Welcome to the Theory of Positive Disintegration

Kazimierz Dabrowski, 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.

Dabrowski developed a general theory of personality development to account for the differences he observed in the behavior of people. During his youth admist World War I and later during his harsh experiences in World War II, Dabrowski was exposed to the lowest human depravity and as well, some of the most heroic acts imaginable. He later explained that he wrote his theory because he could find no theory of psychology that could adequately explain these paradoxes in human behavior.

[link to biography of Kazimierz Dabrowski]



  1. The Ninth International Congress of the Institute for Positive Disintegration in Human Development, Dates: Thursday - Saturday July 22-24, 2010, Chicago
  2. Daniels, S., & Piechowski, M. M. (2009). Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents and Adults. Scottsdale, AZ: [Great Potential Press.]. Gifted children and adults are often misunderstood. Their excitement is viewed as excessive, their high energy as hyperactivity, their persistence as nagging, their imagination as not paying attention, their passion as being disruptive, their strong emotions and sensitivity as immaturity, their creativity and self-directedness as oppositional. This resource describes these overexcitabilities and strategies for dealing with children and adults who are experiencing them, and provides essential information about Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration. Learn practical methods for nurturing sensitivity, intensity, perfectionism, and much more. Great Potential Press.
  3. Mendaglio, S. (Ed.). (2008). Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration. Scottsdale AZ: [Great Potential Press.], Inc. Table of Contents.

Introduction to positive disintegrationEdit

Dabrowski developed a general theory of personality development to account for the differences he observed in the behavior of people. During his youth admist World War I and later during his harsh experiences in World War II, Dabrowski was exposed to the lowest human depravity and as well, some of the most heroic acts imaginable. He later explained that he wrote his theory because he could find no theory of psychology that could adequately explain these paradoxes in human behavior.

While attending college in the 1920s, Dabrowski was deeply affected by the suicide of his best friend and decided to devote his life to psychology and psychiatry. In 1929 he completed a thesis on suicide and in 1937 published a manuscript on self mutilation which already included the concept of hyperexcitability (Dabrowski, 1929, 1937).

While mainly working as an academic and psychiatrist, Dabrowski studied a wide range of individuals he identified as showing advanced personality and character development. For example, Clifford Beers, Yuri Gagarin, Sir Edmund Hillary, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Abraham Lincoln and Dag Hammarskjold. Eventually, Dabrowski developed a theory with five descriptive levels, spanning from the lowest behaviors observed to the highest and he developed an explanation of how development occurs through positive disintegration.

In his studies of personality, Dabrowski found that most of these advanced individuals had a life history of high levels of conflict with society and internal conflicts that led to strong psychoneuroses -- strong anxieties, insecurities and depression. These individuals also displayed a strong tenacity to express and develop their individuality (third factor) along with hyperexcitability, a term later evolving into overexcitability. This overexcitability expressed itself as a heightened response to stimuli and a lower threshold to stimuli, resulting in intense experiences that contributed to psychoneuroses. Dabrowski went on to identify a number of factors he felt necessary to precipitate advanced development and he collectively referred to these as developmental potential. The experiences, emerging from developmental potential, create the internal conflicts Dabrowski saw as necessary to push internal development forward.

A basic premise of Dabrowski's theory is that most people commonly experience an initial primary integration characterized by the adoption of prevailing social standards and mores. The average person accepts and lives by these external social mores with little question or conflict. Spurred by developmental potential, exemplary individuals come into conflict when their developing internal values and perceptions clash with the external views and mores they had previously inculcated. These individuals go through periods Dabrowski described as positive disintegration that challenge and eventually disintegrate the primary integration and lead to periods of deep reflection and soul-searching. Positive disintegration culminates in the emergence of an internally generated hierarchy of values, aims and goals. Ultimately a unique personality ideal emerges, representing the kind of person the individual wishes to strive to become. Advanced development is described as a secondary integration characterized by a comfortable adherence to one's own unique values, goals and ideals.

A key aspect of development is the emergence of the inner psychic milieu and of subject object. At lower levels of development an individual is guided by external social forces and roles and his or her perception is predominantly in the subject state. The individual can rarely see past his or her own needs and desires. As development proceeds, an appreciation of the other as object emerges, leading to acceptance of the legitimacy of the other and eventually the ability to reverse subject and object roles occurs. This is a key aspect of development because when the individual is able to see the other as subject he or she develops empathy, both for the other individual and for humanity in general. This undermines the individual ego and promotes a very authentic, alturistic identification with humanity. At the same time, the individual learns to see him or herself as others see him or her -- as object, and this casts a new light upon one's behavior and priorities. The inner psychic milieu and third factor also emerge and become prominent forces. The inner psychic milieu shifts one's attention toward one's inner life, one's thoughts, imagination, and emotions. The locus of control shifts from outside to within. An individual becomes conscious of the importance of emotion as the basis of individual values and in directing one's behavior. This allows an individual to shape his or her personality (Dabrowski, 1967) to conform to his/her personality ideal, inhibiting those aspects that are less like one's idealized self and enlarging and creating those aspects that are more like one's idealized self.

As part of his integrated approach, Dabrowski made diagnosis and therapy a priority and he developed an approach he referred to as autopsychotherapy, characterized by encouraging an individual to develop self-insight, to experience and learn from depression and crises and to take charge of his or her development.

