Episode 54: Navigating the Tides of Change

Positive Disintegration at Gift-a-Palooza 2024

Chris Wells & Emma Nicholson 

Release date: March 11, 2024

Episode 54 features the presentation Chris and Emma gave at Gift-a-Palooza 2024, a virtual summit with more than 45 speakers on the topics of giftedness and neurodiversity. This was our first time presenting together, and we had a great time. We edited the audio from our discussion of positive disintegration in gifted adults. The Q&A isn't included.

If you’re reading this on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform, please visit the show notes on Substack for the slide images.

This first slide is Emma’s representation of the process of positive disintegration. [From the transcript] Emma: “When you think you know who you are, everything starts to fall apart. You can go through a process then of sorting things out and trying to reshape. It's a little bit like pulling apart Lego bricks and rebuilding yourself, figuring out what goes at the top and what goes at the bottom… Disintegration's not just a linear, straight-through process. You don't just go step one, two, three, four, five. Through your life, you will get moments where new informational circumstances will come in and it can start that cycle of development again.”

The next slide gives insight into values. From Emma: “When we think about what values are, they are the principles or the standards that we have in place for ourselves that drive our behavior, But they're based on what we see as important in life. So, you can see that little diagram I've got. You've got everything that you believe to be true in life and what your priorities are… Based on that, you then build out standards for yourself of how you think you should behave. And then your behaviors come out the back of that.”

At the 08:30 mark of this episode, Chris tackled the difference between the unilevel and multilevel processes.

On the next slide, we offered an overview of the dynamisms, which can be defined as inner forces that shape and direct our development. At 15:22, Chris described the overexcitabilities as the raw material for producing dynamisms.

The path to authenticity represented by a strutting cat.

From Emma: “[The path has] got to be self-created because you're the only one who can define what you believe, what's important to you. So then, what are your values? You're the only one who can truly say who you are authentically inside… Think about what's important to you, think about what you really value, and then look at your behavior and say, am I walking my talk? And if I'm not, what can I do to change that to make sure that I am behaving in a way that aligns with my values?”

From Chris: “The heart of this theory is inner transformation. It's what the dynamisms are all about: helping you shape yourself into who you're meant to be, who you want to be… One of the beautiful things about positive disintegration is that it can be a creative process of self-development based on your values.”

Just after the 25-minute mark, Chris and Emma began discussing their own experiences of positive disintegration, represented by this Disintegration Timeline.

We had a blast presenting together at Gift-a-Palooza, and we can’t wait to team up on July 11, 2024, at the Dabrowski Congress for a 90-minute workshop called “Walking Your Talk: How to Define and Live Your Values.”

Click here or go to https://dabrowskicenter.org/DC2024 for more about #DC2024.

Links from this episode

Positive Disintegration on Substack

Adults with Overexcitabilities on YouTube

Michael’s book Mellow Out

2024 Dabrowski Congress

Gift-a-Palooza 2024 recordings are still available from Gifted & Thriving.

This transcript was shared first on Substack.

Chris: Welcome to everyone who's with us. It's great to be here with you today for Gift-a-Palooza. I'm so excited to present with Emma for the first time. We’ve done more than 50 podcast episodes together, but this is our first time presenting.

Emma: It's very exciting.

Chris: It is very exciting. So much so that my heart [rate] is elevated. I'm feeling my overexcitabilities in action right now. My name is Dr. Chris Wells. I'm a writer, researcher, and Dąbrowski scholar. I'm a licensed social worker. My doctorate is in psychology. I'm President of the Dąbrowski Center and co-host of the Positive Disintegration Podcast with Emma.

Emma: Yeah, I am excited to be here, too. I'm Emma Nicholson and I am a business analyst in Sydney by day and by night, I guess. I am the Vice President at the Dąbrowski Center and co-host of the PD podcast. I also blog and make YouTube videos about overexcitabilities and the theory at my website, Tragic Gift.

Chris: I'm going to kick us off by talking a little bit about Kazimierz Dąbrowski and who he was. Dąbrowski was a psychiatrist and psychologist who lived from 1902 to 1980. His early work showed his interest in suffering. His medical thesis in 1929 was about the psychological conditions of suicide. His PhD thesis in psychology was on “The Psychological Bases of Self-Mutilation,” and there's an English version available from 1937.

