The Theory of Positive Disintegration
by Kazimierz Dąbrowski.
Kazimierz Dąbrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) over his lifetime of clinical and academic work.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration is a novel approach to personality development. The theory is a forerunner of what today is called post-traumatic growth. Dąbrowski described the psychological factors he believed to be related to positive (growth full) outcomes after crises. He called these factors developmental potential and they include a description of psychological sensitivity he called overexcitability (OE). Dąbrowski observed that individuals with strong OE experience crises in a stronger, deeper and more personal manner. The intense experience of crises creates an opportunity for the conscious and volitional rearrangement of the self including a reformulation and reprioritization of one's values and beliefs. The individual forms a new image of his or her ideal personality. With this ideal as a guide, the lower aspects of the self are inhibited and higher goals and aspirations emphasized. The theory is a testimony to Kazimierz Dąbrowski's deep insights into human character and development.
Page created: October 26, 1995.
Page presented by Bill Tillier.
We are pleased to announce that Positive Disintegration, Dąbrowski's 1964 book has been republished and is available at the Amazon link below.
Kazimierz Dąbrowski MD, PhD.
Born: 9/1/1902 Klarówme on Lubelszczyzna Poland
Died: 11/26/1980 in Warsaw.
Photo taken December 12, 1977. Photo Credit: Russ Hewitt, Edmonton..
This site presents information about a psychological approach to personality development called the Theory of Positive Disintegration. The theory was developed by Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902 - 1980), a Polish Psychologist and Psychiatrist.
Both Dąbrowski and his work have faced many obstacles. Personally, he was severely affected by both World Wars. His work always went against the grain. Imagine a humanistic theory promoting personal growth in the political atmosphere of Poland in the 50s and 60s. Another problem has been language. Dąbrowski wrote in Polish and translated his works into French and Spanish. English was the last language he learned and likely the most difficult in terms of capturing the subtleties of his ideas. In spite of these problems, Dąbrowski persevered with his studies of human development, developed his theory and practised Psychiatry all his life.
Dąbrowski passed away in 1980 and his students went on to explore careers of their own. Many of these students continue to study and speak on the theory, most advancing a deeply personal understanding of what the theory means to them. For many, the theory has become a lifelong friend.
Since 1980, there has been a small but consistent demand for Dąbrowski'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 Dąbrowski'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 Dąbrowski and his theory. This web page was created in 1995 to help provide this information and to fulfill my commitment to Dr. Dąbrowski to try to keep his theory alive.
Dąbrowski'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. Dąbrowski 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 Dąbrowski 301 under learning Dąbrowski, or click here.
Videos of Dąbrowski.
There are two excellent video archives of Dąbrowski. When he first arrived at the University of Alberta in about 1968, Leo Mos was asked to interview him with a panel of students from the Centre for Theoretical Psychology leading to a six-hour interview. Second, one of his early students, P. J. Reese, made two half-hour movies of Dąbrowski. These have been digitalized and posted to YouTube..
Thanks to James Duncan many of the sessions at the conferences were videotaped and are available on YouTube.
Be Greeted Psychoneurotics.*
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 Dąbrowski 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 multileveled, the choices between higher and lower realms of behavior occupy our thought and mark us as human. Dąbrowski 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 Dąbrowski, real therapy is autopsychotherapy; it is the self being aware of the self through a long inner investigation; a mapping of 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. Dąbrowski gives birth to that process if he can.
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 it is a sickness 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.” Dąbrowski.
* From the Filmwest movie, Be Greeted Psychoneurotics.
Dąbrowski captured the essence of psychoneuroses and development in his poem: Be Greeted Psychoneurotics..
A very brief sketch of Dąbrowski's theory.
by W. Tillier
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" (Dąbrowski, 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" (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 112).
3). "Intense psychoneurotic processes are especially characteristic of accelerated development in its course towards the formation of personality. According to our theory accelerated psychic development is actually impossible without 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 (to what 'ought to be'), and without conflicts with lower level realities as a result of spontaneous or deliberate choice to strengthen the bond with reality of higher level" (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 220).
4). "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" (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 4).
These quotes capture the heart of Dąbrowski'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 their early family and school experiences. They largely accept the values and mores of society with little question and have no internal conflict in abiding by the basic tenents 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 reaction to, and experience of the day-to-day stimuli of life. 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, for Dąbrowski, 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. Eventually, 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 yields to a critically examined and chosen hierarchy of values and aims that becomes a unique expression of the self -- becoming one's personality ideal.
Dąbrowski 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" (Dąbrowski, 1973, p. 80). The third factor is initially expressed when a person begins to resist their lower impulses and the 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 whom one wants to be and how one wants to live life. With the new freedom and force of the third factor, a person can see and avoid the lower in life and transcend to higher levels. 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 ideals 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 their own personality 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, Dąbrowski 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. Dąbrowski 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...
1). A comprehensive bibliography of Dąbrowski's English work and works related to Dąbrowski's Theory.
2). Synopsis of Dąbrowski's major English books:
- Dąbrowski, K. (1964). Positive disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
- Dąbrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping through positive disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
- Dąbrowski, K. (with Kawczak, A., & Piechowski, M. M.). (1970). Mental growth through positive disintegration. London: Gryf Publications.
- Dąbrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf Publications.
- Dąbrowski, K. (with Kawczak, A., & Sochanska, J.). (1973). The dynamics of concepts. London: Gryf Publications.
- *Dąbrowski, K. (with Piechowski, M. M.). (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development: Volume 1 - multilevelness and positive disintegration. Oceanside, New York: Dabor Science Publications.
- *Dąbrowski, K., & Piechowski, M. M. (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development: Volume II - from primary integration to self - actualization. Oceanside, New York: Dabor Science Publications.
- Dąbrowski, K. (1979, March). Nothing can be changed here. (E. Mazurkiewicz, Trans.), Peter Rolland (Ed.). (Privately Printed).
- Dąbrowski, K. (1996). Multilevelness of emotional and instinctive functions. Part 1: Theory and description of levels of behavior. Lublin, Poland: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego. [A republication of the titles and text of the 1974 manuscript that was the basis of Part 1 of the 1977 Dabor book. Published in English with a new preface by Czeslaw Cekiera. 446 pages. ISBN # 83-86668-51-2. Published in one soft cover binding along with Part 2.]
- Dąbrowski, K. & Piechowski, M. M. (with Rankel, M., & Amend, D. R.). (1996). Multilevelness of emotional and instinctive functions. Part 2: Types and Levels of Development. Lublin, Poland: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego. [A republication of the titles and text of the 1972 manuscript that was the basis of Part 2 of the 1977 Dabor book. Published in English with a new preface by Czeslaw Cekiera. 446 pages. ISBN # 83-86668-51-2. Published in one soft cover binding with Part 1.]
- * Dąbrowski would not acknowledge these books after their publication, for an explanation please see this.
Future Events (Proposed).
Yahoo Dąbrowski discussion group:
A private Yahoo Dąbrowski discussion group.
1). You can join at: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Dąbrowskidiscussiongroup/info
2). You can see the previous posted messages at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Dąbrowskidiscussiongroup/messages/
This site was developed by, and is maintained by Bill Tillier, e-mail: email@example.com
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