Interested in the "correlation between outstanding abilities, personality and psychoneurosis," Dabrowski studied approximately 250 "gifted children and young people" (see Dabrowski, 1967, 1972). Dabrowski found that these children exhibited hyperexcitability and sets of nervousness, neuroses and psychoneuroses of various kinds and degrees of intensity. Dabrowski subsequently hypothesized that "a high-level of general and special abilities correlates positively with mental disequilibrium, nervousness, neuroses, and psychoneuroses."

Dabrowski and the gifted. Edit

Dabrowski saw a correlation between personality development and special abilities and talents, a component of developmental potential. He developed the hypothesis that those with exceptional abilities and talents -- the gifted -- would display significant developmental potential including features like overexcitability and, in some cases, the operation of the instinct of self perfection. He also hypothesized these individuals should display neuroses and psychoneuroses, the hallmarks of the process of positive disintegration and hence, eventually, advanced personality development. The application of Dabrowski to the field of the gifted began with Piechowski's introduction of overexcitability as a feature of gifted children (Piechowski, 1979). This publication stimulated a flurry of subsequent work in the gifted field specifically looking at overexcitability, one component of Dabrowski's concept of developmental potential.

In an excellent and accurate presentation Dabrowski, Ackerman (1997) reported the results of her study of 79 students using Piechowski's overexcitability questionnaire. She found psychomotor, intellectual and emotional overexcitability discriminated between gifted subjects and nongifted in some 60% of her group (some 60% were identified as gifted and displayed some overexcitability). An additional 35% displayed overexcitability but were not identified as gifted, leading Ackerman to suggest that these individuals had been missed by conventional gifted measures and, on the basis of their overexcitability profiles, these students should be classified as gifted. Another group of some 24% were identified as gifted but did not display increased overexcitability.

Pyryt (2008) reviewed the research findings on overexcitability and the gifted and concluded that gifted individuals are more likely than those not identified as gifted to show signs of intellectual OE, but based upon the research strategies and testing done to date, the gifted do not consistently demonstrate "the big three," intellectual, imaginational and emotional OE. Pyryt (2008) concluded, "it appears that gifted and average ability individuals have similar amounts of emotional overexcitability. This finding would suggest that many gifted individuals have limited developmental potential in the Dabrowskian sense and are more likely to behave egocentrically rather than altruistically" (p. 177).

In summary, based upon the research done to date, the relationship between overexcitability and the gifted appears to remain unclear or largely unsupported. The relationship between developmental potential, as Dabrowski described it, to the gifted remains to be tested as does the relationship between psychoneuroses and the gifted and positive disintegration and the gifted.

Dabrowski and philosophy.Edit

Philosophical Aspects of Dabrowski’s

Theory of Positive Disintegration

William Tillier

Department of the Alberta Solicitor General and Public Security

Philosophical Aspects of Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration

Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration is built upon four central philosophical ideas: multilevelness, “existentio-essentialism,” the incompatibility of socialization in relation to individual development and finally, the necessity of disintegration in the developmental process. The multilevel approach is reminiscent of Plato’s description of reality and forms the cornerstone of Dabrowski’s theory. The basic assumption of multilevelness is that mental functions can be differentiated into several levels and that development consists of transitions from lower to higher levels. Although Dabrowski’s hierarchical schema is quite challenging, it provides a more realistic description of the complex nature of mental processes and human experience than the traditional, reductionistic approaches of psychology, especially behaviorism. Two levels represent the lowest and highest forms of human experience and function with developmental, transitional levels in between. The lower, “horizontal” level is marked by the influence of biological instincts and socialization – rote adherence to external, social mores, while the highest, self-determined levels are characterized by multilevel experience, self-consciousness and autonomy. Quantitative and qualitative differences between these levels of experience, reflecting individual differences in sensitivity and developmental potential, can be readily observed and measured.

Dabrowski coined the term the existentio-essentialist compound to describe how he uniquely combined two traditionally disparate views of human character: one reflecting the essentialist approach of the Platonic tradition and the other, a more modern existential approach found in the works of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The inherent essence of a person’s character is considered the initial foundation of development. However, Dabrowski observed that in the usual course of development, individual essence often remains submerged as individuality and autonomy are effectively overpowered by socialization and group conformity. Advanced growth must involve a disintegration of this initial, lower level integration and break free to create opportunities for the discovery of one’s true essence, leading to self-insight and a series of conscious and volitional existential choices that will subsequently shape and refine one’s raw essence to create a unique, autonomous personality.

In creating his novel theory of personality and development, Dabrowski incorporated and synthesized several important traditional philosophical concepts, including ideas from Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche;[2] he also contributed a number of unique concepts that we will explore in this chapter, including his approach to advanced development (secondary integration), developmental potential and the role of positive disintegration in the developmental process.


When I was a student of Dabrowski’s, I asked him what I should read to give me a background to his approach and he replied, “Plato.” He said that traditional psychological approaches cannot account for the wide range of observable human behavior and that no existing theory can simultaneously account for the lowest and highest behaviors that people display; therefore, Dabrowski (1964) initiated a paradigm shift in thinking about psychology and psychological development by introducing the multilevel approach. In applying a multilevel, Platonic-type description of reality to psychology, Dabrowski developed a hierarchical model that incorporates two basic levels of sensory perception, imagination, cognitive (intellectual) and emotional function, one representing the lowest level of function, one representing the highest. Dabrowski was confident that levels of both external and internal reality can be differentiated and that major differences between higher and lower levels can readily be observed, described and used to characterize and distinguish different levels. The articulation and description of higher levels allows various dimensions to be compared on higher levels versus lower levels, creating an important vertical contrast. Dabrowski conceptualized psychological development as:

the transition from lower, automatic and rigidly organized mental structures and functions to higher, creative, self-controlled and authentic forms of mental life – developmental psychology is unable to give a satisfactory account of this process without the use of the concept of multilevelness (Dabrowski, 1973, p. ix). In summary, psychological development is a function of the level of organization and, using the multilevel approach, we can differentiate different forms and levels of development among people. Multilevelness differentiates psychological dimensions and functions into several levels and provides a critical new methodology to understand the fundamental differences observed in human development and behavior.

