A positive breakdown

The most inspirational theory I’ve come across thus far. A great eye-opener. I summarized this from a much longer article on Wikipedia

Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902–1980), a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration over his lifetime of clinical and academic work.

Dabrowski’s theory of personality development emphasized several major features including:

personality is not a given universal trait, it must be created—shaped—by the individual to reflect his or her own unique character (personality shaping)
personality develops as a result of the action of developmental potential (DP) (overexcitability and the autonomous factor), not everyone displays sufficient DP to create a unique personality.
-developmental potential is represented in the population by a normal (bell) curve. Dabrowski used a multilevel approach to describe the continuum of developmental levels seen in the population.
developmental potential creates crises characterized by strong anxieties and depressions—psychoneurosis—that precipitate disintegration
– for personality to develop, initial integrations based on instinct and socialization must disintegrate—a process Dabrowski called positive disintegration
-the development of a hierarchy of individual values — emotional reactions — is a critical component in developing one’s personality and one’s autonomy, thus, in contrast to most psychological theories, emotions play a major role in this approach
emotional reactions guide the individual in creating his or her individual personality ideal, an autonomous standard that acts as the goal of individual development
the individual must examine his or her essence and subsequently make existential choices that emphasize those aspects of essence that are higher and “more myself” and inhibit those aspects that are lower or “less myself” based upon his or her own personality ideal
-critical components of individual development include auto education and autopsychotherapy


Dabrowski observed that most people live their lives in a state of “primary or primitive integration” largely guided by biological impulses (“first factor”) and/or by uncritical endorsement and adherence to social convention (“second factor”). He called this initial integration Level I. Dabrowski observed that at this level there is no true individual expression of the autonomous human self. Individual expression at Level I is influenced and constrained by the first two factors.

The first factor channels energy and talents toward accomplishing self-serving goals that reflect the lower instincts and biological ego — its primary focus is on survival and self-advancement. Often talents are used in antisocial or asocial ways. For example, at the lowest edge of Level I many criminals display this type of selfish behavior. They advance their own goals at the expense of others.

The second factor, the social environment (milieu) and peer pressure, constrains individual expression and creativity by encouraging a group view of life and discouraging unique thought and expression. The second factor externalizes values and mores, thereby externalizing conscience. Social forces shape expectations. Behavior and one’s talents and creativity are funneled into forms that follow and support the existing social milieu. “My mom says we should always be aware of what our lawn looks like because we want other people to think well of us when they drive by.” Because conscience is derived from an external social context, so long as society holds ethical standards, people influenced by the second factor will behave ethically. However if a society, church, or government becomes corrupt, as in Nazi Germany, people strongly influenced by second factor will not dissent. Socialization without individual examination leads to a rote and robotic existence (the “robopath” described by Ludwig von Bertalanffy). Individual reactions are not unique, they are based upon social contexts (“I cry at funerals and laugh at weddings — everyone does”). According to Dabrowski, people primarily motivated by second factor represent a significant majority of the general population.

Dabrowski felt that our society was largely influenced by these lower two factors and could be characterized as operating at Level I. For example, our emphasis on corporate success (“a dog eat dog mentality”) means that many CEOs operate on the basis of first factor — they will quickly sacrifice another to enhance their own advancement. As well, our educational, political, corporate, and media systems are self-promoting and discourage real examination or individual autonomy — the second factor. Alternatively, social justifications are often used: “of course I break the speed limit, everyone does.” Or a soldier may explain that he or she was simply “following orders.” Thus, this external value system absolves the individual of any individual responsibility.

Dabrowski also described a group of people who display a different course: an individualized developmental pathway. These people break away from an automatic, rote, socialized view of life (which Dabrowski called negative adjustment) and move into and through a series of personal disintegrations. Dabrowski saw these disintegrations as a key element in the overall developmental process. Crises challenge our status quo and cause us to review our self, ideas, values, thoughts, ideals, etc. If development continues, one goes on to develop an individualized, conscious and critically evaluated hierarchical value structure (called positive adjustment). This hierarchy of values acts as a benchmark by which all things are now seen, and the higher values in our internal hierarchy come to direct our behavior (no longer based on external social mores). These higher, individual values characterize an eventual second integration reflecting individual autonomy and for Dabrowski, mark the arrival of true human personality. At this level, each person develops his or her own vision of how life ought to be and lives it. This higher level is associated with strong individual approaches to problem solving and creativity. One’s talents and creativity are applied in the service of these higher individual values and visions of how life could be – how the world ought to be. The person expresses his or her “new” autonomous personality energetically through action, art, social change and so on.

