Do you ever wonder why some people go through a life-altering crisis only to come out the other side stronger and more at peace with themselves, while others fall apart and struggle to carry on?
It’s hard to predict who will rise from a tragedy like a phoenix from the ashes and who will need all of their strength just to keep their heads above water.
We all hope to be in the former category, of course, but it’s tough to know how we will respond to a disaster or crisis that causes us to question everything we thought we knew.
One psychological theory aims to clarify how such transformations occur, and the types of people who are likely to take advantage of such an opportunity for growth: the theory of positive disintegration.
The word “disintegration” might throw you off – this word is usually applied to situations where something dissolves entirely, burned to ashes, washed away by a tide, or swept into nothing by a strong wind.
However, this word is key to the theory. According to the developer of this theory, it is when tragedy strikes and our previous sense of self or identity is swept away like leaves on a breeze that we are at our greatest potential for growth. When we begin to question not only what we know, but who we are, we are able to pick up the pieces of ourselves that we want to keep, leave the ones we don’t and construct a new identity that is authentic to our true selves.
Of course, it doesn’t always take a tragedy of massive proportions to spark such a transformation, but one observant psychologist noticed that such circumstances are excellent catalysts for change and set off on a philosophical journey to find out how personality development unfolds.
The theory he outlined is one that has survived several decades and remains a persuasive and influential theory, particularly for understanding and encouraging the development of gifted children.
Read on to find out more about what sets apart those who thrive after upheaval from those who hit a wall in their development or even regress.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration
This theory of personality development through integration and disintegration was developed in the 1960s by Polish psychologist and psychiatrist named Kazimierz Dąbrowski. Dąbrowski’s childhood was profoundly influenced by World War I, which began when he was only 12 and continued through several of his teenage years.
Through his firsthand experience with the tragic outcomes of war, Dąbrowski observed that some individuals fell apart while others experienced meaningful personal growth. As many others did before him and many have done since he asked: “Why?”
The answer he put together to this question became the theory of positive disintegration, which in turn laid the foundation for modern theories of post-traumatic growth (Tillier, n.d.).
While there have been many distinct theories of personality development, Dąbrowski’s is different from most in its emphasis on the role of psychological discomfort in development. Some theories of personality development hypothesize relatively smooth transitions from one level or stage to the next, but positive disintegration’s development is driven by inner conflicts, angst, and even trauma (Mika, 2005).
Dąbrowski noticed that those who harness the potential of a crisis or trauma tend to have a kind of psychological extra-sensitivity or “overexcitability” that leads them to experience crises in “a stronger, deeper, and more personal manner” (Tillier, n.d., p. 1).
These individuals were more likely to react to traumatic events with self-reflection, an act that can propel them into and through the five levels of development Dąbrowski laid out. The drives that propel individuals through development can be described as:
- First Factor: this factor draws from the most basic and instinctual level of the self; it is the expression of genetic instincts for survival, including hunger, sexuality, and competition.
- Second Factor: external influences from our education, relationships, and general social environment comprise the second factor; this factor drives most of our day-to-day behavior, as socialization and conformation often take place without conscious thought about how we are making our daily decisions.
- Third Factor: the third factor is the autonomous one; this factor is the result of conscious choice about what we value and what qualities and desires we will reject or pursue. The third factor drives us to behave in ways that we feel are more authentic to our true selves (Tillier, 2016).
You may have noticed that these three factors (very) roughly correspond to Freud’s theory of the three components of the mind. The first factor is similar to Freud’s id, the part of the mind concerned only with meeting survival needs and acting on animal instinct. The second factor shares some similarities with the ego, in that both recognize the importance of interacting with others and taking cues from our environment. The third factor mirrors the superego’s focus on what we perceive as right and wrong and draws from our personal morals and values to drive decision making.
While Dąbrowski likely did not intend to map his theory on top of Freud’s components of the mind, it is interesting to note how influential Freud’s ideas were on psychological theory in the early to mid-1900s, and even still today.
With these three factors in mind, let’s take a look at the five levels of development proposed by Dąbrowski.
What we call normal is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it ordinarily. — Seph Fontane Pennock (@SephFontane) 15 Augustus 2015
Five Levels of Development in the Theory of Positive Disintegration
First, a note on progression through these levels – not every individual will progress smoothly through these levels. In fact, it seems that only those Dąbrowski recognized as high potential or highly overexcitable individuals are propelled through all five levels and emerge with a fully formed, altruistic personality, while many find themselves stalled in one of the levels of disintegration (more on this later).
The descriptions of these levels are drawn from Bailey’s 2010 article on Positive Disintegration.
Level One – Primary Integration
Primary Integration is the most basic, primitive level of development. This level is driven by the first factor, with the satisfaction of basic needs and desires as the individual’s only concerns. Those at this level (generally young children) have no need for deep or meaningful relationships with others, and disregard empathy, sympathy, or any acknowledgment of the needs and concerns of others (Bailey, 2010).