Plato’s Cave

Dabrowski’s multilevel description of development shares several aspects in common with Plato’s approach. For Plato (Cavalier, 1990) lower levels were associated with limited consciousness and with crude, simple or mistaken perceptions. Plato made his approach readily accessible in his analogy of the cave. The average person is a prisoner, sitting among his or her peers, in a large underground cavern. The group passively watches life unfold on the wall of the cave in front of them. Taking all autonomy away, the prisoners are chained to their seats and unable to turn around to comprehend their circumstances, however their senses are so dulled that they do not even realize their bonds. Unbeknownst to the group, this perceived life is simply a low level illusion, a procession of images projected on the wall. This shadow play is contrived by the politic of the day and delivered by puppet masters. Positioned behind the prisoners, these puppeteers (representatives of the state and educational system) use shadow puppets to portray life, as they want it to be perceived. To further emphasize the contrived nature of this illusion, Plato describes an artificial source of light – a campfire at the back of the cave provides the light for the puppet show. At some point, a prisoner begins to question things and makes the decision that he or she wants to discover the truth. Eventually, this somewhat special prisoner (Plato referred to him or her as the philosopher or the intellectual) is able to break free and see the overall situation. The prisoner stumbles toward a dim light seeping in from the entrance to the cave. Guided by this tenuous ray of sunlight, the prisoner must make a long and treacherous journey, eventually leading to the surface – this arduous path demands tremendous strength, determination and a special inner essence or character. Many try but fail to make it to the surface. For those who do stumble into the sunlight, life now takes on a completely different perspective – there is a qualitative paradigm shift in perception. Plato recognized that the prisoner’s impulse may be to stay in the sun and perhaps even look for more opportunities to ascend, so he clearly described the moral imperative of the prisoner who has “seen the light” – to return to the cave and help enlighten his or her peers. Further individual enlightenment must be curtailed until the last prisoner is free from the cave. Unfortunately, in transitioning from the bright sunlight back into the dimly lit cave, the prisoner is temporarily blinded and flails to discover his or her way. The remaining prisoners hear a wild story they can barely comprehend and fearing that this escaped prisoner has gone mad, they react by killing the enlightened messenger.

Individuals at the level of primary integration in Dabrowski’s model share much in common with the lot of Plato’s prisoners. For Dabrowski, the average person passively accepts socialization, endorsing an externally derived day-to-day reality with very little critical question or review. Dabrowski believed the well-socialized person displays very little individuality or authenticity and therefore, he considered the average person to be at a primary, basic level of development.

evolution and dissolution

In applying multilevelness to psychology, Dabrowski endorsed the multilevel approach of John Hughlings Jackson’s work on the nervous system.[3] In his influential 1884 Croonian lectures, entitled “On the evolution and dissolution of the nervous system,” Jackson outlined an evolutionary, level based model of the nervous system describing differences between lower and higher levels (Jackson, 1884; also, see Taylor, 1958). Three variables distinguish among levels: lower levels are simpler, more organized and more automatic or reflexive; higher levels are more complex, less organized and more deliberate or volitional. In addition, the operation of lower levels tends to be subordinate to the control of higher levels. Jackson described evolution (development) as the movement from lower to higher levels and therefore toward more complexity, less organization and more deliberate, voluntary actions. Dabrowski included these attributes in his definition of higher levels: “[B]y higher level of psychic development we mean a behavior which is more complex, more conscious and having greater freedom of choice, hence greater opportunity for self-determination” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 70).

Dabrowski emphasized that higher levels differ on both quantitative and qualitative dimensions when compared to lower levels. Psychology commonly recognizes quantitative differences, for example, intelligence is commonly differentiated into levels on the basis of differences in test scores. However, Dabrowski perceived that advanced development displays another important aspect: at some point, major qualitative differences appear; for example, an individual’s basic perception of reality is literally different at the highest levels compared to lower. Qualitative differences become an important descriptive feature; starkly differentiating advanced development from lower level function, thus providing an evidentiary basis for the classification of personality and development.