That early work showed how he felt that nervousness could lead to what he called positive disintegration, which is a breakdown of your existing psychic structure. There are two main types of disintegration. One is called unilevel. The other is called multilevel. They can coexist. We'll get into that later.

People who are gifted, intense, and sensitive often experience positive disintegration because they have a nervous system that is more likely to produce what he called dynamisms, which are at the heart of the process. This slide really reflects the most positive potential outcome of this process. It doesn't always happen this way, where it's a positive disintegration. It can also be negative.

You can see here in this diagram that Emma created that you start off with who you think you are or what we've labeled here: the structured self. Then, through this process of loosening and fragmentation—there is the disintegration—and the processes that are part of that. Dissociation is one kind of process that can be part of a positive disintegration. I'm not sure that it always is part of it, but it certainly was for me in my life. And when you're in the disintegration, that is really where the dynamisms come into play.

Emma: This is my little imagination working and imagining the process. I guess when we're talking about disintegration, as Chris said, it's that loosening of stuff. So, when you think you know who you are, everything starts to fall apart. You can go through a process of sorting things out and trying to reshape.

It's a little bit like pulling apart Lego bricks and rebuilding yourself, figuring out what goes at the top and what goes at the bottom. I guess the reason why that little loop is in the middle, as we'll talk about later, is disintegration's not just a linear, straight-through process. You don't just go step one, two, three, four, five. Throughout your life, you will get moments where new informational circumstances will come in, and it can start that cycle of development again.

So, anything that causes you to question yourself or rethink who you are, most of us have been through moments like that in our lives. It describes a process of how your structures change, but I think it's important to know that it's not just a straight-through. You do it once, and you're at the end, and you're perfect. It is really a cycle of growth.

Chris: Totally. I've been through disintegration so many times, which we'll get into a bit later. Now, we are going to move to values, and I'm going to hand off to Emma for that.

Emma: One of the things that stood out for me with the theory is that Dąbrowski, when he talks about what is disintegrating, talks about rethinking your values and who it is you're really supposed to be, and then acting in alignment with that.

So, when we think about what values are, they are the principles or the standards that we have in place for ourselves that drive our behavior, But they're based on what we see as important in life.

You've got everything that you believe to be true in life and what your priorities are—that's what you see as important. Based on that, you then build out standards for yourself of how you think you should behave. And then your behaviors come out the back of that.

Between those levels, there can be misalignment. If you aren't living life in accordance with your own values—you're not walking your talk, you're doing what society tells you to do and not what you feel in your heart—there can be conflict and tension from that. Or you can get a misalignment at those bottom levels of what's important to you.

If you get new information, which expands your horizons, or maybe you go through an experience or some sort of traumatic event, you can start to question, well, what is really important to me? Some people go from being very career-focused, and then one day something happens, and they go, why is money really that important to me? And so when those things get knocked out of alignment, everything that makes up what is arguably your identity starts to come loose. And that's really what is driving that disintegrating process.

Chris: If you don't mind, I want to mention that for Dąbrowski, from Poland—when you think about how values were so important to him and were a part of this theory, and he was born in 1902, so living through two World Wars in Poland—the things that he saw and how he saw the whole range of values in people.

Values are a huge part of the theory. It always goes back to who he was and the time he was living in, and yet these issues are so similar now, just in different ways. These problems are patterns that seem to repeat themselves generation after generation.

Emma: I think to that, Chris, too, the events that he was living through made him wonder about, well, how can some people go through this event and come out more self-aware and more empathetic, more empathetic and more worldly. Some people go through it and come out crueler and harder. So, it's not just the event itself. It's how the individual responds to what's going on in their life and how they reshape themselves. That's important.

Chris: Definitely. Now, I'm going to tackle the two developmental processes, unilevel and multilevel, and explain in a nutshell what the differences are between them.

There's no hierarchy of values in unilevel disintegration. The process takes place on one structural and experiential level. So, a person in this kind of disintegration doesn't have a clear sense of higher and lower behavior.

There are three dynamisms in unilevel disintegration: ambivalence, ambitendencies, and the second factor. Ambitendency means self-sabotaging behaviors or behaviors that are at odds with each other—conflicting. The second factor is susceptibility to social influence, worrying about what other people think about you.

