The Inner World of the Young and Bright
Michael M. Piechowski
Abstract William James (1902) made the connection between intensity of charac-
ter (ardor) and moral action more than a 100 years ago. In the 1960s and 1970s,
when cognitive psychology supplanted behaviorism, moral development was seen
as development of moral judgment through reasoning. However, reasoning does not
guarantee that behavior will follow the dictates of reason. Behavior follows what
one believes and feels to be right rather than what one thinks is correct. Emotional
rather than cognitive development is the key to congruence between moral moti-
vation and behavior. Dabrowski constructed his theory of emotional development
from the study of lives of gifted and creative people. The theory provides insight
into emotional life of the gifted and into what motivates moral action.
Keywords Character development ·Emotional development ·Emotional gift-
edness ·Emotional intensity ·Emotional life themes ·Emotional sensitivity ·
Emotional tension ·Empathy ·Entelechy ·Extraversion ·Giftedness ·Imagination ·
Introversion ·Intuition ·Mirror neurons ·Multilevel disintegration ·Overex-
citability: psychomotor, sensual, imagination, intellectual, emotional ·Positive
maladjustment ·Psychological types ·Psychosynthesis ·Self-actualizing
14.1 Giftedness as Energy
Gifted children tend to be more active than regular children displaying higher en-
ergy level, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional. Prodigies are examples of an
extraordinary concentration of mental energy. The energy of the electric current in
the nerve tissue becomes interest, passion, sustained effort, perseverance, creative
119 Ski Ct., Madison, WI 53713, USA
D. Ambrose, T. Cross (eds.), Morality, Ethics, and Gifted Minds, 177
DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-89368-6 14,
Springer Science+Business Media LLC 2009
178 M.M. Piechowski
ﬂow, ecstasy, caring, compassion, or spiritual experience. A greater than average
intensity, sometimes very great and extreme, makes for experiencing life at a high
pitch. Countless sensations of extended range of hue and nuance, thoughts racing
and tumbling over each other, often on many tracks at once, memories, desires, and
a rich tapestry of feelings produce a multidimensional apprehension of the world,
one’s life and its possibilities.
The excess of energy Dabrowski called psychomotor overexcitability because it
has to be discharged using one’s muscles whether, for instance, to release the bottled
up steam after sitting still or throwing oneself into action. For example, a gifted 16-
year old girl said: “I get ﬁlled with energy when I need that energy. And, of course, I
release it by doing the thing that got me excited in the ﬁrst place” (Piechowski 2006,
p. 40). Psychomotor overexcitability differentiates between gifted and nongifted stu-
dents (Ackerman 1997; Bouchard 2004; Tieso 2007). Overexcitability stands for the
capacity of being stimulated to a high degree and sustaining it for extended period
Sensory experience for gifted children, and adults especially, tends to be of a
much richer quality because so much more detail, texture, contrast, and distinction
is coming into awareness. What is pleasant is liked with a passion, what is unpleas-
ant is disliked intensely. Dabrowski called it sensual overexcitability. For example,
in the words of a 16-year old: “I seem to notice more smells than a lot of other peo-
ple. I love dark, musty smells and earthy smells, herbs and things like that. I love the
smell of clean air in spring and tree blossoms and things and the smell of clean bod-
ies, esp. hair” (Piechowski 2006, p. 48). When sensual overexcitability joins with
emotional overexcitability, the experience becomes much richer and more meaning-
ful. For example, a 17-year old girl said, “I like yellow for it seems warm and full
of joy” (Piechowski 2006, p. 46). In an intimate relationship sensual and emotional
elements go together.
14.2 Intellectual Energy
Intellectual overexcitability is the characteristic by which gifted children are most
often identiﬁed. In a happy turn of phrase, Frank (2006) said that intelligence is
about the ability to solve problems, but overexcitability is about the passion for
solving them. When the emotional and mental energies meet, the mind supplies the
energy of sustained concentration while emotional energy drives interest (passion).
Interest is one of the basic emotions (Izard 1971).
Intellectual energy has certain consequences: relentless questioning, critical
thinking, and evaluation. For instance, gifted adolescents responded to the ques-
tion, What gets your mind going? by mentioning the irresistible attraction of
brain teasers, logical puzzles, theories and controversies. More signiﬁcantly, some
have mentioned “challenging anything accepted by society,” their way of resisting
conformity: “One good thing [is that] I try to think about my beliefs – politi-
cal and religious – so that I won’t believe things just because my parents do”
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 179
(Piechowski 2006, p. 64). This may lead to a crisis in families with rather strict and
orthodox religious faith or political adherence. Gifted adolescents are likely to ques-
tion the foundations of their faith, and may ﬁnd it wanting. To a highly gifted young
person doubts about beliefs present themselves almost inevitably, consequently they
may precipitate a crisis of worldview, in other words, a moral crisis.
