Episode 53: Quick Bite: Red Flag Behaviors đźš©

Chris Wells & Emma Nicholson 

Release date: February 27, 2024

In episode 53, Chris and Emma discussed some of the “red flags” to be aware of when consuming content on positive disintegration. They discussed the importance of being aware of potentially problematic sources, particularly for those who are new to the theory. By sharing examples of red flags in other areas of their lives, they aim to help listeners navigate through potentially misleading information (or messages which may do them harm) and encourage critical thinking.

Red flag behaviors we covered include:

  1. Discouraging Authenticity: It's crucial to be open and accepting of who others are and who they say they are. The theory of positive disintegration is all about being authentic, so if someone is trying to discourage you from expressing yourself authentically, further investigation is needed.

  2. Canon Purists: Be mindful of when individuals only focus on one perspective. While Dabrowski's work is highly valuable, it's crucial to expand on it and approach positive disintegration as an evolving experience, rather than a rigid theory.

  3. Speculation Without Evidence: We need to be mindful that data, evidence and validation are critical to our understanding of positive disintegration. Question sources, think critically, and look for evidence to back up arguments.

  4. Level Labelers: Watch out for those who categorize individuals into levels or hierarchies based on their development. Positive disintegration is a dynamic process, and it's essential to avoid labeling yourself or others in a way that limits growth and understanding. Embrace the journey and focus on the process rather than fixed levels.

  5. Developmental Potential Elitists: Overexcitability is not only for the gifted. Positive disintegration is a tool that can help people navigate crises. Let’s not limit who we can help!

  6. People who are mean: Personal attacks and punching down are not aligned with the wonderful messages of compassion that are found in the theory.

Remember to trust your instincts, question sources, and always strive for empathy and authenticity in your interactions.

Links from this episode

Episode 48: Piechowski’s Insights on Positive Disintegration for more on why it’s best to avoid becoming a “Level Labeler.”


Emma: I think part of the reason why we wanted to do a red flag list was really to help people avoid problematic sources. I know this is a big thing in some of the Heathen content I consume, and it's really good that you have people out there sharing red flags and dog whistle things. Because, particularly in Heathenry, there are some sources which, let's face it, are racist and bigoted. And you don't want to consume that content or get led down a path by people who don't have good values or good intent.

I think it's good to have a list—particularly when people are starting off with a topic or with a theory—to know when they're looking at a source, is it a source that they can trust, or should they give it some more critical analysis?

Chris: Yeah, I have examples of this, too. I like your ones from Heathenry because it takes us out of the water we're swimming in to another area. But transphobia is what comes to mind.1

Emma: Yeah, or even the incel stuff you see on the internet. If people are talking about Andrew Tate, that's a red flag. If people are talking about “red pill”—that's a red flag. So, for people coming across content for the first time, sometimes they need to be aware of stuff that can often be cleverly disguised as virtue signaling or something like that. I think these things help people be more discerning with the content they consume.

While I don't want to say there are people doing horrible, nefarious things with the theory of positive disintegration, sometimes you can have these triggers, which help you know that maybe you need to dig a little bit deeper or do a bit more critical questioning.

Chris: We broke this down into different areas to discuss in the episode.

Emma: The first one we've got is people who discourage authenticity because we know the theory is about being authentic. What are some things that we might see where people are discouraging others to not be authentic?

Chris: Well, this is anybody who is suggesting they know better than another person who they really are. Maybe this kind of person is discouraging somebody from expressing themselves authentically and their gender. Whether they have some neurodivergence. Whether you are saying that people who choose to identify as autistic or whatever shouldn't [be doing that].

You see a lot of negativity about this—it's kind of everywhere. I would say that's one way it looks. If you're talking about gender issues—trans issues—and you're a cis person, you should take a look at that because you have no authority on that issue.2

Emma: Particularly if someone's suggesting that your view of yourself and who you really are is incorrect for whatever reason. As you said, whether it's to do with your gender identity, your status as being neurodivergent, or your status as gifted—anyone who says that they know you better than you do, that's possibly something that you should be aware of.

Chris: Be skeptical of people talking about a lived experience that isn't theirs.

Emma: Yes, absolutely. I think the takeaway from this one is that if we can't be open and accepting of who other people are and who they're saying they are, then we probably need to have a look at ourselves. You really have the right to be you and who you say you are.

