Disintegration in Piechowski's work

These excerpts contain the term disintegration from the work of Michael M. Piechowski, and they were grouped by decade during Chris Wells's 2017 comprehensive review of the literature on TPD. This is an updated and refined version—we have removed mere mentions of the theory of positive disintegration to keep the length manageable. 


The definition of positive disintegration is easily accepted because almost everyone finds in his own experience, or in close observation of his fellow men, phenomena which appear to answer the description. Yet the definition of positive disintegration is not the most important thing at all; in fact, it can be looked upon as a convenient term for a certain type of mental growth process or social process of change. It is true that, unlike other theories of human development, the theory of positive disintegration does not deal with specific contents of human growth such as Erikson's critical stages (Erikson, 1963), or Maslow's hierarchy of basic needs (Maslow, 1965), but deals directly with the nature of the developmental process. It speaks in terms of types of integration and types of disintegration while the specific content of each process is determined individually, culturally, historically, or whatever. But even in this fundamental approach it is still a description. We want an explanation. In order to propose an explanation we need a concept or concepts that would serve the role of irreducible axioms of the theory. I see two such concepts in the theory of positive disintegration: “multilevelness” and “developmental potential” (Piechowski, 1974).

A second criterion of objectively recognizing higher from lower levels involves the sequence of development. This sequence is invariant. This is exemplified in Piaget's theory of cognitive development and in Kohlberg's theory of moral development (Kohlberg, 1963). In the context of the theory of positive disintegration it means that multilevel disintegration is preceded by unilevel disintegration but never the reverse. This developmental sequence has the same character as organic evolution where later forms of life are superior to earlier ones, e.g. mammals are superior to reptiles and fishes (Piechowski, 1974).

It would be erroneous to ascribe to the developmental sequence through positive disintegration the same character as the stages of the life cycle where the peak of development is followed by a decline. The stages of positive disintegration are an open rising sequence of individual evolution (Piechowski, 1974).

We now have to account for the fact that many individuals never go beyond the stage of unilevel disintegration and in the more severe and unfortunate cases become chronic alcoholics, chronic schizophrenics, drug addicts, etc., while others overcome these addictions or emerge from an acute schizophrenic breakdown on their own. In many individuals their personal evolution is indistinguishable from the sequence of stages of the life cycle (normal development) while others transcend the life cycle; their development proceeds with higher intensity and at a greater pace (accelerated development) (Dabrowski, 1970). These different types and levels of development are supported by empirical evidence (Dabrowski and Piechowski, 1972) (Piechowski, 1974)

The developmental potential is strong if all, or almost all, forms of overexcitability are present. For instance the stage of multilevel disintegration cannot be achieved without the combination of at least three or four forms of overexcitability, such as the emotional, imaginational and intellectual. If only one type of overexcitability prevails then we deal with a limited and one-sided development. For instance, an individual with only sensual overexcitability may become a hedonist incapable of deeper and lasting interpersonal relations, while an individual with only intellectual overexcitability becomes a scholar or scientist, either limited to a narrow field or, an erudite storing vast amounts of knowledge but virtually incapable of generating original ideas. In a recently completed study of types and levels of development (Dabrowski and Piechowski, 1972) the manifestations of the components of the developmental potential were counted in an analysis of autobiographies. It was found that the frequency of manifestation of forms of overexcitability plus the frequency of manifestation of developmental dynamisms may be used as an estimate of the developmental potential. There is a good agreement between an intuitive (clinical) and an analytical (quantitative) assessment of the developmental potential for a given subject (Piechowski, 1972b) (Piechowski, 1974).

The key to the understanding of the theory of positive disintegration lies in two concepts: “multilevelness” and “developmental potential”. These two concepts serve as the axioms of the theory (Piechowski, 1974).

The central concept of the theory is that of multilevelness of developmental phenomena. Development is seen to be a function of the level of behavioral organization. The theory defines five levels. Each level constitutes a distinct structure. The dynamic elements of the structure of each level are identified, positive disintegration is the name for the process by which the structure of a higher level replaces the structure of a lower one. The theory explains different developmental patterns by introducing the concept of developmental potential (DP). Although DP is a purely logical notion, it is given observable dimensions designated as dimensions of mental functioning. There are five of these and they correspond to psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional modes of functioning (Piechowski, 1975a).

Jackson did not specify the processes of evolution and the mechanisms by which a transformation takes place from a lower to a higher level, from simple to complex, from automatic and unconscious to voluntary and conscious. Many mechanisms viewed by him as “dissolution” are, in fact, mechanisms of developmental evolution. Dabrowski labeled them “positive disintegration” (9, 11) (Piechowski, 1975a).

The example of grasping reflex is a good illustration of this process. Voluntary and deliberate control of grasping develops to replace an early automatic reflex. While the early grasping reflex is being “dissolved,” a new mode of operation slowly develops: a higher level of functioning replaces a lower one. But in the intervening period, which may be quite extended, performance drops, or may disappear entirely. It is a disintegration (Piechowski, 1975a).

Positive disintegration means restructuring of the organization of affective and cognitive functions. It is called disintegration because the lower level of functioning must break down before it is replaced by a new organization of a higher level. The term positive is used in the same sense as when we speak of evolution from lower to higher forms of life. Rather than in terms or age or learning, development is measured in terms of structural and functional reorganizations. By this definition, if there is no restructuring, there is no development (Piechowski, 1975a, p. 247).

Individual development may follow the maturational stages of the life cycle without any profound psychological transformation (i.e., without change in the emotional-cognitive structure). In such case there is no development in the sense of reorganization, and this adevelopmental structure has been called primary, or primitive, integration. In such a life history an individual follows the path of environmental adaptation. He learns, works, and fits in, but he does not suffer mental breakdown or experience ecstasy. In contrast, when in a life history mental breakdown or true ecstasy does take place we have a disintegration (Piechowski, 1975a).

Disintegration may be positive or negative. Development is associated with positive disintegration, dissolution of mental functions with negative disintegration, absence of development with primary integration. Levels or integration and disintegration constitute a hierarchy. Primary integration is at the bottom, then three levels of disintegration (one unilevel, two of multilevel) and at the top secondary integration. These levels are described in section 11, E, and are listed in Table I under ”Structure” (Piechowski, 1975a).

The concept of development through positive disintegration means that development occurs when there is movement (i.e., restructuring) at least from one level to another. The least development occurs from primary integration to the first level of disintegration. Development is more extensive when it proceeds through several levels of positive disintegration. Development is most extensive when it reaches secondary integration (Piechowski, 1975a).

Dabrowski described and analyzed a wide range of phenomena of disintegration in relation to periods of life: e.g., adolescence or climacteric, particularly stressful experiences such as the loss of property, position, youth or beauty, spouse or child, or the event or a serious illness, and in relation to psychoneurotic, gifted, creative and eminent personalities. External events triggering periods of disintegration cannot account for the great individual differences in how these events and their consequences are experienced and handled. Even less can they be invoked to account for those instances where a person deliberately seeks frustration and stressful conditions so that he would not stagnate in his development (Piechowski, 1975a).

Such development, propelled, as it were, from within, is a function of a strong developmental potential, and is not bound or determined by advancing age or environmental pressures. Such development, called accelerated, as particularly rich in positive disintegrations (Piechowski, 1975a).

While Jackson looking at impaired functions of injured, intoxicated, or epileptic individuals considered only the negative aspect of functional disintegration, Dabrowski introduces the positive aspect of disintegration as a general developmental principle (Piechowski, 1975a).

One could review and compare the contrasting features of equilibration and of positive disintegration. But then, we would be arguing the merits and uses of different descriptive principles, similar to Werner's discontinuity, sequentiality, and differentiation, or Gesell's reciprocal interweaving, developmental direction, and individuating maturation (Piechowski, 1975a).

It is not enough, therefore, to say that equilibrium, differentiation, or positive disintegration is the process by which individual development may proceed from one level of functioning to the next. One must identify the factors involved, so that one can measure their operation quantitatively; one cannot measure general principles. For example, we measure temperature, number of cell divisions, frequency of mutation, but we do not measure the laws of thermodynamics, the power of life, or the laws of chance. The factors must be separable from the process of development, if they are to serve in building explanatory schemata. One must, further, be able to show logical connections between different sets of measurable factors. When these conditions are satisfied, a general theory can begin to emerge (Piechowski, 1975a).

