Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration: Wandering Upward

This is the fourth 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. You can purchase the book as part of a larger collection of Dabrowski’s works at Bill Tillier’s website PositiveDisintegration.com.

Wandering Upward

“The process of personality building, therefore, is characterized by a wandering ‘upward,’ toward an ideal…” ~ Kazimierz Dabrowski

Chapter two of Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration introduces the concepts of developmental instinct, primary integration, and disintegration, all of which are important to understand in the overall process of “wandering upward” toward a personality ideal. This is also the chapter in which we learn about the role of excessive excitability (over excitability), which will be next week’s topic.

Below are just a few main points and terms from the beginning of the chapter.

Developmental Instinct

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Spiraling” by Travis (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As animals, we are all ruled to a certain extent by instincts and biological drives, such as an instinct for self-preservation (life) or a sexual drive. Biological drives keep us alive and ensure the propagation of our species. The “self-preservation, possessive, fighting,” and similar instincts are centered on ourselves, while “‘companion-seeking’ instinct, sexual drive, maternal or paternal instinct, herd, cognitive, and religious instincts” involve our environment (p. 47). These two different sets of instincts can come into conflict, which is one source of disintegration (see below).

In Dabrowski’s theory, the developmental instinct (or an instinct toward personal development) is what helps us to overcome and transform these more basic drives to serve a larger, more chosen purpose [emphases added]:

“The self-preservation instinct begins to transform and exceed its proper tendencies, attaching ever more importance to preservation of a man as a spiritual being, and to moral action, even to the detriment of man’s physical side. The sexual drive is sublimated into lasting, exclusive, ‘non-species-oriented’ as it were, emotional bonds. The fighting instinct shifts to the area of conflicts in the world of moral values, transforming and sublimating the conflicts into an attitude of fighting for a good cause and into an attitude of sacrifice and love.” (pp. 43-44)

Without the developmental instinct, we would be at the mercy of the first factor (biological forces) and the second factor (social and other environmental forces).

Primary Integration

Dabrowski believed that most people live in a state of primary integration in which personal interests are narrow, and drives and instincts unilateral (without much hierarchy). In primary integration, we are ” incapable of internal conflicts, but often enter into conflicts with the environment” (p. 51).

“[Those at the level of primary integration] are not able to assume an attitude regarding time from a distance, nor are they able to make themselves mentally independent of it. They are constrained by the present moment, by the reality of flowing experiences, by their own type, and by influences of the environment.” (p. 52)

We begin in a state of primary integration. Our basic instincts rule, and we live in the moment without self-reflection, “generally unaware” of a continuation of present and past selves or the idea of a future self.

Self-Awareness: Too Little and Too Much

The movement from integration to disintegration “is usually accompanied by a greater or smaller participation of self-awareness” (p. 55). At one end of the spectrum, a very low level of self-awareness keeps us from observing our own behaviors and understanding our own contradictions. We “commit acts which contradict each other” but are “unaware of their divergence,” so we do not feel remorse or the desire to change.

There is such a thing, however, as being too self-aware:
“At the other extreme we have cases of excessive self-awareness. Such individuals deliberate at every step made. This ‘psychic operating’ on oneself may help development, but sometimes may become an unfruitful habit, a mania, an aim in itself, which deepens the process of disintegration in an abnormal way. Of course, the fact that one is aware of his own internal disintegration does not by itself result in the tendency to remove it.” (p. 55)

Disintegration: Unilevel and Multilevel

We tend to think that adapting to one’s environment is a good thing (and, often, it is), but an important aspect of Dabrowski’s theory is that failure to adapt is a prerequisite for growth. Life’s bumps and roadblocks, whether minor or traumatic, offer the potential for maladaptation and disintegration, conflict, discord, a “loosening” of our previous integration so that we can choose how to integrate at a higher level.

In other words, we have to fall apart in order to put ourselves back together.

All disintegration, however, is not equal. Unilevel disintegration is not hierarchical. It is often relatively fleeting (and when it is not, the result can be mental instability or even suicide). Conflict and feelings of inferiority and shame tend to be directed toward the external environment (other people, circumstances, the world in general). We do not participate actively in the disintegrative process. Often, the resolution is to slip back into comfortable primary integration, but one can also progress to multilevel disintegration.

Multilevel disintegration, on the other hand, is hierarchical and involves a set of higher and lower aims. It can last for a long time. Conflict and feelings of inferiority and guilt are directed toward oneself (we feel inferior to our own standards). We are active participants in the process, choosing to be self-aware [emphases added].

“The process of evaluating one’s own internal environment is essential for multilevel disintegration. The feeling of the separateness of one’s own self increases and this is so not only in contradistinction to the external environment, but also, even primarily, in relation to one’s own inner environment, which is evaluated, is made into a hierarchy, and becomes a subject of more precise cognition and appraising thought. A ‘subject-object’ process takes place in one’s own self. One’s internal milieu is divided into higher and lower, into better and worse, and into desirable and undesirable. There appears here the feeling of ‘lower value’ and the feeling of guilt when one ‘falls down’ to a lower level, knowing that he actually has the capacity to raise himself up. He knows this as his memory tells him of the pleasant moments of past achievements.” (pp. 63-64)

Questions for Discussion

  • While disintegration can happen throughout the lifespan, Dabrowski refers often to the periods of adolescence and midlife in his examples. What is your experience with or thoughts about disintegration during these two passages of life?
  • Do you have experience with self-awareness becoming “an unfruitful habit, a mania, an aim in itself”? How does one scale back self-awareness so as to participate more productively in positive disintegration?

3 thoughts on “Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration: Wandering Upward

  1. Self awareness can become unfruitful in that it can become the primary mode of interaction with the world. Not good it seems/feels.

  2. It seems to me that self-awareness without the understanding that our thoughts and feelings are not fixed but rather reactions and habits, can fixated in a static arena. It makes us feel like we have no control over it. That is often the state of the teen. Particularly is there almost no teaching around this in our culture. The schools de-emphasize the inner experience of life and learning. In midlife, with decades of experience, there is more chance for evaluating one’s life and circumstances. Of thinking into the future and asking, what would i regret not having done in my life when at the end? This kind of question can move us out of the eddy.

    Once we are alert to there being an internal observer that listens to and tracks the internal landscape, we have the ability to recognize options.

    I’m particularly interested in three things here.

    One is the relationship of Positive Disintegration to the idea of Post Traumatic Growth as put forth in Positive Psychology.

    The next is the relationship of this work to the movement of on-line entrepreneurs who build a business around their personal brand which is based upon some breakdown in their life that led eventually to a breakthrough and the resulting desire to share their learning with others.

    Number three revolves around my specific work with entrepreneurs who want to use video to spread their message. It seems that even entertaining using this medium, for some, brings up strong emotions of worthiness, shame, fear of judgment etc. And yet, the potential for growth in overcoming these blocks is enormous when they are held with an attitude of curiosity and at the same time allow room to become more of the personality you wish to embody.

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts in these areas.

    • Linda, thanks very much for such a thoughtful comment. Just a few thoughts.

      1. For post-traumatic growth and positive disintegration, you might find this webpage helpful: http://www.positivedisintegration.com/ptg.htm

      2. The idea of some people responding to disintegration with their entrepreneurship is fascinating and not something I’ve thought about, but it seems entirely in keeping with Dabrowski’s theory.

      3. Video medium, shame, social anxiety, and personal growth are also fascinating areas of intersection.

      If you ever write on these topics, please do let me know.

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