Development potential

Advanced development is often seen in people who exhibit strong developmental potential (“DP”). Developmental potential represents a constellation of genetic features, expressed and mediated through environmental interaction. Many factors are incorporated in developmental potential but three major aspects are highlighted: overexcitability (OE), specific abilities and talents, and a strong drive toward autonomous growth, a feature Dabrowski called the “third factor.”


The most evident aspect of developmental potential is overexcitability (OE), a heightened physiological experience of stimuli resulting from increased neuronal sensitivities. The greater the OE, the more intense are the day-to-day experiences of life. Dabrowski outlined five forms of OE: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional. These overexcitabilities, especially the latter three, often cause a person to experience daily life more intensely and to feel the extremes of the joys and sorrows of life profoundly. Dabrowski studied human exemplars and found that heightened overexcitability was a key part of their developmental and life experience. These people are steered and driven by their value “rudder”, their sense of emotional OE. Combined with imaginational and intellectual OE, these people have a powerful perception of the world.

Although based in the nervous system, overexcitabilities come to be expressed psychologically through the development of structures that reflect the emerging autonomous self. The most important of these conceptualizations are dynamisms: biological or mental forces that control behavior and its development. Instincts, drives and intellectual processes combined with emotions are dynamisms. With advanced development, dynamisms increasingly reflect movement toward autonomy.

Abilities and talents

The second arm of developmental potential, specific abilities and talents, tends to serve the person’s developmental level. As outlined, people at lower levels use talents to support egocentric goals or to climb the social and corporate ladders. At higher levels, specific talents and abilities become an important force as they are channeled by the person’s value hierarchy into expressing and achieving the person’s vision of his or her ideal personality and his or her view of how the world ought to be.

The third factor

The third aspect of developmental potential, which is simply referred to as ‘the third factor’, is a drive toward individual growth and autonomy. The third factor is critical as it applies one’s talents and creativity toward autonomous expression, and second, it provides motivation to strive for more and to try to imagine and achieve goals currently beyond one’s grasp. Dąbrowski was clear to differentiate third factor from free will. He felt that free will did not go far enough in capturing the motivating aspects that he attributed to third factor. For example, an individual can exercise free will and show little motivation to grow or change as an individual. Third factor specifically describes a motivation—a motivation to become one’s self. This motivation is often so strong that in some situations we can observe that one needs to develop oneself and that in so doing, it places one at great peril.

A person whose DP is high enough will generally undergo disintegration, despite any external social or family efforts to prevent it. A person whose DP is low will generally not undergo disintegration (or positive personality growth) even in a conducive environment.


The levels

The first and fifth levels are characterized by psychological integration, harmony, and little inner conflict. There is little internal conflict at Level I because just about every behavior is justified — it is either good for the individual and is therefore “right,” or the individual’s society endorses it and it is therefore “right.” In either case, with a high level of confidence the individual acts as he or she perceives anyone else would, and does what anyone is “supposed to do.” At Level V there is no internal conflict because what a person does is always in accord with their own internal sense of values. Of course, there is often external conflict at both Levels I and V.

Levels II, III and IV describe various degrees and types of dis-integration and literal dis-ease.

Dabrowski was very clear that the levels he presents “represent a heuristic device”. In the process of development the structures of two or even three contiguous levels may exist side by side, although it must be understood that they exist in conflict. The conflict is resolved when one of the structures is eliminated, or at least comes under complete control of another structure.


For Dabrowski, the goal of therapy is to eliminate the therapist by providing a context within which a person can understand and help oneself, an approach to therapy that he called autopsychotherapy. The client is encouraged to embark on a journey of self-discovery with an emphasis on looking for the contrast between what is higher versus what is lower within his or her personality and value structure. The person is encouraged to further explore his or her value structure especially as it relates to the rationale and justification of positions. Discrepancies between values and behavior are highlighted. The approach is called autopsychotherapy to emphasize the important role that the individual must play in his or her own therapy process and in the larger process of personality development. The individual must come to see that he or she is in charge of determining or creating his or her own unique personality ideal and value structure. This includes a critical review of social mores and values that have been learned.