The defining characteristics of DP are forms of overexcitability and developmental dynamisms. Dynamisms are intrapsychic processes of positive disintegration which shape development and the expression of behavior. Each level of development has a different set of dynamisms. (Piechowski, 1975a).

Piaget (44, p. 103) also mentions three factors in development—heredity, physical environment, social environment—and adds a fourth, equilibration. The first two of Piaget's factors correspond to Dabrowski's first factor. However, equilibration cannot legitimately be considered a factor in development because it cannot be separated from the process of development itself. One would be making the same logical error were one to consider positive disintegration a developmental factor. Positive disintegration is the process of development. Thus the difference between Piaget's theory and the theory of positive disintegration lies, at the descriptive level, in the inclusion of an autonomous factor in development (Piechowski, 1975a).

As modes of functioning, or experiencing, the five forms of overexcitability are present in rudimentary form in every individual. If they are regarded as channels conducting information, obviously the amount of information depends on the aperture of the channel. If more than one, or all five channels have fairly wide apertures, then the abundance and diversity of information (i.e., simultaneous experiencing in different modes) will inevitably lead to dissonance, conflict, and tension. Dissonance, conflict, and tension are the substrates of the developmental process of positive disintegration (14). In short, experiencing can be regarded as a kind of information processing (Piechowski, 1975a).

Differences in the strength, quality, and balance of different assortments of overexcitabilities account for forms of development which appear flamboyant and abundantly creative (e.g., some painters, actors, film makers), but which sometimes do not extend beyond level II. In such cases overexcitability may appear abundant and rich, yet it may lack the particular emotional and cognitive components which are necessary for the profound transformation that opens toward a multilevel phase of development. Here, a closer analysis should eventually reveal those expressions which are crucial for development to proceed beyond unilevel disintegration (Piechowski, 1975a).

Even though the appearance of new structures and constellations of functions gives it a discontinuous pattern, development is a continuous process. The levels of development through positive disintegration are structural conceptualizations serving to identify the types of processes involved: integration and unilevel or multilevel disintegration, the concept of level means here a characteristic constellation of intrapsychic dynamisms already mentioned in section II, C1 and described in detail elsewhere (Piechowski, 1975a).

The theory of positive disintegration defines five levels of development which we shall describe in turn. The levels and their defining characteristics (i.e., dynamisms) are shown in Figure I. The dynamisms are listed in groups specific for a given level. The group labeled ”C” includes those dynamisms whose activity develops and extends over several levels (Piechowski, 1975a).

Unilevel disintegration denotes a radical departure from the cohesive undifferentiated structure of primary integration (second vertical column of Figure l). Externality is still very strong but there are deviations from it; rigidity is replaced by hesitation, doubt, wavering altitudes, and changing likes and dislikes. Emotional relationships with others exist but may have emotional components to excess (e.g., overdependence on others, jealousy). Patterns of thought are often circular, although they may appear sophisticated. Internal conflicts appear but are often more readily resolved by chance or superficial considerations than by internal struggle. When internal conflicts arc severe, they lack the crucial possibility of developmental resolution. Behavior is essentially disoriented and conforming to external standards. It follows changing fads, ideologies, and leaders with little evaluation. When behavior is nonconforming, even rebellious, it is still without direction here—it is not based on autonomously developed principles. Because of the general looseness and lack of hierarchical structure at this level of development, it can result in the most severe mental disorders: psychosis, schizophrenia, phobias, psychosomatic disorders, alcoholism, or drug addiction (Piechowski, 1975a).

Spontaneous multilevel disintegration is characterized by an extensive differentiation of psychological structures and functions (third vertical column of figure 1). Internal experiential processes begin to influence behavior more and more, wavering is replaced by a growing sense of “what ought to be” as opposed to “what is” in one's own personality structure. Emotional relationships with others become more selective and exclusive. Internal conflicts are numerous and reflect a hierarchical organization of cognitive and emotional life: ”what is” against “what ought to be.” Behavior is guided by an emerging autonomous, emotionally discovered hierarchy of values and aims. Self-evaluation, reflection, intense moral conflicts, perception of the uniqueness of others, and existential anxiety are among the characteristic phenomena at this level of development. Outside of a developmental framework such reactions are considered psychoneurotic. To uncover the developmental multilevel nature of most psychoneurotic processes constitutes the major thrust of the clinical part of Dabrowski's work, as well as of his efforts to show that processes of the same nature operate in the development of creative personalities (Piechowski, 1975a).

The developmental sequences of positive disintegration are nonontogenetic. They are measured in terms of levels produced in the course of development with no distinct time schedule just as the process of evolution has none. The levels of development are, therefore, a nonontogenetic evolutionary scale. An individual developmental sequence may cover part of this scale, but none can cover its full extent. The hierarchy of levels of integration and disintegration serves as a chart on which individual developmental sequences can be mapped (Piechowski, 1975a).

A weak developmental potential will limit development to primary integration and unilevel disintegration. However, if the potential for extensive unilevel disintegration is present, it will manifest early—for instance, in forms of psychosomatic lability (14). This means that if the potential to proceed beyond primary integration is present, the development can never be limited totally to primary integration. The nuclei of disintegration must be present from the start. What is more, they will differ in the balance of unilevel and multilevel potentialities (Piechowski, 1975a).

In the theory of positive disintegration a multilevel emotional conflict or a multilevel emotional-cognitive conflict is the sine qua non dynamic of development. Earlier it was said that internal conflict becomes a controlling factor in the opposition between lower automatic (impulsive) levels of functioning and higher deliberate (reflective) ones. If we examine the forms of overexcitability, we can see that they are a conflict-generating substrate. Strong emotional and strong intellectual overexcitability lead to a powerful conflict between a personal, feeling, and relationship-oriented intuitive approach to life and an approach which is probing, analytical, and logical. Inevitably the two will clash many times in the course of development before a resolution of the basic conflict is achieved. If strong imaginational overexcitability comes into play, the conflict spreads even further. When sensual overexcitability enters the picture, conflicts a rise between pleasure-orientation, which even in its refined aesthetic form touches only the surface of experience, and the more rigorous and profound demands of empathy, self-denial, moral principle, and need for self-perfection. There may be violent and enduring conflict between lower needs of comfort and sensual satisfaction and the higher needs of reflection, solitude, and attenuation of sensual desires, now regarded as interference (Piechowski, 1975a).

The structure of unilevel disintegration and the structure of multilevel disintegration are entirely different. In unilevel disintegration conflicts are horizontal, the opposing tendencies of equal value; everything is relative, arbitrarily, governed by moment and circumstance. In multilevel disintegration the conflicts are vertical, the opposing tendencies of lower and higher value (“what is” and ”what ought to be”): relativism and chance yield to a developmental hierarchy of autonomous direction and autonomous choice (Piechowski, 1975a).

One can think of integration and disintegration as opposite poles of a continuum between maximum of structure and total lack of structure. This gets us only as far as unilevel disintegration, which, in fact, may be temporary and may revert back to primary integration. However, unilevel and multilevel disintegration cannot be thought of as opposite poles of a continuum. The unrelatedness of these two types of structure contradicts the expectations of some theoreticians that lower levels of organization logically imply the higher ones or that to study development one has to have a conception of its end state (36, p. 7 35). Indeed, one might well ask how is a butterfly logically implied in the larva, or a complete virus in the unassembled mixture of proteins and nucleic acids. Similarly nothing in the unilevel structure can imply a level hierarchy because multilevelness, by definition, is already hierarchical and multilevel. Therefore, it follows logically that the potential for multilevel development must exist already in the original endowment: i.e. in the developmental potential (Section II, F) (Piechowski, 1975a).

The significance and the originality of the theory of positive disintegration does not lie, as it is often believed in introducing the idea of disintegration as a positive developmental process. Understandably, this aspect of the theory is most important for clinical psychology, psychiatry, and education. Nevertheless, the significance and originality of Dabrowski's theory lie in its concepts of developmental structures, developmental potential, and the characteristics by which they can be detected and measured. The concepts of unilevel and multilevel structures of behavior and development are entirely novel. These structures are recognized by the presence or absence of characteristic processes or operations called dynamisms. Integration is interpreted in a new way. Primary integration is equated with the absence of developmental dynamisms, hence with absence of development. Secondary integration is the culmination of development but not its cessation. Rather, it is the synthesis and unification of all developmental processes. And it does have a prominent dynamism by which it is unfailingly recognized—personality ideal. With a characteristic constellation of dynamisms being specified for each level of development one has a well-defined basis for differential interlevel diagnosis (15) (Piechowski, 1975a).

