One of the things I love about the Theory of Positive Disintegration is that though it is essentially about growth, it doesn’t stop when childhood ends, as though we’re set and static once we hit 25. TPD describes a type of growth that continues through adulthood, though not all adults experience it. Those who do have a high level of what in TPD is called developmental potential (DP).
Dabrowski listed three things that contribute to a person’s overall level of DP: overexcitability, talent or special ability, and something called the third factor, referring essentially to a person’s drive to become his or her best self. A person with sufficient DP will generally experience some form of positive disintegration in her life. Moreover, Dabrowski observed in his work with high-DP patients that their disintegration tended to followed a predictable course. That’s the origin the series of levels that has become one of the most recognizable parts of his theory:
- Level I: Primary Integration
- Level II: Unilevel Disintegration
- Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration
- Level IV: Directed Multilevel Disintegration
- Level V: Secondary Integration
The terminology is opaque, I know. This page, therefore, will walk you through each level, what it looks like, and what’s happening to those going through it. I suggest looking at the levels as a map of a very long road. This map provides way-markers for would-be humanitarians and catalysts who are seeking to forge ahead out of their psychoneuroses to achieve true mental health—as opposed to turning back to the earlier, more comfortable levels, as a lot of people will be urging them to do.
Note that not everyone experiences all these levels. Some people seem to be born some distance along the road, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will progress down it, whether they’re born at Level I or somewhere further along.
Key to understanding these levels are what Dabrowski called dynamisms, one of the least discussed but most important elements in TPD. Dynamisms are forces inside you that propel you to grow by disintegrating the way your present personality is structured and reintegrating it at a higher level, from a well-adjusted (i.e., highly integrated) but unhealthy personality (Level I-II), through one that’s maladjusted and disintegrates (Level III), to one that is reintegrated in a stronger, healthier form (Level IV-V)—simultaneously more authentic and more pro-social.
With that in mind, let’s explore each level. There’s a lot more that could be said about each level and about the road overall than I’ll include on this page; these are intended only as a basic introduction, to give you a sense of the journey.
Level I: Primary Integration
Level I, which comprises a very wide range of people, refers to a state that most people would consider mentally healthy because people at this level do not experience the sorts of internal conflicts that lead to psychoneuroses. In other words, they are wholly integrated, hence the name of this level: primary integration.
An extreme example of a person at Level I whom more conventional psychologists would agree to call mentally unhealthy is the psychopath. Such people are so well-integrated in their drive to follow their own selfish impulses that they virtually never experience any inner conflict at all.
But don’t let that give you a dark caricature of Level I. Indeed, many decent, upstanding, admirable people function at this level, including “salt of the Earth” types. They are those people who derive their values from an external source, including social norms and peer pressure—in other words, the environmental influences that Dabrowski called the second factor—and who don’t feel compelled to question or challenge these norms. Heeding social pressure isn’t inherently bad, after all: it might push someone to be a better parent, a better professional, and so on. If they do go bad, however, their explanation could easily be that infamous claim that they were “just following orders.”
Recall that dynamisms are key to the levels. Level I, then, is defined as the absence of dynamisms, because dynamisms suggest internal conflict.
Level II: Unilevel Disintegration
People often move from Level I to Level II in the struggle to decide between two courses of action in which neither appears to have any superior moral value. For instance, they might be trying to appease two separate—and contradictory—authorities, leading them to feel trapped. Because they haven’t established their own internal values to guide them, people at Level II are subject to high anxiety as they’re buffeted about by those of higher status, by social norms, or perhaps by changes to their own biological needs. Dabrowski called this unilevel disintegration—a disintegration in which the individual can’t determine the higher path. Lacking such a path out of the conflict, this person might attempt instead merely to avoid it or dull the frustration, perhaps by substance abuse or darker means. That’s why Dabrowski saw this as a dangerous stage indeed.
The characteristic dynamism of Level II is ambivalence. As they flounder without a direction, these people’s preferences and moods may fluctuate, seemingly at random. They are likely to experience indecision because they want two irreconcilable things at once. The second factor (i.e. external influences) can serve as a dynamism at this level as the sufferer tries to seek guidance to make sense of their ambivalences. But when the authorities truly conflict and a person’s inner tension compels them to take action, that person might seek to determine which course of action truly is superior—and once they make that call, they’re making a leap to the next level….
Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration
At Level III, a person begins to perceive higher and lower courses of action. In TPD, that’s huge: our suffering soul now has a basis on which to build her autonomous values. This perception serves as a dynamism called hierarchization. It’s why this level of disintegration is called multilevel, whereas it’s spontaneous because emerges and progresses in people without their conscious direction.
