Editor’s Note: While my left-wing political group is central to this post on one level, on another, the point is human development. The Theory of Positive Disintegration is apolitical and could certainly benefit those elsewhere on the political spectrum, or with apolitical life paths. I welcome readers from all these spheres.
Recently on my Facebook feed, I stumbled across fellow members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) talking about the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) without even realizing it. It started when someone observed that DSA is an organization of introverts trying to be extraverts for a cause. The following image (which I think came from our funny meme stash) eventually appeared in the ensuing comment thread:
Regular readers of this blog surely see why I got so excited, because “proud to be maladjusted” is a declaration straight out of TPD. And I’ve long thought that TPD is relevant to many who join DSA!
Assuming that people unfamiliar with TPD might read this post, here’s a quick introduction: basically, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, which was developed by psychologist and psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, explores the process that some people—including many we might call human catalysts—go through as they develop their humanitarian, pro-social personalities. For example, I once read a TPD-based biographic analysis of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was born into the upper class but had enough determination and empathy to overcome her personal struggles and become an advocate for less privileged people.
And here’s the intriguing thing: Dabrowski found that most of the exemplary individuals he chose to study had a life history of high levels of conflict with society and internal conflicts that led to strong anxieties, insecurities and depression.
Any of that sound familiar, comrades?
So how does a person go from being insecure, agitated, and depressed to getting picked out by a psychologist for a study of advanced character development?
For starters, Dabrowski posited that they must be born with sufficient developmental potential (DP). There’s a lot that goes into DP. You can look it up if you’re interested (people new to TPD often get excited about the ingredient known as overexcitability). But DP on its own is not enough; certain biological and mental forces must also exist inside the person for that development to proceed. Dabrowski called these forces dynamisms.
And that’s where the process of development can get pretty messy, because the dynamisms essentially disintegrate a person’s lower-level personality. TPD charts this process through five levels, with each level defined by the dynamisms people tend to experience at that stage. If you’re declaring that you’re proud to be maladjusted, I’d bet you’re at Level III, because something called positive maladjustment is the quintessential Level III dynamism. Level III tends to be where people are when they get excited about TPD. And I’d posit that it’s where most people are when they get excited about groups like DSA, too.
Level III is arguably the messiest of all the levels, and people at this level are the ones that psychologists unfamiliar with Dabrowski’s work declare mentally unhealthy. Obviously, the sine qua non of mental health is to be adjusted to your environment, right?
No! Wrong! That’s why Dabrowski, PhD and MD, argued that people going through Level III were on a path to true mental health—something he considered quite rare. (Take a look at this poem he wrote if you want to hear it straight from him.) See, even though frustration and agitation and malaise are common experiences for people at Level III, part of the reason for their maladjustment is that they’ve perceived higher and lower paths for their own behavior, and are trying to get themselves onto the higher path, despite internal and external obstacles. He called this hierarchization, another Level III dynamism. One of Dabrowski’s most important points is that being well adjusted to a disordered society is mentally unhealthy. To make it clear with the extreme example, no one praises those who were well adjusted to Nazi Germany. At lower levels of ambient social malignancy, people will disagree about what it’s unhealthy to be adjusted to, but for those joining DSA, the suffering to which they refuse to adjust appears all too often linked to capitalism.
To be sure, I don’t think the TPD profile applies to everyone joining DSA, or even most of them, but only that such people are more prevalent here than in the general population. Even with this caveat, my observation suggests that we in DSA have on our hands a lot of activists who are experiencing internal struggles that are intertwined with the challenges posed by external structures. For example (and this will vary from person to person), they may well be experiencing the Level III dynamisms of guilt to the extent that they see themselves as benefiting from injustices and shame to the extent they’re failing to live up to their own ideals. I’d suggest that “woke” is another term that often shouts “I’m at Level III!” Consider Dabrowski’s technical name for Level III: spontaneous multilevel disintegration. Suddenly, you perceive the higher and lower—not just in society, but in yourself.
And it’s tough to both manage one’s own disintegration and represent a movement at the same time. Which is surely why, back in that Facebook thread that got me so excited, one of our older, more experienced members pushed back against all the maladjustment pride: we need to overcome our neuroses to be effective organizers, he noted, with a reference to Maslow’s famous concept of self-actualization. (Maslow and Dabrowski, incidentally, were friends.)