The concept of developmental potential is introduced out of logical necessity to account for individual differences in the extent of development. This concept is not offered as an abstraction, however elegant, but is associated with observable traits—the five forms of overexcitability and their derivatives—the dynamisms—which allow one to assess its composition and strength. These traits are the key to and explanation of development through positive disintegration (Piechowski, 1975a).

Dabrowski developed his theory over a period of many years beginning in the late thirties (7, 8). The concept of ”Positive Disintegration as a Stage in the Development of the Individual” was published in 1949. The theory was fully formulated in the early fifties, but the book entitled “Positive Disintegration” had to wait a number of years before its publication was permitted in 1964. The same year a short introductory outline appeared in English (Piechowski, 1975a).

From over 1500 subjects screened in preliminary testing a total of 8l biographies and 950 sets of responses to Verbal Stimuli were received. Autobiographies and Verbal Stimuli responses of six subjects were selected for their wide differences on the developmental scale of positive disintegration. Age, sex, and intelligence of the subjects are given in Table 2. Of the six subjects one was a high school student, the others were university students. Save one, they were not majoring in psychology (Piechowski, 1975a).

The material from the six subjects plus Saint-Exupéry constitutes seven separate sources of developmental data. Each source reflects a certain pattern of development, not unlike a geological cross-section through many layers of accumulated deposits. Here the deposits are memories, perceptions, emotional conflicts, dreams, values, etc. Each source, depending on its richness and period of evolution, provides data which covers lesser or greater part or the theoretical picture of development through positive disintegration (Piechowski, 1975a).

The level ratings for these units are II for nos. 76-79 and II-III for no. 80. The “no-exit” experience is characteristic of unilevel disintegration. Seeing beyond and moving past the barriers of present limitations indicate transition toward a multilevel developmental process (Piechowski, 1975a).

Figure 2 gives further examples to make clear the steps of the rating procedure as it appears in the complete report (18). The first example is an expression of absence of inner conflict, a characteristic of primary integration, or level I. The second example, already discussed above, is an expression of directionless anxiety. Lack of a sense of direction and general disorientation are characteristics of unilevel disintegration, or level II. In the third example there are hierarchical, or multilevel, elements of sadness expressed as a simultaneous experience of sadness and joy. This is also an instance of emotional overexcitability registered somatically (“lump in my throat”), the fourth example is a manifestation of the dynamism of inferiority toward oneself. Because of the expression of existential despair, it is also an instance of emotional overexcitability, the despair resulting from the awareness of loss of relationship with the rest of mankind. The fifth example is an expression of the self-preservation aspect of behavior (self-preservation function) and the dynamism authentism, both at a very high level of development (See page 273 for examples) (Piechowski, 1975a).

The dynamisms are often referred to as the “forces” which carry out the process of positive disintegration, as if somehow they were apart from it. Actually they are the disintegration. If they are weak, the disintegration is weak and limited (partial); if they are strong, the disintegration is strong and all-inclusive (global) (Piechowski, 1975a).

There are no developmental dynamisms at level I. There are, however, conflicts of self-centered interests against environmental blocking. Such conflicts, supported by the cohesiveness of the primary undifferentiated structure, are only external. The disintegration of this structure begins with the mobilization of dynamisms characteristic of level II. The vectors of change appear in sets whose different members come into operation more or less at the same time. This is featured in the transition from level I to II, and from II to III. The transition from level III to IV is less sharp. Level IV is more “constructive” than ”destructive” because it crystallizes and solidifies the hierarchy emerging in level Ill. This contrasts with the “destructiveness” necessary to move from level I to II, and from level II to III. The latter transition constitutes a shift from an ahierarchical to a hierarchical internal organization (Piechowski, 1975a).

Closer analysis of the case reveals little, if any, processes of positive disintegration. Just as one swallow does not make spring, so these few dots are not yet evidence of disintegration. The few instances of unilevel dynamisms observed in subject no. l are expressions of occasional indecision or minor uncertainty in face of marriage. These do not in any way portend a more thorough process of disintegration. If compared in the context of the other subjects it would be more correct to say that these ratings were excessively generous. Nevertheless, once the rating criteria were fixed, they had to be applied consistently. In consequence, a minor ambivalence and a major one were counted on the same basis. In this way the impossible task of having to decide each time the value of a given response was avoided (Piechowski, 1975a).

A profile of disintegration emerges more readily when its manifestations are frequent. For subject no. 1 this is not the case: out of 53 ratings only nine represent instances of dynamisms (19 percent). However, five of them are instances of Second factor which denotes susceptibility to environmental pressures rather than fissures in the primary structure; the Second factor alone is not a strong sign of disintegration. For the other subjects the percentage of dynamism ratings is much higher (Table 3, second column). For this reason we feel that subject no. 1 even in an autobiography four times as long would not produce much that would significantly alter his profile of primary integration (Piechowski, 1975a).

Developmental potential was defined as the highest level of development an individual could achieve under optimal conditions (section II, C). Developmental potential is thus a measure of the original endowment for development through positive disintegration. Dynamisms and forms of overexcitability are postulated as the principal components of DP and at the same time as the observable signs of its presence. If so, then their strength should be a measure of the strength of DP. We can express the expected relationship by the following equation: DP = (d+oe) x Y where “d” stands for the percentage of dynamism ratings in the total number of ratings for a given subject, “oe” stands for the percentage of overexcitability ratings in the total number of ratings for the same subject, and “Y,” or “yield” is the ratio of the total number of ratings (b) divided by the total number of response units (a) for a given subject. Tables 2 and 3 give the results (Piechowski, 1975a, p. 284).

The different dynamisms and forms of overexcitability appear sufficient to account for different patterns of development through positive disintegration. In consequence, they fulfill the role of theoretical unitary factors with which one can explain individual differences in development (Piechowski, 1975a, p. 290).

In view of the above discussion we may conclude that within the paradigm of the theory of positive disintegration, different dynamisms and forms of overexcitability can be regarded as unitary factors of development amenable to quantitative analysis (Piechowski, 1975a).

If we accept the hypothesis that dynamisms differentiate from forms of overexcitability, then these forms take on the role of primary factors of development. Thus the theory of positive disintegration offers the means by which one can account for developmental transformations in the level of cognitive and emotional behavior. The same means (i.e., the dosages of different forms of overexcitability) appear, at present, sufficient to account for the origin of individual variation in the patterns and levels of development (Piechowski, 1975a, p. 294).

To proceed with this chapter I make the assumption, unsafe though it be, that the reader is familiar with Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration in some depth. An outline of the conceptual structure of that theory is available (Piechowski, in press). A systematic comparison of the psychoanalytic theory and positive disintegration would require an extensive examination of terminology and interpretations in regard to a wide array of behavioral phenomena. Here I shall only draw attention to certain points of contact and divergence (Piechowski, 1975b).


His first major work on the theory of positive disintegration was published also in 1964 (Dabrowski, 1964b) and much of it in revised form was incorporated into Personality Shaping through Positive Disintegration which appeared in 1967. In this work, thanks to a different translator, the term in “excessive excitability” and it embraces the standard five forms. “Excessive excitability is, among others, a sign that one's adaptation to the environment is disturbed. These disintegration processes are based on various forms of increased psychic excitability, namely on psychomotor, imaginative, affectional, sensual, and mental hyperexcitability” (Dabrowski, 1967, p. 61). Their description at that time still contained more terms usually associated with neuroses than developmental potential. But in Mental Growth through Positive Disintegration, published in 1970, the OEs appeared under the rubric of “Differentiated Potentials of Developmental Instinct” At this point their description took on a distinctly positive note. Sensual overexcitability “can manifest itself through a need and active search for sensory experiences, gentle touches and caresses. This can later be developed into sensual emotionality and a strong sexual drive. Psychomotor hyperexcitability is often expressed through general hyperactivity, domineering, discord, antagonistic attitudes. The potential for emotional hyperexcitability can manifest itself by a great syntony and sensitivity. These represent the nuclei for further growth toward a higher level of empathy. Imaginational hyperexcitability can provide the basis for the development of prospection and retrospection, that is to say, the ability to use one's past experiences in the planning of the future. Intellectual overexcitability, accompanied by other forms of overexcitability, especially emotional and imaginational, together with some potential for intuition, can lead to an early development of special interests and talents” (Dabrowski et al., 1970, p. 31). But it was the early conception of how children process nervous tension when he observed them in the classroom that became the basis of research on developmental potential of gifted youngsters (Piechowski, 1995).

