This is the third in a series of Sunday posts about Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, using as a starting point his 1967 book, Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration, released in a new edition as paperback and ebook. All otherwise unattributed quotations from Dabrowski in this series are from the 2015 paperback edition. You can also purchase the book as part of a larger collection of Dabrowski’s works at Bill Tillier’s website PositiveDisintegration.com.
Becoming an Adult
A recent Facebook status by a Millennial generation friend caught my attention as I was thinking about this week’s topic (he gave his permission to share it here):
In these few words, Russ touches on several important aspects of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TDP), such as awakening to self-awareness, introspection, self-education, and recognizing a hierarchy of levels within ourselves. Consider the following excerpts from the first chapter of Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration (emphases added):
“Changes in the consciousness of our own person take place primarily in the period of maturation, in which we begin to sense these changes and to feel that we are becoming something else; moreover, these sensations are accompanied by states of temporary depression (something is passing away) and excitement (something new is coming to us), as well as by alternately arising feelings of inferiority and superiority, of contradiction between our feelings and thoughts and of the strengthening of their unity. This state is a symptom of disintegration, but of a psychic rather than a moral character. An infantile individual vanishes and gives way to an adult individual; tendencies existing up until then become weaker and wane or take on a different color; and in their place arise other tendencies, partly foreign and unpleasant, and partly attractive because of their newness.” (p. 35)
“This is the process of becoming aware that there exists in us the higher and the lower, the spiritual and the instinctive, structures. This is the process of becoming aware of the distinctness of the new structure which emerges from the former one….” (p. 35)
The “awakening of self-awareness” is not intellectual only but is “usually accompanied by an emotional component, symptoms of which are the sense that something is passing away in us, that something departs from us, and by depression, by the sense of nascency, affirmation, excitation, and, sometimes, ecstasy” (p. 36).
One way in which TPD challenges our usual notions of mental health and mental illness is that the disintegration of self is not only not always bad but is necessary for personal growth.
However, how often, rather than face or even embrace these inner contradictions, do we run from them as far and as fast as we can? Or mask them with dull pastimes and addictions and drugs, prescribed or otherwise, our main—our only—goal being that of ridding ourselves of the symptoms of discomfort? I can’t help thinking that for many young (and not so young) people experiencing these conflicts, simply knowing that they may be the first steps toward a path of greater understanding and development, rather than necessarily a sign of pathology, could make all the difference.**
Self-Awareness versus Self-Concept
In the video below, Dabrowski scholar and University of Calgary professor Dr. Sal Mendaglio discusses some of his understanding of TPD, including the theory’s uniqueness, the usage of the term “personality,” and how TPD’s focus on the self is different from our usual ideas of self-concept (the talk, “Creation of the Autonomous Self,” is from the 2014 11th Dabrowski Congress, Canmore, Alberta, Canada).
Mendaglio explains that in mainstream psychology, having a strong or positive self-concept (or self-esteem) is the goal, “whereas the goal in the Theory of Positive Disintegration is rather different.” In TPD, we need to disintegrate—even destroy—the self, to split ourselves “into a subject and and object,” so that we see “the higher and lower, the way the world ought to be versus the way it is, but also the way I ought to be versus the way I am is part of that inner conflict”: “[T]he way I viewed myself wasn’t really me. That’s what other people said I was. That’s what other people say I am.”
Acts of Self-Interrogation
What does this splitting of self look like in everyday life? Awakening to self-awareness involves learning to step back from ourselves, to see ourselves from a distance. In his best-selling book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells of how his grandmother taught him to read and write when he was four years old, “not simply organizing a set of sentences into paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it” (p. 29).
The writing assignments, which he also gave to his own son, had to answer questions designed to promote self-awareness, the “earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself in consciousness.”
“She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans.” Between the World and Me, pp. 29-30
This brings us to the end of chapter one of Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration. Next time: Primary Integration and Disintegration
**Note that this is not to imply that some mental illnesses do not require medication or other treatments—I am not a medical professional, and my interest in and understanding of the theory comes from the point of view of a writer and an independent scholar.