The price of questioning can be twofold. One, in environments that do not
value questioning one quickly meets with resistance and even rejection. Two, self-
questioning may create self-doubt and the fear of going crazy: “I probably spend
too much time thinking about my own thinking, analyzing myself and analyzing the
p. 63). It may be interesting to note that the great Sir Francis Galton tried thinking
paranoidally and was startled how quickly he became paranoid.
Gifted children tend to have excitable imagination that is especially rich, abundant,
and surprising in creative individuals (Piechowski 1999). With imagination a whole
universe of unlimited possibilities opens up to us. Imaginal experience can be real
and remembered as such, “as if it really happened.”
The subject of invisible friends (imaginary playmates) has not received much at-
tention in gifted literature other than noting that gifted children tend to have many
more such companions than other children (Terman 1925; Hollingworth 1942/1977)
and that creative adolescents often keep them from childhood (Davis 2003; Piirto
2004). That children distinguish pretend play from everyday reality is well estab-
lished (Singer 1975; Singer and Singer 1990). However, the role of invisible friends
in social development, in gaining sense of competence and overcoming fears, though
studied in regular children, has not received much attention in regard to gifted chil-
dren. Imaginary companions usually are not secret but they do belong to the child’s
own world. Attempts on the part of adults to interact with them swiftly lead to their
disappearance by natural or unnatural means (Taylor 1999). Imaginary playmates
are real to the child and one may wonder whether the experience is accompanied by
sensations of sound, warmth, or touch that are felt. The answer is that it is.
Cohen and MacKeith (1991) examined 64 accounts of imaginary worlds. The
degree of elaboration – creation of histories, languages, multiple characters (in one
case as many as 282), and the early age when they are begun (six or seven or even
younger) – indicates that the young weavers of these worlds were highly gifted. The
experience of being in an imaginary world can be “as real as real.” For example: “I
also had a magic boat in my youth for a while. It had an outboard motor but I found
that too noisy. I’ve never been clever with engines and there were always problems
about petrol, so I discarded the idea” (Cohen and MacKeith 1991, p. 57).
Imaginary is usually taken to mean not real. But imaginary playmates and
imaginary worlds are lived with the full range of sensory experience and vivid
memory. The brain appears to make little distinction between something that is
180 M.M. Piechowski
vividly imagined from something that is experienced from an outside sensory input
(Damasio 2003). Therefore, to allow for the “as real as real” quality of experience,
a more ﬁtting term is imaginal (Singer 1975; Watkins 1990).
14.4 Emotional Energy and Funneling of Emotional Tension
Emotional overexcitability, manifested in a wide range of emotions and feelings,
addresses the passionate nature of gifted and creative people – their emotional
intensity. But it is emotional sensitivity that moves to compassion, caring, and re-
sponsibility. The signiﬁcance of deep and perceptive feeling lies in empathy as a
way of knowing, another little explored ability of the gifted.
Gifted children are often misunderstood exactly because they can be so greatly
stimulated and because they perceive and process things differently. Their excite-
ment is viewed as excessive, their high energy as hyperactivity, their persistence as
nagging, their questioning as undermining authority, their imagination as not paying
attention, their persistence as being disruptive, their strong emotions and sensitivity
as immaturity, their creativity and self-directedness as oppositional disorder. They
are the wild tall poppies that many forces conspire to cut down to size (Gross 1998).
The concept of overexcitability suggests that the overall picture of an individual’s
personal energy is worth investigating. Certain situations impede the natural ﬂow of
this energy. For a naturally active person inactivity leads to a buildup of energy,
which presses to be discharged. For a naturally active mind a boring day at school,
or at a meeting, has to be worked off by engagement in an intensely absorbing men-
tal task, otherwise sleep won’t come (Tolan 1994). Emotional tension also builds up
energy which then seeks release in nervous habits, sensual easement of tension (e.g.
drinking, eating, shopping, sex), or excessive worrying. Nervous habits and worka-
holism are a psychomotor way of funneling of emotional tension, the sensual way
lies in oral compulsions, among others (Piechowski 2006).
14.5 Emergent Themes
The varieties of expressions of each overexcitability have been collected from open-
ended questionnaires (Piechowski 2006). While quantitative studies are good for
group comparisons and catching general trends in the data, it is the content of
responses that reveals the quality of experience and features of emotional life
(Piirto 2004).1The expressions and manifestations of overexcitability have been
1Three different studies provided 158 OEQs (open-ended) with a total of about 5,000 responses
from 79 boys and 79 girls, ages 9–19; the majority were teens (??;PiechowskiandColan-
gelo 1984; Piechowski and Miller 1995). The ﬁrst study used an OEQ with 46 questions,
subsequently replaced by a 21-item open-ended OEQ.
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 181
listed in a number of sources (Cline and Schwartz 1999; Piechowski 1991, 2003,
2006; Piirto 2002, 2004; Silverman 1993).
