Emma: Welcome to Positive Disintegration Podcast, a framework for becoming your authentic self. I am your host, Emma Nicholson. I’m a business analyst who uses business tools and techniques to explain the Dąbrowski theory on my YouTube channel, Adults with Overexcitabilities. I write the Tragic Gift blog and I’m the technical director of the Potterversity podcast. Joining me today is my co-host and our resident expert on positive disintegration, Chris Wells, a Dąbrowski scholar, researcher, and therapist in private practice. Welcome, Chris.
Chris: Thank you.
Emma: So Chris, you’ve been on podcasts before, but this is your first shot at doing your own. How do you feel?
Chris: I have been on a couple of podcasts and I’m excited about finally doing one myself with you and having the opportunity to really dive deep into Dąbrowski’s theory.
Emma: I’m also excited about this, not only to talk about Dąbrowski’s theory, but this is the first time I’ve been really front of house, I guess for a podcast. I spent a lot of time doing editing and it’s exciting to be in front of the mic, I reckon.
Chris: Well, I’m very grateful for your technical expertise and yeah it should be very exciting to be in the front of house, finally.
Emma: Also on this podcast, I think one of the exciting things is it’s, I guess not your mama’s psychology podcast, we’re hoping to do something a little bit different.
Chris: Yeah, I agree, that’s a good way to put it—that it’s not going to be your typical psychology podcast because we’re just going to take a different approach. I think it’ll be a little more informal than people expect.
Emma: Yeah. I think informal is a good way to put it. And if people hadn’t noticed by the explicit rating, I think it will be different to some of the content out there.
And so his dissertation, his medical degree dissertation or thesis from 1929, was about the psychological conditions of suicide. And then his doctoral thesis for his PhD in psychology was about the psychological bases of self-mutilation. This is where the theory came from—from his attempts to understand nervousness and what he would call positive disintegration.
hen he first described unilevel and multilevel in his Polish work, in 1949, he talked about unilevel as fan-like. Like a [handheld] fan that you open up and spread out, but it’s just on one level or one layer. And so for multilevel, it’s really like there’s a sense of depth to it that you don’t get with unilevel, which is interesting because I think that depth is a really excellent way to think of that difference. The more advanced you are in this theory in terms of levels, which we’ll get to, the more deep you are. More [depth] in terms of consciousness, you have an emotional depth, an intellectual depth, an imaginational depth. You think about how all of the overexcitabilities kind of play into your developing personality. All of these elements come together. So he talked about multilevel and multidimensional as your experience of life compared to a unilevel experience of life or reality, which is really on the surface of things. And that’s where most people are.
Really, I think hierarchization is probably one of the first dynamisms that you reach in that first multilevel phase, but the third factor is an advanced version of hierarchization. If hierarchization is the sorting out process, then the third factor is the dynamism where you’re not only making a conscious choice, but you’re acting on it. It’s not only intellectual. It’s also your actions and who you are in the world.
Chris: Well, what distinguishes Dąbrowski’s theory from other theories that are stage theories, is that his isn’t a stage theory and it’s not a natural progression from one stage to another, that goes along with the lifespan. So, it’s non-ontogenetic, meaning that it’s not unfolding as natural development. And so that means it’s very individual, and not everyone goes through it. And even the people who do go through it have pretty different experiences of it, well, very different experiences. There are parts of it that are very similar, of course, the dynamisms. The dynamisms help us see where people are in terms of levels. Dąbrowski outlined five levels of development. Primary integration is Level I. Unilevel disintegration is Level II. Spontaneous multilevel disintegration is Level III. Organized or directed multilevel disintegration is Level IV and then secondary integration is Level V. And so you have two levels that are integrations, and you have three levels of disintegration in between. There’s absolutely no guarantee that a person is ever even going to go through unilevel disintegration. Most people accept the external values around them and they remain in an integrated state for their whole lives. And they never have the shake-up. Statistically, the majority of people don’t ever reach multilevel disintegration.
