What Is Overexcitabilty?
— Been Told You Are ‘Too Intense’ All Your Life?
‘Overxcitability’ or ‘Overexcitabilities’ is a neurodivergent trait. It makes someone exceptionally intense, and experience life in a vivid way. It originates from the theory of positive disintegration by psychiatrist Dabrowski (1902-1980). You can be overexcited in five ways: Emotionally, Intellectually, Sensually, Imaginationally, Physically.
All your life, you have been told you are ‘too intense’, ‘too much’, ‘too sensitive’.
As a child, you were sensitive, easily overwhelmed by people and noise. At school, you were obsessed with fairness, and you reacted to things when other children don’t. You are advanced in some areas but seem to lag in others. You were explosive at times, one minute you were exuberant and could not shut up, another minute you become angry. Your parents criticised 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 quickly, and you find it hard to find people who share common interests. What works for others don’t seem to work for you: the conventional job, the corporate ladder, cognitive behavioural therapy, the stable and secure relationship. You believe that it is your failure; that somehow you ought to change to fit into the mould. From time to time, you have intense bouts of anxiety and depression.
All your life, you think there is something wrong with you. Never did you consider the possibility that your intensity is a sign of enormous creative potential.
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?”
INTENSITY AS DEVELOPMENTAL POTENTIAL
“Overexctability” — a high level of reactivity of the central nervous system— is a constitutional endowment.
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 trait is known as ‘overexcitability’, a term coined by polish psychiatrist Dabrowski to describe a trait commonly possessed by people with an extraordinary level of potential. 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).
Dąbrowski presented five forms of OE: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional, and each contributes to specific traits, strengths and qualities (The following descriptions are drawn from Webb et al., 2005; Piechoski; Lind, 2001; Jeanne Siaud-Facchinin, 2012):
Intellectual OE is demonstrated by a marked need to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, and to analyse and synthesise. Contrary to popular assumptions, Intellectual OE is not about 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 incredibly active minds; with it, you are intellectually precocious, immensely curious about the world, are acutely aware of your surroundings and an astute observer. You are also likely an independent and critical thinker, are less likely to accept things at face values and feel a need to continually evaluate new information (which can be exhausting!). You can sometimes become critical of and impatient with others who cannot keep up or do not share the same excitement about an idea.
People with imaginational overexcitability experience unusual imaginative and fantastical thoughts, often from a young age. You might have imaginary playmates, imaginary pets, engage in lots of fantasy play or spend long hours daydreaming. You were probably shy, self-conscious, or tend toward depression. You worry about issues of life and death more than other people.
In addition to having a deep capacity for a wide range of emotions, emotional overexcitability is 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 seem to absorb the emotions of people around you and may have trouble setting personal boundaries and separating your feelings and needs from those of others. You are uncomfortable with conflicts and concealed anger, and would always try to take care of the situation. You might also find that you sponge up others feelings involuntarily. You are equipped with multiple sensors permanently connected to your surroundings and have a heightened ability to feel the emotional states of others. As a result, you could be overwhelmed by the amount of information you receive in a group setting or crowded space.
As you endeavour to help others or the natural environment, you realise others do not share your idealistic perspective.
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. Even 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.
Psychomotor OE is 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, you may find yourself speaking rapidly, acting impulsively or compulsively (such as becoming hyper- organised). You may experience insomnia or manic-state’. As their bodies tend to fidget and twitch in 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 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 that their child does not enjoy ‘normal’ activities due to high-pitched lighting, insufficient downtime, or overwhelming noise.
Without sufficient understanding, many intense children simple withdrew from their surroundings as a coping strategy and ended up being perceived as being shy and timid.
“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.- Thoreau
GIFTS AND MISDIAGNOSES
Unknown to most, intensity is a universal characteristic of gifted children and adults (Lind, 2001; Tucker & Hafenstein, 1997). Your immediate reaction on seeing the word ‘gifted’ might be to cringe. It is a loaded term in our society and is misunderstood by most. The traditional definition of ‘giftedness’ has been limited, often associated only with IQ, or traditional talents such as music or sports. The reality is, there are infinite forms of extraordinary abilities not captured in the conventional conception. Many emotionally intense people, for instance, possess a high level of interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, and spiritual intelligence. Many scholars now agree that giftedness is best defined as ‘ the potential for exceptional achievement’; with the right kind of support and nurture, this potential can be realised.