The themes that emerged from review of the responses give a fairly good
picture of the many dimensions of inner life of gifted children and adolescents
(Piechowski 2006). A sampling of themes is presented in Table 14.1. Yoo and
Moon (2006) developed a 47-item inventory of problems identiﬁed by parents of
gifted children requiring counseling. Quite a few of the items in their inventory
Table 14.1 Themes in research on the inner lives of the gifted
Piechowski (2006) Yoo and Moon (2006)
Intensity and sensitivity Hypersensitivity
High personal energy – physical and mental
Funneling of emotional tension: psychomotor: nervous
habits sensual: eating, drinking, etc. intellectual: a mind
that can’t slow down imaginal: doomsday scenarios emo-
tional: excessive worrying (expecting the worst)
Sensual delights: appreciation increases with age
Intellectual energy interest as a basic emotion the role
of empathy in intellectual probing passion for ﬁnd-
ing and solving problems relentless questioning and its
consequences: resistance in others, self-doubt in one-
self testing assumptions and beliefs: adolescent crisis of
worldview spatial thinking
Imaginal experience is imagination valued or source of
annoyance? imagistic thinking, e.g., metaphors precise
visualization: spatial and vivid absorption: experiencing
with full sensory engagement communication with na-
ture invisible friends (aka imaginary companions) imag-
inary worlds how real is a self-created reality?
Emotional experience emotional intensity as “too much”
predominance of positive affect friendships transcend
stereotypes affectional bonds with family, animals, and
places the self in adolescence: elusive, fragmented, mul-
tiple, or conﬁdent sense of responsibility: the burden of
“the gift” being different perfectionism entelechy empa-
thy and a calling to action empathy as a way of knowing
triggers of conﬂict resistance to compulsion anger, in-
security, and self-consciousness coping with depression
coping with fears coping with death
Pressure to meet expectations
sense of being different perfec-
tionism conﬂict with teachers,
ﬁghting with peers noncompliance
anger/frustration depression isola-
tion, loneliness anxiety, fearfulness
recent loss/grief suicidal ideations
Typology of emotional growth rational–altruistic (“judg-
ing” or J) emotional–introspective (“perceptive” or P)
Emotional giftedness the high end of emotional intelli-
Spiritual giftedness facility for transpersonal experience
Multilevel development unilevel vs. multilevel develop-
182 M.M. Piechowski
identify similar themes, for instance, hypersensitivity, anxiety and fearfulness,
low self-esteem (self-doubt), pressure to meet expectations (burden of “the gift”),
perfectionism, conﬂict with teachers or classmates, noncompliance (resistance to
compulsion), depression, loss and grief (coping with death), and so on.
14.6 Intensity and Sensitivity
Emotional overexcitability is about what stimulates the person’s feelings and emo-
tions. It is further differentiated into emotional intensity and sensitivity. Emotional
sensitivity corresponds in many ways to emotional intelligence, the ability to per-
ceive and respond to nuances of emotion and feeling in others, in oneself, and in
group interactions. It may be so acute that it becomes hypersensitivity. Emotional
intensity (passion) is about the amount of energy being expressed. With some peo-
ple the intensity of their expression is so great that it may be felt as a pressure wave.
Intensity of concentration, and their passion for a subject or talent, distinguish gifted
children; as one of them said: “A passion is something that rules your life. You want
to know everything that there is to know and you want to be the best at it. An interest
is something that is cool, and you would like to know more, but if you don’t that’s
okay too” (Schultz and Delisle 2006a, p. 90).
Emotional life of the gifted encompasses so much that only a few selected themes
can be discussed (Table 14.1). In the responses to the OEQ positive feelings pre-
dominate. The dominant affect tends to be love, compassion, caring, optimism,
appreciation of beauty, and the like. Bonds of deep affection involve parents and
siblings, pets and favorite places, whether it is grandma’s house, an orchard, a spot
by the river, or backstage of the school theater.
The role of contact with nature in our emotional well-being has received very lit-
tle attention. With the worsening environmental condition of the planet and growing
urbanization, the opportunity for children to spend time in nature and explore it has
all but vanished (Louv 2005).
Younger children have much empathy for the natural world. They empathize with
a wilting plant, a tree whose limb is cut off, a crushed spider, and rise in indignation
against maltreatment of living things. We belittle it by calling it animism because
we don’t see the moral imagination of the child who identiﬁes with what is living
and seems sentient. This feeling is extended to stuffed animals or any objects of
which the child is especially fond. When we grow up we still do it, too, when we
identify with our car or piece of jewelry (Piechowski 2006).
