Dąbrowski developed a general theory of personality development to account for the differences he observed in the behavior of people. During his youth admist World War I and later during his harsh experiences in World War II, Dąbrowski was exposed to the lowest human depravity and as well, some of the most heroic acts imaginable. He later explained that he wrote his theory because he could find no theory of psychology that could adequately explain these paradoxes in human behavior.
While attending college in the 1920s, Dąbrowski was deeply affected by the suicide of his best friend and decided to devote his life to psychology and psychiatry. In 1929 he completed a thesis on suicide and in 1937 published a manuscript on self mutilation which already included the concept of hyperexcitability (Dąbrowski, 1929, 1937).
While mainly working as an academic and psychiatrist, Dąbrowski studied a wide range of individuals he identified as showing advanced personality and character development. For example, Clifford Beers, Yuri Gagarin, Sir Edmund Hillary, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Abraham Lincoln and Dag Hammarskjold. Eventually, Dąbrowski developed a theory with five descriptive levels, spanning from the lowest behaviors observed to the highest and he developed an explanation of how development occurs through positive disintegration.
In his studies of personality, Dąbrowski found that most of these advanced individuals had a life history of high levels of conflict with society and internal conflicts that led to strong psychoneuroses — strong anxieties, insecurities and depression. These individuals also displayed a strong tenacity to express and develop their individuality (third factor) along with hyperexcitability, a term later evolving into overexcitability. This overexcitability expressed itself as a heightened response to stimuli and a lower threshold to stimuli, resulting in intense experiences that contributed to psychoneuroses. Dąbrowski went on to identify a number of factors he felt necessary to precipitate advanced development and he collectively referred to these as developmental potential. The experiences, emerging from developmental potential, create the internal conflicts Dąbrowski saw as necessary to push internal development forward.
A basic premise of Dąbrowski’s theory is that most people commonly experience an initial primary integration characterized by the adoption of prevailing social standards and mores. The average person accepts and lives by these external social mores with little question or conflict. Spurred by developmental potential, exemplary individuals come into conflict when their developing internal values and perceptions clash with the external views and mores they had previously inculcated. These individuals go through periods Dąbrowski described as positive disintegration that challenge and eventually disintegrate the primary integration and lead to periods of deep reflection and soul-searching. Positive disintegration culminates in the emergence of an internally generated hierarchy of values, aims and goals. Ultimately a unique personality ideal emerges, representing the kind of person the individual wishes to strive to become. Advanced development is described as a secondary integration characterized by a comfortable adherence to one’s own unique values, goals and ideals.
A key aspect of development is the emergence of the inner psychic milieu and of subject object. At lower levels of development an individual is guided by external social forces and roles and his or her perception is predominantly in the subject state. The individual can rarely see past his or her own needs and desires. As development proceeds, an appreciation of the other as object emerges, leading to acceptance of the legitimacy of the other and eventually the ability to reverse subject and object roles occurs. This is a key aspect of development because when the individual is able to see the other as subject he or she develops empathy, both for the other individual and for humanity in general. This undermines the individual ego and promotes a very authentic, alturistic identification with humanity. At the same time, the individual learns to see him or herself as others see him or her — as object, and this casts a new light upon one’s behavior and priorities. The inner psychic milieu and third factor also emerge and become prominent forces. The inner psychic milieu shifts one’s attention toward one’s inner life, one’s thoughts, imagination, and emotions. The locus of control shifts from outside to within. An individual becomes conscious of the importance of emotion as the basis of individual values and in directing one’s behavior. This allows an individual to shape his or her personality (Dąbrowski, 1967) to conform to his/her personality ideal, inhibiting those aspects that are less like one’s idealized self and enlarging and creating those aspects that are more like one’s idealized self.
As part of his integrated approach, Dąbrowski made diagnosis and therapy a priority and he developed an approach he referred to as autopsychotherapy, characterized by encouraging an individual to develop self-insight, to experience and learn from depression and crises and to take charge of his or her development.
Interested in the "correlation between outstanding abilities, personality and psychoneurosis," Dąbrowski studied approximately 250 "gifted children and young people" (see Dąbrowski, 1967, 1972). Dąbrowski found that these children exhibited hyperexcitability and sets of nervousness, neuroses and psychoneuroses of various kinds and degrees of intensity. Dąbrowski subsequently hypothesized that "a high-level of general and special abilities correlates positively with mental disequilibrium, nervousness, neuroses, and psychoneuroses."
As mentioned above, Dąbrowski saw a correlation between personality development and special abilities and talents, a component of developmental potential. He developed the hypothesis that those with exceptional abilities and talents — the gifted — would display significant developmental potential including features like overexcitability and, in some cases, the operation of the instinct of self perfection. He also hypothesized these individuals should display neuroses and psychoneuroses, the hallmarks of the process of positive disintegration and hence, eventually, advanced personality development.
The application of Dąbrowski to the field of the gifted began with Piechowski’s introduction of overexcitability as a feature of gifted children (Piechowski, 1979). This publication stimulated a flurry of subsequent work in the gifted field specifically looking at overexcitability, one component of Dąbrowski’s concept of developmental potential.
In an excellent presentation, Ackerman (1997) reported the results of her study of 79 students using Piechowski’s overexcitability questionnaire. She found psychomotor, intellectual and emotional overexcitability discriminated between gifted subjects and nongifted in some 60% of her group (some 60% were identified as gifted and displayed some overexcitability). An additional 35% displayed overexcitability but were not identified as gifted, leading Ackerman to suggest that these individuals had been missed by conventional gifted measures and, on the basis of their overexcitability profiles, these students should be classified as gifted. Another group of some 24% were identified as gifted but did not display increased overexcitability.
Pyryt (2008) reviewed the research findings on overexcitability and the gifted and concluded that gifted individuals are more likely than those not identified as gifted to show signs of intellectual OE, but based upon the research strategies and testing done to date, the gifted do not consistently demonstrate "the big three," intellectual, imaginational and emotional OE. Pyryt (2008) concluded, "it appears that gifted and average ability individuals have similar amounts of emotional overexcitability. This finding would suggest that many gifted individuals have limited developmental potential in the Dąbrowskian sense and are more likely to behave egocentrically rather than altruistically" (p. 177).
In summary, based upon the research done to date, the relationship between overexcitability and the gifted appears to remain unclear or largely unsupported. The relationship between developmental potential, as Dąbrowski described it, to the gifted remains to be tested as does the relationship between psychoneuroses and the gifted and positive disintegration and the gifted.
— Ackerman, C. M. (1997). Identifying gifted adolescents using personality
characteristics: Dąbrowski’s overexcitabilities. Roeper Review, 19(4),
— Dąbrowski, K. (1929). Les conditions psycholopique du suicide. Geneva.
— Dąbrowski, Casimir (1937). Psychological basis of self mutilation. (W. Thau, Trans.) Genetic Psychology Monographs, 19, 1-104.
— Dąbrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping through positive disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
— Pyryt, M. C. (2008). The Dąbrowskian lens: Implications for understanding gifted individuals. In S. Mendaglio (Ed.). Dąbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (pp. 175-182). Scottsdale AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.