The jump from Level II to Level III is the biggest leap between any two levels and is said to take a huge amount of energy. It’s also where the psychoneuroses—the inner conflicts that cause not only disintegration but reintegration—really start showing up. Level III is therefore full of dynamisms that can propel people toward what ought to be, including shame & guilt over their perceived failure to live up to their values and to the image they’d like to hold of themselves, leading to the dynamism of dissatisfaction with and inferiority toward oneself (as opposed to feeling inferiority toward others, more characteristic of lower levels), or astonishment with oneself when an individual feels surprised with how they’re capable of behaving, motivating them to improve upon what is.
All this creates a sort of meta-dynamism called positive maladjustment, in which a person experiences a conflict with the standards or values of her social environment in pursuit of some higher value. If all paths for development are closed off to someone at Level III, however, they’re in great danger of a negative disintegration.
Level IV: Directed Multilevel Disintegration
People reach Level IV when they gain more conscious control over their growth, hence the label directed (or organized) multilevel disintegration. By Level IV, they are actively striving to adjust themselves to their personality ideal rather than to social norms. That doesn’t mean they rebel against all external influences: people at Level IV may choose to affirm those norms, but they do so after reflection and by choice, not out of a fear of punishment, a desire to conform, or an automatic deference to authority. A committed Christian at Level IV, for instance, isn’t following the authority of his church just because that’s what he was taught; he is aspiring by choice to be more Christ-like. (That’s just an example, of course. Religious belief or lack thereof is not related to person’s DP or level of development.)
As we talk about the possibility of rejecting social norms, however, it’s essential to note that a person at Level IV is highly pro-social. This means they are guided by higher values in their interactions with others despite any conflicts with lower level features of their society. Thanks to their emotional overexcitability, people at Level IV have developed and are guided by a strong sense of empathy and responsibility to others, including the need for justice and to protect others from harm. Think here of those people who hid Jews from Nazis. No one thinks it’s mentally healthy to be well adjusted to Nazism.
While the dynamisms of Level III can be traumatic, in Level IV we see the shift toward genuine mental health underway. They are self-aware and exhibit self-control, which seems to have a chicken-or-egg relationship with a dynamism called autopsychotherapy. Dabrowski’s goal for his patients was that they’d develop skill in autopsychotherapy, which involves managing their own mental disequilibrium in pursuit of higher level functioning. This goes hand in hand with education of oneself, which could take the form of any program aimed at growing in accordance with their values. TPD also frequently speaks of the dynamism of subject-object in oneself, which means looking at oneself critically, as if from the outside (i.e., as an object). A complement to this is that the person also recognizing others as subjects in their own right. A person’s third factor takes the lead in guiding them at Level IV, meaning they reject both internally and externally suggested courses of action that don’t live up to their standards.
Level IV is where inner psychic transformation occurs. People truly can change the way they react and behave, becoming more sensitive to others, deepening their capacity for love and friendship, and so on. They can also transcend their innate psychological traits—for instance, an extravert becoming somewhat more introverted or vice versa, as suits their goals. An impatient person can develop patience. A timid person can develop confidence. That this happens through organized multilevel disintegration suggests that the person is really working, consciously to achieve this transformation.
Level V: Secondary Integration
Few mortals make it to Level V. Dabrowski himself said he had never met anyone who had. Certainly the examples that many spiritual traditions revere—the likes of Jesus or Buddha—would be examples of Level V; others suggest that someone like Peace Pilgrim or Mother Teresa may have gotten there; still others mention individuals who did not achieve widespread fame, but quietly lived their lives according to their values and made impressions on others that have been recorded and are discovered from time to time. These human beings have succeeded in fully reintegrating their personality structures at this higher level.
I should perhaps have mentioned earlier that a person’s overall level is really an average of their behavior over time and different aspects of them, so we can at least say that a person could exhibit Level V behavior at certain times. This would mean they are living in accordance with their personality ideal, the defining Level V dynamism.
- For more information: blog posts about the personality ideal
This concludes my introduction to Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. I hope some of you have found something useful that might help guide you on your life path. If you’d like to learn more, I direct you once again to positivedisintegration.com to start; a Google or DuckDuckGo search can find loads more for you. I also recommend the following books:
- Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, a rare reprint of one of Dabrowski’s original works in English.
- Living With Intensity, a collection of articles by different authors which deals largely with overexcitability but also has some good material on TPD overall.
- Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, another volume by multiple authors exploring TPD in more depth.
And of course, I hope you will be interested other posts I’ve tagged with Dabrowski or dynamisms or overexcitability, and will consider following this blog, because I’ll have more to say on the subject in the future. (If you do follow the blog, of course, you’ll get notifications of all my posts, not just the ones about Dabrowski.)