Gifted adolescents describe friendships in terms of intuitive connection and
mutual understanding on a deep level. Friendships transcend gender stereotypes
and are as easily formed between boys and girls as between boys only or girls
only. Introverted and nonathletic gifted youngsters have a particularly difﬁcult
time ﬁnding friends – they are a minority (nonathletic) within a minority (gifted),
which may be further compounded by any degree of “geekiness” (Anderegg 2007;
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 183
Being intense is an ineradicable part of the gifted self. To most people being
intense means “too much,” creating an obvious challenge to ﬁnd friends of similar
level of intensity and passion. When asked how they see their own self (identity),
some said that their self is unknown, elusive, or hidden; some described themselves
in opposites. For example, a 16-year gifted girl said: “For every adjective I can
think of there is one that contradicts it entirely: artistic but can’t write neatly (so
you’ve seen), lovable, yet a bitch; shy but loud, mature but silly, calm but ‘spastic,’
together yet ready for a nervous breakdown” (Piechowski 2006, p. 174). Others saw
themselves as competent yet highly self-aware and weighed down by the burden of
“the gift.” For example, a 17-year old boy said this about himself (Piechowski 2006,
I am an existence perched in a precarious balance above the abyss of failure, sorrow, despair,
and everything else associated with people of misfortune. I am held up by a few slender
supports, among them self-conﬁdence and a few raw talents and abilities. Forces weighing
down on these supports...are the responsibility accompanying ability and the expectations
of others... . The supports have bent but not broken, dipping into the chasm, but always
rebounding with renewed strength.
Struggles with self-doubt, low self-concept, and lack of self-acceptance are com-
mon. In adolescence the self keeps changing – awareness of having many selves,
or even being split into a thousand fragments, is not unusual. It’s part of emotional
growing and developing one’s identity, which may be intensiﬁed in the process of
Because they are aware of the larger picture and their frame of reference may be
the whole universe, gifted adolescents may feel as a little “insigniﬁcant human speck
in the vast universe trying to make something of itself but will probably not succeed”
(words of a 15-year old, Piechowski 2006, p. 172). But they can also feel predestined
for their mission in life, an inner imperative called entelechy (Lovecky 1990). In
such cases the qualities of will and self-determination become prominent and will
clash with compulsory demands and authoritarian commands.
For gifted young people it is not always easy to admit being talented. The ex-
pectations of others for gifted children “to fulﬁll their potential” (as if one could
know what that is) create pressure that is an unwelcome burden, because already
one of the outstanding dominant traits of most gifted young people is a feeling of
responsibility. Expectations and pressures from others rob them of their own initia-
tive only to make the responsibility weigh all the more heavily on their shoulders.
They are well aware of it. The question, who owns “the gift,” is rarely considered
14.7 Sense of Fairness and Empathy: A Natural Response
The value of working for the common good is something gifted children understand
readily. One teacher of the gifted said this about the difference in teaching gifted
and regular students:
184 M.M. Piechowski
One thing I have not realized until I returned to the regular classroom was that gifted
students’ heightened ability to perceive connections meant that I extensively used their em-
pathy for others to teach broad concepts at a depth I ﬁnd difﬁcult to even start to address
with my current classes. The empathy made the abstract very personal. Most of my current
students cannot get beyond their own narrow world, and for some, not even beyond their
skins. (Frank 2006, p. 166)
Gifted children’s quick empathic response to the needs of others, their mis-
fortunes and tragedies has been well documented (Lewis 1992; Lovecky 1992;
Piechowski 2003; Roeper 2004, 2008; Silverman 1994; Waldman 2001) yet, ob-
viously, it is not true of all gifted children. The statement quoted above shows the
gifted students’ capacity for empathy as a way of knowing. Sense of fairness and
empathy are strong feelings that compel a person to act – to offer help when help is
needed, to oppose injustice, to redress wrongs suffered by innocent persons. It’s the
essence of moral action.
The capacity for empathy as part of gifted children’s intellectual makeup is some-
thing that deserves more attention. We have come late upon the knowledge that
rational thought is ineffectual without feeling. In a study of individuals who showed
a curious defect – an ability to solve moral problems through reasoning but inability
to respond to emotionally charged pictures of human suffering – a lesion was found
that severed the connection between the reasoning and feeling functions of the brain
(Damasio 1994). A patient with this type of lesion remains unimpaired on tests of
intelligence, moral reasoning, and the like. The impairment is revealed in the lack
of emotional response to human tragedy and the inability to arrive at a decision
when given the choice to exercise preference for, say, Wednesday versus Friday for
the next appointment. In Damasio’s view, this exposed the error in Descartes’ say-
ing “I think therefore I am” instead of “I feel therefore I am,” and, one might add,
“Because I feel, I can evaluate my reasoning.” Evaluation as a process of appraisal
involves feeling to decide that something is more desirable or less desirable than the
alternative (Bowlby 1969). Centuries of placing reasoning above feeling now seems
a pretty foolish enterprise since one cannot work properly without the other.
