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Born: 9/1/1902 Klarów, Poland Died: 11/26/1980 Warsaw.
Page presented by Bill Tillier.
Created in 1995.
▣ 1.1 This website was created to collect, preserve and disseminate the works of Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902-1980), a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who developed the theory of positive disintegration.
The theory describes two types of people: First, the average person who adopts the conventions and mores of their family and social circle without critical analysis. As “normal” development continues, the individual forms an initial or primary integration of psychological functions – an identity – that reflects this external locus of control. This initial integration operates egocentrically and robotically, with little real thought or consciousness. The individual perceives reality in concrete and tangible terms as it is directly perceived through sensory cognition – it is the reality of everyday life – the life of objects and their relations. Dąbrowski called this unilevel reality. Life is perceived horizontally, and choices are different but equivalent. For example, the unilevel individual’s attention is on the horizontal plane; when they come to a fork in the road, they can turn left or right, but these choices are essentially the same.
Because their values are adopted uncritically, and their behaviour rotely follows social convention, Dąbrowski said they have individuality but lack a genuine personality. The person who reflects and conforms to their external milieu and its expectations is considered mentally healthy by today’s standards – this was a frustrating paradox for Dąbrowski, who believed that autonomous development was a mainstay in defining mental health. For Dąbrowski, adjustment to everyday life is negative and non-developmental. The well-adjusted individual lives in psychic homeostasis and does not experience any internal conflicts. Because primary integration stymies personal growth, Dąbrowski said it must disintegrate to allow opportunities for autonomous development. Under optimal conditions, a second type of person emerges.
The second type of person, comprising about 35% of the population, begins to see reality more broadly and deeply – in a multilevel way – based on comparisons of qualitative differences between higher and lower aspects of reality. When presented with a fork in the road, the individual is attuned to see and choose the higher road over the lower. As higher experiences accumulate, a hierarchical view of life emerges. Development brings awareness to one’s behaviour, self, and deep essence – the characteristic traits and values that ultimately define an individual. This awareness highlights discrepancies between “what is” versus “what ought to be” and inconsistencies between one’s actions and essence. These discrepancies create strong internal, vertical conflicts that call for a “higher solution” – a vertical solution. A consciously chosen ideal of the self (personality ideal) and carefully examined values are adopted or created to reflect the individual’s essence. Creating a unique individualized sense of morality (the hierarchy of values) is a cornerstone in forming personality. With “the birth” of personality, reality is now seen anew – in ideal terms. This is a transcendental reality characterized by growing autonomy, authenticity, self-perfection, creativity, empathy and compassion for others (who are now seen as subjects), and by responsibility toward others. This personality reflects unique individual aspects (autonomy and authenticity) and universal human qualities, primarily characterized by a prosocial, altruistic and alterocentric perspective. As one’s behaviour increasingly reflects one’s personality ideal, internal conflicts fade, and a secondary integration forms.
Dąbrowski believed that a constellation of interacting genetic factors collectively known as developmental potential were prerequisites for disintegration and multilevel development. Developmental potential includes instincts, dynamisms, overexcitabilities, special abilities and talents (IQ plus things like musical talent or artistic ability, etc.), and the third factor – a dynamism of growth and an overarching drive toward becoming one’s authentic self.
The theory and advanced development involve metaphysical aspects.
As this overview illustrates, Dąbrowski used conventional terms like personality in unique ways and created new constructs like overexcitability, multilevelness and third factor, among others. Learning Dąbrowski’s unique terms and constructs is challenging but ultimately worthwhile in understanding this important theory. The theory predates the modern idea of posttraumatic growth.
▣ 1.2 The website is designed to allow the interested reader to learn the theory in a stepwise fashion. The second focus of the website, the archive, consists of all of Dąbrowski’s English works and approximately half of his Polish books. I only have a few of his many Polish articles. The archive also contains materials related to the theory including some 1000 articles and books.
▣ 1.3 A short film giving an overview of the theory. By Zeke Degraw, used with permission.
