I’m taking this comment I left on Julien Matei’s blog a moment ago and re-posting it on my blog, mostly so I can have it for future reference when I am asked for my personal understanding of Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration – a beautiful theory of human development.
It is a very brief synopsis, in my own words (and slightly polished from what I originally wrote), what the theory is all about, written for those who’ve never heard of this valuable resource.
Most personality development theories (like Frued’s, Piaget’s, Erikson’s, Maslow’s) describe a process by which new developmental stages can only be reached after the preceding ones have been mastered. Additionally, the stages are almost always tied into chronological ages.
Dabrowski’s theory is unique in that higher-level personality development can only proceed after existing psychic structures that have been ‘other-constructed’ by the social, cultural, and political influences/conditioning around the person are deconstructed and the individual begins to self-select desired qualities and moral values he or she wishes to incorporate/integrate into their personality, with higher-level thought and activity being favored over lower-level thought and activity.
It is the emerging awareness of the conflict between the external environment and the developing internal environment that creates intense psychoneuroses, which eventually causes breakdown. The process of individuation means a whole lot of conditioning needs to be undone first. This process is often excrutiating and untenable for very long.
But, whereas Freud, his followers, many modern-day psychotherapists and the entire pharmaceutical community sought and continue to seek to eliminate the tension and avoid breakdown in order to fit in with society, Dabrowski saw that this disintegrative process was THE critical step to higher level development and becoming an autonomous Self.
However, Dabrowski was also very cognizant that not every person was able to successfully navigate this disintegrative process. Rather than passing through and reintegrating at a higher level, some individuals could get stuck in psychosis (yes, it’s THAT disturbing a process and that would be a negative disintegration), or, re-integrate at a lower level than they were before the disintegrative process.
Dabrowski’s way of helping individuals was to re-frame what they were going through as a gift and focused heavily on autopsychotherapy.
“Psychoneuroses ‘especially those of a higher level’ provide an opportunity to ‘take one’s life in one’s own hands’. 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 himself becomes an active agent in his disintegration, and even breakdown. Thus the person finds a ‘cure’ for himself, not in the sense of a rehabilitation but rather in the sense of reaching a higher level than the one at which he was prior to disintegration. This occurs through a process of an education of oneself and of 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 himself, though the development of the inner psychic milieu and 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).
This process was also not tied into external events (like divorce, death, or losing a job, etc), nor age, but it was a spontaneous occurrence, that could happen at ANY age, including childhood.
Not everyone will pass through this process, only those who possess what is called “overexcitabilities” in one or more areas – intellectual, emotional, psychomotor, sensual and imaginational – AND only those with this ineffable “third factor” (an internal driving force).
Not everyone will be born at a level One either, but may come into the world already at a higher level.
It is not only a theory about intellectual development, but also one which the emotional/moral development of the person is actually a crucial component. Dabrowski considered that emotion ought to be the steering mechanism of intellect.
And while his theory applies to the entire spectrum of humans, it has been largely ignored for many years because there was two world wars going on at the time he was developing his theories, because his ideas were a radical departure from mainstream psychology, and he published in Polish. In recent years, when Dabrowski’s students have taken this theory into modernity by repackaging it for gifted students and adults. However, there has been some controversy about how Dabrowski’s theory and ideas are being currently applied (in part because it’s not just a theory about gifted children and adults). While Dabrowski’s “intellectual heir” has all of Dabrowski’s published and unpublished works and is attempting to remain faithful to Dabrowski’s original intentions when he gets the unpublished published, there are those who are willing to diverge from the original intentions in order to increase the marketability of Dabrowski’s ideas.
This now is only the tip of the iceberg, a very rudimentary introduction. There is so much more to it. I would encourage anyone interested in reading more about his theory, to investigate William Tillier’s site on Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Distintegration: