Excitable Reads: Mellow Out by Michael M. Piechowski

“MELLOW OUT,” THEY SAY. IF I ONLY COULD
By Michael M. Piechowski
377 pp. Royal Fireworks Press. $25.00.

For this issue of Third Factor, it seemed fitting to include a discussion of what is perhaps the best showcase of overexcitability (OE) available in print: Michael M. Piechowski’s “Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright.  Woven into the text are hundreds of actual responses—434 in total—to Piechowski’s original Overexcitability Questionnaire (OEQ), with original and revised versions of the instrument included in the appendix.  In this way, qualitative research makes its way into a book devoted to the emotional life of gifted individuals of all ages.  This book is meant to be a “friendly mirror” for gifted folks and the people who work with them, and it is a satisfying culmination of Piechowski’s work.  Piechowski’s colleague from Wisconsin, Dr. Nick Colangelo, wrote the book’s foreword.  Dr. Colangelo also happens to be the co-editor of the 1979 textbook, New Voices in Counseling the Gifted, that first introduced Dabrowski’s theory to gifted education.

Mellow Out is a carefully researched book, with breadth and depth in its references, yet it reads like you’re having a conversation with Michael himself.  Alongside the recent research, he references several of his long-time influences, including Roberto Assagioli, who developed the practice of psychosynthesis; philosopher Susanne Langer, who studied the process of meaning-making; and Abraham Maslow, who developed the concept of self-actualization.  He also shares the story of how he came to work with Kazimierz Dabrowski for nearly a decade, furthering Dabrowski’s mission of supporting the mental health of intellectually and artistically gifted children and adults through this theory of positive disintegration (TPD).

It is a mission that had a great impact on my life, and on my son’s.

Mellow Out coverDifferent, Not Defective

When I was in middle school, I learned that I am profoundly gifted, but no one said anything about what it means to be so different. By age 13, I already felt broken because I was not living up to the “potential” of my high IQ. This lament will be familiar to other highly gifted people who were labeled underachievers.  For such outliers, Piechowski’s work might well offer the first opportunity to see how deeply we have misunderstood ourselves, which helps us make sense of why other people don’t understand us.

It also helps us make sense of our children. I have a son who is twice-exceptional, or 2e, which means that he is considered both gifted and disabled. Jack is dyslexic, and he also has difficulty with attention that can look like ADHD.

My own experience of OE made it difficult to be a parent. I require extensive amounts of solitude, reading, and writing, and I like it to be quiet. When Jack was a young child, he was constantly moving, loud, messy, and sometimes seemed defiant. He was also loving, and affectionate, and had great emotional intensity.  I found it exhausting. My emotional intensity often clashed with Jack’s, and it felt like there was no end to our conflicts. Instead of trying to understand him, and finding ways to accommodate his excitability, I kept expecting him to change and comply.

Then he started his formal education, and our lives got even tougher.  We faced daily battles, trying to fit our exceptional son into a system that isn’t built for him.  I had entered kindergarten as a seasoned reader, and adults could always placate me with reading material.  With Jack, however, the focus was on “fixing” him, on forcing him to be “normal.”  I looked at the other parents and wondered what we were doing wrong.  Why couldn’t Jack listen?  Why couldn’t he calm down and do what he was told?

Despite the differences between my own childhood and Jack’s, Mellow Out managed to address a theme that was common to both:

It is unfortunate that the stronger the excitabilities are, the less peers and teachers welcome them.  Children exhibiting strong excitabilities are often made to feel embarrassed and guilty for being different.  Criticized and teased for what they cannot help, they begin to believe that there is something wrong with them.  Sometimes they learn to disguise their intensity; sometimes they seek refuge in imaginary worlds of their own creation; sometimes they try to “normalize” themselves and as a result suffer depression or ill-defined anxiety. These reactions are the consequences of being forced to deny their true self. (27)

At first, reading Mellow Out often felt unsettling, because I recognized painful truths about not honoring my own inner experience—or my son’s. I knew that I had experienced real consequences for denying my true self as a young person, and it was necessary to face the consequences of trying to force my son to fit in, too.  That’s why reading this book was such a profound experience for me.  It’s fair to say that Piechowski’s work has altered my course as a parent.

Grounded in Research

Mellow Out reflects the research that Piechowski did on the construct of OE, which was different from the research that Dabrowski conducted on OE from his practice as a psychiatrist.  Piechowski chose to study OE in gifted individuals instead of drawing from psychiatric patients.  Although the material collected with the original OEQ was scored to be analyzed in quantitative terms, it was an open-ended questionnaire that produced rich qualitative data, as Mellow Out shows quite clearly.