In Dąbrowski’s theory, the lower levels are more egocentric and that’s what marks them. You’re not thinking about other people. You’re thinking about yourself. In this theory, as you grow and develop and reach higher levels, you’re working and living beyond worrying about yourself. You’re caring about other people. You’re making a difference in the lives of other people. It can’t only be about you. If it’s only about you, you are not a higher level person.
into this particular framework in this big picture?
Overexcitability predated Dąbrowski’s theory. He is not the one who coined the term, but he saw it more positively than his contemporaries. Overexcitability is a heightened responsiveness, and a lowered threshold to stimuli. And so, people who are overexcitable react more strongly to stimuli—from both the inner and external realities—more strongly than other people, than typical people who don’t have overexcitability. And so, Dąbrowski looked at it in five ways: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional.
And within each of these five types, he of course saw them as having different levels. And so, there are levels of overexcitability. You can have them in combinations and strengths that vary, but basically, it’s this experience of overexcitability that keeps you from being able to adapt to your surroundings or adapt to reality. People who have overexcitability find it very difficult to, for instance, sit in a classroom and learn the way that other kids in a classroom learn. If you have overexcitability, it’s harder to be in the world. And so, this creates conflict. It creates conflict externally and internally, and this is what causes disintegration.
It’s this experience of having a heightened responsiveness to stimuli. It’s very difficult to live with. That’s why he called it a tragic gift. It’s a blessing and a curse. It presents challenges, but it also presents the way out of the challenges. And it’s part of the growth process. Overexcitabilities are actually the raw material that can become the dynamisms.
I’ve always sort of seen overexcitabilities as living life with the amp cracked up to volume 11. So, everything sort of coming in from the outside world is extremely loud and everything going on inside your own head is extremely loud. And personally, I can see how that causes a bit of inner conflict. And when you’re talking about kids in a classroom, I guess that heightened sense of nervousness and always sort of taking in things from the world and taking in stimuli, it could be confused for other things.
It’s true, but we are going to have to do a whole episode on that because I think that overexcitability is a very broad construct in that within it, there are a lot of different phenomena that we would now label using diagnostic criteria. So, what I’m trying to say is I think that the experience of hyperactivity that you would see in ADHD is the same thing as psychomotor overexcitability, but psychomotor overexcitability is much broader than simply hyperactivity. It’s more than that. It’s not that you would be misdiagnosed with ADHD. I would say that if you have ADHD, you probably have overexcitability and you will do well to learn about this theory because it’s going to create these challenges that will lead to disintegration.
But I think it’s going to be such a blessing to be able to talk about overexcitability and the theory and share it with people outside of the gifted community. Because right now the only people, on the whole, who’ve been exposed to overexcitability are those who came to it from the world of gifted education. But it’s so much bigger than that.
It sounds like this is a huge framework and we’ll clearly be going over this in future episodes in a lot more detail for people. It kind of gives us a good segue into, how did you actually come across this theory? And what was your personal interest in it? You’re talking about people in gifted education. How did you yourself come across Dąbrowski’s theories and what’s your personal interest in it?
: I came to Dąbrowski’s theory when I was doing a personal research project and trying to understand my past. I was in my early forties. And I was trying to understand my history as someone who had been identified gifted when I was a child, but I had been given different diagnoses in adulthood. I saw myself as mentally ill. And that’s really the crux of what I was trying to understand, because I had learned the term twice exceptional, and twice exceptional means that a person is gifted and there’s another exceptionality that is a disability.
Well, until I learned about twice-exceptionality, I thought that I wasn’t gifted anymore. I saw myself as mentally ill. And when I came to Dąbrowski’s theory, it was very clear to me that he was saying that I had completely misunderstood myself. And the things that I thought were mental illness were not actually mental illness.
That’s got to be a big revelation.