Chris: Unapologetically.

Emma: Yes, absolutely. The second one that we've got is Canon Purists. A “Canon Purist” is anyone who only wants to talk about what Dabrowski said and doesn’t see positive disintegration as an experience—only as Dabrowski's theory, and that's the only frame of reference that we've got.

Chris, I think it'd be interesting to hear from you what Dabrowski's take on that would actually be.

Chris: That's a good question. I have multiple perspectives on that because I think he wanted his theory to grow and evolve, and that was the dream. That other people would pick up on it and build on it, and it would become a part of life. He was a proponent of mental hygiene, and so he had this incredible interdisciplinary perspective where he thought that it took a lot of different areas and disciplines to understand and be able to properly address issues and how to help people achieve true mental health from his framework. Unfortunately, that hasn't panned out.

Emma: So, if you see someone who only wants to quote from Dabrowski or is challenging other ways of talking about disintegration as an experience.

The other one I've found puzzling—someone actually wrote to me about this one in an email and said, “Oh, is it true that Dabrowski said 65% of people are in primary integration?”

I'm like, he may have, but he was one guy doing research at one point in time. So, I'd say the prudent thing to do would be that has to be retested and re-researched. I'm sure Dabrowski, as a man of science, would encourage people to do further research.

Chris: We can't blindly just repeat things that he said without doing more research and looking at it. Like you said, it's problematic to constantly point back to the past and tell people, “Well, you have to read Dabrowski to understand it.”

That's part of why the Dabrowski community has sometimes been seen as cult-like. It's as if Dabrowski can't be questioned, and what he said is God's law, and that's the gospel. He meant for this to be studied and applied in reality. I think that this has been a real problem, and we have to break out of it. The only way past this is to name it for what it is and to move forward. We need better research.

Of course, Dabrowski's words are beautiful and incredible, and I read them all the time. I’ve felt mirrored in his work in such a special way, and I hadn't in quite the same way anywhere else. It was really cool. So, that's a wonderful experience. He really was a visionary, but we need more research. We need to understand this much better [than we do]. When you think about what he meant by multilevel and what he described as the ideal in research and practice—we're so far from it right now.

Emma: I couldn't agree more. It's a great resource, and he was a pioneer, but I think the best way to do service to his work is to expand on it and delve deeper. Not just ring-fence what was in his works and stop the train there. Because I honestly feel that that's the way to kill the theory: not allowing it to progress, expand, or grow.

Chris: It's been so stifled in gifted education. Especially the endless criticisms of Michael's work—calling everything into question and trying to invalidate it, ignore it, or erase it. This is all part of the problem.

Well, Michael is one of the few people to actually do research with the theory, to get other people involved like he did. We were just talking today in our Dabrowski Congress planning meeting about the original Dabrowski Study Group: Linda Silverman, Frank Falk, Nancy Miller, Betty Maxwell, all of them who used to study and work with the theory.

We have to grow out of these conflicts that have done nothing but hold us back.

Emma: Well said. I think the takeaway from this one is, obviously, Dabrowski is a great resource. We’re not questioning that whatsoever. But it's not the only one. And positive disintegration is an experience, not just a theory. We want to encourage more people to participate in working with this and not to continually point back to the past.

Chris: That leads us to the next point, which is endlessly speculating about the theory without doing research or taking a scientific approach to your claims.

Emma: We wrote down a bunch of bullet points, and all of them had “without evidence” in them. Doing something without evidence. I think that's the main thing. Research is encouraged. We need more data. We need more validation.

And we've got a couple of things like:

  • Talking down about or dismissing other people's resources or perspectives without evidence

  • Speculating about the theory endlessly without doing research

  • Arguing over the right way or the wrong way without validation.

So, it all comes back to the answer to any of these things is always more data.

Well, it is in my mind anyway—more data, more data, that will only help the situation. So, if there's a point where we don't have enough data, we should seek more.

Chris: Agreed. We definitely need more critical thinking and evidence. I'm always trying to question myself and my perspective—why do I think this? What evidence do I have to support this? And then, is that quality evidence? We need to be careful about how we think.

Emma: Even things like stating opinion as evidence. But this comes down to something that society is encouraged to do as a whole anyway, whether it comes to news or research, or anything is to think critically. Question the source. Think about where it's coming from. What evidence does it have to back it up?

