Conferencias 2017 | Linda Silverman

Emotional Development of Gifted Children Theory of Positive Desintegration

Dr. Linda Silverman is one of the world’s greatest experts in giftedness, a field in which she has been interested for 55 years, having evaluated no less than 6400 gifted children. Silverman is a clinical psychologist and director of the “Gifted Development Center” in Denver, Colorado, as well as one of the leading specialists in focusing more on the emotional aspect of giftedness. This will help many people who could not be identified with the earlier methods. Her lecture in Asturias would be pioneering for being the first conference of Linda in Spain.

Silverman define giftedness as a psychological reality that has little or nothing to do with the high achievement or professional success, as many people still think …

In her book “Counseling Gifted and Talented” (1993), Linda talked about giftedness as follows:

Intricate thought processes and complex emotions are held in delicate balance in the gifted individual. Idealism, self-doubt, perceptiveness, excruciating sensitivity, moral imperatives, desperate needs for understanding, acceptance, love—all impinge simultaneously.”

An American student made these revealing words, in 1978, from his inner experience as gifted:

We are not “normal” and we know it; it can be fun sometimes but not funny always. We tend to be much more sensitive than other people. Multiple meanings, innuendos, and self-consciousness plague us. Intensive self-analysis, self-criticism, and the ability to recognize that we have limits make us despondent.

This means that giftedness is not about academic or professional achievement, as is often thought. This would be only the external perception of the phenomenon so that the internal part of the giftedness would be hidden. Linda focused precisely on this inner side that has to be discovered, and which is still unknown for many people, to be able to get its bright side. The concept that giftedness creates unique inner experiences is not universally accepted. When giftedness is defined as high achievement—the exterior—the interior is obscured. When we see giftedness from the inside out, the inner world of the gifted is illuminated. Giftedness, then, becomes who you are, not what you do. And It’s a lifelong condition.

Gifted people see the world differently, which leads them to feel misunderstood in many occasions. Very few people realize that feeling out of place is the main experience of the gifted … Being more sensitive, empathic and having higher emotional development will make them feel different. Indeed, they will be true outsiders when breaking the established molds and this in a society that signals, and distances, all those who leave the norm, will cause them to be at risk of not being able to develop their abilities…

In this way, the gifted population represented the mirror image of children with learning difficulties, in the well-known Gaussian bell. Like them, they will be two or three deviations (sometimes three or four) with difference to the average, represented by blue zone: although in this case it will be to the right, instead of to the left. Like the children with learning disabilities, they will function differently, comparing to the others, and they will also have special needs. In fact, their abstract reasoning is unusual, in addition to being more intense, emotional and sensitive. This makes it essential to identify them as soon as possible, so they can develop properly. Since birth, there are traits that can indicate us the giftedness. Whenever we look closely at…

* The gifted represent approximately 2.15% of the world population. There are two or three deviations above the normal intelligence (IQ 100, approx.) the ones with moderate giftedness (IQ 130+) and high giftedness (IQ 145+). In the case of people with exceptional giftedness (CI 160+) and profound giftedness (IQ 175+) the difference would be of four, and five, deviations. The greater is the deviation, the greater is the functional difference with the others …

In order to detect gifted people, we use IQ tests, which have proven that giftedness has not conditioned with gender, race, or social class. Although the percentage of gifted among the upper classes may be higher, there are many more gifted children among the lower classes because the poor far outnumber the rich (Zigler & Farber, 1985). So far, only those gifted people who had had great academic and professional results were identified. But this would be like seeing only the tip of the Iceberg, while the vast majority is hidden in the depths of the sea. In this way, many talents are faded by their lack of detection and nurturing…

Giftedness is a dragon that can only be seen by those who can conceive of dragons. Many educators and academics mistake the tracks—visible achievements—for the beast itself. If one notices that there is something special about a child and conveys a glint of recognition, the sleeping dragon within may awaken and begin to breathe fire into this person’s soul. (Linda Silverman, The Sleeping Dragon).

Unfortunately, “Our children are taught to don masks before they recognize their own faces. They are made to put their tender, pliable forms, into prefabricated shells”(Elizabeth Drews, 1972).

Schools should end with this ignorance and begin to appreciate and nurture these differences so that these people can be what they are. Many of the problems that beset the gifted can be traced to the lack of awareness, understanding, and acceptance of the differences inherent in being developmentally advanced. It is emotionally damaging to be unacceptable in the place one must spend at least 6 hours nearly every day for 13 critical years of one’s development. These children only need to be accepted and understood. Instead of teaching to the lowest common denominator, schools need to become safe places where individual differences are appreciated and nurtured.

