While I was in Calgary for the 2016 Dabrowski Congress, I tacked on a trip to Banff National Park. There, while I was in line for the gondola, a British tourist struck up a conversation with me. It came up that I had come to the area for a conference on a psychological theory, so she asked me what it was about.
“Positive disintegration?” the woman echoed. “Well, that sounds horrid, doesn’t it?”
While I was a bit put off by her sudden lack of curiosity, she was echoing a common reaction. Disintegration does indeed sound horrid, and even the positive form is no walk in the park. The reason it’s positive, however, is that the thing that disintegrates is your “adjustment” to things that maybe you don’t want to be well adjusted to in the first place. As author Philip K. Dick once said,
“It is sometimes an appropriate
response to reality to go insane.”
And what I’m pretty sure that what he means by “go insane” is what Dabrowski calls disintegration.
We’d better define this precisely. So here’s what I’ve pulled from the glossary of Dabrowski’s 1970 book, Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration, co-authored with philosopher and psychologist Andrzej Kawczak and microbiologist Michael Piechowski:
DISINTEGRATION, mental, consists of loosening, disorganization or dissolution of mental structures and functions. The term covers a wide range of states from temporary loosening of contact with reality observable in severe fatigue, boredom, depression, stress, mental conflicts, disequilibrium, neurosis or psychoneurosis to a split of personality in schizophrenia. “Normal” symptoms of disintegration are distinctly and almost universally observable at the time of puberty and menopause, also at times of critical experience, suffering, inner conflicts, intense joy or exaltation, etc.
Suffice it to say, virtually everyone experiences some form of disintegration in their lives, though not the most severe kinds. (In other words, I’m not talking about schizophrenia here.)
And disintegration is certainly not always positive. Dabrowski himself began developing his theory after a friend committed suicide—the ultimate negative disintegration. So let’s make the distinction clear. Here I’m paraphrasing some professional jargon in the Mental Growth‘s glossary:
- Negative disintegration occurs when a person does not manage to harness his or her own capacity for growth.
- Positive disintegration is what happens when a person lets go of the way he or she previously made sense of the world and rebuilds it in line with what s/he determines to be his/her own authentic values.
In other words, they reintegrate at a higher level—that is, a level that is “more themselves” and less directed by whatever unhealthy beliefs have lodged in their heads, whether about their role in society, what constitutes success, the nature of happiness, or what have you. The process takes years and years. It also frequently involves sacrifices.
So we’ve discussed overexcitability already. OE matters because if a person is absorbing and responding to significantly more stimuli than average, that’s also going to include more of the troubles and absurdities.
Dabrowski spoke of the “big three” OEs as particularly important to his theory: imaginational OE, which helps people envision how the world could be different; intellectual OE, which helps a person figure out how to get there; and emotional OE—which Dabrowski considered essential to reach the highest levels of development—fuels a desire to make it happen. People with overexcitability, especially emotional, find it harder to “just let it go,” where “it” could be perceived injustice, stupidity, suffering, cruelty, mortality, and so on.
- Upcoming Blog Post: “I don’t think I have OE. Could this still apply to me?” (Short answer in the meantime: sure, you could still have developmental potential from other sources.)
That’s why overexcitable people are predisposed to develop psychoneuroses. The word “psychoneurosis” isn’t used in diagnoses nowadays, but Merriam-Webster defines it as a neurosis based on emotional conflict in which an impulse that has been blocked seeks expression in a disguised response or symptom. This could manifest as anxiety, depression, interpersonal or intrapersonal conflict, or any number of other mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of maladjustment. Here’s a sample of what Dabrowski had to say on the subject, from positivedisintegration.com:
Without passing through very difficult experiences and even something like psychoneurosis and neurosis we cannot understand human beings and we cannot realize our multidimensional and multilevel development toward higher and higher levels.
Dabrowski based this statement on his treatment of many patients over the years. (Check out a documentary on YouTube called Be Greeted Psychoneurotics if you’d like to see him in action working with patients.) He himself was thrown in jail by the Nazis and later suffered under the Stalin’s lackeys in his native Poland, where he was trying to develop centers for mental health that were not in line with what the Communists wanted mental health to be. So when Dabrowski suggested that it’s good to be maladjusted to an unhealthy society, he knew what he was talking about.
If he’d been allowed to establish his system of mental health, by the way, here’s the understanding on which it would have been based:
In our opinion, much too often in psychology, education, and psychiatry, adjustment is discussed in as positive and maladjustment as negative. In the attitude of adjustment, we can easily isolate two forms. First we can see a form of adjustment to the low level of reality of everyday life. This is a noncreative, nondevelopmental, automatic adjustment. The second form of adjustment is adjustment not to that which is actually present, but to that which arises as a new, higher level of mental life. It may be called adjustment to that which “ought to be.” (p. 39)
If that’s a little too textbooky for you, try this quote from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, which Robert F. Kennedy adopted in his 1968 presidential campaign:
“You see things; and you say,
‘Why?’ But I dream things that
never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”
If you’re thinking, huh, that sounds like a load of garbage; the world is the way it is and there’s no point stressing yourself out fighting it, well, thank you for reading thus far and have a nice day; the rest of this is not likely to interest you. Even as such a cynic may have a point, the quotation above continues to resonate with many people. Those we see as human catalysts and moral exemplars—from Socrates to Gandhi to Lincoln—could be said to be adjusted to what ought to be. I’m sure it’s not lost on you that these men in particular paid a price for that. Nevertheless, we admire such people so much when they emerge, and are grateful for what they’ve given us.
But where do they come from? After witnessing World War I as a youth and World War II as an adult, Dabrowski began to ask precisely this question. He saw some collaborate with Nazis while others risked their lives to save Jews and others facing persecution. He took particular note of the “positively maladjusted”—the people who wouldn’t just go along with it. What his work suggests is that a person who feels the kind of deep frustration we’re talking about here is precisely the sort of person who can become this kind of human catalyst. Let us hope we won’t ever need it again on the level Dabrowski witnessed—but there’s still plenty of work for such people to do.
And we don’t need to focus solely on those who became famous for their great works. TPD can also help us understand the catalysts and exemplars we meet in our everyday lives—people we know and care about who may simultaneously have great potential even as they’re struggling with maladjustment.
George Bernard Shaw would clearly have understood the concept of positive disintegration:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world;
the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt
the world to himself. Therefore all progress
depends on the unreasonable man.”
If you’re still with me, then on to the next page…