In 1937 the Polish psychologist and psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski published a study titled “Psychological Bases of Self-Mutilation.” Examining biographies of creators and clinical cases, Dabrowski identified factors that were predisposing toward physical self-mutilation and psychological self-torment. These predisposing factors are different forms of what he called psychic overexcitability. This was the germ of his theory of positive disintegration (Piechowski, 1999).

Dabrowski emphasized the disequilibrating, disorganizing, and disintegrating action of overexcitability on many areas of psychological functioning. When this kind of disintegration fosters emotional growth, it is positive, hence the name theory of positive disintegration. Overexcitability was defined by the following characteristics: (a) the reaction exceeds the stimulus, (b) the reaction lasts much longer than average, (c) the reaction is often not related to the stimulus, and (d) the emotional experience is promptly relayed to the sympathetic nervous system (accelerated heartbeat, blushing, trembling, perspiring, headaches) (Piechowski, 1999).


References to the idea of over­excitability first appeared in Dabrowski's study “Psychological Bases of Self-mutilation” in Genetic Psychological Monographs, 19, 1-104, 1937. (“Genetic” means “developmental” here.) The first paper devoted to overexcitability was “Types of Increased Psychic Excitability” (in Polish) in the Bulletin of the Institute of Mental Hygiene (Warsaw) in 1938. The first paper on “Disintegration as a Positive Stage in the Development of the Individual” (in Polish) appeared in 1949 in Zdrowie Psychiczne (Mental Health) (Piechowski, 2000).

Dabrowski's first full statement of his theory was published in 1964 although the book was written several years earlier. Poland was under communism and the manuscript had to wait for sufficient thawing of restric­tions and censorship before it could be finally published by the State Physicians Publishing House. In translation the title of the book is On Positive Disintegration and the subtitle reads: An Outline of the Theory of Human Mental Development through Mental Disequilibrium, Nervousness, Neuroses and Psychoneuroses. The larger portion of this book—description of the theory and the case examples of Michelangelo, C.W. Beers, J. Ferguson, and J.W.—was subsequently translated (with some errors) into English and published as Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration. In place of a chapter on psychophysiological theories (Janet, Freud, Adler, Jung, Rorschach), a chapter on “Methods of Personality Shaping” was introduced (Piechowski, 2000).

In the first formulation of his theory, Dabrowski stressed the distinction between unilevel and multilevel growth processes. The whole thrust of his explanation of the theory was toward elucidation of the different dynamics of inner growth: unilevel—with inner conflicts, poor resolution, and little if any inner transformation (in other words, a disintegration that recycles problems); and multilevel—with strong inner conflicts pushing for a resolution by inner transformation from a lower to a higher level (a process of dismantling the old self and letting a new self grow) (Piechowski, 2000).

This is the process of spontaneous multilevel disintegration. The descriptions of subject-object in oneself, third factor, personality ideal and disposing and directing center (DDC) on a high level, only outlined further stages of development. The labels—organized or directed multilevel disintegration—came later (Piechowski, 2000).

Because this process is not unlike dismantling an inner personality structure and replacing it with a better one with more light in its moral core, Dabrowski called it positive disintegration. One can get a better understanding of this type of inner growth from the study of cases than from a dry theoretical description. The lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Etty Hillesum, self-actualizing people (Brennan & Piechowski, 1991; Grant, 1996; Piechowski, 1990, 1992), or gifted adolescents (Jackson, 1998, Peterson, 1997, Peterson & Rischar, 2000) illustrate the process in enough detail for thoughtful young persons to see how it may apply to them (Piechowski, 2002a).

Levels are abstract categories of development, they are not real. A person's feelings, emotions, awareness, intentionality, and will are real because they are events in the organism as part of the natural world. They all have an underlying neurological activity. But levels are simply a conception of different types of inner growth. And types are distinctions—categories or classes—which we impose on our experience in order to arrive at some organization of knowledge. The levels are not stages development through the lifespan. As type of personality development they cannot be correlated with successive ages of life. The constructs of Dabrowski's levels are non-ontogenetic. They are a vertical structure. Each stage in the lifespan can be analyzed for the presence or absence of the type of process in Dabrowski's sense—unilevel or multilevel, integration or disintegration. The theoretical grid looks like this. The life of a person unfolds along the horizontal axis of time. Types of personality development— Dabrowski's five levels—are stacked up along the vertical axis (Piechowski, 2002b).

Primary integration is Dabrowski's concept of no emotional development. It is opposite to disintegration that has to loosen things up before growthful changes can take place. This led some, including Dabrowski, to regard the newborn infant to be in a state of primary integration. But this is illogical because the theory is not about life-span development, and because an infant is not self-serving, manipulative, or self-protective. It expects care and pays back in gurgles and smiles. An infant must first develop to the point that its actions can be judged by the theory's criteria for assessing levels. These criteria have been brought to light by Miller (1985). They consist of a person's values, feelings toward self, and feelings toward others. An infant or a child cannot be assessed on values it holds, whether they are self-serving, stereotypical, individual, or universal. Nor can its feelings toward self be judged as egocentric, ambivalent, or beset by inner conflict or self-directed. Neither can feelings toward others be judged as superficial, adaptive, interdependent, or democratic (Piechowski, 2003, p. 314).

Dabrowski suggested that we meet on Sunday afternoons to go over these fractured texts. Sentence by sentence, I asked what he meant, and he explained. Dabrowski had the tendency to write a sentence where a paragraph was needed, so I kept asking for elaboration. Bit by bit, his theory emerged. Dabrowski talked passionately about the inner psychic milieu, the processes of positive disintegration, multilevelness (often coupled in one breath with multidimensional diagnosis), and the dynamisms. The thrust of his thinking was directed toward multilevel disintegration, and it was about this time that the conception of levels IV and V began to take its final form (see Table 3.1) (Piechowski, 2008).

Dabrowski's theory took many years to evolve to its final form in 1972. There are clear beginnings in his 1938 monograph on Psychological Bases of Self-Mutilation. World War II interrupted his work, and the rupture was compounded by communist takeover of Poland and his imprisonment for two years. When after Stalin's death in 1953 things relented politically to some degree, Dabrowski managed to publish On Positive Disintegration in 1956, which was later largely incorporated into the English translation as Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration in 1967. The structure of levels was not yet fully defined, and the main emphasis was on distinguishing unilevel from multilevel growth process (Piechowski, 2008).

The result of these sessions were chapters in Mental Growth through Positive Disintegration, a work that owes a very significant part to Andrzej Kawczak, a philosopher at Loyola University of Montreal, who worked with Dabrowski for a number of years. Prior to the book's publication in London in 1970, Dabrowski had two pieces of our collaboration translated into French and published in Annales Médico-Psychologiques. The first, on the inner psychic milieu, contained my initial attempt to create a visual picture of the dynamisms of the theory that would place them in the order that Dabrowski felt they tended to emerge (Dabrowski, 1968). He must have thought the drawing an adequate visual approximation to his conception of his theory (Figure 3.1, page 44). He used to say that in his mind, he saw the dynamisms as if on stage, certainly a more animated and dramatic vision than my two-dimensional imitation of Moorish arches (Piechowski, 2008).

The first concept for me to grasp was the inner psychic milieu, defined as the totality of dynamisms emerging in Level III. Dabrowski believed that multilevel disintegration was indispensable for development. Little significant inner life exists in Levels I (primary integration) and II (unilevel disintegration). For Dabrowski, inner life begins with multilevel processes of introspection, self-examination, and self-evaluation. The varieties of inner conflict between higher and lower in oneself are represented by the dynamisms of Level III (Piechowski, 2008).

