What has giftedness got to do with emotional intensity?
Gifted characteristics create emotional highs and lows that look like many mental disorders at times. Emerging across the world are initiatives across the world right now to combat pathologising and misdiagnosing gifted people.
Most people are not aware that people with higher than average intelligence (gifted) often struggle with emotional regulation. In the field of giftedness psychology, this is known as ‘emotional over-excitability’. Over-excitabilities are extreme intensities or sensitivities that affect the ways in which an individual experiences the world. The Polish psychologist Dabrowski identified five types of “over-excitability” that he believed connected strongly to giftedness: intellectual, psychomotor, imaginative, sensual, and emotional.
In particular, an emotional over-excitability is marked by an intensified level of interpersonal relations to people, things, and places, and compassionate feelings for others. It manifests as extreme and often complex feelings, deep empathy, and sometimes fears and existential anxieties. In recent research Beduna and Perrone-McGovern found that intellectual over-excitability and emotional over-excitability are positively co-related.
Traditionally, giftedness was narrowly and insufficiently defined by the IQ score. However, the real definition and scope of giftedness is much wider and far more complex than that. Gifted adults are usually a more global and sophisticated thinker. They do not only have a greater capacity and thirst for knowledge and discovery, they also experience enhanced sensual experience, and they feel the fullest range of emotions to an immensely deep level. As a result, many gifted adults experience ‘mood swings’ that resemble a BPD symptom— e.g. swinging from feeling sad to being angry in the blink of an eye, and at times to joy, with the same level of intensity.
Many gifted adults do not realise or acknowledge that they are gifted, and are therefore not aware of the impact of their over-excitabilities. When a person goes through life feeling out of place without knowing why they can easily draw the conclusion that ‘something is wrong with me’. This can mark the beginning of a vicious, depressive cycle, and escalate to a point where the natural tendency to feel things intensely really become a ‘clinical disorder’.
Giftedness researcher Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobson has identified some of the top criticisms a gifted individual often faces:
“Why don’t you slow down?”
“You worry about everything!”
“You are so sensitive and dramatic”
“You are too driven”
“Who do you think you are?”
Unfortunately, giftedness is a term that makes many people uncomfortable. We prefer to think of it as a pacing difference. If the term gifted makes you cringe, let’s stick with ‘asynchronous development’.
‘Asynchronous development’ is what happens when advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.
As a result of these special brain characteristics, gifted thinkers typically enjoy benefits including more vivid sensing, prodigious memory, greater funds of knowledge, more frequent and varied associations, and greater analytic ability. However, these same neurological characteristics carry a number of potential drawbacks, including sensory, emotional, and memory overload, sensory hypersensitivities, personal disorganisation, sensory distractibility, delayed processing due to “analysis paralysis”, getting “lost in thought” due to an excess of options, and mental fatigue (Eide & Eide, Jogn Hopkins School of Education, 2004).
To illustrate what this means, we can look at how this trait manifests in children: parents sometimes struggle to understand how their gifted children seem to be ‘at many ages all at once’. A five-year-old with a high IQ (IQ is not the only indicator of giftedness, by the way!), for example, may have the intellectual capacity of a normal 10-year-old and have lengthy, philosophical conversations with adults one minute, then throw a tantrum like a five-year-old the next. This is because his emotional maturity has not caught up with his advanced intellectual development.
More recently, brain imaging research has provided evidence for such developmental differences; some people’s brains are indeed wired differently. It was said that the first thing you notice when you look at the fMRIs of gifted groups is that it looks like ‘a brain on fire.’
Dabrowski’s theory of overexcitabilities (often shortened to OEs) can help us understand what giftedness has got to do with intensity. Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration. According to him, people with a high potential for personal development will have at least some of these five areas of overexcitability:
Intellectual OE is demonstrated by a marked need to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, and to analyse and synthesize. Contrary to popular assumptions, Intellectual OE has nothing to do with your grades in school or even your actual IQ score, though it can be manifested in these ways. It has more to do with a drive towards learning, problem-solving, and reflective thinking. Intellectual OE makes to incredibly active minds; people with this trait are often intensely curious about the world they live in, are acutely aware of their surroundings and are astute observers. They are also independent and critical thinkers, and are less likely to accept things at face values and feel a need to constantly evaluate new information (which can be exhausting!). They can sometimes become critical of and impatient with others who cannot sustain their intellectual pace.
This is our major focus here. In addition to having a deep capacity for a wide range of emotions, emotional overexcitability also captures an ability to form deep emotional attachments, mind-body connections, and to tolerate complex, mixed feelings. People with high Emotional OE are often told that they are ‘too emotional’, or ‘too sensitive’. In some cases, these misunderstandings and attacks can lead a person to hide the strong emotions deep inside; though others perceive them as cold and distant, they feel everything on the inside. In more extreme cases, a person may have learned to dissociate with all feelings altogether and live in a constant state of numbness.
People with imaginational overexcitability experience unusual imaginative and fantastical thought,often from a young age. These can be played out as 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 is a heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system. This can be expressed as ‘having lots of energy’, love of movement, rapid speech, or a need for constant motion. When feeling emotionally tense, individuals strong in Psychomotor OE may find themselves speaking rapidly, acting impulsive or compulsively (such as becoming hyper- organised), experience insomnia or what psychologists would call a ‘manic-state’. Children with Psychomotor OE child are often misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Sensual overexcitability is often expressed in heightened sensitivity to sounds, smells, tastes, touches. This can lead to an early and deep appreciation of the beauty in this world, such as in art, language and music. However, it can also lead to one being easily over-stimulated or overwhelmed by sensory input.
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. Sensually overexcitable children may find clothing tags, classroom noise, or smells from the cafeteria distracting. Some may withdraw from their surroundings as a coping strategy and ended up being perceived as being shy or cold.