Positive Disintegration

I've always assumed existential crises are fundamental to some sort of personality growth; apparently a psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski beat me to it, developing the Theory of Positive Disintegration in the late 1900s. I've found the theory reassuring since it recognizes the importance of existential concerns to personality/moral developments, here the theory is for your future reference.

Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski created the theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) during his lifetime. The theory states that conscious, autonomous moral growth drives a person to operate independently of society's prevailing values. It outlines three factors propelling higher personality development and the five stages of this development, emphasizing that not every person can or will shape their personality this way. Unique to TPD is the positive role of anxiety and psychological tension which help an individual's journey of personality customization; most contemporary psychologists see mental breakdowns as obstacles to growth, but Dabrowski recognized their importance to an individual's moral development.

The Three Factors of Personality Growth
Dabrowski saw three factors required for personality growth. Not everyone has enough of these factors to grow through all five levels, and the amounts of the factors present in people vary from individual to individual. Environmental factors in a person's life can inhibit their appearance and growth; for example, someone with high developmental potential can be stifled by "a poor social environment."

The factors are:

1. Abilities and Talents

People use their abilities and talents to further goals, so how a person uses their talents/abilities shows their level of moral development. An undeveloped person uses skills to achieve either selfish goals or goals dictated by society; for example, a person may climb the corporate ladder only because society praises the ambitious or because "everyone else is doing it." At a lower rung of moral development, sociopaths exploit others' weaknesses for purely personal gain. By contrast, people at a higher, more autonomous growth level use their talents and abilities to actualize their ideal selves and/or their vision of the ideal world.

2. Overexcitabilities (OEs)

Perhaps the most famous of the three factors, overexcitabilities are atypically intense neural responses to stimuli. Dabrowski identified five categories of OEs: intellectual (thought and questioning), emotional (both breadth and depth), sensual (five senses), psychomotor (energy and movement), and imaginational (scope and detail of imagination.) Individuals can possess different OEs to various degrees. People with OEs react more strongly to the world around them and are thus driven to live more passionate lives. Dabrowski highlighted imaginational, emotional and intellectual overexcitabilities as the three most likely to trigger advanced moral development.

3. "The Third Factor" (He Apparently Couldn't Think of a Cooler Name)

The third factor is, admittedly, vague. Dabrowski described it as a drive for autonomy that propels an individual to listen to themselves instead of to social and cultural norms. Unlike the other two factors, the third factor emerges only during the second stage of growth. The third factor affects only moral actualization while the other two factors can affect other aspects of daily life.

Five Stages of Growth
Dabrowski outlined five stages of moral development, characterized by different levels of self-actualization:

1. Primary Integration: Happy With the Herd

At this level, people internalize their society's values and thus have no individual personality. There is no moral conflict of any sort as people run their lives according to custom, including stereotypes. All conflicts are external.


2. Unilevel Disintegration: A Spot of Doubt

This is the introduction to advanced development. Here some conflict arises between a person's internal values and their society's values. The catalyst for this conflict is often external: a death, a mid-life crisis, sometimes adolescence. Unlike Stage 3 people, Stage 2-ers see any differences between value sets as equally viable; there is no sense of one path being better than the other (hence "unilevel.")

Stage 2 often brings doubt, confusion, and occasionally despair. People in Stage 2 must either re-integrate at Stage 1, fall into mental breakdown or suicide, or successfully question society and move into Stage 3.

3. Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration: A Big Fat Mess

People in Stage 3 grow subconsciously dissatisfied with "what is," and start to think about "what should be," in their world and their lives. A Stage 3-er considers different values to be "higher" or "lower" and consciously chooses between them, weighing different systems of thought and action to see what feels best. A sense of the "ideal person" begins to form as the individual shapes a set of autonomous inner values. During this process, empathy increases.

Stage 3 is supposed to be a rude awakening, and thus most people are woefully unprepared for this psychological crisis. They can fall into depression and panic as they realize they can never return to primary integration. The common symptoms of Stage 3--anxiety, moral disintegration, feelings of guilt/shame/disgust/inferiority--are often seen by others as unhealthy but in fact can propel an individual toward higher development. Stage 3 is often seen as the most difficult stage to get through. Most people who hit this stage never leave and die partially integrated with partly examined values.