Abraham Lincoln, raised in his mother's Baptist creed, as a young man rejected religious dogma (Wilson, 1998). In his personal growth, he experienced periods of inner conflict and depression resulting in profound inner transformation. Elizabeth Robinson (2002) and Andrew Kawczak (2002) offer a brief analysis of the phases of positive disintegration in Lincoln's life and conclude that he reached secondary integration (Piechowski, 2008).

Hope Weiss's behavior is characteristic of a multilevel way of functioning, and yet she does not feel that she arrived there through a process of positive disintegration; rather, she felt that she had always been that kind of a person. This suggests that it should be possible to find more persons who are born with an unusually strong empathy and an unchanging sense of self. Ann Colby and William Damon (1992) interviewed Suzie Valdez who for years has been “feeding, clothing, and providing medical care for thousands of poor Mexicans living in the surrounds of the huge Ciudad Juarez garbage dump.” She said that she always had love: “I love everybody; I mean love. The Lord has given me a love for these people that I myself don't understand” (p. 47). Charleszetta Waddles, another deeply committed person in Colby's and Damon's study, recalled her mother saying to her, “I wish I had a heart like you,” and about herself, she said, “I had compassion, I was forgiving, but at that time I didn't call it by that name. I said, ‘Well, I just can't help it, I'm free-hearted'” (Piechowski, 2008, p. 212).

Perhaps those who are aware of their essence from a very young age do not need to undergo positive disintegration, while others do, because finding their essence is their life's task that impels seeking, questioning, doubting, scrutinizing, evaluating through positive disintegration, and inner transformation (Piechowski, 2008).

Level II is not easy to grasp in all its multiple possibilities. I remember once saying to Dabrowski that unilevel disintegration was eluding my understanding. He jokingly answered, “I don't understand it either.” Level II is not always characterized by disintegration, because it carries the possibility of partial integration, or adaptive integration that follows the conventions and dictates of society and one's immediate environment. Level II may carry inner instability that we would see in oscillations of mood, inconsistent ways of acting, or shifting from one extreme to the other. But it is also possible to have a fairly integrated worldview of conventional values or a sort of intellectual rationalism. Fulfilling the expectations of others, family, or society (“second factor”) in extreme cases may lead to anorexia and bulimia in gifted women (Gatto-Walden, 1999). Inner fragmentation (“I feel split into a thousand pieces”) and unpredictable shifts among many “selves” are often experienced. In adolescence, a failed attempt at identity, which Elkind (1984) called “the patchwork self,” is another example of the inner disorganization. At this level, personal growth becomes a struggle toward achieving an individual sense of self (Piechowski, 2008).

Rare persons aware of their own essence, of their self remaining essentially the same throughout their life, do not appear to have gone through positive disintegration. Their lives give evidence of an advanced multilevel functioning. If one views the process of positive disintegration as the search for one's essence one's true or higher self then persons who have always had awareness of their timeless essence appear to be exempt from the crushing grind of positive disintegration (Piechowski, 2008).

The gifted community had been given an introduction to Dabrowski’s theory by Ogburn (1979), Piechowski (1986, 1991, 1997), Nelson (1989) and Silverman (1993). These publications paved the ground for a serious consideration of the theory in gifted education as evidenced by inclusion in Social-Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know (Neihart, Reis, Robinson, & Moon, 2002) and eventually S. Mendaglio’s Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. The field embraced overexcitabilities as characteristic of gifted children right away. Acceptance of the idea of development through positive disintegration took longer. The research on levels of development within and outside of gifted education has been summarized by Falk and Miller (2009) and it shows that it was not as negligible as Bill Tillier makes it appear (Piechowski, 2009a).

Over the years I have come to the understanding that many developmental paths are possible and that emotional growth can take place in Level II even though it lacks multilevel character (Piechowski, 2008). Partial disintegrations and partial integrations are surely more common than the pathologies. Dabrowski wrote: “Partial disintegrations followed by partial integrations at a higher level characterize the developmental pattern of people with average developmental potential” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 300). The “higher level” is not specified, therefore, it can be confined to advancement within Level II. I don’t think Level II should be interpreted as narrowly and as pathologically as Bill Tillier wants (Piechowski, 2009a).

In Dabrowski's paradigm of positive disintegration, personal growth is indeed much like scaling a mountain rather than a sequential unfolding of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Imagining personal growth as ascent of a mountain, encountering danger, facing tests of courage, and forging on with perseverance suggests that not everyone has the strength, endurance, and determination to climb far; few manage to reach the summit. Moreover, not everyone is interested in climbing and may prefer to remain in the valley. Some may not even be aware of the mountain. The endowment for how far in scaling the figurative mountain an individual can go constitutes developmental potential. An endowment for multilevel development signifies that a person starts already a considerable distance up the slope.[1] A person with limited potential starts in the valley and does not reach far (Piechowski, 2009b).

Dabrowski's earlier descriptions put more emphasis on the concept of personality as the outcome of development through positive disintegration, a person in the fullest realization of the most fundamental and universal human qualities. Secondary integration was defined as the level of personality (Dabrowski, 1967, 1973). Interestingly, a similar concept of personality was proposed by Assagioli (1965), as the result of a synthesis and integration of all component “subpersonalities (Piechowski, 2009b).

From this point on her “positive disintegration” was deliberate, self-chosen, and carried out to completion. Dabrowski used to gesture how in multilevel development the ups and downs have an upward trend. And this is how Peace Pilgrim drew it in two of her recorded talks. The amplitude of the ups and downs at point (3) is far greater than in ordinary living, no doubt because the moments of higher consciousness illuminate dramatically the lowness of their opposites. The overall trend is upward, whereas in ordinary living it is flatly horizontal (unilevel) (Piechowski, 2009b, p. 106).

These 12 steps would test the mettle of any spiritual aspirant. They form a succinct distillation of the ideal goals of many spiritual traditions. Putting such steps into practice cannot fail to engage the person in the process of multilevel positive disintegration (Piechowski, 2009b).

Level III is called spontaneous multilevel disintegration. But after her surrender there is nothing spontaneous about Peace Pilgrim's process. She entered the battle determined to carry it through, to establish “what ought to be.” One has to entertain the possibility that in her case dynamisms of Level III and Level IV ran side by side (Piechowski, 2009b).

Because of their overexcitabilities, gifted teenagers are more likely to go through the developmental crises of adolescence with greater intensity and anguish than their regular counterparts (Buescher, 1991; Christensen, 2007). This is the time when positive disintegration may hit with great force but few counselors are equipped to offer understanding and help (Piechowski, 2009b, pp. 111-112).

For the understanding of emotional growth of gifted children, the distinction between a unilevel and a multilevel developmental process is the most relevant (Piechowski 2008). In unilevel process values are relative rather than universal, inner conflicts are recycled rather than resolved, relationships with others do not have a steady footing. Trying every new trend, following fads, being guided primarily by others' opinions is an individual without a psychological center. The shifting nature of the person's identity depends on the circumstances. Such is often the self of an adolescent. When the process intensifies it becomes unilevel disintegration (Piechowski, 2009c).

When we can spot in a young person an inner dialogue, self-judgment, distress over a moral conflict, we have in front of us a multilevel process. The introspective emotional growth mentioned earlier, has eight components, which help recognize the specifics of the multilevel emotional development in adolescents. They are: (1) awareness of growing and changing, (2) awareness of feelings, interest in others and empathy toward them, (3) occasional feelings of unreality, (4) inner dialogue, (5) self-examination, (6) self-judgment, (7) searching, problem-finding, asking existential questions, and (8) awareness of one's real self (Piechowski 1989; 2006). The values in such a process can be both individual and universal; the feelings toward oneself can be rife with inner conflict or they can be showing an emergent self-direction; feelings towards others will be sincerely democratic and displaying awareness of interdependence. In cases of intense inner conflict, suffering, inner seeking, and depression, the process becomes multilevel disintegration. This process may become very deep and may be misunderstood. How to read the signs and how to assist through counseling has been described elsewhere (Jackson et al. 2009; Jackson and Moyle 2009) (Piechowski, 2009c).


