Levels and Dynamisms

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.

Not everyone experiences all of these levels.  Some people seem to be born some distance along the road, and wherever one starts, there’s no guarantee that anyone will progress down it.

There is also some talk about updating these levels (especially Level I and II) based on psychological evidence that wasn’t available in Dabrowski’s time.  I think this is interesting and promising and will explore this in future blog posts; on this page, however, I’m presenting the levels as Dabrowski originally described them.  Levels III through V, of course, are responsible for most people’s interest in the theory, and they seem to be holding up quite well.


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), through one that’s maladjusted and disintegrates (Level II-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.  They are driven entirely by the first factor, i.e., their biological impulses.

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 separateand contradictoryauthorities, leading them to feel trappedBecause 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 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 argues that 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.

  • But what is the third factor, really?  I explore this question in this blog post.


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.


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 dig more into some of these concepts and how one person has applied them, take a look at all my posts about TPD.  You might also wish to follow 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.)

10 thoughts on “Levels and Dynamisms

  1. Thanks Jessie for this wonderful site of yours. I’ve only recently discovered this treasure trove of musings and I’m working my way through your articles, especially those relating to TPD.
    As I ponder this post, it seems to me we are attempting to grasp the transition from passive conscience towards engaged conscience. That all the various dynamisms as they progress from levels 2 to 3 and 4 are all different emergent perceptual capacities of an evolving third factor. So in my mind the term third factor is synonymous with a willful conscience as it ripens.
    Don’t mind me, I’m just thinking aloud here so I can better understand these concepts and your posts are helping me greatly. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why, thank you for such a kind comment. I’m so glad you’ve found something of value here. I think you’re absolutely right about the nature of third factor, and I like the way you use the verb ripening to describe it process through the levels! And thinking out loud is always welcome here. Thank you for visiting!


  2. The Brain, within its Groove
    Runs evenly—and true—
    But let a Splinter swerve—
    ‘Twere easier for You—

    To put a Current back—
    When Floods have slit the Hills—
    And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
    And trodden out the Mills—

    -Emily Dickinson

    Reading your description of TPD brought to mind this Emily Dickinson poem I’ve been studying the past week as part of the ModPo (Modern Poetry) course via Coursera.org .

    My experience of moving toward/into level IV (straddling the edge between III & IV – perhaps just tipping over toward level IV) is one of no return. The knowledge I’m integrating now is part of a permanent, and irreversible transformation – I sense that very strongly.

    On a side note, as somebody abused since infancy and living with subsequent severe PTSD – experiencing institutionalisation and having to work in a sheltered factory for the mentally ill at one point; isn’t it wonderful that what came before has not precluded my movement through the levels? It somehow makes the TPD feel a bit more inclusive, to me.

    Have you thought about the parallel between the levels of PD and the Hero’s Journey? As a shadow worker, I naturally think of it more in terms of the Hero’s Journey.

    Great post Jessie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ro!

      Yes, once you’ve perceived multilevelness at Level III, you can never go back to earlier levels. I haven’t read any theory talking about III/IV in that respect, but I would imagine that once you truly pass out of Level III, you are through with it.

      Bill Tillier, who runs positivedisintegration.com and worked with Dr. Dabrowski as a grad student, has done some work on PTSD and post-traumatic growth as related to Dabrowski’s work. I could find his paper on the subject and direct you to it, if you’re interested. But yes, I love that TPD is accessible to absolutely everyone, provided they have developmental potential. In that sense one might call it exclusive, but then, it only really would exclude the sort of people who would reject its value in the first place. In fact, I think I’ve seen it said by people who would know better than I do that trauma can have the silver lining of helping a person progress through the levels (though of course it’s not necessary to have trauma, and not everyone with trauma experiences positive disintegration, and it’s still not desirable to experience trauma).

      Yes to the Hero’s Journey as well! I read a fantastic article in the Advanced Development Journal that compared TPD and the Hero’s Journey, and it’s a surprisingly good fit. It’s one of the things I’d like to write more about here…now that you’ve mentioned it, I should bump that up my list of drafts. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I found the PTSD and posttraumatic growth paper on positive disintegration.com – thank you Jessie. I will read it carefully sometime soon. It’s exciting that you might write an article about PD and the hero’s journey!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks so much this is the most relevant thing I’ve ever read :))
    I’m currently somewhere between III and IV, and there’s always a huge amount of self-observation required to regulate myself but this new information is totally gonna help so thank you loads and loads. It’s also difficult to remind myself of how much power and influence I could have and how much I could help people around me. But this has motivated me – I’m can see who I could be and I can now see that I can be that person.
    Keep doing the great work 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Benjamin! And I’m so glad you found it relevant to your life. I think you’ll meet a lot of people who are working on getting from III to IV at this site. Please feel free to join in and share your thoughts anytime!


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