Psychoneurosis Is Not An Illness was published in 1972 by Gryf Publications.
Reviewed by Emma Nicholson
This work of Dabrowski's is one of the jewels in the crown – the reason his whole theory was was so revolutionary and wonderful. It is an affirming view that psychological tension was not necessarily poor mental health, but a sign of positive disintegration.
It is by no means an easy read, but on the other hand it is not War and Peace either. While some of the language is technical, the book is set out in bite-sized chunks, and points are illustrated through case studies and regular examples.
The opening sentence of this book really sums up what it is all about…
“In this small book I wish to show that so-called nervousness and psychoneuroses are, in most cases, positive developmental phenomena.”
Below is a summary of the contents of the book (following the actual contents table):
If you're wanting to know about the essence of positive disintegration, then this book is a really good place to start.
While it's not a hard-core exploration of the levels, by looking at psychoneurotic symptoms, it shows us what that development can look like in practice. It has a comparison between the theory of positive disintegration and other theories. It talks about overexcitabilities. More to the point, it carries some of the most important sentiments underpinning the theory.
Reading this book, one thing that jumped out at me, was how ahead of its time it is. There are many concepts which we are just starting to come to grips with today. It's neurodivergent affirming, in it's loving acceptance of overexcitability as a different way of being. It recognises that there are types of depression which are perfectly OK, and a normal response to the world. The book recognises the need for solitude and quiet, in order to create and process – yes, you heard right, it recognises the needs of the introvert! It even (and hold on to you hats here) draws a connection between neurodivergence and multi-gender attraction.
Importantly it does a lot for de-stigmatizing emotions which would commonly be considered poor mental health. By reframing these as a path to growth (not just as things which are perfectly fine, but in fact a key ingredient in development) it flips the attitude towards things like depression completely on its head.
Not only was this thinking a wild sentiment when the book was published in 1972, but it is still an uncommon approach. Depression and anxiety are seen today as ‘nothing to be ashamed of', but they are still seen as something which should be mitigated. Certainly no one is talking about how they lead to personality development. Dabrowski's approach to psychoneurosis is one that provides an alternative to the common sentiment, which see these things as something to be ‘fixed'.
“In contrast to this writer's view that psychoneurosis usually represents a phase of accelerated, authentic development, is the opinion, widely held not only by laymen, but also by physicians, psychologists and educators, that psychoneurosis constitutes an illness.”
However, Dabrowski does not stop there. He maintains that psychoneurosis in small doses gives a person an ‘immunity' to poor mental health. He talks about the role that these symptoms have in keeping us ‘positively maladjusted' to the world, and maintaining our sanity. In essence, it means that by having these emotional reactions to a crazy world, we recognise its insanity, and in the process, stop ourselves from going insane.
“We may even go so far as to affirm that in most cases the milder psychoneuroses, and these are by far the more numerous, comprise basic prophylactic elements which guard a person against sustaining serious mental illness.”