These three dynamisms don't have the force in them to drive development. They can lead to really bad things, addiction, severe mental illness, and suicide. I will give you some examples from my own life later on this.

The unilevel process is automatic, with only weak self-awareness. Problems and conflicts are recycled and not necessarily resolved because there's no clear way out. Somatic issues can be seen in unilevel disintegration, where your conflicts become problems in your body. This could be ulcers, migraines, and a host of other issues.

The multilevel process is very different, and it doesn't emerge naturally from the unilevel process. One important thing to understand about this theory is that it's not ontological, so it doesn't happen the same way for everybody or naturally unfold throughout the lifespan. Everyone's experience is different, and some people may have a unilevel disintegration that never transforms into a multilevel one.

The hallmark of the early multilevel process is inner conflict. This is where value conflicts come to the fore. The first phase of this disintegration is spontaneous. It can feel unpleasant, difficult, painful, and like you're losing your mind. It's also more conscious, and you have more awareness of what's happening than you would with the unilevel process.

If the first part of the disintegration is spontaneous, later, it can become more organized and directed. It contains the structures at that point in the processes to allow you to rebuild and refashion yourself into an authentic personality.

How can we tell which of these processes is active? It's in the dynamisms.1

You can see the three unilevel dynamisms I mentioned.

These multilevel ones can be in precursor form before they become full dynamisms. They can have different strengths. Guilt is a great example of this. You can have a lower-level kind of guilt that isn't transformative—where you're like, oh, I feel bad that I did that, but not bad enough to do anything about it. Or you can have guilt where you are moved to make things right after you've done something wrong.

Emma: I think you're right on that. When we're talking about that whole process of pulling your Lego bricks apart and rebuilding, unilevel is—all your bricks are falling apart. And you're like, you know what? I have no idea where these things are supposed to go. And that's why it's unilevel. There's no clear higher or lower.

But the reason why, in the picture of the swamp, I said it could look like expanded horizons is that maybe you've got new information that's making you question what you previously believed or what your values were before. And you go, oh, wow, maybe I've been thinking about this wrong.

But it can also look like, as Chris said, self-sabotaging and conflicting behaviors. Maybe you're going to choose the wrong path, or maybe you're not going to choose anything at all and sit and stagnate. And then that multilevel when it's prompting you that conflict to try and rebuild. So, put your Lego bricks together in a new order.

Sometimes, those feelings like guilt or being dissatisfied with yourself and having those negative feelings that showed you what the wrong path was that you were walking. Sometimes, they can urge you to do something new and to reshape yourself. But sometimes, they can immobilize you with those emotions as well, even when you're in multilevel processes. Sometimes, you can just sit there and do nothing about it.

I went through a period of negative disintegration where I just let the emotions crush me and didn't do anything. But I think that's why, we've got the tools on the other side of the slide. So these are the higher dynamisms that Dąbrowski called out that said, hey, there are actually things you can do in these situations, stuff that you can apply consciously that will help you sort through this stuff, that will help you figure out what are your true values, what's more like you, and then figure out how to walk that talk.

Chris: Now, we're going to connect the dynamisms with the overexcitabilities, because this is the raw material in a person that can produce the dynamisms.

We won't discuss them in depth today. However, if you want to learn more about overexcitabilities, you can listen to the podcast. [Start with Episode 2: Overexcitabilities and Pseudoscience.]

The book Mellow Out, by Michael M. Piechowski, is my favorite place to read about them. Emma has videos about overexcitability, so there are plenty of places if you're unfamiliar.

There are five types. Emotional overexcitability—that's what brings the emotionally charged dynamisms of spontaneous multilevel disintegration: dissatisfaction with yourself, disquietude with yourself, inferiority toward yourself. All of these dynamisms have an emotional basis to them.

The more cognitive ones, the “tools” on the right side of the previous slide, are more intellectual. This is why the theory applies to the gifted: while not all gifted people have these five overexcitabilities, they're quite common in the gifted population. If you have multiple strong overexcitabilities, you have a more intense experience of reality if you also have advanced cognitive abilities. It's common for gifted people to be harsh [with themselves] and overly self-critical, and there's a direct connection there with the multilevel dynamisms.