▣ 1.4 Much of the focus of this webpage is on Dąbrowski’s work in Canada. In 1965, Dąbrowski moved his family to Edmonton and took a visiting professorship at the University of Alberta. He also held a similar position at Laval University in Québec. In the years leading up to his death in 1980, he divided his time between Poland and Canada. Dąbrowski accomplished this work with the help of a number of dedicated people, including Lynn Kealy, Norbert Duda, Marlene Rankel, Dexter Amend, Lorne Yeudall, Francis Lesniak, Leo Mos, Andrzej (Andrew) Kawczak, Tom Nelson, Joseph R. Royce, Peter Jensen, Paul McGaffey, Earle Bain, and P. J. Reese.
▣ 1.5 In the winter of 1967, Dąbrowski met Michael Piechowski, who later became his colleague and primary collaborator. Together, they worked on and co-authored several significant publications until 1977. In 1970, Dr. Piechowski pursued a doctorate in counseling in Wisconsin, where he met Nick Colangelo and Kay Ogburn, who were also graduate students. In 1979, Colangelo and Ron Zaffrann edited a book on counseling for gifted individuals, which included a chapter by Dr. Piechowski titled “Developmental Potential.” This chapter discussed the application of overexcitability to gifted individuals. Dr. Piechowski dedicated himself to furthering research, writing, and advocacy in the field of gifted education, with a particular focus on overexcitability for the next four decades (see section 9.1.4).
▣ 1.6 From 1976 to 1980, I had the privilege of being a student of Dąbrowski. He entrusted me with the responsibility of continuing his theory, and after his passing, I was given his archive of materials. I established this website in 1995.
▣ 1.7 It is common for people to adopt societal norms and values from their upbringing and education without questioning them. At first, those who act on impulse or comply with social expectations may not experience any internal conflict. However, some individuals possess “developmental potential,” which allows them to perceive reality in a more profound way. Driven by overexcitability, a strong response to everyday stimuli, they begin to notice discrepancies between what is and what should be. These differences create internal conflicts that challenge their established views on life. Automatic responses become conscious and no longer feel “right.” This can lead to a disintegration of their worldview and a sense of insecurity, which results in feelings of depression and anxiety – psychoneuroses. Dąbrowski sees these experiences as signs of advanced growth.
▣ 1.8 Dąbrowski identified three factors that shape a person’s character. The first factor is heredity, followed by the social environment. The third factor is independent of these two. This “autonomous” factor is characterized by the differentiation (hierarchization) of one’s own character and temperament, as well as environmental influences. At first, this factor is reflected in a person’s resistance to lower impulses and habitual responses dictated by society. However, later on, it becomes a driving force (a dynamism) that moves the individual towards values and behaviors that reflect how things should be. Imagination plays a crucial role in visualizing and creating an internal standard to strive for that is unique to each person. As a person gains awareness and autonomy, they make conscious, volitional choices that reflect their values and perspective on life. This process eventually leads to the formation of a unique and individual hierarchy of values. These unique values form the foundation of an individual’s nascent personality ideal.
▣ 1.9 Moving toward achieving one’s ideal self requires establishing emotional foundations. Emotions guide goals, ideas, and actions. Emotion motivates the individual to become aware of and suppress lower aspects and emphasize higher ones to achieve harmony between thought and action. Personal growth requires an ongoing conscious effort to recognize our higher aspects and move toward our idealized self and to overcome our selfish and egocentric desires.
▣ 1.10 Six seminal quotes set the stage.
⧈ 1.10.1 “Personality: A self-aware, self-chosen, self-affirmed, and self-determined unity of essential individual psychic qualities. Personality as defined here appears at the level of secondary integration” (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 301).