I knew that I had experienced real consequences for denying my true self as a young person, and it was necessary to face the consequences of trying to force my son to fit in, too.  That’s why reading this book was such a profound experience for me.

There are many differing perspectives on these issues of giftedness and TPD. For people who study TPD outside of the field of gifted education, there is perhaps less recognition of themselves in Piechowski’s work.  I feel that much of the problem here is that there’s a stigma to the word “gifted” that presents a barrier.  I advise not getting caught up in these labels, and not worrying about definitions.  Have you felt anxious and depressed?  Do you imagine all the terrible things that can happen to you?  Have you made a suicide attempt?  Are you a musician or an actor or a writer?  If any of these apply to you, you’re likely to recognize yourself in Mellow Out as readily as someone who’s been identified as intellectually gifted.

The book introduces the five channels of OE in chapter 4; it then goes on to discuss each of the five types of OE with increasing depth.  Psychomotor and sensual OEs are explored in their own chapters.  Intellectual OE gets two chapters.  Imaginational OE is broken up into four chapters, while emotional OE gets seven.  The attention Piechowski devotes to imaginational and emotional OEs is consistent with Dabrowski’s emphasis on those two types as critical for the formation of dynamisms.

Personal and Spiritual Growth

Later chapters are dedicated to the actual practice of personal and spiritual growth.  Here, the book gives us a feel for the techniques of Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis.  As a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Educational Advancement, Piechowski shares what he has learned about how to modulate the OEs with highly gifted young people at Camp Yunasa.  Psychosynthesis provides practical tools for autopsychotherapy and self-education, and is a theory that complements Dabrowski’s ideas very well.

One of the most remarkable things about Piechowski is his openness to possibilities and his willingness to explore them.  The inclusion of spirituality and spiritual giftedness in Mellow Out progresses naturally from his study of emotional giftedness, and it also aligns with Dabrowski’s interest in this area, as Piechowski describes in chapter 2:

In his clinical practice, Dabrowski began to see artists, writers, actors, and people whose inner conflicts were of a spiritual nature.  In the past, and even still today, those whose emotional richness, creative vision, and spiritual striving bring them to experiences of unusual nature are easily labeled as abnormal, immature, neurotic, or delusional and psychotic.

To a large extent our view of reality is limited to the commonplace and ignores the extraordinary potentials of the human mind.  However, there are signs that we are becoming unchained from our limited scope, as more than 40 years ago transpersonal psychology sprung out of humanistic psychology.  With the advent of emotional intelligence we have made the further step toward recognizing spiritual intelligence. (21)

Based on his early data on OE, Piechowski differentiated two types of emotional growth, which is the subject of chapter 19.  What Dabrowski (1972) called strong developmental potential is very similar to what Piechowski describes as “introspective emotional growth.”  In Piechowski’s case study work, he has examined the lives of moral exemplars such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Peace Pilgrim, and Etty Hillesum.  Their stories—which Piechowski briefly references in Mellow Out—bring the dynamisms to life.

The Future

In his keynote address at the 2018 Dabrowski Congress, Piechowski said that Dabrowski’s theory has been in a state of arrested development.  Much of it remains untested since the 1970s.  But this isn’t a problem so much as a challenge for young scholars.  It is possible to study phenomena such as OE from a scientific perspective, using a variety of methods: that’s what Michael has shown us in Mellow Out.

When I first read Mellow Out, I couldn’t help but think about creating my own instrument for measuring OE.  First, I have been examining the entire body of existing evidence for TPD.  It’s clear that we need to bring open science practices into our work with TPD, OE, and in general.  I’ve been testing out different ways to share qualitative datasets, so that other people can examine the evidence on OE for themselves.  I made some initial efforts in this direction during my literature review last year at the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Annual Convention.

In Mellow Out, Piechowski illuminates the discoveries he has made in his work, and he shows us a way forward in studying overexcitability.  He ties together a universe of ideas and information. For the reader interested in learning more about OE, this book will not disappoint.

Interested in checking it out? 

  • A few libraries have copies.
  • The publisher, Royal Fireworks Press, sells it directly, along with several related titles.
  • If you buy it from Amazon, you can follow this link to give 10% of the profit back to Third Factor.

Interested in discussing the book? Join the conversation in the Third Factor Third Place, our discussion forum.

Executive Editor at chris@thirdfactor.org + posts

Chris Wells, Ph.D., is Executive Editor of Third Factor and Director of Qualitative Research for the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development/Gifted Development Center. She is an educational psychologist, author, and parent of a twice-exceptional son.