Anyone who has read my blog knows my views on American psychology: uninspired and uninspiring, Puritanical, intellectually dilute, mechanical and neotenous in its conception of normal, average, or typical development as the highest possible aspiration of all humans. It’s upside down: those who are gifted, talented, out-of-the-box individuals, or anyone with novel ideas, or those who simply are raised in other cultures, are labeled as developmentally disordered, retarded, having defective brains, and exhibiting pathologic behavior. American psychology is a perfect reflection of the society it conforms to; claiming to be a science but inherently religious; pretending to be a profession, but lacking controls on who may practice and profit; claiming to care and fix, while exploiting the marketplace of narcissism without conscience.
NOTE: I don’t know Kazimierez Dabrowski and have only read through this introduction recently. He is evidently little known in the west. I do know that the stage of development prescribed as optimal (normal) in current American psychology, is only the beginning step to becoming fully human in his theory.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration
Page created: October 26, 1995. The material on this site is protected by the provisions of the Copyright Act, by Canadian laws, policies, regulations and international agreements. Such provisions serve to identify the information source and, in specific instances, to prohibit reproduction of materials without written permission.
Kazimierz Dabrowski MD, PhD. 1902 – 1980, Poland
Since 1980, there has been a small but consistent demand for Dabrowski’s works. This demand has largely evolved in the United States where Michael Piechowski applied his vision of the theory to gifted education. Piechowski emphasizes overexcitability and largely disregards the other aspects of the theory including positive disintegration and the role of psychoneurosis. Many in education and in gifted education have looked to Dabrowski’s theory to help provide a context for their student’s intense experiences. Although a small part of the overall theory, the application to the gifted area has generated a number of Master’s and Ph.D. theses and introduced the theory to a large audience, an audience eager to learn more about Dabrowski and his theory. This web page was created in 1995 to help provide this information and to fulfill my commitment to Dr. Dabrowski to try to keep his theory alive.
Dabrowski’s writing began in 1929 with a thesis in Polish. His first work in English was done in 1937. Over the years, he has written many articles and books in Polish, English, Spanish and French. In 1977, a two-volume book was edited by Piechowski as it was going to press. Dabrowski eschewed this book and the unedited manuscripts were posthumously published in 1996. All of the materials published in English are available as are the majority of the Polish books. These can be obtained as PDF downloads – see Dabrowski 301 under learning Dabrowski, or click here: Dabrowski 301.
Suffering, aloneness, self-doubt, sadness, inner conflict; these are our feelings that we have not learned to live with, that we have failed to appreciate, that we reject as destructive and completely negative, but in fact they are symptoms of an expanding consciousness. Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski has spent 45 years piecing together the complete picture of the growth of the human psyche from primitive integration at birth; the person with potential for development will experience growth as a loosening of the stable psychic structure accompanied by symptoms of psychoneuroses. Reality becomes multilevel; the choices between higher and lower realms of behavior occupy our thought and mark us as human. Dabrowski called this process positive disintegration; he declares that psychoneurosis is not an illness and he insists that development does not come through psychotherapy but that psychotherapy is automatic when the person is conscious of his development.
To Dabrowski, real therapy is autopsychotherapy; it is the self being aware of the self through inner investigation and mapping the inner environment. There are no techniques to eliminate symptoms because the symptoms constitute the very psychic richness from which grow an increasing awareness of body, mind, humanity and cosmos. Without intense and painful introspection and reflection, development is unlikely. Psychoneurotic symptoms should be embraced and transformed into anxieties about human problems of an ever higher order. If psychoneuroses continue to be classified as mental illness, then perhaps sickness is better than health.
“Without passing through very difficult experiences and even something like psychoneurosis and neurosis, we cannot understand human beings and we cannot realize our multidimensional and multilevel development toward higher and higher levels.” Dabrowski.
A very brief sketch of Dabrowski’s theory.
Four seminal quotes set the stage:
1). “Personality: A self-aware, self-chosen, self-affirmed, and self-determined unity of essential individual psychic qualities. Personality as defined here appears at the level of secondary integration” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 301).
2). “The propensity for changing one’s internal environment and the ability to influence positively the external environment indicate the capacity of the individual to develop. Almost as a rule, these factors are related to increased mental excitability, depressions, dissatisfaction with oneself, feelings of inferiority and guilt, states of anxiety, inhibitions, and ambivalences – all symptoms which the psychiatrist tends to label psychoneurotic. Given a definition of mental health as the development of the personality, we can say that all individuals who present active development in the direction of a higher level of personality (including most psychoneurotic patients) are mentally healthy” (Dabrowski, 1964, p. 112).
3). “Intense psychoneurotic processes are especially characteristic of the course of accelerated development towards the formation of personality. According to our theory, accelerated psychic development is impossible without making a transition through processes of nervousness and psychoneuroses, without external and internal conflicts, without maladjustment to actual conditions in order to achieve adjustment to a higher level of values (Ideals) and without conflicts with lower level realities (the social hierarchy) as a result of spontaneous or deliberate choice to strengthen the bond with reality of higher level” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 220). Translation: It’s a bumpy ride from “socially normal” to true personality; one must endure anxiety and the stigma of “abnormality” in order to develop beyond average or typical resignation to social conformity.)