Yeah, exactly. It was pretty earth-shattering for me. And at first, I rejected it. I mean, when I first came to it, I started reading about it and I was like, you know what? I am not going to rethink being mentally ill. I had finally accepted it. I was doing this project because I wanted to fight stigma and help people embrace themselves as kind of, I don’t know, like, it almost feels ridiculous to talk about it now because what was I trying to do? Help them embrace being defective or broken? I think that’s part of the problem, is like we get diagnosed with, well, a variety of things.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD, panic disorder, all sorts of things, really. Too much to talk about now, but no one ever gave me the impression that these things were going to get better. I expected to have to take medication my whole life. I assumed that I would always be in the care of a psychiatrist. Well, Dąbrowski’s theory changed my whole life because, well, I don’t take medication anymore and I don’t have a psychiatrist and I don’t consider myself mentally ill. But if you had told me in 2014, when I first started reading about this stuff, that this would be my reality now, I would’ve laughed at you. I would’ve thought that you were crazy.
That’s a big thing to get your head around, particularly right at the point where you’ve sort of gone, right, I’ve made peace with who I am. I’m okay with my lot. And then someone comes along and says, you know what, maybe there’s nothing wrong with you at all.
Seriously. And Dąbrowski, his main thesis is that psychoneurosis is not an illness. So, he believed that it wasn’t that you had a defect. It wasn’t that there was a brain disease, it wasn’t that you were going to need to treat this for the rest of your life. He saw these as disintegrations that were just periods of falling apart and then rebuilding. And it didn’t mean that you were defective and broken, but unfortunately, in modern psychiatry, you end up feeling like you’re broken.
Our system is broken. I’m excited to be able to bring these ideas to a wider audience. And that’s why the idea of doing a podcast was so compelling because there are things that we can talk about in this format. And we can bring these ideas to an audience in ways that you just can’t quite do when you’re writing about it. Or I don’t know, if I’m just a guest on a podcast, it’s just not enough.
And I’m glad you’re going to have this opportunity to bring this message to a lot of people. What resonates with me with your story is that idea of being defective. And when I first found out about Dąbrowski’s theory, I immediately thought of the tale of the ugly duckling, who I rather than call ugly, like to call the aesthetically defective duck. Because you feel like you’re defective and my experience was not as, I guess I didn’t have the mental illness diagnosis that you did, but I’d sort of struggled through a lot of my adult life. When you’re a child that does quite well at school, and then your life ends up going off the rails—you question whether or not you are gifted. And to be honest, the word gifted, and to Google it to look for solutions, would not have occurred to me whatsoever.
You’re just a bit different. That can make a big impact to people’s lives.
I think that’s why I’m kind of interested in taking some of the more complex parts of Dąbrowski’s theory and making it a bit simpler and putting it out there for people to find because I know there’s probably a lot of people like me. You said you came across the theory in your forties, and I was the same, and there’s a lot of people out there still waddling about their lives, thinking that they’re a defective duck.
Yes. Too many, really. It’s not easy to convince people who feel that way that they’re wrong. I think that it’s really, it’s got to be a process of self-discovery and that’s what’s so powerful about coming across these ideas. It can’t just be us telling someone—our listeners—that, well, you’ve made these mistakes about yourself. You have to come across it and see it. I don’t know, see yourself in it, I guess. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I mean, I say that as somebody who now—I’ve had years of watching people come across this theory and having similar revelations to what I had, and it’s amazing to see it. It’s really incredible. And it still feels incredible to me. I write a lot and I know that you write, too. We are journalers, and when you document your experiences and you can go back and read about them, and see the changes that you’ve been through, it’s really quite incredible.
: I think the more you do work on it, as you said, you have to do it little bit by little, but the more you come to grips with yourself and particularly breaking down those socializations of, I’ve always been taught that I was a defective duck. I am not a duck. The more you work through that, I think the easier the process does become. And then it sort of speeds up and you can make quite rapid progress in a reasonably short, well, couple years isn’t all that short. But in the scheme of a lifetime, it’s short. And if you’re thinking about, you’ve gone through a couple of decades thinking that you’ve broken a couple of years’ worth of works, like nothing in comparison.
Yeah. I think so much of it is like you’re finally in the light after being in the dark for so long. And so, once you have the light, or once you have this illumination and you have this awareness that alluded you before, and you can make so much more rapid progress, I guess that’s part of it.
