Last updated on June 22, 2020
Many thanks to my friend and partner in crime, Kate Arms, for today’s guest post on highly sensitive people and overexcitabilities. These days I’m whipping between
staring into space complete overwhelm and plowing through various projects, so I deeply appreciate this guest post. That has been sitting in my inbox for four months a while. Never mind. Good post ahead.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) is not one of the more widely known or highly studied psychological theories, so people who become interested in the theory often wonder whether TPD can be mapped to other theories. One such theory is the theory of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), terms coined by Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron in the mid-1990s. On the surface, these terms appear likely to be related to Dabrowski’s concept of overexcitabilities. After all, they both have to do with sensory processing and sensitivity.
In Dabrowski’s theory, overexcitabilities are properties of the nervous system that result in more intense reactions to stimuli than average individuals have. He refers to both larger reactions to the same stimuli and reactions to subtle stimuli that do not trigger reactions in average people. These reactions create internal and external struggles, especially in the interaction of the individual with social norms and structures. Resolution of these struggles are the path of personality development.
Dabrowski identified five different clusters of overexcitability: emotional, sensual, imaginational, psychomotor, and intellectual. Emotional overexcitability manifests as a wide range of emotional responses to events and things. Sensual overexcitability may create a need for low stimulation or high stimulation of the five primary senses. Imaginational overexcitability includes the ability to deeply imagine things that don’t exist, whether future possibilities or fictions. People with psychomotor overexcitability are restless, on the go, and often have bursts of activity. Intellectual overexcitability is a passion for learning.
Dabrowski made a distinction between global and narrow overexcitabilities. Global overexcitabilities are associated with the entirety of a person, whereas narrow overexcitabilites are much more one-sided. Global overexcitabilities tend to lead towards positive disintegration and narrow ones tend to limit development.
In his work, Dabrowski distinguished between overexcitabilities and pathologies that develop as an individual fails to positively integrate having resolved these inner and outer struggles. Similarly, the Aron’s used their work to depathologize sensitivity. But were they talking about the same kinds of sensitivity?
The Traits of Highly Sensitive People
In The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Anon defines a highly sensitive person as having four traits described using the acronym DOES. D stands for depth of processing, O for easily overstimulated, E for emotional reactivity and empathy, and S for sensitive to subtleties.
Depth of processing refers to the amount of cognitive processing individuals do with each element of sensory input they receive. Highly sensitive people, according to Aron, tend to process information in more different ways than others. They relate and compare what they notice to more things from their past experience, see more patterns, and incorporate more data about inner and outer events as they process each stimulus. This does not have a direct correlation to any overexcitabilities. The closest might appear to be intellectual overexcitability, but intellectual overexcitability is about passion for learning and not about the process of thinking. The depth of processing of a highly sensitive person might however be part of distinguishing a global overexcitability from a narrow one. The wide range of data about the inner and outer context of a stimulus might lead to experience having a more whole-person quality than a more filtered data set.
A highly sensitive person is easily overstimulated, says Aron, because they get worn out by deep processing of all the different subtleties and nuances of a situation. As such, the characteristic of being easily overstimulated is a result of being sensitive to subtleties and processing all stimuli deeply. From the perspective of identifying an individual as highly sensitive or not, easily overstimulated is a useful aspect to identify because dealing with overstimulation is a common challenge for people who respond strongly to stimulation. However, it does not describe an innately different aspect of someone.
Emotional reactivity does initially seem to correlate with Dabrowski’s emotional overexcitability. According to Aron, highly sensitive people show greater emotional reactivity to both positive and negative situations than average. However, it is more complicated than it appears at first glance because of the way Aron fleshes this idea out. Not only do highly sensitive people have greater reactions generally, they have especially extreme responses to positive emotions. Aron interprets this as a form of motivation to improve situations. This motivational aspect of emotional reactivity falls into the realm of dynamisms in TPD. It is the conflict between the emotional content of the present and the imagined emotional content of the future that creates the motivation.
Similarly, the inclusion of empathy in the emotional reactivity element is related to motivation. According to Aron, when highly sensitive people are shown images of emotional situations, they show greater than normal activity in mirror neurons and greater activation of areas of the brain indicating desire to take action when they see images of their loved ones looking unhappy. So, this element of being highly sensitive involves not only strong emotional reactivity but also this desire to help when their loved ones are suffering. This goes beyond Dabrowski’s idea of emotional overexcitability as a property of sensory processing into a likely response.
Sensitive to subtleties has a clear parallel to Dabrowski’s sensual overexcitabilities. Aron discusses how such sensitivity can be in any of the five sensory input channels: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. However, in this category, she is only talking about the aspect of sensitivity that is related to being sensitive to small stimuli. This element of the highly sensitive trait does not include the unusually strong reaction to stimuli that most people would react to.
Overall, the traits of a highly sensitive person do not correlate well with the overexcitabilities presented in Dabrowski’s theory. The definition of a highly sensitive person does not include intellectual, psychomotor, or imaginational overexcitabilities, though psychomotor and imaginational excitabilities would impact the motivational aspect of emotional reactivity. And the move to help in the element of empathy would be increased if accompanied by psychomotor overexcitability. In addition, the depth of processing aspect of a highly sensitive person may not be related to overexcitabilities at all. The possible connection between global overexcitabilities and depth of processing would need to be studied directly.
Is the HSP concept useful when thinking about TPD?
If your interest in the Theory of Positive Disintegration is academic and intellectual, the differences between the definition of a highly sensitive person and overexcitabilities make the usefulness of one theory when considering the other minimal. However, one avenue that the HSP data suggests might be useful is looking at TPD outside gifted education. Aron’s definition of an HSP does not include several of Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities and excludes people who do not have the depth of processing. And yet, Aron indicates that 15-20% of the population fits her criteria as an HSP. The Theory of Positive Disintegration has found greatest acceptance within the realm of gifted education, a field that rarely claims to cover more than 10% of the population. This suggests that overexcitabilities may be far more prevalent than previously considered.
If your interest in the TPD is less academic and more because it helps you make sense of your own life, then the HSP concept may be useful for you to explore further if your experience fits that definition. There are many coaches and therapists who use the HSP concept in their work and specialize in helping people who identify themselves this way. There are many books and tools that have been developed specifically for working with these traits, and there has been research done on the brain activation and neurochemistry of reactivity in this population that you may find validating or informative.
Integrating the theory of positive disintegration with the tools for highly sensitive people may be particularly productive. In general, material for HSPs assumes that high sensitivity is a challenge to be managed. Adding the perspective from TPD that these challenges, when used as a source of positive disintegration and multilevel integration, are a force for personality development may give you the best of both worlds.
A Call for Clarity
Because the definition of sensitivity in the HSP material is precise and different from the sensitivity of overexcitabilities, using sensitive or sensitivity when talking about overexcitabilities may cause confusion. There is good reason to be precise when talking about overexcitabilities if you are trying to locate them within the developmental approach of the theory of positive disintegration.