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Kazimierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration: An overview of basic concepts

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This paper gives an overview of TPD basic concepts, as well as Dabrowski’s views on overexcitability; it also presents the comparison of the author’s data obtained from clinical practice with Dabrowski’s findings on overexcitability in gifted children.
Kazimierz Dabrowski’s
Theory of Positive Disintegration
An Overview of Basic Concepts
Elizabeth Mika, MA, LCPC
Theory of Positive Disintegration - TPD
TPD is a theory of human personality development where the essential role is assigned to
TPD postulates that development is a progression from primary integration characterized
by rigid, instinctual egocentrism to conscious altruism based on empathy, compassion and
self-awareness, expressed the fullest at the highest level of development, the level of
secondary integration.
Development takes place through the process of positive disintegration, which is the
loosening and partial, or sometimes global, dismantling of the initial character structure
during the course of one’s life and replacing it by consciously created personality.
Development is not related to a human biological maturation process and does not follow
a time schedule, although it progresses along an invariable sequence.
Development forms a hierarchy of levels characterized by the predominance of either
integration or disintegration on each level.
The level a person can attain in her development is determined by her developmental
Five levels of development
1. primary integration – rigid, stereotypical, impulsive actions; intelligence subsumed
under primitive instincts, no inner conflicts;
2. unilevel disintegration – loosening of the previously well-integrated character structure
as a result of usually external circumstances – unilevel mental disturbances are serious and
have mostly unconscious character; moral relativity;
3. spontaneous multilevel disintegration – the emergence of multilevelness – inner conflict
of ML character; a growing sense of “what ought to be” and growing maladjustment to
“what is” (positive maladjustment); actions guided by an emerging autonomous hierarchy
of values and goals;
4. organized multilevel disintegration – conscious shaping and systematization of one’s
behavior; conscious and planned self-transformation; growth of empathy, autonomy and
clarity of values and goals;
5. secondary integration – organization and harmonization of personality and personality
ideal; dynamisms of responsibility, authentism and autonomy, empathy, self-perfection,
personality ideal.
Secondary Integration Level 5 Personality exemplars
Level 4 Developing personalities
ML disintegration Level 3 Psychoneurotics
Level 2 Neurotics, mentally ill
Borderline of average person and (psycho)neurotic
Disintegration 
Average person  Statistical
Borderline of psychopath and average person
Primary Integration Level 1 Psychopaths
Developmental potential
Developmental potential is the “original equipment determining the level to which an
individual can develop, if his physical and social conditions are optimal.” (Dabrowski,
1984, p.24).
Developmental potential expresses the relationship between individual development
and three main groups of factors influencing it:
1. First factor – genetic and permanent physical traits -- intelligence, OE, special
talents, bodily constitution, temperament (external locus of control and
2. Second factor – influences of social environment (external locus of control
and motivation).
3. Third factor – “an active conscience”- autonomous forces and processes such
as self-awareness, inner conflict, free will and choice in one’s development,
conscious self-transformation, etc. Third factor makes self-determination possible
and is necessary for creativity and advanced development.
Developmental potential (DP) can be limited to the FIRST FACTOR = egocentric and/or
antisocial behavior;
DP can encompass the FIRST TWO FACTORS = convention and conformity;
DP can be a result of ALL THREE FACTORS = autonomy and authenticity, transcendence
of a biological cycle and social conventions, realization of personality ideal.
High DP = above average intelligence, special abilities and talents, overexcitabilities, and
the third factor (self-determination).
Three types of development
1. “Normal” – little DP, statistical norm, fulfillment of biological and social imperatives, no
attempts at conscious self-transformation; underdevelopment of emotional functions.
2. One-sided – one strong skill, talent or set of skills; only some emotional and intellectual
potentials develop very well while the rest remain undeveloped.
3. Global (universal) and accelerated – strong DP, all cognitive AND emotional functions
develop with equal intensity, self-aware and conscious direction of one’s own
development, positive disintegration
Positive disintegration
The royal path of development”
Positive disintegration is a process through which an individual’s development can progress
from a lower to a higher level of psychological functioning.
(…) disintegration means the differentiation through loosening of structures, the dispersion
and breaking up of psychic forces. The term disintegration is used to refer to a broad range of
processes, from emotional disharmony to the complete fragmentation of the personality
structure. Loosening and even fragmenting the internal psychic environment, and conflicts
within the internal environment and with the external environment, are the grounds for the
birth and development of a higher psychic structure. Disintegration is the basis for
developmental thrusts upward, the creation of new evolutionary dynamic, and the movement
of the personality to a higher level (…). (Dabrowski, 1984)
Disintegration can be:
- unilevel, multilevel, or pathological;
- partial or global, permanent or temporary;
- positive or negative.
