Dabrowski’s theory, his concept of overexcitability. However, few know about his entire theory of personality development. This is why I would like to highlight the main areas of the theory as they each provide valuable insights into the inner and outer lives of gifted individuals. Consider those you know whose love or need for movement, texture, imagery, problem solving, or personal connections are regularly more intense than most. These are the people who may possess psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual, or emotional overexcitability, which are ways of experiencing the world more intensely. Sharon Lind offers two articles that focus on all five types, Overexcitability and the gifted and Tips for parents of intense children, and Leslie Kay Sword discusses emotional overexcitability in Emotional intensity in gifted children.
The part of Dabrowski’s theory that has received less attention is his levels of personality development. He describes 5 levels of development, each with its own set of internal processes that characterize the person’s inner life. One of the essential characteristics of this theory is its focus on different value systems at the different levels of development. Another is that mental and emotional conditions typically seen as negative (like depression and anxiety) are considered necessary for development. Sal Mendaglio discusses Dabrowski’s levels of development in his article Theory of Positive Disintegration: Some implications for teachers of gifted students. While this article specifically addresses educators of the gifted, it provides a good first exposure of the main points to this very important framework.
In October of 2004, Cheryl Ackerman was a Senior Associate for Program Evaluation at the Delaware Education R & D Center at the University of Delaware and in her second year as a member of SENG’s Board of Directors.