Now, we will focus on the innner world of the gifted thanks to Dabrowski…





          Kazimierz Dabrowski was a Polish psychologist who studied many children and creative adults, realizing that there were some morally, and emotionally, developed individuals who would be characterized by the following features:




-Likely to withdraw rather tan retaliate

– “Heroic” in their sensitivity

Dabrowski believed that the growth and evolution of civilization and culture creates more complex problems which can only be handled by people with a correspondingly advanced level of psychic complexity Indeed, giftedness would be characterized by greater intensity and complexity (Ellen Fiedler). Unfortunately, his ideas would not be taken seriously until a few years ago …

Elizabeth Mika, in 21010, defined three areas of development among people, based on the writings of the Polish psychiatrist:


  • Little Developmental Potential
  • Fits the statistical norm
  • Fulfillment of biological and social imperatives
  • No attempts at conscious self-transformation
  • Underdevelopment of emotional functions


  • One strong talent
  • Some potential (e.g., intellectual) is well developed
  • The rest remain undeveloped

-Global (Universal) and Accelerated

  • Strong Developmental Potential
  • All cognitive and emotional functions develop with equal intensity
  • Self-aware and conscious direction of one’s own development
  • Positive disintegration

Positive Disintegration(1965) was the way in which Dabrowski had called the evolution of the individual, where internal conflict would be indispensable to step forward. In this way, his theory would discover five levels of individual development:

Level 1: Primary Integration

-One dimensional

-Self Serving: “What’s in it for me?”

-Value money, status, fame, image, power

– Little impetus for growth

–No inner conflict: all conflicts are blamed on others

-May appear charming until another has needs that conflict with own needs

-Limited by rigid psychological structure

Level 2: Unilateral disintegration

-Two dimensional



– Second factor (at mercy of the environment)

– “What will people think of me if…”

-Lack of an inner scale of values

-Follow leaders who are sure of themselves

-Disintegration leads to reintegrate on the same level

Level 3: Spontaneous Multinivel Disintegration

-Multi-Level Development

-Third Factor (driven by self-development)

-Inner conflicts (dynamisms of shame, guilt, astonishment with self, etc.) leads to higher development

-Inner hierarchy of values

-Aspires to becomes best self

–Caught between “what is” and “what ought to be” in oneself

Level 4: Organized Multilevel Disintegration




-Subject-object in oneself


-“What ought to be will be and I will make it so.”

–Level of most of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualizers

Level 5: Secondary Integration

Secondary Integration

-Full development of the personality

-Pure compassion

-Dedication to service

– No inner conflicts

-Love of humanity

-No regression

-The level of saints and true spiritual leaders

In 1979, the Positive Disintegration would be introduced and translated into the Anglo-Saxon world, and the study of giftedness, thanks to Michael Piechowski in the book “New Voices in Counseling the Gifted”. Dabrowski said that people with greater emotional intensity would be those who would have easier to reach the more advanced levels of individual development. This emotional intensity would be called by him as “Overexcitability”     Piechowski would define the Overexcitability (OE) in the following way;

Cognitive complexity, emotional sensitivity, heightened imagination, and magnified sensations combine to create “a different quality of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding—a way of being quiveringly alive”

OE is A greater innate capacity to respond to stimuli. The overexcitabilities can be thought of as an abundance of physical, sensual, creative, intellectual and emotional energy, which cause inner turmoil, but can result in creative endeavors as well as advanced emotional and ethical development in adulthood.

Dabrowski identified five channels of heightened experience or “overexcitabilities”:

* Marked in bold those traits that can be more negative and problematic

Psychomotor(P) OE:

-Rapid speech

-Marked excitation

-Intense physical activity

-Pressure for action


-Compulsive talking

-Nervous habits


Sensual(S) OE:

-Enhanced sensory pleasure—seeing,     smelling, tasting, touching, hearing

-Delight in beautiful objects, sounds of words, music, form, color, balance


-Buying sprees

-Wanting to be in the limelight

Imaginational(M) OE:

-Free play of imagination

-Frequent use of image and metaphor

-Facility with fantasy

-Imaginary companions

-Mixing of truth and fiction

-Low tolerance of boredom

-Need for novelty and variety

Intelectual(T) OE:

-Avid reading

-Probing questions (They ask “why?” to everything…)

-Keen observation

-Detailed visual recall

-Independence of thought (sometimes very critical)

-Preoccupation with logic

-Thinking about thinking

-Love of theory and analysis

Intellectual OE is not the same as high intelligence. Although they are correlated, you can be highly intelligent without intellectual OE. Cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional depth and sensitivity. Thus, the gifted not only think differently from their peers, they also feel differently(Silverman, 1993). That’s the reason why doctor said that the gifted are “too” everything: too sensitive, too intense, too driven, too honest, too idealistic, too moral, too perfectionistic, too much for other people!

