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The Self-Education of Gifted Adults

By Lisa Rivero.

Citation: First published in the SENGVine, Gifted Adult edition, January 2012

“Somewhere along the line of development we discover what we really are and then make our real decision for which we are responsible. Make that decision primarily for yourself because you can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life and what you become yourself.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt (quoted in Wigall, 2003, p. 29)

What are you, really? Who are you apart from being a partner, a worker, a parent, a teacher, or even a “formerly gifted child”? What real decisions have you yet to make? What influence do you want to exert through your life? What do you want to become, and how will you get there?

In short, do you know if you are living up to your potential?

Does the very question provoke a rush of anxiety?

Now that our son is in college, I watch my friends, like my husband and myself, work to figure out who they are apart from being parents, at least apart from being parents who parent on a daily basis. This life transition is an important one for all families; parents of gifted children are certainly not the only ones who wrestle with issues of self-identity, or life’s purpose and meaning. However, the sensitivities and intensity of giftedness within families—both the intensity of personalities and the intensity that some parents bring to the education and upbringing of their children—can leave a deep void once a household is reduced to one or two adults. We might be tempted to throw a rug over the void and pretend it’s not there, keeping ourselves even more busy than usual, and hope that we don’t, one day, forget what lies underneath that lovely old rug and fall straight in, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Or perhaps we stare into the void until we are mesmerized, too paralyzed to move for fear of the unknown, never really learning—but always wondering—what we are ultimately capable of.

Grown-up Potential: Beyond Overexcitabilities

One of the reasons we are so fascinated by biographies of people like Steve Jobs is that we are searching for clues to potential. We want to know if there was anything in their childhoods or personalities that hinted at the amazing success that was to come, and whether there is anything we can learn from their lives to help us to recognize and understand better our own promise and potential.

We often talk about children’s potential, especially that of particularly bright, talented, or gifted children, as if such potential is either fulfilled or wasted by the time we grow up. Nothing could be further than the truth. Our individual, human potential not only can continue to deepen, especially at mid-life, but it can also be an important source of hope and meaning in the second half of our lives, as long as we view potential through the lens of personality development, in particular Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration.

Many parents of gifted children and others are now aware of Dabrowski’s theory of overexcitabilities (often shortened to OEs). According to Dabrowski, people with a high potential for personal development will have at least some of these five areas of overexcitability (Piechowski, 2006):

· Intellectual OE. Not the same as intelligence or academic ability, intellectual overexcitability is a passion for and drive toward learning, problem-solving, and reflective thinking. As an adult, you may misunderstand intellectual OE simply as having been good at school or being smart, unaware of how much it drives you on a daily basis. Or you may mistakenly think that if you weren’t good at school (i.e., you didn’t get good grades), you can’t have intellectual OE.

· Emotional OE. More than just strong feelings, emotional overexcitability is a great capacity for emotional attachments, mind-body connections, and complexity of feelings, both positive and negative. Perhaps you have been told you are too emotional. You may feel that you wear your feelings not only on your sleeves, but all over your body like a tattoo. Or maybe have you learned to hide your strong emotions deep inside, so that others think you are cool or even distant, while inside you feel everything, all the time.

· Imaginational OE. People with imaginational overexcitability experience unusual imaginative and fantastical thought, play out emotional tension through imagery, and have little tolerance for boredom. You may be shy, self-conscious, or have a tendency toward depression. You worry about issues of life and death more than other people. Or you seem to absorb the emotions of people around you and may have trouble setting personal boundaries and separating your own feelings and needs from those of others.

· Psychomotor OE. Distinct from athleticism or physical talent, psychomotor overexcitabiltiy is what Michael Piechowski (2006) calls personal energy, and it is experienced as surplus energy, or physical manifestations of emotional energy. Your psychomotor intensity might be expressed more strongly when your emotions run high, such as pacing the room when you are stressed or needing more physical release of energy when you are worried about an illness in the family, or are intensely involved in learning something new.

· Sensual OE. Sensual overexcitability shows itself in heightened sensitivity to sounds, smells, tastes, tactile experiences, and beauty, leading both to aesthetic pleasure and to sensory discomfort. People with this OE have a heightened reaction to the sensual side of life, which, as with emotional intensity, may lead to being criticized for being too sensitive to your environment.

Dabrowski theorized that OEs alone are not in themselves an indicator of high potential for personal growth, but, when experienced in combination with other factors—such as self-awareness, an ability to view oneself objectively, and even a prolonged period of what we think of as “becoming an adult”—overexcitability can lead to conflict, especially internal conflict in which we recognize different levels of development within oneself, a kind of adult asynchrony. It is this conflict that is important.