Tannenbaum (1998) pointed out that we tend to look at giftedness only in positive
light and that we leave out gifted people who do harm, whether on a small or large
scale. For a gifted person without emotional overexcitability there is no imperative
to feel compassion or to be moved to altruistic action. To be effectual, morals and
ethics need the engine of the heart. One-sided, harsh emotions like ambition, striving
for power, ruthless competition, a drive to win at all cost (without regard for cost
to others) can be found in gifted people lacking compassion and caring. There is
no lack of examples: a secretary’s of defense fascination with precision bombs, a
Nobel Prize winner making inappropriate remarks about female brains, ﬁnancial
whizzes and manipulators bringing ruin on thousands of people, amoral presidential
advisers, writers and ﬁlm makers depicting violence and evil for their thrill value,
and the list goes on.
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 185
14.8 What Causes Conﬂict for the Gifted
Being gifted inevitably leads to conﬂict. Gifted adolescents described their con-
ﬂict with those who brag, are insensitive and irresponsible. Clearly, these behaviors
offend their empathy, caring and sense of fairness. A frequently mentioned con-
ﬂict arises with teachers who do not accept students’ views, their knowledge,
and their questions, in short, teachers who do not show respect for their students
(Piechowski 2006; Schultz and Delisle 2006a, b).
Being forced to act against one’s will raises resistance to compulsion, a much
overlooked but very basic phenomenon (Seligman 1975; Piechowski 2006). Gifted
students, and the creative ones especially, react very strongly and viscerally when
they are denied choice and respect. Procrastination, refusal to work, as well as learn-
ing difﬁculties are born from this kind of resistance. Also being forced to adhere to a
belief one has not chosen. The students then assert, by any means possible, their self,
individual identity, right to be heard, respected, and given choice (Roeper 1998). In
such situations resisting to be dominated could be viewed as taking a moral stance
to preserves one’s integrity.
They have fears. Holding to a high standard for themselves they fear making a
fool of themselves. Those who are introverted and emotionally sensitive tend to lack
self-conﬁdence and suffer agonies when having to speak in front of an audience.
They fear not doing well, of not being the best (many are those who feel they have
to be the best), they fear failing in their responsibilities, not fulﬁlling their goals. As
one boy said, the list of possible failures is pretty frightening (Piechowski 2006).
They also think of death, a subject that has received too little attention in gifted
literature and in school. As one boy said, “can’t ask questions related to life, only
the textbook” (Schultz and Delisle 2006a, p. 53). Grant (2002, p. 13) observed, “the
important topics in educating gifted children are self, meaning, sex, relationship,
community, life, purpose, ethics, spirituality – the Most Important Things in Life,”
subjects that are for the most part avoided. Thinking of death makes some gifted
children delve into the meaning of their role in life. Encountering violent death of
others – by accident and murder – forces such questions with even greater urgency.
Not all are afraid of death. Some expressed curiosity about the process of dying and
wished to be able, when the time comes, to be conscious of their own dying and
making the transition into the great unknown. Others, however, feared the ﬁnality
of death and especially of their parents and loved ones more than their own. As for
explanation of what happens after death they are divided between those who accept
standard explanations offered by religion and those who don’t (Piechowski 2006).
Gifted adolescents prefer to cope with their problems on their own. In a study
of bullying, Peterson and Ray (2006) found that rather than report it and ask for
help, gifted students chose to handle it themselves. Sometimes it meant to just grit
their teeth, endure, and not complain. This may explain why despite their overex-
citabilities, the suicide rate of gifted young people is not higher than their nongifted
counterparts (Cross 1996; Cross et al. 2006).
186 M.M. Piechowski
14.9 Emotional Giftedness
Emotionally gifted children have deep empathy and respond to the needs and hurts
of others (Roeper 1982). Such children cannot rest until they have set things right
for others. This is especially noteworthy when the other is a stranger or someone
disliked, e.g., when a child makes a special effort to be friendly to the class bully as
did one 10-year old girl. Intimidating others, she explained, was his way of cover-
ing his own insecurity. Another girl, upset over her teacher’s unfair treatment of a
classmate, took her own paper, tore it into pieces and threw it into the wastebasket
to show her moral outrage at the teacher’s prejudice. There are also mediators and
peacemakers. Terry, a gifted 9-year old was a natural leader but he often held back
when he worked in groups to allow others to shine. One day he defended an “at risk”
student, a boy who received a black eye in a wrestling tournament. The other boys
teased him about the incident and embarrassed him. Terry told them, “you all know
it was an accident so drop the subject.” His tone was so sincere and authoritative
that the boys ceased their teasing.