Dabrowski has developed a detailed picture of the processes involved, especially how the troubling and conflicting aspects of this often difficult growth may give the appearance of an unstable mind, but are in fact the unavoidable consequence of basic reorientation and restructuring within one's psyche. He called it positive disintegration (Dabrowski, 1964; Mendaglio, 2008). Many gifted people going through this process found affirmation and validation in Dabrowski's theory. Many counselors and therapists working with gifted adolescents and adults, found the theory of great help. But could one be prepared in advance, gain the necessary tools, so to speak, and find oneself less disoriented by the process? Psychosynthesis offers such tools as I will explain shortly (Piechowski, 2010).

Self-examination can turn into moral self-evaluation and an emotionally charged process of self-judgment. Self-loathing and self-condemnation may result. Dabrowski called it “dissatisfaction with oneself,” which tends to accompany feelings of guilt. The sense of guilt may spring more from not living according to one's ideals than from actual wrongful acts. Such anxious feelings may add to the inner turmoil that Dabrowski called positive disintegration. Inner tensions of this nature tend to give a strong push toward personal and spiritual growth (Piechowski, 2014a).

Dabrowski’s theory was introduced to gifted education over 30 years ago, and until recently little effort has been directed toward examining its defining concepts (Mendaglio, 2008; Zielinski, 1997). Terms like developmental potential, disintegration versus integration, levels, dynamisms, and multilevel versus unilevel process call for examination in the light of accumulated knowledge, by which I mean not only research based on the theory but, rather, any relevant psychological research. Because this article assumes some knowledge of the theory, the reader needing an introduction can turn to readily accessible sources like Ackerman (2009), Daniels and Piechowski (2009), or Mendaglio (2008) (Piechowski, 2014b).

To refer to the stages of positive disintegration as realizable within one lifetime follows hypnotically from Error 1, because stages suggest development throughout the life span. The mistake is to equate the scale of levels with an ontogenetic sequence. Paradoxically, Dabrowski himself slipped at one point and committed both errors. To give the theory a formal structure, Dabrowski and Andrew Kawczak, a philosopher, formulated 72 hypotheses (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 132). In hypothesis 2 they said, “The full cycle of ontogenetic development of man includes five main stages” and then listed the levels of development through positive disintegration. The two basic errors are: saying that development through positive disintegration goes through stages, and that they fit into the stages of life span development. Furthermore, hypothesis 2 implies something utterly impossible—that a person could start at Level I and reach Level V. As we shall see, Level I cannot be the starting point (Piechowski, 2014b).

To regard with disdain Level II and the process of unilevel disintegration is an error coming from lack of understanding and compassion. An enormous amount of human suffering and unhappiness is bound here. A large portion of world literature is about this kind of human condition and it can be deeply moving. Furthermore, there is plenty of room for the development of the self in Level II (Piechowski, 2008) (Piechowski, 2014b).

What is the condition, or state, of a person when positive disintegration is not taking place? Obviously the person has to function with a degree of consistency and reliability, to be in a state Dabrowski called partial integration (Dabrowski, 1977a, 1977b). I find it misleading to call something a disintegration when it also contains an integration. However, the concept of level easily includes both. Therefore, we will gain in clarity if we use the terms Level I, II, etc., and reserve the descriptive labels of disintegration for the processes within a level. Consequently, we can identify behaviors, values, and attitudes characteristic of a level without thinking of them as necessarily involving a process of disintegration. Miller’s assessment coding system does just that (Miller, 1985; Miller & Silverman, 1987) (Piechowski, 2014b).

Children grow up with the prejudices and dogmas of their parents and of the supporting social network. One way that positive disintegration is often launched comes from the realization that the prejudices and dogmas one has been fed are wrong (Piechowski, 2014b).

We now have a reasonable answer to the question about what is being integrated: drives, abilities, beliefs, and individual history. The integration, if there is to be one, takes place in adolescence and young adulthood. Marcia (1980) found four patterns by which identity develops: Foreclosure, Moratorium, Identity Diffusion, and Identity Achieved. Achieving mature identity involves undergoing an identity crisis, no doubt involving some form of positive disintegration. Dabrowski was well aware that adolescence is a time when physical and cognitive changes precipitate a period of disintegration (Piechowski, 2014b).

Unlike other personality theories, Dabrowski's theoretical effort was grounded in neurology. For his clinical diagnosis, Dabrowski relied on a classic neurological exam. The neurology he learned as a student in the 1920s reached back to the discoveries and ideas of the previous century. Darwinian evolution was very much on people's mind so it was only natural to contemplate the evolution of the nervous system in step with human evolution. Integration and disintegration were part of the neurological terminology of the time (Piechowski, 2014c).

In 1937 Dabrowski still admitted to mental overexcitability as pathological, by which he seemed to mean a generally anxious and agitated state of mind. Nevertheless at the end of the monograph he asserts that this view may be erroneous. The phrase “the unpleasant state of mental overexcitability” appears a number of times as the goad to alleviate it by self-infliction of pain or in other ways. He suggested methods for “early prevention of overexcitability and of tendencies to aggression and explosiveness” (p. 97). I believe he meant that it is necessary for highly excitable children to develop a degree of understanding and self-control in order to prevent the agony of out of control intensities. In his first outline of development through positive disintegration, which appeared in French in 1959, overexcitability does not even have a section. Under the communist regime, publication of the book On Positive Disintegration was delayed until 1964. As a component of developmental potential, overexcitability does not appear until 1970 in Mental Growth through Positive Disintegration. Also, not until that time, did Dabrowski have all the moving and transforming forces of personal growth (the dynamisms) in place (Piechowski, 2008) (Piechowski, 2014c).

In this manner Dabrowski contrasts the narrowness of focus on ordinary reality with the breadth of creative richness and depth of vision, but also torment of those who see and feel far beyond the mundane. Consequently, psychoneurosis is not a mental illness but a process of positive disintegration driven by the tension between the higher and the lower in oneself, a journey to selfhood from the “what is” to the “what ought to be” the level of higher values and of an inner ideal that becomes a guiding force (Piechowski, 2014c).

Because the process takes the person by surprise, he called it spontaneous, and because of the vertical tension, he called it multilevel, and because it shakes up the psyche, a disintegration. It is a process of inner transformation that may be very difficult. The suffering is no doubt greatest for those who find it hard to advance, and also when they are all alone without even a written word to guide them, a description that would fit their experience. The lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Etty Hillesum, the mystics, and the cases Dabrowski collected, illustrate the process vividly (Mróz, 2009; Nixon, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2010; Piechowski, 1990, 1992, 2008). The theory is a powerful tool enabling one to assist gifted adolescents or adults according to the nature of their growth process (Dabrowski, 1972; Jackson & Moyle, 2009a and b; Jackson, Moyle, & Piechowski, 2009; Silverman, 1993) (Piechowski, 2014c).

Essential to multilevel development is the inner core of “own forces.” When that inner core is lacking, the capacity for inner transformation is also lacking. Without the capacity for inner transformation, a shakeup of the psyche results in unilevel disintegration. The tensions and conflicts are played out as if on one plane and may result in severe mental illness. The next level down is the lowest level that characterizes either people struggling just to survive, or authoritarian and manipulative exploiters of others. Infelicitously, Dabrowski called it primary integration. On closer analysis it is neither primary nor an integration (Piechowski, 2014) (Piechowski, 2014c).

Dabrowski's levels do not describe a sequential unfolding. Primary integration (level I) is not a starting point for development. Its breakdown may lead to unilevel disintegration but no further. Unilevel disintegration (level II) cannot become multilevel unless the multilevel “own forces” are present. A flatland does not become a mountain unless there is a force to push it upward. Only with the emergence of an inner psychic milieu and the transformative dynamisms of level III (such as dissatisfaction with oneself, inferiority toward oneself, dis-identification from what is felt to be lower in oneself), the process may continue to the next level (IV) when persons become more in charge of their inner growth as an organized multilevel disintegration. Finally, full selfhood is achieved in secondary integration (level V). Level V represents both a life of inner peace and a high level of energy to serve, as exemplified in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John XXIII, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu, Mother Teresa, or Peace Pilgrim. A few case examples of this lofty plane have been examined in detail (Nixon, 1995, 2010; Piechowski, 2009) (Piechowski, 2014c).