Dabrowski was very concerned about what he called one-sided development, in which people display significant advanced development in only one aspect of life, usually intellectual. He believed that people should ignore their strengths and focus on their weaknesses, thus balancing development.


Dabrowski also encouraged people to see their reactions (overexcitabilities) and their phenomenological view of the world in the context of their developmental potential. The experience of, and reaction to, crises are a very important aspect of this approach and people are encouraged to experience personal crises with a positive and developmental view.

Dabrowski reminds clients that without internal disease there is little stimulus for change or growth. Rather than trying to rapidly ameliorate symptoms, this approach encourages individuals to fully experience their feelings and to try to maintain a positive and developmental orientation to what they may perceive as strong depression or anxiety. Of course, this is a unique approach in today’s world of seeking immediate and total relief of any unpleasant psychological experience (although it can be compared to Aron’s to some extent).


The theory is based on numerous key ideas:

  • That our lower animal instincts (first factor) must be inhibited and transformed into “higher” forces for us to be Human (this ability to transform our instincts is what separates us from animals).
  • That the common initial personality integration, based upon socialization (second factor), does not reflect true personality.
  • At the initial level of integration, there is little internal conflict as when one “goes along with the group,” there is little sense of individual wrongdoing. External conflicts often relate to the blockage of social goals – career frustrations for example. The social mores and values prevail with little question or conscious examination.
  • True personality must be based upon a system of values that are consciously and volitionally chosen by the person to reflect their own individual sense of “how life ought to be” and their “personality ideal” — the ideal person they feel they “ought to be.”
  • The lower animal instincts and the forces of peer groups and socialization are inferior to the autonomous self (personality) constructed by the conscious person.
  • To break down the initial integration, crises and disintegrations are needed, usually provided by life experience.
  • These disintegrations are positive if the person can achieve positive and developmental solutions to the situation.
  • “Unilevel crises” are not developmental as the person can only choose between equal alternatives (go left or go right?).
  • A new type of perception involves “multi levelness,” a vertical view of life that compares lower versus higher alternatives and now allows the individual to choose a higher resolution to a crisis over other available, but lower, alternatives — the developmental solution.
  • “Positive disintegration” is a vital developmental process.
  • Dabrowski developed the idea of “developmental potential” to describe the forces needed to achieve autonomous personality development.
  • Developmental potential includes several factors including innate abilities and talents, “overexcitability” and the “third factor.”
  • Overexcitability is a measure of an individual’s level of nervous response. Dabrowski found that the exemplars he studied all displayed an overly sensitive nervous system, also making them prone to angst, depression and anxiety – psychoneuroses in Dabrowski’s terms, a very positive and developmental feature.
  • The third factor is a measure of an individual’s drive toward autonomy.
  • Dabrowski’s approach is very interesting philosophically as it is Platonic, reflecting the bias of Plato toward essence — an individual’s essence is a critical determinant of his or her developmental course in life. However, Dabrowski also added a major existential aspect as well, what one depends upon the anxieties felt and on how one resolves the day to day challenges one faces. Essence must be realized through an existential and experiential process of development. The characterization advanced by Kierkegaard of “Knights of faith” may be compared to Dabrowski’s autonomous individual.
  • Reviewed the role of logic and reasoning in development and concludes that intellect alone does not fully help us know what to do in life. Incorporates Jean Piaget’s views of development into a broader scheme guided by emotion. Emotion (how one feels about something) is the more accurate guide to life’s major decisions.
  • When multilevel and autonomous development is achieved, a secondary integration is seen reflecting the mature personality state. The individual has no inner conflict; they are in internal harmony as their actions reflect their deeply felt hierarchy of values.
  • Rejected Maslow’s description of self-actualization (Dabrowski was a personal friend and correspondent of Maslow’s). Actualization of an undifferentiated human self is not a developmental outcome in Dabrowski’s terms. Dabrowski applied a multilevel (vertical) approach to self and saw the need to become aware of and to inhibit and reject the lower instinctual aspects of the intrinsic human self (aspects that Maslow would have us “embrace without guilt”) and to actively choose and assemble higher elements into a new unique self. Dabrowski would have us differentiate the initial self into higher and lower aspects, as we define them, and to reject the lower and actualize the higher in creating our unique personality.

2 responses to A positive breakdown

Fire away!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s