To be emotionally gifted is to dare to act on one’s awareness. If there are hun-
gry people one feeds them and makes sure they won’t go hungry from now on. If
one sees someone in distress one offers relief. Unfairness and injustice call for de-
fending people’s rights. Strongly felt caring becomes the motivation for altruistic
Strongly felt empathy moves quickly to action. Heather Tobis Booth, co-director
of Citizen Action in Chicago recalled how, when she ﬁrst encountered injustice, she
reacted instantly (Witty 1991):
I was in ﬁrst grade at P.S. 200. I arrived in the schoolyard one morning and saw a little
black boy named Benjamin surrounded by some other kids. They were picking up stones
and starting to throw them, because they believed he had stolen this girl’s lunch money. I
ran up to him and stood beside him. And they stopped. I remember thinking something like
“you don’t treat people like this.”
Compassion may move a youngster to personal sacriﬁce. A highly gifted high
school student decided that after graduation he was not going to the university but
to work with the homeless.
There are many preteens and early teens who take up social action on behalf of
others, actions that become large scale operations extending over many states, or
even many nations. For example, raising thousands of dollars for deaf and blind
children, victims of abuse, sending over 100,000 books to African children, pro-
viding suitcases for children going into foster homes, providing kid packs for
children victims of domestic violence whose parents are in jail, are only a few
of the ingenious, effective organizational efforts that are motivated by compas-
sion in these very young people (Lewis 1991; Piechowski 2003; Silverman 1994;
Emotional giftedness represents the high end of emotional intelligence. Mayer
et al. (2001) devised ways of measuring components of emotional intelligence.
In one of their tests they asked teenagers how they handled emotionally difﬁcult
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 187
situations: “Think about the last time you were out with some friends and they
wanted to do something you were uncomfortable with.” Mayer et al. hypothesized
that emotionally gifted adolescents will resist going along with unsavory intentions
of their friends. The results conﬁrmed the hypothesis. Consequently the concept of
emotional giftedness was validated. The biological basis of emotional giftedness
becomes open to research with the discovery of mirror neurons. These neurons are
engaged in empathy and understanding the moods and intentions of others. They are
more strongly activated in people who score higher on an empathy scale (Gazzola
et al. 2006).
Emotional giftedness at advanced level of development is represented by Eleanor
Roosevelt, Etty Hillesum, Peace Pilgrim, Paul Robeson, A. J. Muste, Bishop
Tutu, all profoundly spiritual persons, and can be also found in case studies of
self-actualizing people (Brennan and Piechowski 1991; Mr´
oz 2002; Payne 1987;
Piechowski 1990). In their research on moral commitment, Ann Colby and William
Damon studied 23 moral exemplars who dedicated their lives to the poor, world
peace, civil rights, ethics in business and in medicine, sanctuary movement, and the
like (Colby and Damon 1992). They found that those who were moved to action
by compassion had an easier time keeping a peaceful heart than those who were
ﬁghting social injustice. In other words, being inspired by altruistic love appears to
diminish conﬂict and friction. Fighting for social justice makes conﬂict and friction
The ﬁrst piece of research exploring the application of Dabrowski’s theory to
the personality of a teacher of the gifted is Frank’s (2006) study of an inspirational
teacher. The criteria of multilevelness applied by Frank revealed an authentic indi-
vidual, thoughtfully and deliberately engaged in a teaching grounded in the moral
foundation of his advanced level of development. The effectiveness of this teacher
lay in his Socratic method as an empathic and moral education that can be called
teaching for life in the truest sense.
14.10 Positive Maladjustment
Mayer et al. (2001) realized that the young people in their study who took a stand
in opposition to peer pressure displayed what Dabrowski named positive malad-
justment. Positive maladjustment is a term for opposition to unethical behavior and
moral compromise, self-interest and prejudice. It means standing by one’s ideals and
having the fortitude to stand alone (Dabrowski 1970). When empathy and sense of
justice inspire action to help and protect others then emotional giftedness and pos-
itive maladjustment overlap (Piechowski 1997a). Resisting peer pressure for drugs,
sex, and subversive acts are examples of positive maladjustment in which empathy
and caring play a lesser role.
Standing by one’s beliefs and ideals is not uncommon for gifted teens. Here
are two examples (Piechowski 2006). A 16-year old gifted student was asked the
question How well do you like being all by yourself? She replied:
188 M.M. Piechowski
Depends – all on the circumstances. I can take standing alone – if I have to. I spent 7 years
of my life (almost 7) as a social outcast because I refused to conform to some demands of
my society or couldn’t conform to others – I’m not at all likely to be afraid of ostracism
To be true to oneself may indeed require a person to stand alone at times. The
following is a reply to What situations bring you in conﬂict with others? A 16-year
old girl said:
My opinions are quite different from other students my age. This many times brings conﬂict
between someone in my class and myself. For example, many kids in my class don’t think
drinking is dangerous and I do. I don’t believe in it and I believe it is a waste of time.
This sometimes causes a hassle. Another thing my classmates disagree with me on is styles.