Chris, you said we should really be ready to have a beginner's mindset and always want to start from the beginning when we're looking at sources. So, it helps when we're looking at anything to do that step of critical evaluation and say, who's it coming from? What evidence has it got to back it up? What more evidence can I find?

Chris: That's right. I don't think I have anything else to say about that.

Emma: Okay, well, let's talk about the next one that we had, which is “Level Labelers.” So, people who say the levels as defined silos and like to try and pigeonhole themselves or others into one of the levels. Particularly when they're speculating about someone else's development. “Oh, that comes across as—you're at level three.”

Chris: If you're doing it—if you are hearing this and thinking to yourself, “Oh, I do that, there's nothing wrong with that.” Think again! This isn't how you should be thinking of the levels.

If you wonder why, I'm just going to point you to our episode with Michael and hear what he had to say about the levels.

Emma: We want to think of development as like a cycle of growth.

Chris: The process is what matters.

Emma: Yeah, the process is what matters. Both you and I have been through multiple disintegrations, and other people have described having that experience as well. It's not like you stake a claim in where you are now and go, “That's me, I'm done, this will never happen again.”

We've talked about even socialization being an ongoing force, and you have to keep using that self-reflection. Anyone who's trying to put a hard stake in a level or shove you into a pigeonhole yourself.

Chris: Fly free! Sorry, I just pictured that pigeonhole slide [from my NAGC slideshow].

Image description: pigeons in their pigeonholes, with one flying in the foreground with white text on a black background, "You can't fly freely in a pigeon hole."

Emma: Yes. Little pigeons, don't be put in holes.

Chris: The process is what's important. When we're thinking about what's going on in these different types of development, the different kinds of disintegrations—sometimes they're mixed. You have unilevel and multilevel dynamisms at the same time.

These things aren't clear-cut, and we should never be putting people into levels. Or ourselves. There's no point in it.

Trust me when I tell you that I never sit around thinking of myself in that way. I identify dynamisms in my life. It shows me where I am and where I need to be. I can't even imagine where I would be thinking to myself, “Oh, cool, I'm at level III now.”

Emma: Yeah, because it only discourages you if you then go back and go, “Oh, I'm having some unilevel dynamisms right now. Oh my god, I'm a failure.”

No, that's not helpful thinking for you and your development. And I don't think it's helpful either to be at the other end of it and say, “Well, I'm a level IV or a level V, and I've completed my journey.” Because then, when the next challenge comes along, or the next storm hits you, you get into the next moment of psychological tension, then you're going to feel like a failure.

Chris: To tie this back to what we were talking about with the research, there's so much left to be understood about how these different kinds of development look. So, we strongly discourage this kind of behavior.

Emma: Speaking of development, the next point we had on the list was “Developmental Potential Elitists.”

Chris: Thinking of overexcitability as only for the gifted and especially only for the highly and profoundly gifted, or even thinking that all gifted people have overexcitability—this is an extremely limiting, black-and-white perspective that I discourage. And it is related to the above, I would say.

This is not what the theory is meant to be used for. It's not only for the gifted. There's no reason to believe that.

Emma: I think the lessons we can learn from the theory probably apply to a wider audience than we would first suspect. Seeing more value in levels I and II, seeing tension there, and seeing process there. It would actually be great if we could use the theory to help more people outside of a very limited audience.

Chris: Well, it's true. Especially having compassion for people who are in unilevel development. I think Michael's biggest issue—this elitist, “we're better than them [view of the higher levels].” Assuming that you're in a multilevel process and better than someone else. If you think that, you need to take a look at yourself. I don't know how else to say it.

There is a lack of empathy around this. That's, I think, what upset him and drove him to show that real development takes place even in the unilevel process. To say otherwise is to doom a large swath of humanity to not having development. Can you say that?

It looks different than multilevel development, which is intense, accelerated, dramatic, and can feel like it's breaking you down. It does kill some people. It's serious. Well, that's why Dabrowski said psychoneurosis is not an illness, but a lot of that conversation has been lost in the gifted world. When we're arguing over who has overexcitability—there are bigger fish to fry here. There's so much more that we could be doing with this theory.

Emma: Yeah, that's right. It’s a theory about psychological tension. In today's world, where there's so much stress on the mental health sector, we have to look at, rather than gatekeeping the theory from people, how we can use it to help more people, no matter what stage of development they're at.