⧈ 1.10.2 “The propensity for changing one’s internal environment and the ability to influence positively the external environment indicate the capacity of the individual to develop. Almost as a rule, these factors are related to increased mental excitability, depressions, dissatisfaction with oneself, feelings of inferiority and guilt, states of anxiety, inhibitions, and ambivalences—all symptoms which the psychiatrist tends to label psychoneurotic. Given a definition of mental health as the development of the personality, we can say that all individuals who present active development in the direction of a higher level of personality (including most psychoneurotic patients) are mentally healthy" (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 112).
⧈ 1.10.3 “Intense psychoneurotic processes are especially characteristic of accelerated development in its course towards the formation of personality. According to our theory accelerated psychic development is actually impossible without transition through processes of nervousness and psychoneuroses, without external and internal conflicts, without maladjustment to actual conditions in order to achieve adjustment to a higher level of values (to what 'ought to be'), and without conflicts with lower level realities as a result of spontaneous or deliberate choice to strengthen the bond with reality of higher level” (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 220).
⧈ 1.10.4 “Psychoneuroses ‘especially those of a higher level’ provide an opportunity to ‘take one’s life in one’s own hands.’ They are expressive of a drive for psychic autonomy, especially moral autonomy, through transformation of a more or less primitively integrated structure. This is a process in which the individual himself becomes an active agent in his disintegration, and even breakdown. Thus the person finds a ‘cure’ for himself, not in the sense of a rehabilitation but rather in the sense of reaching a higher level than the one at which he was prior to disintegration. This occurs through a process of an education of oneself and of an inner psychic transformation. One of the main mechanisms of this process is a continual sense of looking into oneself as if from outside, followed by a conscious affirmation or negation of conditions and values in both the internal and external environments. Through the constant creation of himself, though the development of the inner psychic milieu and development of discriminating power with respect to both the inner and outer milieus—an individual goes through ever higher levels of ‘neuroses’ and at the same time through ever higher levels of universal development of his personality” (Dąbrowski, 19102, p. 4).
⧈ 1.10.5 “In order to account for differences in the extent of development we introduce the concept of the developmental potential (Dąbrowski, 1970, Piechowski, 1974). The developmental potential is the original endowment which determines what level of development a person may reach if the physical and environmental conditions are optimal” (Dąbrowski, 1996, p. 10).
⧈ 1.10.6 “…in our conception of development the chances of developmental crises and their positive or negative outcomes depend on the character of the developmental potential, on the character of social influence, and on the activity (if present) of the third factor (autonomous dynamisms of self-directed development). One also has to keep in mind that a developmental solution to a crisis means not a reintegration but an integration at a higher level of functioning” (Dąbrowski, 1972, pp. 244-245).
⧈ 1.10.7 These quotes capture the heart of Dąbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. The theory describes a process of personality development—the creation of a unique, individual personality.
▣ 1.11 Be Greeted Psychoneurotics.
⧈ 1.11.1 From the Filmwest movie, Be Greeted Psychoneurotics.
⚀ 126.96.36.199 “Suffering, aloneness, self-doubt, sadness, inner conflict; these are our feelings that we have not learned to live with, that we have failed to appreciate, that we reject as destructive and completely negative, but in fact they are symptoms of an expanding consciousness. Dr. Kazimierz Dąbrowski has spent 45 years piecing together the complete picture of the growth of the human psyche from primitive integration at birth; the person with potential for development will experience growth as a loosening of the stable psychic structure accompanied by symptoms of psychoneuroses. Reality becomes multileveled, the choices between higher and lower realms of behavior occupy our thought and mark us as human. Dąbrowski called this process positive disintegration, he declares that psychoneurosis is not an illness and he insists that development does not come through psychotherapy but that psychotherapy is automatic when the person is conscious of his development.”
⚀ 188.8.131.52 “To Dąbrowski, therapy is autopsychotherapy; it is the self being aware of the self through a long inner investigation; a mapping of the inner environment. There are no techniques to eliminate symptoms because the symptoms constitute the very psychic richness from which grow an increasing awareness of body, mind, humanity and cosmos. Dąbrowski gives birth to that process if he can.”