ML is a paradigm in which different phenomena, including human behavior and human
reality in general, can be seen as representing different, multiple levels of developmental
achievement. Multilevelness is the result of the hierarchization of one’s inner and outer
experiences. The hierarchization comes about as the result of positive disintegration.
Developmental Dynamisms
Developmental dynamisms are instinctual-emotional-cognitive forces present in people
endowed with high developmental potential. Dynamisms, which are intrapsychic factors, are
the forces fueling and shaping personality development.
Developmental dynamisms arise from the interplay of high developmental potential with
external conditions.
Types of Dynamisms Occurring on Different Levels of Development
Level 2: ambivalencies and ambitendencies (unilevel conflict), beginning of shame,
temperamental syntony, extreme or changeable identification with others, second factor.
Level 3: hierarchization of inner conflict and development, disquietude with oneself,
dissatisfaction with oneself, feelings of inferiority toward oneself, astonishment with oneself,
shame and guilt, positive maladjustment, identification and empathy, inner conflict, disposing
and directing center.
Level 4: subject-object in oneself, third factor, inner psychic transformation (transcending a
biological cycle and one’s psychological type), self-awareness, self-control, self-education,
autopsychotherapy, self-perfection, ML identification (full identification with oneself, but
never with others), empathy (full empathy toward others, but never full toward oneself), inner
conflict (very strong, ML), creative instinct.
Level 4level 5: empathy, responsibility, autonomy and authenticity,
self-perfection, personality ideal, creative instinct, disposing and directing center (firmly
identified with personality ideal).
Personality in TPD is viewed as a self-aware, self-chosen, self-affirmed and self-determined
unity of essential individual psychic qualities that appears at the level of secondary
integration. Personality consists of INDIVIDUAL ESSENCE - talents, abilities and our unique
personal characteristics (our sense of self); and SOCIAL ESSENCE - ties to others and to the
world at large (our sense of belonging).
Types of adjustment / maladjustment
NEGATIVE ADJUSTMENT – non-creative adaptation; conformity to social conventions, lack
of reflection and criticism in approach to reality, adjustment to “what is;”
NEGATIVE MALADJUSTMENT – disregard for social norms and conventions stemming
from extreme egocentrism and ruthless realization of one’s lower level goals
(psychopaths, criminals);
POSITIVE MALADJUSTMENT – creative nonadaptation; critical discontent with the status
quo stemming from a desire to transcend what is inauthentic, harmful and unfair in our
lives; maladjustment to “what is” with adjustment to “what ought to be;” also a
developmental dynamism;
POSITIVE ADJUSTMENT – adjustment to one’s personality ideal embracing the highest
human values; adjustment to “what ought to be.”
Overexcitability (nervousness)
“The tragic gift”
OE is a higher than average capacity for experiencing inner and external stimuli, based on a
higher than average responsiveness of the nervous system.
“The prefix over attached to 'excitability' serves to indicate that the reactions of excitation are
over and above average in intensity, duration and frequency. There is another essential feature
characteristic for reactions of overexcitability, namely, that the response is specific for that
type of overexcitability which is dominant in a given individual.” (Dabrowski, 1996)
“One could say that one who manifests a given form of overexcitability, and especially one
who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more
multisided manner. Reality for such an individual ceases to be indifferent but affects him
deeply and leaves long-lasting impressions. Enhanced excitability is thus a means for more
frequent interactions and a wider range of experiencing.” (Dabrowski, 1972, p.7)
Five types of OE
1. psychomotor
2. sensual
3. imaginational
4. intellectual
5. emotional
Two Forms of OE
- all-inclusive (global)/confined (narrow)
- temporary/permanent
Overexcitability contd.
- is an expression of the interplay between psychical and autonomic factors, which leads to
psychological imbalance and moderate tension; when the tension is higher, we see
neuroses and psychoneuroses;
- the expression of OE - its type, form and level - depends on physical constitution,
hormonal factors, level and universality of development, and social environment;
- OE on the one side accelerates individual development, and on the other, is the initial
phase of neuroses and psychoneuroses. Although the latter increase the developmental
dynamics, they also bring dangers of tensions too great to absorb and negative
disintegration as a result.