I gotta say, I love talking to veteran DSA members. I bet many of them joined the organization (or its parent groups) while they were at Level III, but they’ve clearly grown since then. And the wisdom they’re trying to pass on to us younger members is often packed with clues on how to move from Level III to Level IV. The closer we younger organizers can get to Level IV—which Dabrowski called directed multilevel disintegration, because you’re consciously directing your growth now—the more effective we will be at growing our movement and using it to do good in the world.
Essential to moving from Level III to Level IV is a dynamism called inferiority towards oneself. While Dabrowski’s contemporaries thought inferiority was necessarily an evaluation of the self against the yard stick of other people, Dabrowski said it was possible to feel a very powerful inferiority to the image of the person you want to be, and moreover, that this dynamism was essential to development. Here it is from a primary source:
Without the feeling of inferiority toward oneself no process of self-education is possible. For self-education there must be a conscious personality ideal and a desire to ascend to this ideal. […] Exploratory behavior in either “lower” or “higher” directions, with increasing conscious awareness, guides the individual to clearer resentment of inferiority feelings and toward transformation of himself through self-education. Awareness of those things he has and has not realized is often the basis of the creative tension that moves him toward a stronger process of self-education. Self-education leads to the emotional experience of dualism in oneself, that is, an attitude of “object-subject.” (p. 35, Positive Disintegration, 1964/2016)
By “object-subject” (often referred to as subject-object in oneself, a Level IV dynamism), Dabrowski basically means seeing ourselves as others see us, which is a particularly useful skill for aspiring organizers trying to grow an organization.
But wait, there’s more:
The non-pathological feeling of inferiority is generally associated with transformation of the internal psychic environment. […] The feeling of inferiority in the internal environment of the creative individual and the sentiment of inferiority in connection with the social environment, without simultaneous attitudes of resentment and hate toward this environment, express a favorable prognosis for the energy of the individual to be directed to positive transformation. The feeling of inferiority toward the external environment is negative, or pathological, when it has much more strength than the feeling of inferiority toward oneself. In this situation, which occurs in psychopathy and in some psychoses, there is direct expression of aggressive tendencies. (p. 35)
I suspect that the pathological kind of inferiority Dabrowski’s describing here—the kind that leads to negative maladjustment and disintegration—has contributed to the fragmentation and impotence that has plagued left groups since left groups first crawled out of the primordial political soup. Which is another reason it’s worthwhile to read up on the Level IV dynamisms, with that object-subject mindset! The self-education referenced above is itself a Level IV dynamism, and it doesn’t mean reading Marx or even Michael Harrington; it means, essentially, practicing something Dabrowski called autopsychotherapy, or guiding yourself toward realizing your own personality ideal. This resonated with me when I was reading Jonathan Smucker’s Hegemony How-To, where he discusses how some activist organizations are essentially clubs for people at Level III who are suffering together, aiming to ameliorate the symptoms of their disintegration, rather than trying to reach Level IV, aiming to grow and achieve their goals. (Smucker doesn’t actually use TPD terminology, but he might have saved a few pages if this were in common parlance.)
So now that I’ve written a blog post that could be misinterpreted as saying that DSA is full of neurotic people, let me come at this from a genuinely flattering angle. Our chapter had our monthly general meeting yesterday, and one of our activities was a small-group discussion about socialist feminism, in which women talked about their experiences and then men responded about what they heard. The men were excellent listeners and shared a lot of compassionate reflections that demonstrated strong empathy and suggested they are driven by a sense of responsibility to others, which are both Level IV dynamisms. Our movement admittedly doles out sizeable helpings of guilt to some really wonderful people who happen to be straight cis white men (something to which people at Level III might be particularly sensitive). It struck me then that when someone is reaching for Level IV, they show a sensitivity to others’ different experiences even if they’ve never heard the term intersectionality. I saw that in action yesterday.
So for those grappling with the struggles that positive maladjustment brings, I hope TPD will prove a useful tool, showing the path others who are similarly wired have taken, through disintegration and back to reintegration in line with your autonomous ideals. Because I believe that in DSA, I’m meeting tomorrow’s renowned human catalysts.
If you want to know more about Positive Disintegration, you can check out my beginner’s explanation here. If you’re ready for dense but rewarding primary source material, head straight to positivedisintegration.com, which is maintained by one of Dabrowski’s graduate students. I also invite you to join a longer-term discussion at this blog’s Facebook page, as I have more drafts about DSA and TPD almost ready for publication.
Image credits: DSA meme bank, public domain photo of E. Roosevelt, and Pixabay artists tpsdave, Vectorxue, Mysticsartdesign, Alexas_Fotos, SamuelFrancisJohnson.