Essence and existentialism

Dabrowski (1972) believed that an individual’s genetics make an important contribution to his or her eventual development. I recall that he used to say that the best genetics cannot be suppressed by the worst environment and the worst genetics cannot be assisted by the best environment while the outcome of so-so genetics is determined by the environment. Each individual possesses an inner essence, comprised of the central qualities and traits of one’s personality. However, this essence is not strictly fixed, rather it exists as a potential that may or may not be developed. In addition, this essence may be positive and act to enhance development or may be negative and act to limit development. It also may include a broad spectrum of features including influences from our animal ancestry, uniquely authentic human traits and perhaps a flash or two of genius. The expression of this individual essence is also not a given. Dabrowski (1973) believed that personality must be achieved – constructed, through a series of individual, conscious choices that distinguish between that which is “more myself” versus that which is “less myself.” As development progresses, insight and self-awareness emerge. At a certain point, “the individual becomes aware of what is his own ‘essence’; that is to say, what are his aims and aspirations, his attitudes, his relations with other people” (Dabrowski, 1973, p. 109, also see McGraw, 1968). The individual constructs a personality ideal based upon this initial essence along with his or her imagined possibilities, dreams and aspirations. As the image of the personality ideal becomes more and more clear, the individual can compare and contrast this ideal with his or her initial essence and, based upon vertical, multilevel comparisons, he or she can make conscious and volitional choices about what to emphasize and what aspects to inhibit. In this way, the full and final expression of one’s character reflects both the essence of who one is as well as the ongoing choices that one makes.

In addition to “character” essence, Dabrowski also described several other innate factors that also play critical roles in determining the developmental trajectory of an individual. These include the creative instinct, the instinct towards self perfection, dynamisms; the ultimate combination of drives and emotions that provide the energy for development and finally, a constellation of factors he referred to as developmental potential. Dabrowski defined developmental potential as “the constitutional endowment which determines the character and the extent of mental growth possible for a given individual” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 293). Several key features can be used to assess developmental potential, including overexcitability, special abilities and talents and autonomous factors (primarily the third factor).

We can summarize Dabrowski’s unusual “existentio-essentialist” approach by saying that the individual must become aware of his or her unique traits – essence, and subsequently make volitional existential choices that shape and express this essence to fully express an individualized personality ideal. Dabrowski makes it clear that “essence is more important than existence for the birth of a truly human being” and goes on to say, “there is no true human existence without genuine essence” (Cienin, 1972, p. 11). Recognizing the unique contributions of essence, developmental potentials and existential choice and understanding how they interact provides us with a powerful new insight into understanding development.

Socialization Squelches Autonomy

Influenced by Jahoda (1958), Dabrowski used a positive approach in defining mental health. Rejecting definitions based simply upon the absence of mental disease, or upon some quantitative measure of social adjustment, Dabrowski defined mental health based upon the presence of various new and qualitatively different characteristics, for example, the presence of an autonomous, consciously derived hierarchy of values reflecting the unique personality of the individual. These qualitative differences among levels reflect the developmental status of an individual. Following Jackson, Dabrowski (1964, 1972) hypothesized that lower levels demonstrate simpler, more organized and more rigid, resilient psychological structures. However, Dabrowski’s observation was that these structures are typically subordinate to biological forces (instincts) and the influence of the social environment. Thus, at the primary level, personal ideals, goals and values are subordinate to externally derived mores and standards and display very limited self-consciousness, individuality or autonomy. The “so-called average” socialized individual displays a well unified, organized and coordinated integration of psychological features that forms the basis of traditional conceptualizations of psychological integration and that usually connote a positive aspect. However, Dabrowski differentiated two types of integration, the lower, initial primary integration reflecting socialization, which carried an adevelopmental connotation and a higher, secondary positive integration associated with advanced development, autonomy and self-determination and thus reflecting mental health. Dabrowski (1964, p. 122) suggested that individuals at the primary level do not exhibit individual personalities and he went so far as to conclude that the “absence of the development of personality means the absence of mental health.”

Dabrowski was not the first to be concerned with the negative impact of socialization on human authenticity. Kierkegaard (Kaufmann, 1969) clearly spelled out similar concerns, saying that reliance on social roles and Church doctrine prevents the individual from “real action.” McDonald captures Kierkegaard’s position, saying:

Kierkegaard’s central problematic was how to become a Christian in Christendom. The task was most difficult for the well-educated, since prevailing educational and cultural institutions tended to produce stereotyped members of ‘the crowd’ rather than to allow individuals to discover their own unique identities. (McDonald 2007, Section 2, para. 1) The crowd robs the person of individual responsibility. Instead of defining one’s self based upon external social mores and roles, Kierkegaard (Kaufmann, 1969, Palmer, 1996) suggested that the only true freedom for an individual is the heavy responsibility of being able to choose one’s self – to construct one’s self, one’s beliefs and one’s values through the successive decisions that one makes in day-to-day life. In a position similar to Dabrowski’s, Kierkegaard connected consciousness with the vertical comparison of the lower, actual situation versus the higher alternative of what is possible – Dabrowski’s (1967, p. 194) adjustment to what “is” versus adjustment to want “ought to be.” This consciousness creates self-doubt and anxieties; once we become conscious of a door, we wonder what is behind it and whether we should choose to open it or not. While many try to deny the existence of the door and its attendant choices, the only true solution is to become fully conscious of reality and live with the dread and anxiety associated with choosing. Kierkegaard (cited in Dabrowski, 1967 p. 36) said these choices are critical in creating a self: “A man possesses his own self as determined by himself, as someone selected by himself.” To deal with and surmount these anxieties and to follow through in making a choice based upon one’s values and faith reaffirms and demonstrates human authenticity. I can illustrate the point from my own life experience. While learning to fly, during my first solo flight, I looked at the seat beside me and saw that it was empty. I was immediately struck by the awareness that I was alone and that my life was up to me now – I alone had to land this airplane. All of a sudden, I became aware of a choice and felt the uncertainty and angst over the possibility that I could choose not to land but to crash. I did decide to land and before my next flight, I paused for a moment to bolster my faith that I would make the same decision again. Kierkegaard and Dabrowski would probably say that in this realization and in making the conscious choice to land, I had taken responsibility over my life as an individual and in doing so, at least for this moment, had chosen the authentic path. Of course, my instructor expected me to simply carry out my training to land the plane safely (by rote if necessary) and I also had the conscious thought that I wanted to perform well and not let him down. However, had I simply landed without the internal realization of my existential choice, I would never have had this experience of self-awareness, momentary uncertainty and dread or the subsequent feeling of self-determination and self-satisfaction.