Dabrowski's mission in developing his theory was to depathologize the characteristics of intense agonizing experience and instead to show that what used to be called psychoneurosis and thought of as mental illness is, in fact, a process of personal growth. Positive disintegration may look like an illness, and it feels like an illness to the individual suffering through it, but it is a natural process of inner transformation just like the caterpillar turning into a chrysalis that through profound inner upheavals turns into a butterfly. The positive disintegration inside the chrysalis proceeds on automatic pilot, but humans need a pilot, one that is good and wise (Piechowski, 2014c).

The issue at hand is whether the label ‘primary integration' for Level I in Dabrowski's theory is defensible. I argued that Level I is neither primary nor an integration on the evidence from developmental psychology that (a) childhood is not a period of personality integration and (b) Level I is not the starting point for development through positive disintegration (Piechowski, 2014). The evidence from 50 years of research on child development alone is sufficient to invalidate the concept of primary integration and yet Mendaglio and Tillier are unresponsive to it. That we are social beings already at birth is basic knowledge and to ignore it is to ignore our primate origins (Piechowski, 2015).

Mendaglio and Tillier claim that “Dabrowski's whole theory is predicated on the view that the initial level of integration represents lower, rigid structures guided by primitive instincts and drives” (2015, this issue, p. 226). The entire theory with all its complexity to rest on the premise of a rigid primitive structure? If this were true, the theory would never rise from such incumbency. Does reasoning rest on primitive areas of the brain? At the lowest level there is no capacity for development through positive disintegration. There is no inner psychic milieu; there are no developmental dynamisms; no transformative potentials exist. As a first level of development, Level I is an oxymoron—no development in Dabrowski's sense takes place here. It's a category, a box for everything that's not disintegrating. How could this possibly be the cornerstone of the theory? Development through positive disintegration, or true development as Mendaglio and Tillier wish to call it, begins at Level III. For Dabrowski development is multilevel. He always emphasized this. The logic of the theory bears this out (Piechowski, 2015).

Equally so, unilevel disintegration (Level II) cannot be a prelude to positive disintegration because no transformative dynamisms are present. It is only with the emergence of disquietude with oneself, astonishment with oneself, and the like that we are on the threshold of spontaneous multilevel disintegration and true Dabrowskian development begins. As I have said previously, and I am glad to repeat, a flat-land does not become a mountain unless there is a force to push it upward (Piechowski, 2014). Multilevel potential is that force (Piechowski, 2015).

When Dabrowski arrived in Montreal in 1965-1966, his theory was not yet completed. He met there with the philosopher Andrew Kawczak. Together they worked on the 72 formal statements defining the theory (Battaglia, 2002). None of them address developmental potential. This work preceded our work sessions on the other chapters of Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration that began in early 1967 (Dabrowski, 1970). I would read the draft of his chapters and ask him for explanations, which I would write down and then translate. Pages of the book, particularly pages 31-32, show how the concept of developmental potential was beginning to take form: the coexistence of overexcitabilities and of certain opposing traits like introversion and extraversion with potential for transformation (Piechowski, 2015).

The full cycle of ontogenetic mental development of man includes five main stages: primitive integration, unilevel disintegration, spontaneous multilevel disintegration, self-directed multilevel disintegration, and secondary integration. (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 132) (Piechowski, 2015).

I pointed out that hypothesis 2 contains two errors: equating development through positive disintegration with life span (temporal) sequence and that primary integration is the starting point. But wait—there are two more. The third error rests in hypothesizing that full endowment (i.e., strong developmental potential) can be so suppressed that the individual would be limited to primary integration. The fourth error is to say that the ascendance of levels is irreversible. It is contradicted by hypothesis 8: “Prolonged states of unilevel disintegration end either in reintegration at the former primitive level or in suicidal tendencies, or in a psychosis”—Level II reverting to Level I (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 135). Statements made in hypothesis 2 do not appear anywhere else in Dabrowski's opus. Clearly a mistake, the misbegotten hypothesis 2 should be disregarded and discarded (Piechowski, 2015).

Strong developmental potential means potential for multilevel development. An individual with strong developmental potential cannot be confined to primary integration nor to unilevel disintegration. What makes for strength in developmental potential? The strength comes from intense overexcitabilities, above-average intelligence, and dynamisms of inner transformation. Strong emotional overexcitability means responsiveness to the feelings of others and compassion. Strong intellectual overexcitability means questioning established views and values; it means searching for truth. Strong imagination means divergent and creative thinking, reaching forward and mining the past. Dynamisms of inner transformation are the drive toward higher values. These qualities are built into the very essence of the individual. By what means could such qualities be reduced to primary integration? It would have to be a spike through the brain, like the one that penetrated Phineas Gage's skull and reduced this fine, bright young man to a coarse, irascible, and foul-mouthed individual (Damasio, 1994) (Piechowski, 2015).

In pointing out common error 3—disdain for unilevel disintegration—I most certainly was not referring to Dabrowski but to the zealots who latch onto the theory to elevate themselves (Piechowski, 2015).

Dabrowski's description makes nonsense of their assertion that development through positive disintegration can start at Level I. How could full endowment and developmental potential be present and yet be completely shut down when we know that: One can already observe in a child one and a half years old certain fairly well differentiated potentials of the developmental instinct. These can be expressed through various differentiated forms of psychic hyperexcitability such as sensual, psychomotor, emotional, imaginational, or intellectual hyperexcitability. (Dabrowski, 1970, p. 31) (Piechowski, 2015).

Even though Level II purports to be a level of development through positive disintegration, none of its features display anything to qualify as emotional and personal growth. The picture is dominated by emotional fluctuations, inner contradictions, adaptation to societal norms, and lack of depth in relationships. The three research studies decribed in the following sections reveal a panorama of genuine unilevel emotional development. For instance, the urge to move forward in opposition to the urge to conserve is an example of unilevel conflict that does not involve a hierarchy of values. The urge toward maturity—to choose a career and start a family, to take a responsible part in life—shows springs of motivation that come from within the individual in concert with the age-related, sociobiological stages of development. The urge toward gaining a sense of self and one’s individuality, coming into one’s own as a person is another instance of personal growth that does not involve the split between the lower and the higher self (Piechowski, 2017).

For her research on highly gifted adults, Deborah Ruf assessed the Dabrowski level of emotional development on the basis of descriptive criteria in the existing literature (Ruf, 1998, 2009). To decide whether a subject was at the level of transformative process, she relied also on descriptors of self-actualization (Maslow, 1970). With this in mind she developed three categories: Searchers, Neutral, and Nonsearchers. Searchers are “still actively deciding who they are and what they want to be.… [they] examine and re-examine themselves.” They show evidence of “emotional and ideological struggles,” that is, positive disintegration. Nonsearchers are the opposite, their identity decided early, they don’t examine nor search their inner selves. They may be quite successful in their careers, i.e., outwardly realizing their potential, or only partially, and yet be content with it. The Neutral category is more elusive: “Someone who is neither clearly a Searcher or a Nonsearcher.” Nearly half (17 out of 41) of Ruf’s subjects were assigned the Neutral category. “Nonsearchers make statements that indicate their need to be in control of their environments and particularly themselves. Neutral people do not clearly indicate as strong a need for self control as Nonsearchers” (Ruf, 1998, p. 60) (Piechowski, 2017).

Ruf’s highly gifted subjects demonstrate the great variety and complexity of lives that exists in Level II. In fact, she described two kinds of Nonsearchers (Ruf, 2009, p. 278). Let’s call them A and B. Nonsearchers A are trying hard to be a good person, they are hard working, responsible, and nice: “This type of Nonsearchers often discovered fairly early in life how to formulate and meet goals, and once successful at meeting those goals stayed with the original plan.” Nonsearchers B accepted the life as is, but “always had someone, or some circumstances, to blame for their own shortcomings or underachievement.” They came across as angry, cynical, and negative, and consequently resistant to changing themselves: “People who hold on firmly to resentments and their own way of viewing life, whether it makes them happy or not, are highly resistant to positive disintegration” (ibid.) (Piechowski, 2017).

