There’s nothing quite like travel to spin up an intense person. It’s a powerful opportunity for learning, fantasy, and feeling; it also tends to involve lots of foreign sensations and unusual physical activity, from hours wedged in economy class to the sudden quadrupling of steps walked per day.
If you’re familiar with Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, you know I just touched on all five areas of overexcitability (OE). And if OEs are essentially “reactions of excitation that are over and above average in intensity, duration, and frequency” (Dabrowski, 1996), then the overexcitable traveler will surely find that her journeys provide a particularly acute opportunity for excitement, panic, exhaustion, solemnity, and wonder, in no particular order. If you’re traveling with an overexcitable child, you might be forgiven for thinking this isn’t necessarily a positive trait. If excitability is the magma inside of each of us, travel might well bring on an eruption better compared to the ancient Mt. Vesuvius than the modern Mt. Fuji.
And yet, Dabrowski did argue that overexcitability could propel people through personality development. As I reflect on my own travels, I think I can see why.
Though it was probably kind of rough on my parents.
I usually say that the most important word to learn if you’re traveling to a place where you don’t speak the language is “thank you” because of all the people who will help you on your path. But if you’re traveling with a ten-year-old with sensory OE, the word “ice cream” might win out.
My first trip off the North American continent was a long-planned family trip to visit my mom’s brother and his family. They lived in Germany, a country in which someone had had the brilliant idea of putting vanilla ice cream through a Spätzle press and topping it with strawberry sauce to create a dish that could almost fool your parents into thinking you were eating a proper meal if only you hadn’t been reliant on them to purchase it for you.
This was significant, because my sister and I were otherwise such picky eaters that my parents were forced to turn to McDonalds, which suddenly becomes an attractive choice when compared to hyperglycemic meltdowns. Dad noted that at least in Europe they had beer, which was neat.
We also took a train ride to Paris for the weekend, where Nutella crêpes from street vendors supplanted spaghetti eis as the culturosensory delight of choice, and where eating in general was easier because you could always fall back on the ubiquitous baguettes. So the real tragedy of this part of the trip was that Mom failed to grasp the need to for us to go all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower, an oversight that I simply could not fathom (especially as Dad got to go). Confronted with this lapse many years later, Mom said she didn’t realize that, far from being a momentary frivolous impulse, visiting the top of a tower was obviously the most important thing to do in any city.
On our way home, the Frankfurt airport had some intense security because they had recently had a terrorist attack, which was striking to us Americans at the time. And when we passed through a checkpoint, my six-year-old sister SET OFF THE METAL DETECTOR, causing a squad of SCARY GUARDS speaking brusquely in German to descend upon her and WAND HER, which revealed that…
(Dun dun DUNNNN)
…she had a Wrigley’s gum wrapper in her pocket.
Looking back on this trip makes me realize how much of the overexcitable child’s experience can be conveyed only with italics and caps lock.
Fast forward six years. During the summer before my senior year, I somehow found myself heading to Japan for a two week homestay with the Michigan-Shiga Student Exchange Program.
To be honest, the trip was frequently terrifying. Highlights included biking to Torahime High School on narrow streets lined with the five-foot deep gutters known to the expat community known as gaijin traps (gaijin is an impolite word for foreigner); discovering that while I can overcome some of my pickiness about food, I seem to be constitutionally incapable of swallowing some nefarious ingredient that’s ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine; and upsetting my host family by accidentally saying “I want to go home” when I was trying to say “I want to return to Japan again.” (帰る has surely foiled many beginning Japanese students.)