In terms of neuroscience, intense people might have innately higher neural interconnectedness. For them, sensory information reaches the brain much faster than the average, and the information is processed in a significantly shorter time, which contributes to intense intellectualising and hypersensitivity to the environment (Siaud-Facchin, Jeanne, 2002).
Since intense people are much more aware than most to issues in themselves and the world, they are true game-changers of the world. To the extent people have intellectual overexcitability, they are likely to question, evaluate, an scrutinise the existing system. Their rigorous search and passion for learning also allow them to synthesise knowledge drawn from various sources, providing a rich source of creative material. Their imaginary OE will enable them to envision how things might be, and paint a picture that is outside of most people’s imagination. Emotional OE makes them sensitive to issues of morality, feeling into others pain inform them meaningful changes that are needed. Finally, psychomotor OE propels them to take actions, and provides them with stamina and motivation, often expressed in bouts of intense work and creativity.
People with overexcitabilities are endowed with greater potential and awareness, but they are also more prone to emotional and interpersonal crisis. The intellectually intense child who eagerly blurts out answers in the classroom is considered disruptive; their inability to sustain attention on what they are not interested in is deemed to be defiant. As an adult, their enjoyment of solitary intellectual pursuit or having to be alone because true peers are no available might be misinterpreted as being aloof, arrogant, a social recluse, or even clinically ‘schizoid’.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have realised their gifts, or have supportive family and friends to affirm their identity of being a cultural misfit. Without knowledge and awareness, having an operating, that is ‘out of sync’ cause shame and inner turmoil.
Unfortunately, health care professionals often handle brain difference in a narrow fashion. To apply labels and diagnoses to people, clinicians and therapists have relied on standardised manuals such as the DSM, or rigid protocols. Overexcitabiities are incorrectly diagnosed as mental disorders. If you are intense, your high energy might be interpreted as ADHD, intense emotions as Borderline Personality Disorder, bouts of creative obsessions as Bipolar, perfectionism as OCD and their existential depression is mistaken as clinical depression.
Of course, people who were born intense and sensitive are not immune from medical disorders. However, the natural characteristics of intense people can look like pathology even when there is not any. Being able to see these traits and behaviours more accurately would help us to tackle them more efficiently.
ARE YOU SAYING I AM “SPECIAL”?
Being associated with being gifted, you may ask: Am I really that ‘special’? Are you suggesting that I am superior in some way? Does this further alienate me from those around me? I do understand the fear of your power, and of losing belongingness. Here is a more useful way of thinking about it: We all have our unique blueprints and trajectory in this lifetime, and everyone is being gifted with specific qualities to do certain things in the world. Maybe you are qualitatively different from someone who is less intense, but that does not make you any better or worse. As Alan Watts poignantly puts: “In the spring scenery there is nothing superior, nothing inferior; flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long. From this standpoint, you see, everybody is seen to be a perfect manifestation of the Godhead or of the void or whatever you want to call it.”
When you are born into the world with a fast brain, fierce passion, the ability to see things penetratively and to feel things deeply, you ought to embrace them. As your body already knows, suppressing your expression leads to existential guilt, depression, restlessness, physical pain and chronic emptiness. In other words, you don’t have a choice but to follow where your intensity leads.
You are both unique, and interconnected with everything else in nature. In nature, there is no superiority and inferiority. All things, beings, are unique as it is.
“Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars”. —Serbian Proverb
CHALLENGES FOR THE overexcited
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 intense souls
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
finally, A LETTER TO THE INTENSE ONES
For a long time,
You might have resented the fate of being a misfit.
You wish it could all have been easier, that you were able to fit in, feel belonged, and have less anxiety.
However, it is not up to you whether or not you are born a conformist.
If you could rest with an ‘easy life’, you would have.
If you could give up on your quest to live honestly, you would have.
You did not choose your fate.
You did not set out to be a rebel, but hypocrisies hurt you.
You did not opt-in to be a black sheep, but you are not winning in the dog-eat-dog world.
You did not choose to have a fast brain, a soft heart, a complex mind and a sensitive body;
But it is now up to you to work with what you are endowed.
You were once disempowered, confused, and shamed.
But you also have all the power from here on, to take the matter into your own hands.
It is on you, to nurture the wounded child that was once ostracised,
to honour your gifts while accepting your flaws,
to set healthy limits with friends and family,
to find other misfits, and kindred spirits that offer you courage and solace,
to say no to the ‘shoulds’, and say yes to the ‘wants’,
and finally, to compassionately kiss the socially- complaint facade goodbye, and embrace your truest innermost nature.