The concept of Level II offers a good fit for the case studies of highly gifted adults as it does to the Perry-inspired study of women’s emotional development. The concept of unilevel disintegration, however, cannot be applied wholly to Level II because the majority of lives are more or less stable. Even Dabrowski’s concept of partial integration seems to have limited application because it implies that there is some “disintegration” going on or that the person is chronically on the brink of one. This makes little sense. Instead, we should conclude that the lives of most people follow the stages of lifespan development and that some may be so unreflective that they match Level I and others are somewhat more reflective and match Level II (Piechowski, 2017).

The concept of unilevel disintegration can represent Level II only in part because evidence shows that the majority of lives that belong here are rather stable. Unilevel churning, turmoil, and collapse—the disintegration piece—is the clinical part of the picture that deals with psychosomatic and psychoneurotic disorders, addictions, psychoses, and so forth (Dabrowski, 1972) (Piechowski, 2017).


Fifty years ago I was driving with Dąbrowski to California to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur located on the coast. Esalen was founded in the 1960s to support work for exploring human consciousness, a forerunner of transpersonal psychology. Dąbrowski was invited for a whole week of sessions and seminars on his theory, but he was often unsure of his English so he asked me to present the theory there. At that time we were working on Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration (Dabrowski, 1970). (Piechowski, 2020)

In 1895 Eleanor Roosevelt married Franklin Roosevelt, who prized her mind. The United States entered WWI in 1917 and she was part of the war effort, working with a variety of people, and taking in what was going on in the world. Because she so much wanted to belong, she tried to assimilate: “I was simply absorbing the personalities of those about me and letting their tastes and interests dominate me” (Roosevelt, 1937, p. 162). What does Dąbrowski’s theory say about what was motivating her? She was motivated by the second factor—being always affected by the opinion of others and trying to please them. But if someone has a strong developmental potential, that is potential for multilevel growth, the second factor will not work the same way as in people who just want to please others and get along. Gradually Eleanor Roosevelt began to rebel against the unquestioned self-confident beliefs of her class, a clear example of positive maladjustment: “They all in their sureness and absolute judgment on people and affairs going on in the world make me want to squirm and turn bolshevik” (Lash, 1971, p. 245). (You may remember that was the time of the Russian revolution and the term Bolshevik was in the news.) This signals a turning point, the start of spontaneous multilevel disintegration—“far less sure of my own beliefs and methods of action” (Roosevelt, 1937, p. 259). Far less sure and yet beginning to gain in confidence:

I learned then that practically no one in the world is entirely bad or entirely good, and that motives are often more important than actions. . . . Out of these contacts with human beings during the war I became a more tolerant person, far less sure of my own beliefs and methods of action, but I think more determined to try for certain ultimate objectives. I had gained some assurance about my ability to run things and the knowledge that there is joy in accomplishing a good job. I knew more about the human heart. (Roosevelt, 1937, pp. 259–260) (Piechowski, 2020)

If you resonate with multilevel disintegration, you would be drawn to what she says, which is inner transformation through subject-object in oneself and self-awareness:

You must try to understand truthfully what makes you do things or feel things. Until you have been able to face the truth about yourself you cannot be really understanding in regard to what happens to other people. But it takes courage to face yourself and to acknowledge what motivates you in the things you do. (Roosevelt, 1960, p. 63) (Piechowski, 2020)

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in the Netherlands. She was a student of Russian literature and a housekeeper to an older man. Her parents’ personalities were poorly matched. The father was a scholar and headmaster of a high school. The mother was Jewish, a difficult person given to emotional outbursts, whose family fled Russia. There was frequent conflict. One brother, a highly gifted pianist, was suffering from psychiatric problems; a second brother was hospitalized several times for mental illness. Her childhood lacked the consistency and order of a well-functioning family. She was 27 in 1941 when she started her diary. She was enjoying life, had passionate love affairs, and then in the midst of all this, a sudden realization struck her:

So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet this is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. . . . I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away. . . . I seem to be a match for most of life’s problems, and yet deep down something like a tightly wound ball of twine binds me relentlessly and at times I am nothing more or less than a miserable, frightened creature, despite the clarity with which I can express myself. (Hillesum, 1986/2002, p. 4)

What have we here? Isn’t it a spontaneous awakening into multilevel disintegration? What dynamisms do you see here? Astonishment, dislike maybe, inferiority, dissatisfaction with oneself. And also hierarchization and disquietude. (Piechowski, 2020)

Unilevel Disintegration. Lack of inner direction; inner fragmentation—many selves; adopting to the values of one’s environment without questioning; relativism of values and beliefs. (Piechowski, 2020)

Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration. Sense of the ideal but not reaching it; moral concerns; higher versus lower in oneself. Multilevel dynamisms are processes of critically perceiving and evaluating the world, others, and oneself, leading to the work of inner transformation. (Piechowski, 2020)

Organized Multilevel Disintegration. Self-actualization; ideals and actions agree; strong sense of responsibility on behalf of others’ well-being and inner growth. Dynamisms of this level carry out the work of inner restructuring. (Piechowski, 2020)

From the earliest outline of his theory, Dąbrowski emphasized two types of developmental processes, which he termed unilevel and multilevel. By unilevel, Dąbrowski meant that there is no universal hierarchy of values present and values are seen as changeable and without a criterion of deciding higher versus lower values. For Dąbrowski, values were a key indicator of one’s emotional growth. A multilevel process means becoming aware of the subjective, inner realities of others and of other dimensions and levels of reality. It involves a restructuring process, an inner transformation, that he called “disintegration”:
The course of multilevel disintegration is accessible to objective study and the experiencing individual is conscious of it. The process of evaluating one’s own internal environment is essential for multilevel disintegration. The feeling of the separateness of one’s own self increases and this is so not only in contradistinction to the external environment, but also, even primarily, in relation to one’s own inner environment, which is evaluated, is made into a hierarchy, and becomes a subject of more precise cognition and appraising thought. A “subject-object” process takes place in one’s own self. One’s internal milieu is divided into higher and lower, into better and worse, and into desirable and undesirable. (Dąbrowski, 1967, p. 69) (Piechowski & Wells, 2021)

Multilevel development emerges from strong overexcitabilities, as well as other aspects of what Dąbrowski called developmental potential, including special talents and abilities and dynamisms. The dynamisms are actually the products of certain types and combinations of overexcitabilities. Here we can see the process of positive disintegration in action during adolescence, and it can be intense and turbulent. The initial multilevel disintegration is spontaneous, and it emerges directly from emotional overexcitability—strong feelings of guilt and shame, feelings of disquietude and dissatisfaction with oneself are some examples. There is a questioning of the self, one’s values, the meaning of life, and one’s place in the world. At this point, the individual experiences a vertical split between their higher and lower self. This produces inner turmoil—an existential crisis—that necessitates action in order to resolve the conflict. (Piechowski & Wells, 2021)

Multilevel disintegration in adolescents can include characteristics such as periods of depression and anxiety, emotional lability, and feelings of unreality. Disparities in social differences such as a lack of mirroring from true peers or unshared experiences among available age peers can lead to discomfort and a feeling of being out of place (Jackson & Moyle, 2009a). Eye-opening case examples of adolescents in growthful crisis are described by Jackson (1998), Jackson and Moyle (2009a, 2009b), and Jackson, Moyle, and Piechowski (2009). (Piechowski & Wells, 2021)

Bailey (2011) studied the developmental process in gifted adolescents and found that the majority of gifted students are in the unilevel range. Out of 70 participants, only eight responded with answers illustrating the presence of a multilevel disintegration process. This shows that even among gifted populations, multilevelness is not a given, and the evidence may not be obvious to outside observers. This is a deeply personal process of inner growth, and it can be detected by asking questions that probe one’s emotional and cognitive depths using instruments based on Dąbrowski’s constructs. (Piechowski & Wells, 2021)

Dąbrowski recognized that a multilevel process in adolescence may not be noticed by a counselor who lives life in a unilevel process. The theory of positive disintegration is not a stage theory, and it does not unfold in a linear fashion with a guarantee of reaching multilevel process. Typically developing adults, who do not themselves experience life through a multilevel lens, may miss the complex processes of development presented in the theory of positive disintegration. Even when we ourselves do not easily perceive a multidimensional and multilayered reality, we must provide the right conditions to cultivate the multilevel progress for adolescents going through positive disintegration. These young people require great empathy and understanding, and safe places to explore their thoughts and feelings. (Piechowski & Wells, 2021)


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