“Children, and mainly youth exhibiting different forms of OE, particularly emotional and
imaginational, possess in their developmental potential the beginnings of a hierarchical
psychic inner milieu. Inner tensions, inhibitions, inner conflicts, psychic crises,
disappointments, maladjustment to the most common forms of reality all create an attitude of
psychological isolation, lead to meditation on the sense of life and death, to development of
the ability to observe and to philosophical thought; and they often deepen sensitivity to
suffering of others.” (Dabrowski, 1979)
“Sensitivity (OE) without a developmental outlet turns into irritability. (…) Irritability is the
enemy of sensitivity – it reduces it and leads to disease. (…) Oversensitivity (OE) without
inner psychic transformation brings many unnecessary conflicts with others – magnifies the
differences, and lessens and obscures the most important things.” (Dabrowski, 1972)
Psychomotor OE - an excess of energy manifesting in rapid talk, restlessness, preference
for violent games, sports, pressure for action, or delinquent behavior. It may either be a "pure"
manifestation of the excess of energy, or it may result from the transfer of emotional tension
to psychomotor forms of expression such as those mentioned above (tics and self-mutilation).
(Dabrowski, 1996)
1. genetic:
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (in ADHD, tics)
- brain dysfunction
2. history of prenatal and neonatal trauma (mother's illness, fetal poisoning),
3. severe illness in childhood (such as meningitis, for example)
4. abusive or neglectful care giving in early childhood
5. environmental conditions (such as no opportunities for
appropriate physical release).
find appropriate and constructive ways to release excess of PM energy through moderate
involvement in sports, contacts with nature, trips, participation in Boys/Girls Scouts;
teach relaxation techniques, use physical therapy and sensory integration techniques;
use medication to prevent exhaustion and to aid attention, concentration and slow
development of self-control;
watch out for tendencies to self-mutilation – avoid excessive criticism and punishment.
Sensual OE - heightened experiencing of sensory pleasure - an increased need to touch and
be touched, hugged, kissed; early signs of sexual interest and development, interest in food
and food preparation, aesthetic interests, drama, need for comfort and luxury, need for
attention and company, dislike of loneliness
1. genetic (history of psychopathy, alcoholism in the family)
2. early childhood illness
3. excessive parental adoration; sexual trauma
patiently encourage self-control and reflection
slowly build empathy for others
work on desensitization to overwhelming sensual stimuli
avoid excessive inhibitions and punishments which may lead to serious neuroses and
antisocial behaviors
Imaginational OE - internal, image-based information processing with a relative
exclusion of sensual, affective and psychomotor spheres; manifests in association of images
and impressions; inventiveness; use of image and metaphor in verbal expression; strong and
sharp visualizations; vivid dreams, nightmares, mixing of truth and fiction; fears of the
unknown; intense living in the world of fantasy; predilection for fairy and magic tales, poetic
creations, or invention of fantastic stories; tendency to prospection and retrospection;
maladjustment to external reality.
1. largely unclear (Dabrowski);
2. insecure attachment to caregivers, particularly disorganized attachment (Liotta);
3. co-existing and exacerbating diseases (such as respiratory and heart problems);
4. being an only child; excessive pampering; humiliation and feelings of inferiority induced
by inappropriate parenting; traumas.
reward contacts with concrete reality and adjustment to it, teach differences between
illusory and real, steer imagination toward creativity rather than non-creative isolation;
provide opportunities for relaxation, even exemption from school activities when needed
in periods of particular intensity;
use medication when needed to aid relaxation.
Intellectual OE information processing and decision making are localized in the
cognitive sphere; manifests as a drive to ask probing questions, a quest for knowledge,
theoretical thinking, reverence for logic, preoccupation with theoretical problems, etc.; most
frequently associated with exceptional intellectual abilities in children. Intellectual OE can be
global – when combined with emot and imag OE, it aids the development of a rich mental
structure with multiple talents and great self-awareness; or narrow (confined) – manifesting
in one-sided development of specific abilities; may end in negative disintegration or stunted
should not be corrected or treated; should be balanced by encouraging development of
other forms of OE; it is particularly important to attend to a child’s emotional and moral
development to counteract tendencies toward overintellectualization.
Emotional OE - a function of experiencing emotional relationships; manifests as strong
attachments to persons, living things, or places; inhibition (timidity and
shyness), excitation (enthusiasm), strong affective memory, concern with death,
fears, anxieties, depressions, feelings of loneliness, need for security, concern for
others, exclusive relationships, difficulties of adjustment in new environments.
Emotional OE, and empathy that grows from it, is THE basis for multilevel positive
In an extravert with emotional OE, emotional reactions are strong, very fast, uninhibited and
often explosive, but quickly subsiding; extraverts with emotional OE tire (emotionally) easily,
but equally easily recover. In an introvert with emotional OE, emotional reactions are strong,
but “delayed” – they take longer (days, weeks, or months) to fully develop and to process, and
leave a permanent mark on the psyche.