These would be some common questions that gifted people will hear from others…

“Why do you make everything so complicated?”

“Why do you take everything so seriously?”

“Why is everything so important    to you?”

Emotional(E) OE:

-Intensified, complex feelings and emotions

-Strong somatic expressions (e.g. tense  stomach, blushing, sweaty palms, etc.)

-Powerful emotional expressions (enthusiasm, ecstasy, affective memory, anxiety, guilt, depressive and suicidal moods)

-Capacity for deep attachments and relationships (difficulty adjusting to newness)

-Compassion and empathy

Dabrowski thought emotional OE was the most important of all because he believed that empathic, alltruistic, and that kind of people were the ones who could make this world a better place. This made him feel very fond of individuals with these traits. Unfortunately, empathy is a handicap in a world that is blind to cruelty and apathetic to injustice. In this way, a young child who has heightened emotions coupled with advanced cognitive awareness of the suffering and perils of the world feels helpless and afraid.

As the Polish psychologist predicted, recent international studies have shown that there is a clear relationship between OEs and giftedness. These OEs are also the ones that allow us to observe the inner world of the gifted. Research has also shown that OEs differentiate gifted and non-gifted people in many respects. Statistically significant differences… and medium effect sizes for OE scores have been found in almost every sampled comparative study.” (Winkler & Voight, 2016). So, It would be evidenced that Dabrowski was right, in his theories, although previously not many people would consider them. These studies, called QEQ-II; would be carried out by Big Five personalities on 11 occasions and would be translated into 7 languages. In Spain, they would be made in 2006 by Raquel Pardo de Santayana. 

The Big Five Model supports the existence of OEs in the gifted “It is openness to experience which relates the most to giftedness.”(Gallagher). Indeed, “there is some overlap in their overall structure, especially the rough match between intellectual, imaginational, emotional, and sensual overexcitability with Ideas, Fantasy, Feelings, and Aesthetic facets of Openness to Experience.” (Gallagher, 2013)

    Unfortunately, OEs can be confused with mental disorders such as Sensory Processing Disorders(SPD), ADHD, Dyslexia or Asperger’s. To be certain, look for the positive descriptors of overexcitability. If you see negative aspects, it is essential to rule out other causes of overlapping symptoms. To respond to these symptoms, you should try to avoid medication, whenever possible, as this can kill the gifted by eliminating their particular way of feeling. It is much more recomended to apply other methods such as:


-Allow movement in learning;

-Try protein every two hours;

– Create a beautiful environment;

-Give children experiences in nature;

-Provide a quiet place to retreat;

-Employ fantasy and imagination;

-Mindfulness training;

-Community service projects;

-Challenging work!

A great book to understand OEs would be “Living with Intensity” (2009), written by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski.

The Columbus Group definition of giftedness is an outgrowth of Dabrowski’s theory. Asynchrony comprises several inter-related components:

-Advanced cognition,

-Heightened intensity,

-Uneven development,

-Unusual awareness,

-Feeling out-of-sync,



Gifted children develop more asynchronously than others, and often feel unable to relate to age-mates. When they are forced into a mold that doesn’t fit, they begin to experience their differences as deficits. Advanced, asynchronous development is not an advantage in a race toward personal gain. It does not give the individual an edge in the competition. The cognitive and personality traits that comprise giftedness are disadvantages in a society in which those differences are not valued.

Kirkegaard has been quoted as saying that we all come into this world with “sealed orders” and we each must discover what those orders are and follow them. Gifted individuals come equipped with the exact combination of unusual strengths and weaknesses – the perfect asynchrony – to fulfill their own secret orders. All who interact with gifted children must understand their unique characteristics and overexcitabilities.  Then these children can learn to appreciate themselves and develop their own unique paths. 

Instead of being valued only for what they can produce, the gifted need to be cherished for who they are and the unusual ways they think and feel. See them. Nurture their gifts. Believe in them so that they can believe in themselves…


Iker Feixa