Level Two – Unilevel Disintegration
Level two is governed by the second factor and focused on conformity and social comparison. In this level, the individual is concerned with “fitting in” and is easily influenced by their social group. Some individuals at this level will begin to question the values and beliefs imposed upon them by their social group and will begin the process of discovering their own personal values and beliefs.
Level Three -Multilevel Disintegration
Individuals who began questioning their own beliefs and values in level two will begin to form their own beliefs and values in level three. They will notice the discrepancy between “the way things are” and “the way things ought to be,” a realization that will likely spark negative emotions, such as shame or guilt, as they look back on their mistakes and question themselves and their moral standing.
Level Four – Directed Multilevel Disintegration
The questioning and discovery of level three give way to increasingly goal- and value-directed behavior. The individual realizes who they are and who they want to be, and how they must act in order to be authentic. Those at level four truly care for others and act in accordance with this empathy.
Level Five – Secondary Integration
The highest level of development in Dąbrowski’s theory is marked by alignment between personal values and behavior, and the individual tailors their actions to work towards higher goals such as the betterment of society in general. The individual has formed their ideal personality and experiences peace with one’s self. All motivation is in the higher forms of empathy, autonomy, and authenticity.
Once again, you may notice the influence of another psychological theory in the description of these levels: Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This influence is no mistake – Dąbrowski was a friend of Maslow’s and an admirer of his work (Tillier, 2013). They disagreed on some key points of development, you can see the hierarchical development of increasingly actualized personality in both theories.
According to Dąbrowski’s theory, some people have a higher development potential than others. This doesn’t mean an individual is predestined towards a specific level of development, but that there are inherent tendencies related to the development of personality. This inherent potential is influenced by the other factors that drive the development process.
Overexcitability falls within the factor of inherent or genetic predispositions toward development. According to Dąbrowski, overexcitabilities are “higher than average responsiveness to stimuli” (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 303).
These overexcitabilities can manifest in five different domains (Bailey, 2010; Mendaglio & Tillier, 2006):
- Psychomotor Overexcitabilities: Individuals with psychomotor overexcitabilities will likely have excess physical energy, talk more frequently and faster than others, tend towards impulsivity and competitiveness, and may turn to excessive work to deal with stress or other problems.
- Sensual Overexcitabilities: These individuals have a heightened response to the senses and may feel an enhanced need to touch and/or be touched. They may overeat and indulge in many superficial relationships, but they will also likely have a wide range of experiences interacting with others due to an aversion to loneliness and enhanced need of attention from others.
- Imagination Overexcitabilities: Those with imagination overexcitability have a tendency towards visualization, and are likely to be inventive, highly imaginative, intuitive, and have a greater capacity for the use of imagery and metaphor.
- Intellectual Overexcitabilities: Intellectually overexcitable individuals are persistent and voracious learners with a capacity for intense concentration and theoretical thinking. They will likely ask many questions and have an affinity for logic, puzzles, and mysteries.
- Emotional Overexcitabilities: Those with emotional overexcitability will likely form strong attachments to people, places, and things. They may be highly inhibited, enthusiastic, and concerned about others, social justice, and their own sense of responsibility. Generally, these individuals are able to effectively feel and internalize the emotions of others.
According to Dąbrowski, individuals with overexcitabilities have a greater potential for personal development because they foster a different perspective on the world and drive a more personal and meaningful interpretation of one’s experiences (Dąbrowski, 1972).
While the presence of overexcitability on its own is not sufficient for progression through the five levels and the achievement of the highest level, it plays a large role in the individual’s potential. Special talents and abilities and a strong third-factor drive to self-expression also influence one’s development potential.
Research has shown that the most gifted and talented individuals are also likely to have at least one type of overexcitability (Silverman & Ellsworth, 1981).
Evidence for the Theory of Positive Disintegration
Much research has been conducted on Dąbrowski’s theory, and while there is no clear connection between higher developmental potential and higher development achieved, much of it suggests that the theory is a useful way of conceptualizing personality development.
For example, several studies have contributed to the idea of overexcitabilities driving behavior and career choices, among other things (Chang & Kuo, 2013; Lysy & Piechowski, 1983; Piechowski & Cunningham, 1985; Piechowski, Silverman, & Falk, 1985).
Another study by Miller, Silverman, and Falk (1994) showed that development potential (measured by overexcitability) is strongly associated with the level of development.
Researchers Mofield and Parker Peters (2015) recently confirmed the hypothesized relationship between overexcitabilities and perfectionism.
Among other explorations of the theory of positive disintegration, these studies suggest that Dąbrowski’s theory offers a useful, if not entirely comprehensive, perspective on personality development.