Chris: All I'm asking is that people do careful work and really work from evidence and data. Like you said, be critical thinkers and build on what's done, but don't be chained by it or limited by it. We need to do better.

Emma: As you said, it comes back to critical thinking about sources. If you're engaging in this behavior, you might want to consider it. Not everybody does this with ill intent. Sometimes, people don't realize that what they say or do might be harmful to someone else.

I think the last five points, you can do them from a place of meaning well. Sometimes, they're just the ways that we talk about things. But the last one is the one that we really want to call out, which is people who are mean.

Chris: I don't want us to sound mean. I feel like there's a tipping point between, “Here are some useful things to look out for,” and… We have to tread gently here.

Emma: We don't want to be nasty on ourselves and call people out on this. We want to present some of these things so that people can avoid being hurt themselves. This is why we're bringing up this particular point—not to be nasty ourselves but to help other people avoid pain.

Chris: That's right. We've experienced these things.

Emma: I suppose the one thing I would call out is when people talk about the theory like they're experts in it but without displaying what Dabrowski said we should be working towards. So, if they're not showing humility, lacking in empathy, and not open to the perspectives of others.

When Dabrowski talked about the theory, he was talking about striving for universal values— having humility, having universal love, empathy being one of the most important things. So, if people are not kind to their fellow humans in that way, open to hearing their perspectives, open to their authenticity and who they are as a person, then that is something I think to watch out for.

Not just when it comes to looking at the theory, but for everybody in your life. When you come across humans who don't speak about others in a kind and compassionate way, or they don't want to hear about their perspectives, or they don't want to acknowledge who they authentically are, that is problematic for whoever you come across in life.

Chris: It's true. Listening to you talk about that makes me realize that what's hard for me about this is my personal experiences with people who this has happened with in these past several years. So, it's a struggle because my desire is to say, “Well, like this,” [giving specific examples], but it can also be said in general terms.

Red flag behavior—watch out when people are signaling that they're better than other people. That they're [at a] higher level, or that they're on a higher path than other people, but that doesn't necessarily match their behavior.

Emma: Yeah, particularly when that higher path thinking is accompanied by talking down on other people and treating them as lesser. Questioning other people's authenticity and who they are in a way that's horrible and nasty. Calling people “unilevels” or calling non-gifted people “muggles.”

Anything that elevates someone to a higher position and then punches down on others, I would consider a red flag.

Chris: I would include people who question being neurodiversity-affirming, suggesting that there's something wrong with identifying as neurodivergent.

Emma: I think our takeaway from that is to trust your instincts on it, and bear in mind what those higher values look like and what Dabrowski's actually taught us about being a better person. If someone's not showing humility and not showing empathy for others, yet they're trying to speak to others from a place of authority, just question that. You don't have to be dismissive, but that's the place to apply some critical thinking.

Chris: Learn from our lessons and watch out for these behaviors. Trust us that we have had to learn the hard way, and we're trying to be helpful and point things out.

I know that a lot of these things may not be obvious. This is our bread and butter to be on the lookout for these things, and we're doing this work daily and exposed to some of this stuff. It's the water we're swimming in. We just want to help point these things out and help.

Emma: It's to avoid harm, help people be a bit more discerning about what it is that they're ingesting, and hopefully set them on a good path with their own journey.

Chris: That's right. And really get the maximum value from the theory and its application in your life because it's possible to be led down a bad path with this work, and it ends up being more constraining than expansive. We want to help offer you multiple perspectives.

Emma: Well, thanks, Chris. This has been informative and difficult but hopefully worthwhile for our listeners. So, always a pleasure.

Chris: Yeah, thank you. It is always a pleasure.

Emma: Thank you, listeners—we always appreciate you, too. Continue your path to authenticity through the links in the show notes. Subscribe to our Substack newsletter for stacks of cool things delivered straight to your inbox.

Explore the Dabrowski Center, email us, or join us on social media. Don't forget to show your love by liking, subscribing, grabbing some Positive Disintegration merch, or leaving us a rating or review on your podcast platform.


Chris’s remark about transphobia came from the many problematic claims about gender from people with anti-trans agendas. Here is one example, and many more can be found in Erin Reed’s archives.


Chris had a very specific situation in mind and wasn’t talking about casual conversations.