Nietzsche (1968) was even more critical of the role played by society. Nietzsche suggested that all schemes of morality are simply dogmas of the day, representing “herd moralities,” that deny individuals from developing their own values by averaging mores “to the middle and the mean” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 159). The morality of the herd reflects a homogenization where the group mean now dictates values and ideals; representing the place where the numerical majority finds itself. Reflecting Kierkegaard and Dabrowski, Nietzsche also felt that adopting mores derived from socialization suspends the individual from the need to review his or her individual value assumptions and the responsibility to develop an individual, autonomous morality. The individual becomes content to simply conform and loses any internal motivation to develop him or herself. Using the analogy of a camel, an unquestioning beast of burden, Nietzsche suggests that the average person learns to kneel and accept the expectations and duties imposed by society, reacting with fear and guilt if he or she fails to do so. In particular, Nietzsche rejected religion, suggesting that belief in religion absolves the individual of the responsibility of self-development.

Exemplars of Advanced Development

In contrast to primary integration, advanced development is characterized by more complex (but less well organized) structures that now become subordinate to a new master – individual autonomy, characterized by self-control, full self-consciousness and the creation of an internal value structure that comes to direct behavior. Dabrowski contrasted individuals characterized by primary integration with persons capable of empathy and self-reflection, for example, individuals like Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Gandhi and Mother Theresa. These individuals consciously place the needs of others ahead of their own needs and they lead by example. This group represents the higher end of the developmental continuum and their secondary integration reflects an autonomous force Dabrowski called third factor, reflecting self-definition, self-determination and the growth and expression of “one’s own forces,” again, the criteria Dabrowski used to define mental health (Dabrowski, 1973, p. 39). To emphasize the critical importance of this autonomous variable, Dabrowski defined personality as the achievement of a “self-aware, self-chosen, self-affirmed, and self-determined unity of essential individual psychic qualities” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 301).[4]

Contrasting the socialized individual, Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also presented conceptualizations of the advanced individual and each approach also emphasized self-control, self-responsibility and self-determination. Plato described three levels of individual function corresponding to three levels of the soul; the worker class, corresponding to the “appetite” of the soul (from the waist down), warriors who are strong and brave corresponding to the “spirit” of the soul (the heart) and the governing class, characterized by intelligence, rational thought, self-control and love of wisdom. Ultimately, there are a few individuals representing the governing class, a class corresponding to the “reason” aspect of the soul (essentially the head). These philosopher kings develop through the discovery ideal forms, Plato’s ultimate level of reality (see Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2007).

For Kierkegaard, the discovery of one’s mortality triggers consciousness and signals the activation of true existence. Although very critical of religious dogma, Kierkegaard emphasized a faith based approach where true selfhood requires being willing to take a leap of faith and to choose the self that one truly is, risking despair in not being able to achieve this ideal. “Faith is the most important task to be achieved by a human being, because only on the basis of faith does an individual have a chance to become a true self. This self is the life-work which God judges for eternity” (McDonald, 2007, Section 5, para. 2). Unfortunately, in everyday life, normality hides the true reality of being; however, when pushed to the edge of a cliff, or when realizing one is alone in an airplane, one tends to see ordinary life from a new, clearer perspective.

Part of our developmental task is to try to see ourselves more objectively. Both Kierkegaard and Dabrowski suggest that most people view themselves too subjectively and relate to others too objectively. One of Dabrowski’s key developmental features is subject-object in oneself, “a process of looking at oneself as if from outside (the self as object) and of perceiving the individuality of others (the other as subject, i.e. individual knower)” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 305). This perceptual shift allows one to develop insight into one’s mental life in order to better understand and critically evaluate oneself.

Kierkegaard (Palmer, 1996) described what he called stages in life’s way comprising three spheres of selfhood that the individual may choose from, each characterized by its own unique worldview. The lowest, aesthetical sphere is illustrated by the sensuality and hedonism of Don Juan. This level is subhuman because one is governed by the same forces that control animals. Today, this level may be illustrated by the selfishness of the “dog eat dog” businessperson who values profits and deal-making above all else. As mentioned above, this corresponds to Dabrowski’s primary level of integration. In order to break out of this inauthentic existence, the individual must embody Kierkegaard’s famous either/or (Palmer, 1996). The individual either must accept his or her lower self or must consciously decide to will an end to this old self and take a “leap of faith” to build a new, true self. The next, ethical sphere is characterized by ethical and moral responsibilities as expressed in a commitment to self-perfection, attaining one’s ideals and in commitments to others. Like Dabrowski, Kierkegaard was less concerned with what ideals are chosen than with the process – the autonomy employed in establishing one’s ideals.