While the ease visualizing death by gaijin trap (fueled by imaginational OE) and the discomfort of offended taste buds (more sensory OE) were rough, communication struggles—and failures—were definitely the worst. With emotional OE, it’s not just embarrassing, it’s excruciating to accidentally say something insulting when you’re going for diplomacy and good will. Well, kids, this is something that will almost certainly happen to you if you study abroad! I’d say “don’t sweat it,” and to the extent that this means “don’t beat yourself up over mistakes,” that’s true. Everyone makes mistakes. But if “sweating it” means “I’m going to study Japanese harder!” then get out the sweat rags. 頑張っていきます！
I figure that sort of thing is what Dabrowski was talking about when he says that inferiority toward oneself—comparing yourself unfavorably to the person you want to believe you are—is an essential Level III dynamism. As Dabrowski says in Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, people who feel this sense of inferiority can develop “a strong developmental instinct and strong dynamisms, guiding them to an educational ideal” (92). Though overexcitability is the part of Dabrowski’s theory that gets the most airtime, this points to why dynamisms are what really make the theory work. Dynamisms may well be propelled by OE; and in turn, they empower a person to overcome the limits that OE might otherwise create. Given the high risk of inadvertently saying something offensive again, an undynamic emotional overexcitability would likely have prevented me from ever again venturing beyond my homeland’s borders.
But that’s not what happened. In my junior year of college, I spent three months in Strasbourg, France, and a couple years later, I enrolled at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU), the college level program in that same Michigan-Shiga sister state program. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I managed to land a position as a US Pavilion Guide at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi Prefecture. And after a year or so wandering in the confused haze common to recent multipotentialite grads who wish they could be writers, I went back to for Shiga two years as an Assistant Language Teacher in through the JET Program.
I could go on and on about every one of these experiences, all of which were intense, occasionally traumatic, and bubbling over with examples of how others’ experiences of the world differ from mine. It’s worth noting that one does not have to be overexcitable to feel that way about travel. I suspect that most people (though not all) who travel abroad experience reactions of excitation that are above their own personal averages in intensity, duration, and frequency, much like Roger described in his guest post on another experience that creates artificial high excitability.
Essentially, living abroad messes with the second factor, Dabrowski’s term for external prescriptions like social norms and peer pressures. Travel reveals just how much power the second factor ordinarily wields in our lives—and it also reveals that you have a choice about following it. There’s something to be said for doing as the Romans do when you’re in Rome, but the mere act of following the local pattern in place of your default exposes your ability to choose. So the traveler’s inner world—what Dabrowski called the inner psychic milieu—gets thoroughly shaken up. And when that happens, s described at positivedisintegration.com:
[I]ndividuals who are dominated by socialization tend to react in automatic and stereotypic ways. These reactions typically involve little conscious cognitive processing and many individuals go through life in a largely robotic modality with minimal awareness of their internal mental environment. In contrast to this, once an individual becomes aware of his or her mental life, cognitions, and emotions, the opportunity to build and shape the internal psychic environment presents itself. Extending this, the individual is able to begin to exercise autonomy in how he or she responds to the world and responses come to reflect the developing sense of the individual’s personality ideal.
As you try to live and work in a foreign society, opportunities abound to experience shame, guilt, inferiority toward oneself, astonishment with oneself, and all those other Level III dynamisms that cause your personality to disintegrate.
But once you’ve seen that things can be done differently and still work—perhaps even work better—you gain freedom. Aware of these alternate paths, your third factor takes over, choosing the one that seems like to point toward your personality ideal. And while I personally am nowhere near that summit, I do feel like the intensity of my adventures abroad helped me to at least make it up above the cloud line.
You might even say that after the overexcitable eruptions of my earlier adventures compelled me to become self-aware (a Level IV dynamism!), I progressed into the more majestic Mt. Fuji phase of overexcitability. In this stage, I try really hard to keep my OE under conscious control, directing it toward that ideal self I’m still trying to achieve.
Now, I confess, even at this stage, that the least developmentally helpful of overexcitabilities, sensory OE, hasn’t gone away. I’m not gonna lie: Japanese food is still not my favorite thing. I figured out what it is that gets me, at least: bonito flakes. Too bad that’s in the most standard broth used in Japanese cooking. But at least I can now suppress that highly embarrassing gag reflex.
No worries, though. Because Japan sure does have some swanky ice cream.
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