Emma: This intense experience of the world, I always say it's like—everybody's playing their guitar, right? But when I'm playing my guitar with overexcitabilities, I've got my amplifier turned all the way up to volume 11. When life is very rich, very loud, complex, and multifaceted, which, as a gifted community, I think a lot of us can relate to, you see life in a different way.

Whether or not you're looking at what you've been taught as right and wrong and the way the world should be, and you can see it differently. And you think that maybe that's not the path for you, or you're experiencing emotionally very, very strong dynamisms that drive you to change that behavior. Or intellectually and imaginationally, you're thinking, hey, you know what? I could be a better person. Maybe there's a better path out of this.

Maybe you're dreaming of a better reality for yourself. We can see how that leads us into that path of prompting us to follow that developmental process, whether or not we're successful at actually navigating that on our own is a completely different thing.

I think Michele Kane [Episode 14: Relationships and Vulnerability] put it the best way when she said some people, they get the standard eight-pack of crayons, and they're just coloring with one color at a time. Some of us have the entire Crayola 64 box with the sharpener included, and we've often got eight crayons at the same time in life and coloring away.

I think that stronger, richer experience of everything that we get in and everything that we experience in our own minds will actually prompt us to self-reflect and to look at ourselves. It's basically trying to tell us to follow that path.

I think this is why this tool can be so powerful for the gifted community: whether or not we know how to navigate our way out of it, we're probably feeling things. If you don't know about the framework, it doesn't mean you're not going to feel crushing guilt. It doesn't mean that you're not going to question the way the world works. So, I think this is why it's important to bring this theory to this community. Because we can get lost in the swamp. We can hide in a cave on that mountainside because many of us experience these overexcitabilities, and it's trying to tell us something to move forward. But sometimes, we don't have the compass or the equipment to navigate our way out.

Chris: Now that we've talked a little bit about what disintegration is, we're going to shift into how to move through it and get through it. So, walking your talk.

Emma: This is the compass.

Chris: This is the compass. The type of disintegration process that you're in dictates how you're going to move through it. Unilevel disintegration, by virtue of the fact that it isn't conscious and in your awareness, means it's more difficult to navigate in many ways because of that lack of self-awareness.

The lack of a hierarchy of values means you don't have a clear path or a direction forward. So, folks who are going through unilevel disintegration especially need an experienced guide to help them—to help them gain awareness, to help activate potentially multilevel dynamisms in them, which could already be present, like I said, in a precursor or incipient form.

Unilevel disintegration is tough because it often presents somatically. So much keeps us from moving in the direction we need to go. Another problem is that because the unilevel process doesn't naturally become a multilevel process, it's hard to say when or if that will happen. It's up to you to create that vertical shift. As I said, it can be something that comes to you emotionally. There are so many different ways this can look. Some people experience traumas.

When I talk a bit about my story, that was a huge part of my own history. Many different kinds of traumatic experiences, but you don't have to be traumatized to go through disintegration. We did a Quick Bite episode about this. There are other ways that disintegration can happen. Sometimes it's a shock.

Michael wrote a paper called Rethinking Dąbrowski's Theory II: It’s Not All Flat Here. He gave examples of people suddenly questioning authority or realizing that they were being told something that wasn't true. So, again, there are many different ways that this can happen.

But for people going through multilevel disintegration, it's critical to develop a program of change based on their own values. In Dąbrowskian terms, this would be called a program of autopsychotherapy and self-education, which is very individual. Those of us who've been through it can certainly offer strategies from our own lives. But again, it's up to each person to find what works for them and to create their own path. It is a self-created process of change.

Emma: It has to be self-created because you're the only one who can define what you believe and what's important to you. So, what are your values? You're the only one who can truly say who you are authentically inside.

So, it is reliant on you to be self-aware about how you're behaving. Think about what's important to you, what you value, and then look at your behavior and say, am I walking my talk? If I'm not, what can I do to change that to make sure that I am behaving in a way that aligns with my values?

Relationships are very important in the theory. When we talk about values and behavior, many things like empathy and kindness—it's all how we relate to other people.

You don't have to do it alone, even though your path will be unique to you. Find community, find a guide. Having the tool of the theory is enormously important. But recognize that it is a very long and sometimes continuing cyclic process. Things will happen to you throughout your life that might make you stop and rethink a few things.