The final, religious sphere involved another leap of faith, this time, a personal leap into an infinite abyss – one does not come to know God through belief in ideas or through the reasoning of the intellect; one comes to know God through making an eternal leap of faith. In making this final leap, the individual also finally constructs him or herself. This moment highlights the responsibility of self-construction; one is initially filled with angst, anxiety and dread. This anxiety reflects the realization of the burden of making eternal choices but it also reflects the exhilaration and the freedom of being able to choose. Each choice is frozen in time as it carries fourth into eternity; however, each new moment is another opportunity to choose again. As Kierkegaard said, the self is constructed through repeated avowals of faith – that is, the self continually relates to itself and to faith as its creative power, through the day-to-day choices one makes and the ongoing leaps of faith these choices demonstrate. Individuals attaining this high level of development are rare; Kierkegaard called them Knights of Faith. For Kierkegaard, this process of self-creation produced an authentic individual value structure culminating in authentic human acts, thus, to make this final leap is to be an authentic human. Ultimately, the sum of our choices, values, personality and acts will stand to be judged by God.


We have already mentioned the analogy of the camel that Nietzsche used to describe the masses. In a transformation similar to Plato’s prisoner discovering the sunlight, a few of Nietzsche’s “camels” come to question the status quo and transform themselves into lions seeking to capture freedom and autonomy. Nietzsche used a lion to symbolize the higher man, noting that it takes the might of a beast of prey to steal freedom away from the dogma of socialization – the “thou shalt” – the idea that others tell us what we must believe, accept as truth, and what we must do (and our corresponding love of blind compliance to these external rules). The lion must kill the dragon of the thou shalt to create an opportunity – the right to pursue new values and a freedom for new creation. At the highest level, the lion must transform into a child in order to create new values. Not having been acculturated and with no sense of the “thou shalt,” the child is innocent and without guilt. The superhuman/child thus represents a new model of individuality – “the spirit now wills its own will, the spirit sundered from the world now wins its own world” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 55). Nietzsche described the individual’s will to power as the need to become more, the will to act in life and not merely react to life. In a description reminding us of Dabrowski’s third factor, the will to power is not power over others, but the feelings of creative energy and control over oneself that are necessary to achieve self-creation, self-direction and to express individual creativity. The individual uses his or her will to power to reject, reevaluate and overcome old ideals and moral codes and to create new ones. Nietzsche (1961) said that this is a continual process of self-overcoming by which superhumans take control of their genealogies and write their own stories (members of the herd have their life stories written for them).

Disintegration in the Process of Development

Jackson’s (1884) approach to development was influential in the early understanding of mental illness: that the highest levels with the most complexity will display the least organization and will therefore be less stable, more fragile and prone to breakdown. In Jackson’s widely accepted view, mental illness involved “dissolution” of higher levels that allowed the expression of lower, simpler and more automatic ones. Dabrowski (1964) rejected this position and presented the idea that in many cases, the breakdown of “higher-level” integrations (Jackson’s dissolutions) play a key role in evolution and are required developmental features, needed to transform and reorganize one’s internal psychological makeup. Dabrowski emphasized how difficult it is to break free of peer pressure and overcome the inertia of socialization and his observations led him to the conclusion that psychological development requires that these early integrations be broken apart – autonomous, individual development cannot take place based upon a foundation of biological instincts and socialization. On the contrary, advanced development consists of a conscious and deliberate inhibition of lower instincts, impulses for self-satisfaction and the inhibition of externally derived, stereotypical, socially based reactions. Development consists of a conscious and deliberate expansion of autonomous features, for example, the creation of an individual hierarchy of values and description of one’s personality ideal. Dabrowski observed that the lives of people who display secondary integration invariably exhibit long periods of disintegration, characterized by strong conflicts, crises and suffering. “The consequence of these observations was a hypothesis that in normal individuals every manifestation of development is, to a greater or lesser degree, related to disintegration, and that in very creative individuals development is strongly correlated with inner disharmony, nervousness and some forms of neurosis” (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 20). Dabrowski (1964) also suggested that this reorganization is not primarily cognitive or intellectual; instead, it involves a basic breakdown and reconstruction of the emotional structures. Dabrowski (1964) called this process positive disintegration to stress its developmental direction and to differentiate it from negative disintegrations described by Jackson and by traditional conceptualizations of mental illness.

The theory of positive disintegration delineates three phases of disintegration; unilevel disintegration and two types of multilevel disintegration. Unilevel disintegration is characterized by conflicts with a horizontal focus – conflicts between impulses, features and emotional states on the same level. These conflicts feature strong ambivalence and ambitendency – the individual is equally pulled, first one way and then the other; however, there is little practical difference between the available alternatives. There is very limited consciousness or self-consciousness involved in the decision-making. These conflicts are not developmental per se because they do not provide “a way up” and they involve little transformation. Unilevel disintegrations usually end in a reintegration back at the initial level; without reintegration, prolonged periods of unilevel disintegration may create crises “without exit” (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 135), leading to suicidal tendencies or psychosis. For Dabrowski, the crux of development involved a qualitatively new type of conflict, a vertical or multilevel conflict between higher and lower levels of functions. The discovery of higher levels in the external environment and the subsequent awareness and self-consciousness of multilevelness in one’s own psychological structures creates the forces necessary for multilevel positive disintegration. The “vertical solution” to internal conflicts is the hallmark of development. “One also has to keep in mind that a developmental solution to a crisis means not a reintegration [at the same or lower level] but an integration at a higher level of functioning” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 245). Ultimately and in the ideal situation, development culminates in the formation of a secondary integration based on self-definition and autonomy.

