William James noted the ‘excitability of character’ in those who feel things intensely, who are spiritually attuned, and feel moved to act on what they strongly believe in or what arouse their curiosity.
This is commonly known as ‘over excitability’ in the literature, though the phrase ‘over’ might give the wrong impression that it means it is somehow unnatural or undesirable. It turns out, the word is more accurately translated as ‘superstimulatability’- heightened excitability and aliveness, meaning one is easily stimulated, perceptive, persistent, and intense. (Piechowski, 2010) The Polish psychologist Dabrowski identified five types of “over-excitability” that he believed connected strongly to giftedness: intellectual, psychomotor, imaginative, sensual, and emotional.
As a child, you were sensitive and obsessed with fairness; you react to things other children don’t. You are advanced in some areas but seem to lag behind in others. You were explosive at times, one minute you were exuberant and could not shut up, another minute you become angry. Your parents criticized you for being overly moody.
As an adult, your family and partner criticise you for being too sensitive, intense, or too serious. You become impatient with others easily, and you find it hard to find people who share common interests .
Unknown to most, overexcitability is a part of being gifted. 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.
More recently, brain imaging research has provided evidence that some people’s brains are indeed wired differently. It was said that the first thing you notice when you look at the fMRIs of intense ones is that it looks like ‘a brain on fire.’
As a result of their unique brain characteristics, intense poeple 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, 2004).
Overexcitabiities are often incorrectly explained as a diagnostic mental disorders. Some of the most common ones being ADHD, BPD, Bipolar, OCD and depression. One of the biggest challenges gifted individuals face is not being correctly identified as gifted by health professionals. 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. These traits could be misunderstood as a mood disorder or even personality disorder.
Many intense people 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 an intense person 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?”
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; you are curious about the world, are acutely aware of your surroundings and an astute observers. You are also an independent and critical thinker, and are less likely to accept things at face values and feel a need to constantly evaluate new information (which can be exhausting!). You can sometimes become critical of and impatient with others who cannot keep up, or do no share the same excitement about an idea.
In addition to having a deep capacity for a wide range of emotions, emotional overexcitability is also an ability to form deep emotional attachments to people, places and objects. With your naturally high empathy, you feel like you have to be the emotional caretaker of whatever environment you walk into. You are uncomfortable with conflicts and hidden anger, and would always try to take care of the situation. You might also find that you sponge up others feelings involuntarily. As you to help others or the natural environment, you can become cynical and angry when you realise your idealistic perspective is not shared by others.
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 you to hide the strong emotions deep inside; though others perceive you as cold and distant, you feel everything on the inside. In more extreme cases, you 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 thoughts,often from a young age. These can be played out as you having imaginary playmates, imaginary pets, engaging in lots of fantasy play, spending long hours daydreaming. 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’. As their bodies tend to fidget and twitch in their excitements in ways that look like hyperactivity, 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.
Sensually overexcitable children may find clothing tags, classroom noise, perfume, or smells from the cafeteria distracting. Parents of children with these issues may feel frustrated at,say, the cost of specific foods their child can eat, the clothing which they find comfortable, or the number of activities their child begins but drops partway through due to high-pitched lighting, insufficient downtime, or overwhelming noise.
Without sufficient understanding, many intense children simple withdraw from their surroundings as a coping strategy and ended up being perceived as being shy or cold.
CHALLENGES FOR THE overexcited ones
HOW YOUR INTENSITY, DRIVE AND COMPLEXITY CAN COMPLICATE MATTERS
Being seen or named as being ‘too needy, too sensitive, too friendly, too excited, too driven, too disorganized, too fast, too competitive, too arrogant, work too hard’
Feeling like you are defected, in the wrong
Paralysed by the sense of shame or fear of failure
Despair from feeling like an outsider
Deep existential depression and loneliness
Struggling to find friends/ romantic partner that could match your level of intensity
Desire for high stimulus situations
A highly critical inner voice
Using alcohol, drugs, food or other behaviours to self- medicate
Obsessive-compulsive behaviours to assert control
Disappointment and frustration in others due to high internal standard
‘Anti-procrastination syndrome’ – being ‘hyper-efficient’ and losing patience for others
Fear of wasting any time
‘Super-hero syndrome’ – Feeling that you can do it all, struggle to delegate
Suppressing ambition altogether – feels empty and finding life meaningless
Confusing exhaustion for accomplishment
A chronic sense of void and feeling unfulfilled
Difficulties making decisions
Fear of losing control
Struggling to tame your active mind when you need to
Out-smarting others as a way of expressing anger
Not able to enjoy activities, books or TV that most people enjoy
A BRIEF GUIDE FOR THE overexcited
How do we support intense adults and young adults with their exceptional intensity, drive and complexity?
Asynchronous development, overexcitabilities and multipotentiality all require specialized knowledge, and intervention for a positive outcome.
Here are some of the things that maybe useful for the you to find your way in the world:
Accepting your limitation
Owning your gifts and your drive whilst letting go of perfectionism
Being aware of time where you are exposed to the wound of being called ‘too much’
Learning to deal with the frustration of when others cannot keep up
Learning to say or do the right thing in the right context- part of managing excitabilities
Understanding some concious or unconscious reactions people have towards giftedness, including envy
Honouring your quirky sense of humour and finding the right context for them
Working with that inner critic that is at times out of control
Dealing with obsessive thinking or rumination
Be more tolerant of your own and others’ mistakes
Identify where the line is drawn: Is that really your responsibility? Especially in cases of 'parentification'
Stop procrastinating due to the fear of failure
More specifically, here are some of the things I discuss with you might be:
How to stay on track with your main gifts, vision and mission.
Not only conceptualize (big thinking) but also and operationalize (small doing)
How to get what you need and want from the world and others
Managing emotional sensitivity, intensity or other over-excitabilities- using them to your advantage
What to do with mundane tasks
How to stay focused, not scattered in midst of multiple potentials
How to manage strong reactions to injustice in this world
Building resilience and thrive on setbacks