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 misun