Nietzsche’s description of human development, delivered through a character named Zarathustra, mirrors Dabrowski’s. Zarathustra is descending from a mountaintop cave where he has spent ten years seeking wisdom. On his descent, he passes a man who had previously known him and the man comments that it is apparent Zarathustra is now different – he has become the enlightened one – a child. Coming to the first village he sees, Zarathustra stops to watch a circus tightrope walker. He begins to speak to the assembled crowd, who assume he is part of the circus act. “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people: I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 41). Zarathustra continues “[Y]ou have made your way from the worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now man is more of an ape than any ape” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 41-42). Using the analogy of the tightrope walker, Zarathustra says that we are this rope, a bridge connecting animal and superman. To develop, we need to go across this rope, risking the fall into the abyss below while moving away from animal toward superhuman. The crowd reject Zarathustra’s story and he warns us: “You Higher Men, learn this from me: In the market-place no one believes in Higher Men. And if you want to speak there, very well, do so! But the mob blink and say: ‘We are all equal’” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 297). The people in the mob have accepted their roles and collective definitions from their cultural milieu – for the mob, there are no Higher Men, all stand equal before God. As we have seen, Nietzsche’s solution was to declare God dead, thus resurrecting and freeing the Higher Man by creating the opportunity for the individual to exercise autonomy and to spark the desire to release his or her higher potentialities. “God has died: now we desire – that the Superman shall live” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 297). Unfortunately, the mob react to Zarathustra in much the same way that Plato’s enlightened prisoner was received – he is considered either insane or simply a fool and Zarathustra laments his reception: “I want to teach men the meaning of their existence: which is the superman, the lightning from the dark cloud man. But I am still distant from them, and my meaning does not speak to their minds” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 49).

Just as Plato’s prisoners unquestioningly derive their values from their social shadow play, Nietzsche’s mob uncritically take their ideals of “good and evil” from the cultural and religious conventions of the day. Nietzsche called on us to resist the impulse to submit to “slave morality” and to “undertake a critique of the moral evaluations themselves” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 215). Zarathustra tells us the superhuman must overcome his or her acculturated self and apply the will to power to a momentous new creativity – to building a truly autonomous self. Thus, superhumans move beyond “good and evil” through a deep reflection on their own basic instincts, emotions, character traits, and senses: they go on to develop their own individual values for living, analogous to the hierarchy of values and personality ideal described in Dabrowski’s theory. Emphasizing the need to create one’s own values, Nietzsche (1968, p. 12) said: “Fundamental thought: the new values must first be created – we shall not be spared this task!” Nietzsche emphasized that the process of value creation and the new values must not be prescriptive: “‘This – is now my way, – where is yours?’ Thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way.’ For the way – does not exist!” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 213).

Again reflecting Dabrowski’s approach, the shift to a superhuman perspective involves a qualitative change in the way one views life. The “here and now” takes on a new perspective; life is not lived for the promise of some better future (for example, in heaven), rather, every second of life is now seen and valued for its intrinsic worth and contribution to our existence. In eliminating God, Nietzsche also eliminates Kierkegaard’s eternal and ultimate judge; therefore, in creating a new value structure and self, Nietzsche’s superhuman now must take on the responsibility of becoming judge of his or her self. “Can you furnish yourself your own good and evil and hang up your own will above yourself as a law? Can you be judge of yourself and avenger of your law?” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 89).

This developmental process represents the rebirth of Man and the creation of new, human, life-affirming values in this real and finite (temporal) world. These new beliefs reflect our intrinsic will to be more and our ability to transcend, to constantly overcome our old self and to create a new self and new works.

Nietzsche described the chaos and hardship involved in self-creation, including the need to overcome seven “devils” on the way to personality development (see Nietzsche, 1961, p. 90). Reminiscent of Dabrowski’s personality ideal, the superhuman develops a clear, internal view of his or her “calling,” that now must be followed and applied through self-mastery. The will to power is involved in this development in two stages; first, social morality (analogous to Dabrowski’s second factor) is used to gain control over nature and the “wild animal” within us (Dabrowski’s first factor). Subsequently, “one can employ this power in the further free development of oneself: will to power as self-elevation and strengthening” (Dabrowski’s third factor) (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 218). Emphasizing the idea of overcoming, one overcomes the external, lower elements of oneself to achieve the ideal, representing the higher elements of one’s self – to “become the person you are” (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 219).

It is important to emphasize that when Nietzsche and Dabrowski discuss ideals they are not suggesting a prescriptive approach where exemplars and their ideals should be emulated by all, that is, the individual is not encouraged to emulate or desire to become like an external ideal; as Nietzsche (1968, p. 130) said: “All ideals are dangerous.” Rather, the impact of becoming aware of ideals and the lesson of observing exemplars is the realization of the possibility of achieving or emulating advanced development through the creation of an individualized, personal ideal of the self, reflecting one’s essential character traits, one’s aims, goals, values, etc. The only ideal to emulate is the ideal one creates for one’s self.

As mentioned above, Dabrowski reserved the term personality for those achieving advanced development. Likewise, Nietzsche (1968) equated personality with the development of the superhuman and said that few people achieve personality and most individuals are not personalities at all, “only the few are able and willing to follow their fate, embrace the doctrine of the eternal recurrence and overcome themselves and in so doing become themselves (McGraw, 2002, pp. 191-192). Nietzsche was adamant that “the ‘goal of humanity’ consisted in ‘its highest exemplars,’ the self-ruling, self-creating individuals. They are the all-too­ few, fully human if not superhuman personalities. Nietzsche contrasted the all-too-few with the much-too-many, that is, the human, all-too-human, slave and herd-types of individuals (McGraw, 2002, p. 192).