Many students buy clothes because they are “in style.” I don’t. If I like them I get them, if I
hate them I leave them at the store “in style” or not! (Piechowski, 2006, p. 209)
14.11 Fostering Emotional Growth as Character Development
Examining emotional life leads to the question of how to give it proper attention and
help cultivate it. One way is to lead psychosynthesis exercises, or any other guided
imagery designed with similar focus. Psychosynthesis techniques are designed for
personal and spiritual growth (Ferrucci 1982). Among the principal elements of
personal growth are: training one’s will as an executive faculty (i.e., operating by
choosing a course of action rather than forcing oneself), training for concentration,
learning about different parts of one’s personality, ﬁnding one’s inner authority and
guidance from within, working toward a synthesis of conﬂicting parts of oneself,
practicing a sense of purpose (Piechowski 2006, Chapter 20).
I have been leading psychosynthesis exercises for a number of years, ﬁrst with
undergraduate students, then with gifted children aged 10–17 (Piechowski 2006,
Chapter 20). Gifted children, with very few exceptions, have great capacity for de-
tailed visualization and absorption in the imaginal experience. These techniques
have also been adapted for elementary age children (Fugitt 2001; Murdock 1988).
Another way of attending to emotional life is through group process devoted to emo-
tionally charged issues. In a safe space, where no judgment or criticism is allowed
to interfere with the process, teens discuss feelings, family, relationships, and the
future (Peterson 1995).
14.12 Emotional Growth and Psychological Types
Jung’s (1971) concept of psychological type identiﬁes four continuous personal-
ity dimensions from extroversion to introversion (E–I), from sensation to intuition
(S–N), and from thinking to feeling (T–F). One would expect these dimensions to
correspond to the overexcitabilities, for instance thinking to intellectual or feeling
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 189
to emotional. However, there is very little correlation between overexcitabilities
and these dimensions (low correlation for sensual and imaginational with F, and
no correlation for psychomotor, intellectual, and emotional). The reason is this:
the Jungian dimensions are different constructs from overexcitabilities. They re-
fer to habitual ways of dealing with the data of experience, the overexcitabilities
refer to the heightened capacities for both apprehending and generating the data
of experience (Lysy and Piechowski 1983). A further distinction into judging
(J) and perceiving (P) was introduced by Myers and Myers-Briggs (Myers and
Myers 1995). There is a signiﬁcant correlation (.37) between imaginational overex-
citability and type P (Lysy and Piechowski).
The gifted are evenly divided between extroverts and introverts (Hawkins 1998;
Cross et al. 2006). The higher the level of giftedness, the frequency of both the
intuitive (N) and the perceiving (P) type rises dramatically (Meckstroth 2006). The
highly gifted Rhodes scholars are more than ten to one intuitive, and type P is close
to twice as frequent as type J. In the general population of high school students it is
just the opposite: the intuitive type is about ﬁve times less frequent than the sensation
type (Myers and Myers 1995). This is one signiﬁcant source for the gifted feeling
“different,” consequently not ﬁtting in school – their predominant type is opposite
of that of mainstream students and teachers (Cross et al. 2006). The prevalence of
the intuitive type is consistent with higher frequency of multilevel developmental
potential among the gifted.
Myers and Myers (1995) described the “judging” type as oriented toward action
by personal executive power of will and choice, while the “perceiving” type as ori-
ented toward embracing experience: “The judging types believe that life should be
willed and decided, while the perceptive types regard life as something to be ex-
perienced and understood” (p. 69). From analysis of responses rated as emotional
overexcitability two types of emotional growth have been identiﬁed in gifted ado-
lescents: rational–altruistic and introspective (Piechowski 1989). They correspond
exactly to the judging/perceiving distinction. Thus one validates the other as the two
typologies were derived independently.
The rational–altruistic type so far has not been analyzed into internal compo-
nents. The introspective type has eight intrapersonal components. Although on the
surface people of the J type, being organized and planful, ﬁt society’s yardstick for
deﬁning a “good citizen” they are nevertheless capable of deep inner life (Lysy and
Piechowski 1983; Piechowski 2006). Schools clearly prefer J type students because
they tend toward achievement and tend not to buck the system unless their logical
thinking and strong sense of fairness see a violation of basic principles and rights.
14.13 Multilevel Development
Theories that address moral development tend toward a “progression from rigid-
ity, self-absorption, and dependence on authority to more sophistication, ﬂexibility
and independence as mature persons” but differ as to “what causes movement from
190 M.M. Piechowski
one stage to the next” (Tannenbaum 1998, p. 99). For Dabrowski true moral de-
velopment begins with the experience of inner conﬂict between lower and higher
levels in oneself. The lower levels contain all that one ﬁnds in oneself unbecom-
ing, even disgusting and reprehensible. The higher levels contain all that one ﬁnds
desirable and ideal. It is a “multilevel” conﬂict. This concept of “multilevelness”
can be applied to almost any behavior and human phenomenon. Its great value lies
in making possible to sort out experience and behavior according to level. For in-
stance love on a low level will be possessive, dominating, and controlling, while
love on a high level will be nonpossessive and with the highest regard for the
object of love (Dabrowski 1977). The theory found conﬁrmation in cross-cultural
validation of overexcitability proﬁles and in several empirical tests (Falk et al.
