The key points of the theory of positive disintegration.
— Developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980), a Polish psychologist and psychiatrist.
— As a youth, Dabrowski was affected by his experience of the aftermath of battle in World War I.
— When his best friend committed suicide during college in the 1920s, Dabrowski decided to study mental health.
— Based on his observations that highly sensitive individuals are vulnerable to suicide and self-mutilation, Dabrowski began to formulate and publish his theory, including the concepts of overexcitability and disintegration.
— Dabrowski was caught in World War II and endured harsh incarceration in the German prison system and later, he and his wife were imprisoned again in Stalin-controlled Poland.
— Dabrowski said he could find no theory of psychology that could adequately explain both the lowest and depraved behavior, as well as the most heroic and highest acts, he had witnessed.
— Dabrowski studied people who displayed exemplary personality development.
— Dabrowski’s goal was to write a “general theory of development” explaining the factors and processes involved in what he perceived to be advanced personality development.
— The theory is initially challenging to understand because it has many interrelated concepts and contains a number of unique definitions that Dabrowski developed.
— Rejecting the idea that higher developments are built upon lower ones, Dabrowski believed that advanced development required the break-down of lower psychological structures through a process he called positive disintegration.
— Based upon his observations, Dabrowski formulated a concept called developmental potential describing a constellation of genetic factors that appear to be necessary to promote advanced development.
— According to Dabrowski, only a very limited number of individuals display sufficient developmental potential for advanced development to occur.
— Dabrowski emphasized three key components of developmental potential; special talents and abilities (e.g. high intelligence, athletic ability, artistic or musical talent), third factor (a strong internal drive to express oneself through making autonomous choices) and overexcitability.
— Overexcitability is a characteristic of the nervous system involving higher than average sensitivity to stimuli (a lower threshold to stimuli) and a higher than average response to stimuli.
— Dabrowski described five main types of overexcitability: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional, and emphasized that the latter three are critical to development and in particular, that emotional overexcitability drives and guides higher development.
— Dabrowski believed that life choices must be made with an awareness of one’s emotional reactions to a situation and not solely using a rational and intellectual basis.
— Strong developmental potential is necessary, but not sufficient, for advanced development.
— In development, there is a critical qualitative transition from perceiving reality based upon unilevel experience to a multilevel view of life.
— Unilevel experience tends to be uniform with little to distinguish alternatives from one another and one’s actions tend to be rote and based upon automatic stimulus/response reactions where conflicts arise between different but equivalent choices.
— Multilevelness involves a perception of reality based upon an awareness of the broad spectrum of life; from the lowest, most primitive aspects, to the highest, and most developed.
— Multilevelness involves a hierarchical view of reality that creates conflicts between higher possibilities in comparison to lower realities and alternatives: one comes to the fork between the low road and the high road and one clearly sees these two pathways as qualitatively different.
— Multilevelness becomes critical in making life choices as higher versus lower aspects of situations become clear to us. If we see this distinction and subsequently choose the lower road, feelings of guilt, disappointment, self doubt, failure, and shame often result. These feelings subsequently influence one’s future decision-making toward the higher path.
— A key component of personality is the development of individualized values and a vision of “higher possibilities,” culminating in the idealization of the kind of person one wishes to become; a feature Dabrowski called personality ideal.
— Development is an individual challenge to overcome one’s life “as it is” through inhibition and transformation of lower features and to develop and create one’s own unique character and one’s life “as it ought to be.”
— Dabrowski differentiated three primary groups of people, first, a group of individuals who display unilevel development. These individuals are primarily influenced by socialization and comprise some 65% of the population; a group defined by Dabrowski as primary integration.
— A second group of individuals are characterized by various forms and degrees of positive disintegration, indicating that they are moving through the developmental process.
— A third group of individuals represent the ideal of development, defined by Dabrowski as secondary integration.
— Positive disintegration involves psychoneuroses; strong anxieties and depressions that signal the breakdown of lower structures and that are a necessary component of development.
— Dabrowski believed psychological symptoms must be evaluated and interpreted in the context of an individual’s history and his or her level of developmental potential.
— Traditional approaches to mental health view overexcitability and psychoneuroses as symptoms that must be eliminated and no traditional approach helps the individual with strong developmental potential to learn to cope with life: living as a “square peg in a round world.”
— Dabrowski developed a multilevel and multidimensional approach to diagnosis which emphasized collaboration with the client to determine the developmental context and meaning of one’s symptoms and life situation.
— Based upon one’s diagnosis, a client with significant developmental potential and positive disintegration would be suitable for Dabrowski’s approach to therapy: autopsychotherapy.
— Autopsychotherapy emphasizes the need for an individual to develop insight into his or her own characteristics and to understand his or her behavior in a developmental context.
— Using self-understanding and autoeducation, one can learn to self-manage one’s strong feelings and, eventually, to actively direct one’s development toward one’s personality ideal.
— Autoeducation is a key component of development, emphasizing the unique educational needs of each individual.
— One of Dabrowski’s research studies examined gifted children and found that they exhibited high levels of developmental potential and psychoneuroses, leading Dabrowski to hypothesize that gifted children may be predisposed to experience positive disintegration.
— Some 30 years of research examining overexcitability in gifted students has yielded somewhat equivocal results.
— Research has demonstrated that gifted individuals are more likely than those not identified as gifted to show signs of only one of the five overexcitabilities: intellectual overexcitability.
— Research done to date has not supported the idea that gifted students are universally predisposed to advanced development as described in Dabrowski’s theory.
— Reflecting Plato’s levels of reality, Dabrowski formulated five levels spanning from primary integration, through three levels of disintegration and culminating in secondary integration.
— Primary integration is a cohesive psychological structure controlled by one’s primitive drives and the forces of socialization. No true autonomy or individual personality exists. Little internal conflict arises as one “gets along by going along.”
— In Dabrowski’s vision of development, the initial breakdown of primary integration involves unilevel conflicts; conflicts that begin to arise between alternatives that are essentially equivalent, and thus the name of the second level: unilevel disintegration.
— As there is no vertical aspect to unilevel conflicts, there is no developmental solution available and one must either return to primary integration or move ahead to multilevelness.
— The third level, spontaneous multilevel disintegration, involves the beginning of multilevelness and the idea that an individual will spontaneously experience conflicts between lower versus higher aspects of his or her experience.
— The fourth level is a continuation of multilevelness but, by now, there are several developmental dynamisms at play, including a strengthening third factor, the development of the inner psychic milieu, the emergence of a hierarchy of individualized values and the general process of hierarchization, autopsychotherapy, and autoeducation.
— At the fourth level, one develops an idealized sense of oneself and the kind of person one wants to become, and alternately, one also develops a sense of the aspects of oneself that one must overcome, inhibit or transform. The individual comes to play a conscious and volitional role in directing the developmental process (this level is named directed multilevel disintegration).
— Internal conflicts begin to subside as the individual’s personality ideal is slowly realized through the ongoing choices one makes in life.
— Level V, secondary integration, is a lifelong continuation of the goal of pursuing one’s personality ideal and self-perfection. One’s actions are now in harmony with one’s values and any sense of disintegration has passed.
— Sharp conflicts with society may arise as multilevelness guides the individual in pursuit of trying to make the world a better place.
My thanks to Jim Duncan and Simone de Hoogh for their editorial assistance on this project.