⚀ 184.108.40.206 “Without intense and painful introspection and reflection, development is unlikely. Psychoneurotic symptoms should be embraced and transformed into anxieties about human problems of an ever higher order. If psychoneuroses continue to be classified as mental illness, then perhaps it is a sickness better than health.”
⚀ 220.127.116.11 “Without passing through very difficult experiences and even something like psychoneurosis and neurosis we cannot understand human beings and we cannot realize our multidimensional and multilevel development toward higher and higher levels.”
▣ 1.12 Dąbrowski captured the essence of psychoneuroses and development in his poem: Be Greeted Psychoneurotics.
▣ 1.13 Depiction of the levels of the theory.
⧈ 1.13.1 Based on Dąbrowski’s theory, there are two qualitatively different life experiences — unilevel and multilevel — which are characterized by five levels. The heteronomous level, also known as unilevel or Level I, is influenced by biological and social factors (first and second factor). On the other hand, multilevel life is autonomous, which comprises Levels III and above, reflecting varying degrees of self-conscious, self-determined, and self-controlled mental development. Level II is typically a short transitional phase marked by intense unilevel crises that challenge one’s character, resulting in either regression or progression.
Also see: link
⧈ 1.13.2 Dr. Mika has suggested that, in today’s era, it would be clearer to describe the levels using the terms “unilevel integration” instead of “primary integration” and “multilevel integration” instead of “secondary integration.” I fully support this suggestion in future neo-Dąbrowskian works.
▣ 1.14 Depiction of the construct network of the theory by W. Tillier.
⧈ 1.14.1 Download as PDF.
▣ 3.1 To gain a thorough understanding of this complex theory, one must read Dąbrowski’s original materials found in tab 2: Archive.
▣ 3.2 For a brief overview, watch this short film (also linked in tab 1.3.)
▣ 3.3 101. Overviews. (Article and Constructs)
▣ 3.4 201. Tillier’s initial presentation of the theory.
▣ 3.5 301. Dąbrowski’s unique terminology. (Terms and Glossary)
▣ 3.6 401. Tillier’s second presentation of the theory.
▣ 3.7 501. Watch the films of Dąbrowski linked in section 8.7 below.
▣ 3.8 201/401 Appendixes.
▣ 3.9 201/401 Master References.
▣ 4.1 A full bibliography of Dąbrowski’s work and works related to Dąbrowski’s Theory.
▣ 4.2 Synopsis of Dąbrowski’s major English books.
▣ 8.1 Wikipedia Page.
⧈ This is an open webpage that anyone can alter or contribute to.
▣ 8.2 The Kazimierz Dąbrowski Medal
▣ 8.3 Eugenia Dąbrowski.
▣ 8.4 Dąbrowski’s Grave.
▣ 8.5 Dąbrowski in Canada.
▣ 8.6 In Memoriam.
▣ 8.7 Videos of Dąbrowski.
⧈ One of Dąbrowski’s early students, P. J. Reese, made two half-hour movies of Dąbrowski. These have been digitalized and posted to YouTube.
⧈ In about 1965, Leo Mos was asked to host a graduate seminar asking Dąbrowski questions about the theory. This turned into three 2 hour videotaped sessions.
▣ 8.8 Polish website.
⧈ The Polish website dedicated to Dąbrowski.
▣ 8.9 Dąbrowski Related Web Links.
▣ 9.1 Issues.
▣ 9.2 Dąbrowski’s Levels.
▣ B.1 Contact:
⧈ This site was first posted October 26, 1995, and is maintained by Bill Tillier, e-mail: btillier [ at ] shaw.ca
▣ B.2 Other:
⧈ Website credits and copyrights:
⚀ The contents of this website and its subpages are protected by copyright, which is owned by the author, William Tillier. Please be aware that the material on this website is safeguarded by Canadian laws, policies, regulations, and international agreements as stipulated in the Copyright Act. If you wish to use any of the resources available on this site, please contact us via email to obtain permission.