1997, 2008; Piechowski 1975, 2008).2Dabrowski linked the potential for multi-
level development with the strength of emotional, intellectual, and imaginational
For the understanding of emotional growth of gifted children, the distinction
between a unilevel and a multilevel developmental process is the most relevant
(Piechowski 2008). In unilevel process values are relative rather than universal, in-
ner conﬂicts are recycled rather than resolved, relationships with others do not have
a steady footing. Trying every new trend, following fads, being guided primarily by
others’ opinions is an individual without a psychological center. The shifting nature
of the person’s identity depends on the circumstances. Such is often the self of an
adolescent. When the process intensiﬁes it becomes unilevel disintegration.
A change comes when the person begins to tire of this state of affairs with its
meaningless emotional treading water and growing malaise. The search for a way
out starts with the realization of the possibility of a more meaningful focus in life.
A sense of higher and lower in oneself opens new horizons. Sensing the possibility
of something higher in oneself engenders the feeling of inferiority, not to others but
toward oneself. It is an inferiority before one’s unrealized, more evolved and ideal
self. Soon this feeling of inferiority toward oneself is followed by an array of inner
currents and rifts with descriptive names like disquietude with oneself, dissatisfac-
tion with oneself, positive maladjustment, and so on. What they all have in common
is the vertical axis of self-evaluation, that judges the distance from the higher in
oneself, which attracts, and grows a stronger reaction against the lower in oneself,
which repels. Dabrowski ﬁrmly believed that moral exemplars share human values
that are universal. His theory details out the process of development through inner
transformation (Dabrowski 1967).
When we can spot in a young person an inner dialogue, self-judgment, distress
over a moral conﬂict, we have in front of us a multilevel process. The intro-
2Additional empirical support comes by way of a positive correlation (.44) between the Jungian
intuitive type (N) and developmental level, and that all ﬁve overexcitabilities correlated with de-
velopmental level: psychomotor .26, sensual .31, intellectual .57, imaginational .38, emotional .59
(Lysy and Piechowski 1983). Furthermore, on detailed scrutiny, Dabrowski’s construct of Level IV
corresponds exactly to Maslow’s description of self-actualizing people (Piechowski 2008). When
two independent sets of observations and constructs converge, we can be conﬁdent that a real
phenomenon has been identiﬁed.
14 The Inner World of the Young and Bright 191
spective emotional growth mentioned earlier, has eight components, which help
recognize the speciﬁcs of the multilevel emotional development in adolescents.
They are: (1) awareness of growing and changing, (2) awareness of feelings, interest
in others and empathy toward them, (3) occasional feelings of unreality, (4) inner
dialogue, (5) self-examination, (6) self-judgment, (7) searching, problem-ﬁnding,
asking existential questions, and (8) awareness of one’s real self (Piechowski 1989;
2006). The values in such a process can be both individual and universal; the feelings
toward oneself can be rife with inner conﬂict or they can be showing an emergent
self-direction; feelings towards others will be sincerely democratic and displaying
awareness of interdependence. In cases of intense inner conﬂict, suffering, inner
seeking, and depression, the process becomes multilevel disintegration.Thispro-
cess may become very deep and may be misunderstood. How to read the signs and
how to assist through counseling has been described elsewhere (Jackson et al. 2009;
Jackson and Moyle 2009).
Let me close with an example of a boy awakening to the realization that com-
petition in which there are winners and losers clashes with the virtue of caring, a
distinctly moral concern. Here are replies, two years apart, from a boy confronted
with asking himself, Who am I? When he was 15 he wrote: “I feel that I am a person
who is on the earth that is destined to use his abilities and talents to his fullest. This
is simply what I think I really am.” He gave it much thought over the next two years.
At 17 he recognized a moral conﬂict between getting ahead and being considerate
of others (Piechowski 2006, p. 210):
The answer to this question has changed over the past few years. A few years ago I was a
person who wanted things for himself. Now I am trying to change that person to a person
who wants to contribute to others and the world not just himself. Obtaining this type of
person in this world is not that easy. The one thing that is a roadblock is competition. Not
necessarily losing to other people, but beating them. How can I compete to get into medical
school when a doctor is supposed to build people’s conﬁdence and restore their sense of
security? The process is self-defeating.
It is not hard to see that this kind of thinking guided the lives of Gandhi, Eleanor
Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, Peace Pilgrim, Bishop Tutu, and many others who follow
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