1. hereditary;
2. past or present illnesses;
3. psychological factors.
start with a thorough physical, including checking for a possible hormonal imbalance,
which needs to be addressed if present;
teach relaxation techniques, allow frequent contacts with nature;
encourage creativity and talent development;
use bibliotherapy;
encourage friendships;
use medication if needed to aid relaxation and ease anxiety.
Diagnosis of OE – descriptive and differential
- what is the constellation of OE – its main and supporting types?
- what are their origins (genetic/environmental/)?
- what are the special talents and abilities, and the general intelligence level of an
- what are the speed and direction (negative/positive) of the developmental changes caused
by OE?
1. OE vs. socio-educational difficulties
2. OE vs. neuroses and psychoneuroses
3. OE vs. psychopathy or psychosis
Principles of mental hygiene in dealing with high OE gifted children at
Be fair, patient and empathetic.
Accommodate asynchronous, often one-sided, development.
Be kind, accept and appreciate the child for who he is and who he is becoming.
Look for signs of creativity and positive development in children whose behaviors appear
unusual, inconvenient and strange. Remember that diagnostic labels are NOT people nor
do they tell us about characters of individual human beings.
Facilitate contacts between children of similar abilities and sensitivity.
Enjoy your students – grow with them, remembering that the so-called balance and
stabilization are contrary to creativity and development.
Teachers’ preparation is crucial in understanding individual differences and counteracting
stereotypical and undifferentiated approach to gifted -- or any -- students.
Gifted Resources Data:
300 children,
180 males
120 females
Age range 3 – 14
IQ range 79 – 223
Type: 106 introverts
98 extraverts
96 mixed type
1. 89% of the total sample have at least one type of OE (most have mixed OE); in 34 children (11%)
there were no indications of OE.
2. Multiple OE have been found in:
-100% of exceptionally and profoundly gifted children
-93% highly gifted
-88% moderately gifted
-83% children in the superior range of intelligence
-75% average and above average intelligence
Psychomotor OE – found in150 subjects in all IQ ranges (50% of the total sample)
Emotional OE – found in 228 subjects in all IQ ranges (76%)
Intellectual OE – 129, from superior IQ up (43%)
Imaginational OE – 176, average IQ and up (59%)
Sensual OE – 138, average IQ and up (46%)
3. The most common type of OE is emotional OE (76%); however, in most cases, it appears to be
unilevel emotional OE. Expressions of ML emotional OE, characterized by strong empathy,
compassion, proneness to feelings of guilt and shame, distinct moral strivings and self-perfecting
behaviors were found in about 7% of children from above average to highly gifted ranges of
intelligence. This is not unusual, given the age range of subjects. Since emotional and cognitive
egocentrism is characteristic for young children, we can expect that in pre-adolescent children
signs of OE will often assume unilevel character. More significant is the presence of those few
who at an early age show emerging signs of accelerated ML development (manifested in ML
OEs), thus signifying strong tendencies to transcend psychobiological developmental patterns.
4. Intellectual OE is the rarest and correlates positively with high intelligence. Intellectual OE
was found in children with intelligence in the superior range and above (IQ of 120 and up). This
directly supports Dabrowski’s own findings that intellectual OE is the rarest (and one least
requiring treatment).
5. There were no children with advanced empathy, compassion and moral strivings among
those with exceptional and profound intelligence (IQ < 160), despite their highly developed
reasoning abilities and frequently noted sensitivity to issues of justice, typically expressed in more
abstract ways. This could possibly confirm Dabrowski’s observations that extreme intellectual
precocity may often create a foundation for one-sided development, where intellectual abilities
and pursuits take a central importance in a person’s life, sometimes with detriment to his or her
social and emotional growth.
6. Artistic gifts and creativity do not show a correlation with IQ (range 106 to 181), but
correlate with imaginational and sensual OE.
7. In a small group of subjects, the dominance of sensual and psychomotor OE correlates positively
with extreme egocentrism, lack of concern for others, lack of empathy, impulsiveness and
aggressive behaviors (negative DP). 11 children (4%) – 9 extraverts, 10 male; IQ range average to
highly gifted.
Among other findings:
- 16% of subjects had history of significant early health problems (anoxia at birth, heart defect,
congenital conditions) or severe traumas (abuse, deprivation, death of a parent, suicide of parent,
divorce, abandonment and adoption) possibly contributing to OEs.
- close to 90% of the gifted exhibit developmental asynchrony - significant unevenness in the rate of
development of different abilities (verbal vs. practical intelligence, significant strengths and
weaknesses within particular intellectual abilities, delays in motor development, sensory integration
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