Self-compassion is also really important. Part of this whole thing with the theory, and why we both love it, is that it's non-pathologizing and tells us, look—these big, uncomfortable emotions have a purpose. We are not broken. Once we understand that about ourselves, we can start to forgive ourselves for some of the things that have happened to us in the past and are happening to us now.

Chris: Yes, to all of that. The only other thing I wanted to say here is that the heart of this theory is inner transformation. It's what the dynamisms are all about: helping you shape yourself into who you're meant to be, who you want to be, and who you see yourself being.

One of the beautiful things about positive disintegration is that it can be a creative process of self-development based on your values. We talk so much about creativity and creating things outside of ourselves, but transforming ourselves can also be beautiful and creative. And that's what we will talk about now from our own experiences.

Emma made these timelines for us of our journeys, and I'm going to go first. I will share my story and attempt to connect some of the things that we've been talking about today with my lived experience.

For context, I'm 50 years old, almost 51. I grew up in Connecticut, in the United States. I was identified as a gifted kid, but I always felt very different from everyone else. It turned out that I had multiple kinds of neurodivergence, which is something that I didn't figure out until middle age. I think I'm still figuring out all the aspects of myself, but I've included some of my major disintegrations in this graphic.

The first one that I noted is the first one that I clearly remember. My early childhood memories are not accessible to me. I think my earliest memories are from four or five years old, but this first little volcano with “imaginal world”—that happened when I was seven, almost eight years old. I developed an imaginal world in my mind at that time.

I have a really strong imagination. I experienced it as a parallel existence to the one that I was living in this concrete reality. In that imaginal space I was living in, I imagined myself dying. My first experience of seeing outside of myself was watching myself trying to die by suicide in a variety of ways. That kicked off a long period of fascination with suicide, death, and also drugs.

When I think about gifted kids and their passions, it's sad for me to realize that my special interests when I was young were drugs and death. Of course, I had other things that I was interested in, but in my mind, I was constantly thinking about these things.

The next disintegration for me was in middle school, which I didn't include on here. I had other little disintegrations when I was young until high school. I had what I would consider the first growthful one, where there was a huge amount of growth from an experience that, to me, was very painful. I loved the school I was in. It was very hard for me to get kicked out, but getting kicked out led me to discover that I didn't want to be a vandal or malicious person.

The things I did to get me kicked out of school helped me realize how guilty I felt about the people who had been harmed. I felt that was a really important part of my path.

I've shared quite a lot on Substack lately about the huge disintegration I had when I was 20-21 years old, which I labeled here with “multiple traumas.” I've discussed the different traumas that I've experienced. During that time, I felt like I completely fell apart. At the time, it felt like a nervous breakdown. After that point, it was years of unilevel disintegration with bits of multilevel.

An interesting thing about my story is that in high school, I had a disintegration that had very clear multilevel elements and, at times, looked positive. Later, I had a disintegration that was unilevel and completely broke me down. I was hospitalized ten times between the ages of 21 and 25 for mental illness. I was diagnosed with a variety of diagnoses by numerous clinicians: depression, depersonalization disorder, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and other things. Many diagnoses and lots of mental health experiences.

There were also periods of drug addiction at that time. I was chronically suicidal for years. I was on disability for mental illness for more than a decade until I finally managed to turn my life around.

On this slide, that's the first multilevel shift. When I was 26, I experienced what I would call a moment of sudden dynamic insight where I finally saw in my mind that I didn't have to go to drugs anymore. I wasn't going to be a mental patient anymore. I realized that wasn't my path and that I could change myself. And I did. That was a first shift forward.

There was more trauma ahead of me, though. When I was 36, I went through another period of disintegration, and again, there were some unilevel elements. But I found that with age and experience—and autopsychotherapy through writing, meditation, and other things that I do, the periods of disintegration in my life shortened and became more manageable.

Finally, at 41—I was a doctoral student at the time—I discovered a research method called autoethnography. And that became, for me, the most powerful program of autopsychotherapy and self-education in my life. That was when I discovered the theory of positive disintegration. This led to the most dramatic multilevel shift I’ve experienced. During that time, I was exploring my past, trying to understand how I could have been such a seemingly hopeless mental patient for so long and not be able to find a path forward until I finally did. I was trying to understand what had happened to me. I was looking at myself as being somebody with giftedness and mental illness—how did they coexist? That's when I discovered the term twice exceptional.