Growing Pains

One may be wondering what any of this has to do with personal growth or potential. After all, being more emotionally and sensually overexcitable can be downright painful. Children and adults who have psychomotor OE often struggle to fit in with the more subdued requirements of the classroom and the workplace. While having an overexcitable imagination is often seen as acceptable or is even praised in children, by middle school and high school, and certainly in adulthood, most of us are expected to be creative on our own time. Having OEs can lead to being profoundly misunderstood and a feeling of always being different—on the outside, looking in.

So, what is the benefit? How is a heightened intensity of experience connected to developmental potential?

Dabrowski explained that intensity and sensitivity, even a certain level of anxiety, are potentially positive traits. People with this virtual, walking, Wi-Fi hot spot reception to life are attuned not only to their own reactions, but to environmental stimuli that others may miss. Noticing and being sensitive to our environment—both external and internal—are the first steps toward making any changes, either in ourselves or in our world.

This does not mean that anxiety should be encouraged for its own sake. Anxiety can be excruciating, even crippling. However, Dabrowski believed that nervousness and a tendency to overreact should not necessarily be pathologized, as they can prompt us to go inward and to realize how we fall short of our own ideal. This inner hierarchy of values—the gap between who we are today or who we have been in the past, and who we wish to become—is rich with potential for growth, if we are willing to embark on the lifelong journey of closing the gap.

This capacity for personal growth is at the heart of what Dabrowski meant by having high potential—much more so than eminence or traditional ideas of success—a growth that is perhaps possible for more people now than ever before because of longer life spans and advanced health care, but a growth that also comes with the cost of short-term discomfort and even temporary maladjustment.

Self-Education: Closing the Gap

For Dabrowski, one’s own conscious creation of a mature personality happens primarily through what he called self-education. Self-education begins with being aware of the conflicting values and levels of conduct within ourselves, and with acceptance of our own self-dissatisfaction, the knowledge that we still have far to travel. He wrote that the “ripe phase” of self-education is preceded “by innumerable experiences, seemingly of little importance, which disappear into the subconscious, wait for new experiences and a new summation of them, and then, in moments most suitable for the development of personality, appear in a more mature form, ‘consolidate,’ and are consciously included in a more or less distinct program of self-education” (1967, p. 147).

In short, we need to have lived for a number of years to collect the experiences necessary for self-education and conscious personality development even to be possible. The process cannot be rushed. Understanding grown-up potential as Dabrowskian personality development rather than as mere self-improvement can give us an entirely new perspective on time and life, on what matters and what doesn’t. It also can prompt us to re-evaluate how best to nurture the life-long, personal potential of our children, rather than focus solely on academic timetables and curricular achievements.

Finally, learning more about the Theory of Positive Disintegration can lessen the burden and regret we may feel for not having lived up to mistaken notions of what it means to have high potential. As a friend of mine put it, “Who ever thought of adult giftedness—except every person over forty who hasn’t made it like Steve Jobs and still feels his or her talents have gone untapped and unrecognized?” While Steve Jobs may have been at the pinnacle of his success as a creator, businessman, and public person, and while he most definitely showed evidence of multiple overexcitabilities, we will never know if he might have gone further in the more important journey of personality development. In the end, it is possible to have great worldly success and, at the same time, lack internal peace and growth. But with hard-won inner peace and growth, worldly success ceases to matter: wealth and fame can come, and go, and we remain who we are.

When we face the void and feel all is lost, when we fear that our potential has been “wasted” and it is too late for change—this may just be the perfect moment to begin to view our lives differently:

The period of real, essential moral maturation is often one of spiritual void: of isolation, loneliness, and misunderstanding. It is the time of the ‘soul’s night,’ during which the then existing sense of life and forms of connection with life lose their value and force of attraction. This period will close, however…shutting out every possibility of a return to the initial level. This is the process of development of personality. (Dabrowski, 1964, p. 63)

Who are you, really? What is your true potential? What growth and goals await you? What calls to you? What do you still need to do? To be? Now may be the time to find out.

To learn more about Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, begin with the following resources:


· Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, edited by Sal Mendaglio, Great Potential Press, 2010

· Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults, edited by Susan Daniels and Michael M. Piechowski, Great Potential Press, 2010

SENG Online Library Articles

· “Overexcitability and the Gifted,” by Sharon Lind (Also available in Spanish)


· Advanced Development: A Journal on Adult Giftedness. More information:


· 10th International Dabrowski Congress, Sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, July 19th to July 21st, 2012, Denver, Colorado. More information:


Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping through positive disintegration. Little, Brown and Company: Boston.

Dabrowski, K. (1964). Positive disintegration. Little, Brown and Company: Boston.

Piechowski, M. (2006). “Mellow out,” they say. If I only could: Intensities and sensitivities of the young and bright. Madison, WI: Yunasa Books.

Wigal, D. (Ed.). (2003). The wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt. NewYork: Kensington Press.


SENG Director Lisa Rivero lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she teaches writing and creative thinking to wonderfully intense students at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Some of her books include Creative Home Schooling, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Teens, and Smart Teens’ Guide to Living with Intensity.

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