4. Organized Multilevel Disintegration: Starting to Come Together

People in Stage 4 act according to their clear and refined values, bringing their "ideal self" to life. This self-transformation is planned and conscious, in contrast with the subconscious panic of Stage 3. Internal conflict lessens as people move away from considering "lower" values, and Stage 4-ers' honed senses of empathy and righteousness help smooth external conflicts. The ability to consciously move towards the highest personality ideal brings about a sense of peace. Stage 4 mirrors Stage 2, since both are moral transitions approaching a new level of integration.

5. Secondary Integration: The Holy Grail Most People Never Get To 

 Since Stage 5-ers' values are fully refined and realized, there's no internal conflict. People continue to develop according to their ideal personalities and typically want to help others. Stage 5 is essentially a high-level version of Stage 1, as both feature developmental harmony and mental peace.

Oft-cited examples of people in Stage 5 include Gautama Buddha; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Mother Theresa.
Comparisons to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, if you need a refresher, states that until people satisfy a "lower" or "baser" need they cannot move to satisfy the need just above it.
For example, until a person finds safety, (s)he cannot act on or think too much about improving a sense of belonging.
Maslow's Hierarchy is often compared to TPD because a) both focus on human moral development responding to outside factors, b) a sense of moral refinement awaits those at the very top of each pyramid, and c) both models have a leveled system individuals progress through. However, unlike in Maslow's Hierarchy, environmental factors cannot move a person back down the stages of Positive Disintegration. For example, say we have two people in Stage 4 of TPD. If Person A is attacked by a tiger while Person B sits in a comfortable house, Person A has moved down to the Safety stage of Maslow's Hierarchy while Person B has not. Both are still in Stage 4 of Positive Disintegration because an individual's progression through TPD's steps is largely independent of circumstance; one exception is that a person's circumstances can hinder his/her developmental potential (a lack of education, excessive labor leaving no room for thinking.)

Spotting Developmental Potential
Despite stating that a person's developmental potential is largely fixed from birth, Dabrowski never elaborated what exactly a large amount of developmental potential looks like early in life. From his descriptions of the phenomenon we can guess it manifests itself in overexcitabilities, early and strong moral functioning, and a willingness to question custom; however, we can't truly be sure. For more information, you can consult articles 1, 3, and 5 in the Additional Resources section.

(I'm acting like this article is some massive reference page heh.)

Connection to Existential Depression
Central to Dabrowski's theory was the positive role of anxiety/depression/general psychological malaise in facilitating development. Existential depression is an extremely common part of Stage 3 since it destroys previously held values and makes space to build new ones; hence the sense of moral emptiness. Basically, your existential depression may be part of your personality development if it helps facilitate greater moral autonomy (which it typically does.) If it doesn't, the questioning probably will result in you going back to a lower stage of development--which isn't necessarily a bad thing if it keeps you sane.

This paper discusses how to take overexcitabilities and the Third Factor of TPD into account when treating depression. Unfortunately, you have to have Academic Privileges to access it.

(Yes, I shamelessly copy-pasted this section from my other post.)

Additional Resources
  1. A short article discussing TPD and implications for educators
  2. The website for Positive Disintegration. It has a strange layout, but cites Dabrowski's original works. Check out "Learning TPD" for the basics and "Discussions > Dabrowski's Levels" for more in-depth exploration.
  3. This academic paper, succinct and informative, relates Dabrowski's theory to giftedness. The thing made me cry back in 2010.
  4. There's even a wiki for the theory. It's pretty thorough, but I haven't read the whole thing so I don't know how much overlap with the other papers it contains. Nietzsche is in the credits though.
  5. This article is so neat and sharp, especially at the beginning, that I'm ashamed of my own. Woof. 
These sources are worth a read if you want to delve deeper into Dabrowski and his theories. Happy exploring.


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