Applying This Theory to Counseling
Due to the nature of overexcitable individuals, especially children, many of them may end up needing the help of a mental health professional to cope. For some, the overexcitabilities may leave them bursting with energy, psychological, emotion, physical, or otherwise. For others, their overexcitability may manifest in eccentricities or behavior that is outside of the norms of normal behavior in their social group.
In addition, while some overexcitable individuals are propelled through the stages of personality development, others may struggle with their overexcitabilities due to an environment that does not foster development or even actively inhibits development.
In general, those with overexcitabilities will likely need extra care, time, and/or attention in counseling. Their extra-sensitivity to their environment and to their own feelings and sensations may make it difficult to concentrate or to see things from the same perspective as others. While this different perspective may sometimes be a boon for these individuals, it can often be a hindrance as well.
When working with overexcitable individuals, it is important to remember that, according to Dąbrowski himself, even those with the most development potential can be stalled or stuck in their development due to their environment and social group. It is vital that you help provide that safe and nurturing environment that will facilitate development into their full potential. For some of these individuals, the counselor’s office may be the only place where they are encouraged in this journey.
The most effective types of treatment or exercises will depend on which kinds of overexcitabilities the client has.
What works for someone who is emotionally overexcitable may do nothing for those with intellectual overexcitabilities, while the activities that help the intellectuals thrive may be absolutely pointless for those with psychomotor overexcitabilities. Whichever type of overexcitabilities these individuals have, there are specific strategies for counseling them that can help.
Baily (2010) lists the following counseling strategies by type:
Psychomotor Overexcitability Strategies
For those with excess physical energy, Bailey suggests helping them find constructive ways to release this energy. Physical therapy and sensory integration techniques may help, in addition to relaxation techniques. For those with the most pronounced cases of excess energy, medication may allow them to better focus and concentrate on the task at hand and help them develop or practice strategies for self-control.
Sensual Overexcitability Strategies
Bailey recommends that counselors help individuals who have sensual overexcitabilities to develop greater self-control and encourage self-reflection. Those easily overloaded by sensual stimuli can benefit from recognizing their triggers, understanding their responses, and taking steps to lessen the frequency of derailment in their day-to-day lives. Physical therapy may also help these people or desensitization techniques to help them shed their most intrusive responses to overwhelming stimuli.
Imaginational Overexcitability Strategies
While it is not necessarily a bad thing to be overly imaginative, those with a higher tendency to lose themselves in their imagination can potentially lose themselves in more negative tendencies, such as delusions and other detachments from reality. To help these individuals stay firmly rooted in reality, mental health professionals can focus on steering them towards creativity rather than isolation. Sometimes this group will need help to keep from blurring the line between what is real and what is fantasy.
Intellectual Overexcitability Strategies
For individuals with intellectual overexcitabilities, psychologists and counselors can help them balance their tendencies towards intellectual pursuits with other important developmental activities. These individuals may end up neglecting their emotional and moral development to pursue only intellectual achievement.
When counseling people in this group, it may be helpful to teach them strategies to counteract this over-intellectualization and encourage them to use their imagination more often. Encouraging them to spark an interest in an artistic pursuit like music or art can help them balance out their activities.
Emotional Overexcitability Strategies
When working with emotionally overexcitable individuals, it is important that mental health professionals understand their unique perspective and the unique problems that come with this perspective. They may need validation from others and recognition of who they are as individuals. They may also need extra support and empathy.
Psychologist Elizabeth Mika (2002) encourages the use of therapies such as cinematherapy (using movies to reflect on the self and further development) or bibliotherapy (using books to reflect on the self and further development) and the instruction in relaxation techniques such as those listed earlier. In addition, reframing techniques may help these individuals see their problems and their tendencies in a new light, which can lead to reduced distress and a greater appreciation for the unique aspects of the self.
A Take Home Message
In this piece, I’ve given a brief overview of Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, a grand theory of personality development rooted in a young boy’s observations of the nasty business of war. While such tragic and profoundly life-altering experiences are excellent propellers of personal growth, they can also leave people feeling stuck.
This theory attempts to explain why some push through the experience and emerge as better, wiser, or more authentic versions of themselves, while others break apart and struggle to put the pieces back together.
I hope this article has given you a general understanding of the theory of positive disintegration, but if anything here has sparked your interest I encourage you to continue learning about this theory of personality development. A short article can offer a good bird’s eye view, but for a greater depth of understanding I suggest adding the following readings to your list:
- The Organized Multilevel Disintegration as an Emerging Order by Krystyna Laycraft (slideshow)
- Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration by Sal Mendaglio (book)
- Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dąbrowski and William Tillier (book)
- Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dąbrowski (book)
- Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dąbrowski (book)
- Psychoneurosis is Not An Illness: Neuroses and Psychoneuroses from the Perspective of Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dąbrowski (book)
- Dąbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration and Giftedness: Overexcitability Research Findings by Sal Mendaglio and William Tillier (article)
This theory is one that I found both intriguing and compelling, and I hope that I have presented it in a way that is true to its nature.