4). “Psychoneuroses ‘especially those of a higher level’ provide an opportunity to ‘take one’s life in one’s own hands’ (this is taboo in Am. Psych.) They are expressive of a drive for psychic autonomy, especially moral autonomy, through transformation of a more or less primitively integrated structure. This is a process in which the individual becomes active in his disintegration, and even breakdown. Thus the person finds a ‘cure’ for himself, not in the sense of rehabilitation but rather in the sense of reaching a higher level than the one at which he was prior to disintegration. This occurs through education of oneself and an inner psychic transformation. One of the main mechanisms of this process is a continual sense of looking into oneself as if from outside, followed by a conscious affirmation or negation of conditions and values in both the internal and external environments. Through the constant creation of self, through the development of the inner psychic milieu and the development of discriminating power with respect to both the inner and outer milieus – an individual goes through ever higher levels of ‘neuroses’ and at the same time through ever higher levels of universal development of his personality” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 4). Translation: You have to go through the steps from infant to adult; it’s not automatic. No one can do this for you. It’s a creative journey. Few people ever attempt development beyond childhood basics.
These quotes capture the heart of Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. The theory describes a process of personality development – the creation of a unique, individual personality.
Most people become socialized in early family and school experiences. They largely accept the values and mores of society with little question and have no internal conflict in sticking to the basic beliefs of society. In some cases, a person begins to notice and to imagine ‘higher possibilities’ in life. These disparities are driven by overexcitability — an intense experience of, and reaction to day-to-day stimuli. Eventually, one’s perception of reality becomes differentiated into a hierarchy and all aspects of both external and internal life come to be evaluated on a vertical continuum of ‘lower versus higher.’ This experience often creates a series of deep and painful conflicts between lower, ‘habitual’ perceptions and reactions based on one’s heredity and environment (socialization) and higher, volitional ‘possibilities.’ In the developing individual, these conflicts may lead to disintegrations and psychoneuroses, which for Dabrowski, are hallmarks of advanced growth. Eventually, through the processes of advanced development and positive disintegration, one is able to develop control over one’s reactions and actions. (Hah!) Development culminates in the inhibition and extinction of lower levels of reality and behavior and their transcendence via the creation of a higher, autonomous and stable ideal self. The rote acceptance of social values gives way to a critically examined and chosen hierarchy of values and aims that becomes a unique expression of the self — becoming one’s personality ideal.
Dabrowski acknowledged the strong and primitive influence of heredity (the first factor) and the robotic, dehumanizing (and de-individualizing) role of the social environment (the second factor). He also described a third factor of influence, a factor emerging from but surpassing heredity – “its activity is autonomous in relation to the first factor (hereditary) and the second (environmental) factor. It consists in a selective attitude with regard to the properties of one’s own character and temperament, as well as, to environmental influences” (Dabrowski, 1973, p. 80). The third factor is initially expressed when a person begins to resist their lower impulses and habitual responses characteristic of socialization. Emerging autonomy is reflected in conscious and volitional choices toward what a person perceives as ‘higher’ in their internal and external milieus. Over time, this ‘new’ conscious shaping of the personality comes to reflect an individual ‘personality ideal,’ an integrated hierarchy of values describing the sense of who one wants to be and how one wants to live life. The ‘ought to be’ of life can replace ‘the what is.’ It is important to realize that this is not simply an actualization of oneself as is; it involves tremendous conscious work in differentiating the higher and lower in the self and in moving away from lower selfish and egocentric goals toward an idealized image of how ‘you ought to be.’
The idealized self is consciously constructed based on both emotional and cognitive foundations. Emotion and cognition become integrated and are reflected in a new approach to life — feelings direct and shape ideas, goals and ideals, one’s ideals work to express one’s feelings. Imagination is a critical component in this process — we can literally imagine how it ought to be and how could be in this establishes ideals to try to attain.
Initially, people who are acting on low impulses or who are simply robotically emulating society have little self conflict. Most conflicts are external. During development, the clash between one’s actual behavior and environment and one’s imagined ideal creates a great deal of internal conflict. This conflict literally motivates the individual to resolve the situation, ideally by inhibiting those aspects he or she considers lower and by accentuating those aspects he or she considers higher. At the highest levels, there is a new harmony of thought, emotion and action that eliminates internal conflict. The individual is behaving in accord with his or her personal ideal and consciously-derived value structure and therefore feels no internal conflict. Often a person’s external focus shifts to ‘making the world a better place.’
In describing development, Dabrowski elaborated five levels occurring in three basic phases. The first stage, Level I, involves an integrated but lower level expression of hereditary and social forces. Dabrowski referred to this as a unilevel or primary level. The individual experiences little inner conflict and is initially, largely unaware of the ‘higher possibilities of life.’ Phase two is characterized by the process of disintegration and psychoneuroses are common features of these levels (Levels II, III and IV). The familiar security of habit is shattered by doubts as the person comes to discover higher levels in life. The lower versus higher continuum signals a shift to the multilevel experience of life (Levels III and IV). The third phase, Level V, is the highest level, second integration, characterized by the expression of one’s unique and autonomous personality.
Too often Asperger children are attacked by schools, teachers, psychologists-psychiatrists and parents for doing what comes naturally – truly healthy development that goes beyond “typical” development.