Nietzsche related an individual’s potential to develop to the richness and intricacy of his or her emotion, cognition and volition (the will to power). The more potential a person has, the more internally complex he or she is: “The higher type represents an incomparably greater complexity . . . so its disintegration is also incomparably more likely” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 363). Lower forms of life and people of the “herd type” are simpler and thus, the lowest types are “virtually indestructible,” showing few noticeable effects of life (and none of the suffering that characterizes the superhuman) (see Nietzsche, 1968, p. 363). Nietzsche’s view nicely dovetails with Jackson’s (1884) and Dabrowski’s hierarchical approach to neurophysiology. Nietzsche went on to describe a general, multilevel, developmental disintegration – suffering leads to a vertical separation, allowing the “hero” to rise up from the herd. This up lifting leads to “nobility” and ultimately, to individual personality – to attaining one’s ideal self. This separation finds one alone, away from the security of the masses and, for Nietzsche, without God for company or comfort. “The higher philosophical man, who has solitude not because he wishes to be alone but because he is something that finds no equals: what dangers and new sufferings have been reserved for him” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 514). Nietzsche (1961, p. 90) made the need to disintegrate clear, saying: “You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes!” A state of extreme vulnerability and over reactivity (Dabrowski’s overexcitability) characterizes this transition: “I love him whose soul is deep even in its ability to be wounded, and whom even a little thing can destroy: thus he is glad to go over the bridge” (Nietzsche, 1961, p. 45). The seed must die for the plant to grow.

The capacity to experience and overcome suffering and endure solitariness are key traits of the superhuman. “Suffering and dissatisfaction of our basic drives are a positive feature as these feelings create an ‘agitation of the feeling of life,’ and act as a ‘great stimulus to life’” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 370). Nietzsche (1974) attributed all human enhancements to suffering and said that one’s path to heaven always leads through one’s own hell. Unhappiness, tension and suffering must be endured, persevered, interpreted and even exploited by the soul, thus cultivating strength, inventiveness and courage. Nietzsche foreshadowed Dabrowski’s realization that disintegration permeates our existence and leads to new insights, strength and development. “Thereupon I advanced further down the road of disintegration – where I found new sources of strength for individuals. We have to be destroyers! – I perceived that the state of disintegration, in which individual natures can perfect themselves as never before – is an image and isolated example of existence in general” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 224). “We, however, want to become those we are – human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves” (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 266). These quotations are very reminiscent of Dabrowski’s own words, for example: “We are human inasmuch as we experience disharmony and dissatisfaction, inherent in the process of disintegration” (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 122). “Crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, creativity, and personality development” (Dabrowski, 1964, p. 18). And to conclude: “Every authentic creative process consists of ‘loosening’, ‘splitting’ or ‘smashing’ the former reality. Every mental conflict is associated with disruption and pain; every step forward in the direction of authentic existence is combined with shocks, sorrows, suffering and distress” (Dabrowski, 1973, p. 14).

Physical illness may also play a major role in this transformation, as Nietzsche said, he is “grateful even to need and vacillating sickness because they always rid us from some rule and its ‘prejudice’” (Nietzsche, 1989, p. 55). Suffering many serious, life-long health issues himself, Nietzsche defined health not as the absence of illness, rather, by how one faces and overcomes illness – “illness makes men better” (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 212). Nietzsche said he used his “will to health” to transform his illness into autonomy – it gave him the courage to be himself. In a practical sense, it also forced him to change his lifestyle and these changes facilitated a lifestyle more suited to his personality and to the life of a philosopher.


A consideration of the major philosophical foundations of Dabrowski’s theory illustrates four major themes. First, a multilevel approach is vital in understanding the complex and broad variety of phenomena presented by psychology and development. A weakness of traditional approaches has been a reductionistic and simplistic view that cannot account for the wide disparity observed between the lowest and highest behaviors. Although the multilevel approach presents its own challenges, it is a much more realistic reflection of human reality and Dabrowski refines and applies it as a critical component of his full-fledged theory of personality development.

Second, Dabrowski presents a unique view of the antecedents of development that combines elements of the essential approach to human character with that of existentialism in an approach he called the existentio-essentialist compound. This approach charges the individual with the responsibility of discovering his or her individual essence and subsequently shaping and refining it in a process of literal self creation.

Lastly, each author emphasizes the struggle involved in confronting the status quo and the tremendous anxiety, even dread that results. Nietzsche writes at length about the need for the individual to disintegrate in order to create opportunities for growth. Foreshadowing Dabrowski, Nietzsche places the subsequent task of development squarely on the shoulders on the individual, including the tasks of creating an individualized value structure and a unique idealization of the self that will become the guidepost for individual growth. As we have seen, Dabrowski made disintegration the central element of the developmental process and elaborated its features from a psychological point of view.

While Dabrowski’s approach may be radical within contemporary psychology, as this chapter illustrates, it is certainly not radical as an approach to psychological understanding or development. Dabrowski’s ideas represent the logical extension and application of several major philosophical approaches, highlighted above. Dabrowski combines the elements considered above, including multilevelness, the discovery and shaping of essence into personality and the developmental role of positive disintegration, into a unique systematic approach: a new paradigm for philosophy, psychiatry and psychology to better understand personality and its development.


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