Well, it’s really hard to fix a problem that has no name and you’ve got no frame of reference for it. Part of what helps is having this information about the theory, having the information about what is positive disintegration, why am I going through this stuff? What are overexcitabilities and why do I kind of feel different? It goes a long way to helping you on that journey.
It’s true. And so, yeah, I’m looking forward to getting an opportunity in our upcoming episodes to break it down and help people understand what disintegration looks like at different times in your life. How it looks in kids versus adults. How it looks in teenagers and also just bringing in other people will be fun and other ideas. Our first guest is going to be Bill Tillier. And Bill was a student of Dąbrowski’s when he was at the University of Alberta. And so when Bill was young, in his twenties, he met Dąbrowski and his colleagues, Marlene Rankel, Michael Piechowski, and others. So, it’ll be fun to have Bill on the show with us because he’ll be able to talk about what is positive disintegration from his perspective. And he’ll be able to talk about Dąbrowski’s influences.
I really hope that we can have a conversation with Bill around the philosophical underpinnings of the theory, because that’s very important. Dąbrowski was very much a phenomenologist and he was very deep. It’ll be good to have Bill chat with us about all of these little aspects that he can shed light on. And Bill is an archivist. It’s thanks to him that we have the Dąbrowski materials, the way that we do. And he has the positivedisintegration.com website. It’ll be fun to have him join us.
I’m also looking forward to having Bill on and some of the other guests, I think, obviously you being in the Dąbrowski community have access to. I’m looking forward to going along on a learning journey, just as much as everybody listening to the podcast. Because I don’t have an academic background and I’m looking forward to learning from these people. And hopefully turning the conversations into something that will help other people like me, who don’t have that academic background, get a handle on what the theory is and what it can mean to them.
I think it’ll be great to have people on who can talk about their work and make it more accessible because most people aren’t academics. I happen to know a lot of academics because I work with them.
: That’s what you do for a living.
It’s what I do, right. Although I have to say, I fight the idea that I’m an academic because I’m not a professor. But I do have my PhD and I do academic work. I just don’t get paid well for it or have an institution backing me. I think a big part of my work has not only been studying the theory and reading and doing research, but relationship building and getting to know the people in the Dąbrowski community. And for me, that’s been the most rewarding part of it. Building relationships and getting to know Bill and the people that I work with here in Colorado at the Institute for the Study for Advanced Development. But also Michael Piechowski. Michael is my mentor. I hope that he’ll come on the show too, but he is not yet committed to it. So we’ll see.
He’s podcast shy, is he?
: He’s podcast shy. But I think that maybe once he listens and sees what it’s like, he’ll be maybe more willing.
I think it it’s going to be not only a good forum to bring those different parts of the Dąbrowski community together, but let people disagree. I’m all for science and I’m all for questioning what is, and having polite disagreement and opening up discussion to a range of opinions on things. So, I’m quite looking forward to seeing what’s going to come out of this.
: Me, too. I’m very excited that we’re doing this and I’m grateful to you because if we didn’t have your technical expertise, we wouldn’t even be bothering to try to do this. So, thank goodness for Emma.
: Technical expertise gifted to me through the Harry Potter fandom, it’s probably a good time to give a shout out to Potterversity and our producer. So Katy McDaniel, Emily Strand, and Laurie Beckoff, who are all at the Harry Potter conference in Chestnut Hill giving academic talks. And I’m quite jealous of them at the moment. Being able to participate in that because I am quite the nerd.
That sounds like fun. I wish I was at the Potter conference right now. I mean, I’m glad that we’re doing this, but that does sound like a good time, honestly.
: Yeah, there’s unfortunately like 15,000 kilometers between me and the conference. So, you know.
Yes, that’s true.
You’re not getting there in a hurry.
: Yes. That is quite the barrier.
Apart from Harry Potter. Which we’re not going to talk about, is there any particular topics that you are excited to talk about personally that you’ve got planned for us?
Oh, yes. Oh my gosh. There are so many topics that I’m excited about.
Start bringing out the whole frigging list, Chris.
