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Creating the Safe Space (Part Two): Safety and Excitability

By Dr. Patty Williams on November 7, 2023

Bright Insight Support Network founder and president Dr. Patty Williams is a trauma therapist and coach who specializes in EMDR, ND-Affirmative DBT, and IFS modalities. Through Bright Insight, she works to counsel, coach, and advocate for gifted, twice-exceptional, and neurodivergent persons, along with other marginalized populations.

Creating the Safe Space (Part Two):

Safety and Excitability

In a previous blog post, I wrote about safety and creating safe spaces. I also shared how to have safety we need to feel safe to foster intimacy by way of vulnerability. After all, having safety means you are not so vulnerable to harm—a reality that produces intimacy and depth in our communities and relationships.

To further explore the topic of safety, I defined the creation of safety as an act of protecting self or others from harm. I also discussed how there is not only physical and psychological types of safety but also intellectual safety that needs to be considered. This reality was a catalyst for me that lead into new ideas I’ll share here.

Safety in Five Domains

As I explored intellectual safety over time, I started asking another question: if there is emotional, physical, and intellectual safety, is it possible that there are types of safety attached to all five of Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities?

As a reminder, according to Dabrowski and his theory of positive disintegration, individuals who possess significant potential for growth often exhibit one or more of five strong manifestations of neurological capacities in their reactions to stimuli. It is now understood that the five overexcitabilities or OEs are commonly displayed by gifted persons and include the following types:

  • Emotional OE – Intense emotional sensitivity, intensity, empathy, and range.

  • Intellectual OE – A deep curiosity and desire to explore topics and capacity for sustained intellectual effort.

  • Psychomotor OE – An abundance of physical energy manifested through movement, tension, and even speech.

  • Sensual OE – Heightened responses of the five (or more) senses and an appreciation for aesthetics

  • Imaginational OE – A profound capacity for fantasy and awareness of possibility beyond the obvious

And while one of these OEs may be dominant, they are often combined to form a deep and complex picture of what makes gifted individuals so unique (Williams, 2023).

If these OEs are so important to the makeup of gifted persons, their neurology, and their experiences, then is it possible that we need safety in all five of these areas? What does that even mean? Let’s move through them one by one.

Emotional Safety — It seems appropriate that all humans have a need for emotional safety. If a person experiences more extreme emotional sensitivity, intensity, empathy, and range; however, it may be even more poignant to address this topic. What is emotional safety though? According to their article about it, Dr. Helene Brenner and Larry Letich, LCSW-C share how besides being essential to healthy relationships, emotional safety is also a visceral feeling of being accepted and embraced for who you truly are and what you feel and need. They also maintain, and I would agree, that when you feel chronically, emotionally unsafe, the intense psychological distress can result in a host of issues including isolation and difficulty reaching out.

Intellectual Safety — In part one of this blog series, intellectual safety was explored some as a novel idea since it is mostly written about in relationship to classroom and other learning environments. It seems to me, however, that a need for intellectual safety can extend to daily life, particularly if a person experiences deep curiosity and desire to explore topics and capacity for sustained intellectual effort. For gifted individuals especially, who have had intellectual inquiries met with suggestions that they are “overthinking” or “complicated,” intellectual safety can usher in feelings of deep satisfaction and connection with others. When like-minded souls can explore ideas openly with appreciation and enthusiasm, there is a shared safety that gives gifted souls a sense of belonging and mutuality often missed in the workplace or other social settings.

Psychomotor Safety – What in the world is psychomotor safety? Well, think of it this way: When a person has an abundance of physical energy manifested through movement, tension, and even speech, sometimes that activity is judged harshly as “too active,” “too loud” or “too much.” Such judgements can make a person feel uncomfortable such that they talk less, move less, or stifle their excitement. That is, they are not safe to do. When a whole person is met with whole-person acceptance, however, they can feel free to move, talk, sing, jump, and dance. When a person’s physical person, with all its movement, is met with enthusiastic mirroring, they can become comfortable in their bodies and in motion. This is something so many of us may feel afraid to access— our physical, psychomotorized selves. When we experience psychomotor safety, however, we are free to be our most physical and maybe physically beautiful, too.

Sensual Safety – Sensual safety was a big ah-ha for me. Am I free and safe to feel and experience all things with great sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation? Can I enjoy physical touch, taste, smells, sounds, and sights? Is it OK to be so moved by a sunset that a tear drops? Will I be laughed at if I am completely sidetracked by a rare bird of great beauty? May I stim without judgement? For so many gifted individuals too, who struggle with shirt tags and sock seams, being sensually safe to express discomfort, overstimulation, or intense sensual satisfaction is important. This is particularly true if they were previously told they were too sensitive or making things up. As an individual who abhors the hum of sound machines and fans, I appreciate when I am met with acceptance or grateful cheers of “me too!” Having our super-sensitivities accepted allows us to feel safe to meet sensory needs.

Imaginational Safety – And finally, we consider imaginational safety, which may be my very favorite part of this exploration. Those who enjoy imaginational overexcitability have a profound capacity for fantasy and awareness of possibility beyond the obvious. As my dear friend and podcast co-host Leroy suggests, he can create and navigate entire worlds in his head. And oh, goodness, I love these worlds of his! So often, however, when we share our imaginative play and creation, we can be met with blank stares or suggestions of foolishness. How very unsafe it feels to be told that creativity and art is not a worthwhile endeavor when it is all you think about at times. And how much more upsetting is it when we teach our children or peers to pursue more capitalistically-appealing tasks and careers. No, I want to play and create and I want to feel safe and accepted in this. I want my ideas met with “wow, that is amazing” rather than, “Oh, that is really odd.” And while I love the odd and fantastical, I want to feel safe and know that weird is OK and so am I.

So, What’s Next?

Assuming that these five domains of safety are a thing (which I personally conclude they are), we should put into motion some action via this awareness. What does this mean for me? Well, I have long held up the importance of safety in spaces I manage and frequent. I promote safety and I even insist on it. By more fully understanding what safety is from these different angles though, I can promote emotional, intellectual, psychomotor, sensual, and imaginational safety specifically.

Consider, for a moment, having all these safety needs met and imagine how full you might feel. I want to live like this and help others do the same.


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