That was a huge deal for me. Obviously, I mean, it brought me here to you, talking about this now. Honestly, it's so hard for us to talk briefly about this, but this was my experience. I was a mental patient. The Menninger Clinic questioned at one point if I was even treatable. That's the kind of person I was when I was in my 20s: addicted to drugs, on multiple medications. Now, I haven't taken medication for mental illness, and I haven't been to a psychiatrist since 2017. I learned how to create my own path and to find the tools that worked for me—to let the dynamism shape me and to take control of them. I love having the opportunity to bring the theory of positive disintegration to other people. Now, I will hand things over to Emma so she can tell you about her history.

Emma: I love hearing your story of progress and triumph. So, my story, in some ways, it's very different. Obviously, we're two different people. But I want to highlight, you can see, I've got a big one at the end, a big disintegration. The similarity I want to draw is the difference between finding a theory and making sense of myself.

So, I wasn't identified as gifted, but everybody knew I was a very smart child. That much was clear. I was also very overexcitable. But my emotions and my overexcitability—nobody knew the term for that. It was just seen as bad behavior. Every time I fidgeted, daydreamed, or let out a burst of emotion, I was being naughty.

On the one hand, my intelligence or my academic achievement was a good thing and I was praised for it. All the other emotions and stuff that went with it were never any good. I sort of lived along with this until I was about seven. And that's when my parents got divorced, and everything started to fall apart. I couldn't grieve. I got the whole, be a good girl for your mother. She's going through a very hard time. But no one seemed to recognize I was going through a tremendously hard time as well.

Back in the early 1980s, kids were expected to get along with their lives when these things happened. But I was falling apart inside. I was questioning fairness. Why is this happening to me? Wondering whether or not I was broken and if there was something wrong with me that caused my parents not to love me enough to want to stay together.

I was angry at the fact that I couldn't grieve. So, I was going through all this stuff, and it was very unilevel because, hey, I was seven. I wasn't able to figure this stuff out on my own, but it came out in all these somatic consequences. I got pneumonia. I had chronic bronchitis for many years. I was always a sickly kid after that. I had to adjust through that very prickly period with the cactuses you can see in my life [on the slide].

I then had a second disintegration when I was about 11, just before I started high school. And it was a good one. I started to question my largely Christian upbringing and started to wonder whether or not there was a God. I went through my first real process of actually sitting down and questioning myself and figuring out what was important to me. When I was in high school, I thrived there.

So, even though things were a bit prickly at first, my teen years were largely OK. But I got into my first serious relationship at the age of 17. And while it started OK—we were young and in love—it started to go downhill after a while. The relationship started to become abusive. And this is where I got stuck for a very long period of time in negative disintegration.

I had a lot of unilevel and multilevel dynamisms, and I couldn't resolve them. I was blaming myself for everything that was going wrong. I was doubting myself. I didn't know who I was. And I didn't handle it very well. I made a couple of suicide attempts, and I used a hell of a lot of drugs to try and cope with what was going on, not only in my life externally but what was going on inside my own head about myself.

The abuse got worse, so did the dynamisms. My brain was trying to tell me I wasn't living my life in a way that was really me. I wasn't being me, and life was just in the toilet for a very long, protracted time. Again, I thought it was because I was broken. I thought it was all my fault. I couldn't have healthy relationships because I was broken, and there was something wrong with me. But eventually, I left, and I went through a period of positive disintegration.

I started with a whole heap of debt and a couple of bags of clothes. I was living in my dad's caravan. I had no money. I had to sit down and figure out what was important to me and had to put some thought into my values because I didn't want to get into another bad relationship. So I'm like, I have to figure out what I really want in life and what I want in a potential partner because otherwise, I'm just going to go into another horrible negative spiral.

I started over, and for a long time, life was good, and it seemed all great on the outside. I found a new loving partner, and things were rosy, but there was still something inside of me that still didn't feel like it fit in. I still felt broken because as I progressed through middle age, I wasn't comfortable in the cookie-cutter white picket fence dream. Something was missing, and something was not right. I still felt like an awkward misfit in life. I still felt markedly different and didn't understand why.