I’m not going to read the whole list. Well, I’m looking forward to exploring topics in depth for one thing. I think that we really need to take the time to look at the levels in terms of the way that Dąbrowski set them forth originally, but also in light of all that’s been learned since he did that. I want to dig into the controversies that surround the theory. I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret that there’s been kind of a rift between Bill Tillier and Michael Piechowski. Well, why? What went on? I’ve spent a lot of time exploring this stuff and I want to help other people learn what I’ve discovered, and what’s come out in my work because it’s been really important for me to get to the bottom of all of this stuff.
So, there’s been no easy way to share. And I’m looking forward to that kind of thing. But I also want to talk about overexcitability—why there’s been such a backlash against it in the field of gifted education. Why there are academics right now who are basically saying that we shouldn’t be talking about it anymore in gifted ed. Why has that happened? Why are they saying that? All of this stuff deserves to be discussed.
That’s fine. Don’t talk about it in gifted ed. We’ll talk about it here instead. I get very incensed when they say, let’s throw overexcitability. I’m like, Hey, I identify with that. Leave it alone.
Seriously. One thing that I think is funny is how many—well, hang on, I don’t want to talk shit. It’s really something to hear academics say that they’re scientists and that overexcitability isn’t scientific. And so we should stop talking about it. That’s not how science works. There’s been decades and decades of research on this construct. And so we’re just going to throw it out because there have been some problems in how the research has been discussed in one small field. It boggles my mind.
I’m pretty sure that’s not how science works and I’m not even a scientist.
Right, let’s just shut down the conversation. Let’s not bother exploring it any further. That’s definitely how it works. I have a paper coming out at some point with my co-author Frank Falk, and we looked at the origins and conceptual evolution of overexcitability. We went way back before Dąbrowski and investigated how it was discussed. So, I think that it’ll be fun to have one episode where we talk about overexcitability and where it came from and how it ended up in the situation that it’s in right now, and point to where it should go in the future.
It’s hard because this theory—it means so much to so many different groups of people. You have people like me who came to it from thinking that I was mentally ill, and you have people who come to it from a more spiritual perspective, and you have people who come to it from gifted ed. There are so many places the theory’s been discussed that I think that we could do this podcast for years and years and not run out of topics.
: I think you’re right about that. To be honest, even the brief list that we’ve put together so far, there’s so much content on there and there’s so many people to talk to and I’m excited to help you get your teeth sunk into it, to be honest.
I’m grateful for you. I have really hoped for a place to talk about the theory, and I had thought about making videos. I’ve written about it, but my writing about it is very academic. And so I’d realized that I’m not reaching a broad enough population with it. It’s pretty narrow.
: People like me who don’t know what they’re talking about.
: Who don’t want to read that kind of work. I get it, it’s not fun.
I read Bill’s book and his book is really an easier breakdown of Dąbrowski’s stuff and getting through that. I thought I was going to cry. And I’m like, no more textbooks, please. So I’m grateful for you, too, because it’s like having my own personal tutor that I can get lessons from. And all I have to do is sit here and have a chat and do some editing at the back end. So I think the plan for us is to have these episodes coming out near the end of the month. And hopefully those will be the ones that we have our guests appear on. But I think you and I might be doing a few more background episodes in between. We’ll throw a few little bonus things in there, and some of these topics just to help everybody get a better handle on the theory and give people the groundwork for it.
That’s right. That’s the plan.
It’s not like we’re doing a podcast on Star Wars where everybody knows the canon already and all the material. We’re starting from scratch.
: Yes. And now that you’ve said that, for sure, we need to do a bonus episode where we talk about what is canon, and what’s outside of canon, and kind of give people an overview of what materials out there. Where you can find it. What it all means. Because there’s a tremendous amount of work out there related to this theory. Certainly, not all of it is canon. So, I think it would be good to do that and clarify it for people.
Awesome. Well, I’m much looking forward to it and I’m looking forward to getting this theory out there. So, thanks for joining me today, Chris, on our first episode, it’s been awesome having a chat with you.
Thank you, Emma. It has been awesome. And I am extremely grateful.
: Time flies when you’re chatting about Dąbrowski.
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