But then the big disintegration came about four years ago. In Australia, we had some huge bushfires at the end of 2019, and there was absolutely nothing to do. Couldn't leave the house. So, I tried creative writing for the first time in my life, and it unraveled everything inside me. I was reaching into my authentic voice for the first time unconsciously, and all this stuff just came spewing out on the page.

I felt like my head was falling apart. So I did what we do in this day and age—I went to the internet for answers. I typed in something to Google like, why is my brain falling apart? And I accidentally stumbled across the theory of positive disintegration and overexcitabilities.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Here I was, looking at the computer screen like the ugly duckling in the fairy tale, looking at his reflection in the water. For the very first time in my life, I saw myself and understood that I wasn't broken. I read the term neurodivergent for the first time. I rediscovered the term giftedness. I found this theory that explained the things that had been happening to me throughout my entire life.

Since that moment, I've been using that tool to make sense of myself, make sense of my past, and slowly come to the understanding that I really am not broken. All the turmoil, struggle, self-doubt, and everything else that I've been through was my brain's way of prompting me to change and transform within myself. This is exactly why I then got onto YouTube: I thought I had this tool, and it helped me so much.

It's helped me understand all my dark days. It's helped me understand myself. I have to share it with others. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was doing a podcast with Chris, but in the meantime, it has been that long-ass process of discovery. I've been on the path ever since. I can tell you, my inner life has seriously, seriously turned around. Now that I have that compass to navigate life, it is a markedly different experience than any other disintegrations that came before it.

Chris: Thanks so much, Emma. I love hearing your story, too, and it just prompted me to think of a couple of things to follow up. That feeling like there was something wrong with me was with me my whole life until maybe the past ten years. I was always looking for that—what's wrong with me? Where are the answers?

Discovering this theory and finding out that it's not something wrong with you is incredibly powerful. I wanted to mention that I don't have the same imaginal world process anymore. Part of my recent disintegrations during these past ten years completely dismantled that particular imaginal process in my mind. Somehow, I integrated it. And now, I am just living in this one reality as one person instead of having this other experience of me in my mind.

It's amazing how different my life is now that I am just living as me. Gender was also a part of my recent disintegration process. Again, over the past ten years since I discovered autoethnography.

When I was a kid, the term nonbinary and the idea of gender diversity didn't exist [for me]. There was no option but to be a boy or a girl, and I never felt like I fit in that binary. I grew up not feeling like other girls, wondering what was wrong with me, but also not feeling like a boy. I never had any language to understand that about myself.

I don't remember when I first time discovered the term nonbinary. But when I did, I was like, oh, that's me. That's me! That word makes sense of this thing I've always experienced. It was amazing to finally not feel like I was a broken woman and have some other way of understanding myself.

That was another whole thing I had to go through. I'm married to a man. I gave birth to a child. It was a whole process of reconciling these things about myself and coming to some self-acceptance around this; it took lots of self-compassion. But wow, on the other side, I finally feel like I am my authentic self in every setting and situation. And it's amazing to be able to live that way. It's really powerful.

Emma: I think it's a combination of having the tools and realizing that you are not broken, but also understanding that the path out of this isn't moving away from yourself. It's about moving towards yourself. Because every other process I'd had prior to this, I tried to be less like me.

I know that there are many gifted and neurodivergent people out there who will resonate when I say you spend a lot of your life thinking that being happy is “normal.” So, what you do is you try and fit. You try to be the round peg in the round hole. You try to fit into the cookie-cutter mold because you think that's where happiness lies. You think that's where you're going to find your peace. And you keep trying to cram yourself into a box where you don't fit and then wondering why you're never going to be happy.

But as soon as you turn around, you're thinking of that and go, you know what? Hey, it's not me that's broken. Stop trying to fix yourself because you are not broken. Start to try to be more like you and not more normal; that's really the key, I think. If you're beating your head against a brick wall out there and trying to think that you'll be happy by being normal, no, you'll be happier by being more like you.

Chris: Even if it's difficult at first, you will [be happier]. You have to go through that whole process of learning to disappoint people because being yourself often means you're not pleasing other people anymore. So, there's an awkward time that’s uncomfortable, but once you get through it, it's the only way. This is the way.