Positive Living in Difficult Times

Dąbrowski’s Developmental Potential

William Tillier, MSc

In the last issue of Positive Living in Difficult Times, I posed the question: Why don’t more people achieve advanced personality development? There are several theories that propose a hierarchical model of personality development and all concur: Achieving the highest levels is very rare. For example, the theories of Eric Erikson, Jane Loevinger, Abraham Maslow and Ken Wilber sketch views of higher levels of development that are rarely attained. No consensus is offered on why higher development is rarely achieved. Maslow suggested the Jonah complex; we fear success and this fear mutes our striving. Wilbur suggested that the demands of modern life are too exhausting and there is little energy left over for higher development. As we will see, Dąbrowski offered a different view—they don’t have enough developmental potential.

Dąbrowski began his observations by trying to understand why people self-mutilate and/or commit suicide. As part of receiving his medical degree in 1929, Dąbrowski completed a thesis on suicide. Later, in 1934, Dąbrowski completed a second thesis on self-mutilation. His first English publication was the 1937 monograph on self-mutilation, appearing in the Genetic Psychology Monographs. These studies led Dąbrowski to a larger question: Based on his observations he saw that some individuals display advanced personality development, and he set about investigating why and how these individuals achieved higher development.

Dąbrowski studied cases chosen for exemplary personality development and found several factors they all appeared to have in common. First, they all experienced severe crises in their lives that somehow triggered personality growth. These crises were generally internal and involved existential anxieties and depressions—a feature Dąbrowski referred to as psychoneuroses. Second, these individuals all displayed extremely high levels of nervousness—a feature that Dąbrowski came to refer to as overexcitability. Dąbrowski also observed many individuals who suffered trauma and recovered to their previous level of function, as well as a those who did not recover. He began to differentiate those who experienced crises and grew versus those who had neutral or negative outcomes. These observations led Dąbrowski to put forward the construct of developmental potential.

Three Factors of Developmental Potential

In proposing developmental potential, Dąbrowski described a constellation of features and forces that could have either positive, equivocal or negative impacts on development and that could be either more general or more specific. Dąbrowski concluded that strong positive developmental potential is necessary to propel the individual from crises to growth.

Dąbrowski described three factors that appear to influence development. The first factor consists of the innate hereditary (genetic) influences that contribute to either inhibit or enhance development. The second factor involves external forces, primarily family and social environment. Individuals primarily influenced by the second factor subsume their individuality in the quest to fit in socially. They adopt and play out social roles and unquestioningly adopt social norms and values. Their identity tends to be social, not individual. For example, they identify as their job—I am a teacher. They identify based on their role—I am a father, or mother, or daughter. The predominance of the first and/or second factor characterizes the first, lowest level, of development in TPD [Editor note: TPD is the acronym for Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration]: primary integration. Dąbrowski also described the third factor: a deep-seated motivation to develop autonomy—an inner drive to develop and express one’s own unique character and personality.

Of the three factors, Dąbrowski felt that the first factor was the most critical in setting the foundation and determining the parameters of growth. If the genetic potential is weak, even a great environment will not help lead to a positive outcome. We often see this: A child from a great home turns out to be a terrible person. If the genetic potential is very strong, then a neutral or even the worst environment cannot mute development. Again, we often see this: A great person emerges from a neutral or terrible environment. If the developmental potential is equivocal then the environment plays a pivotal role in determining whether the outcome will be positive or negative.

In summary, the factors of development influence and determine one’s behavior and developmental course. Where first factor and primitive animal instincts are strong, socialization is resisted and the individual exhibits strong egocentricity. The individual places their needs above all else, satisfying them any way they can, without regard for the law or the feelings of others. In the average socialized individual, the second factor mediates the first and acts as Freud’s superego, sublimating the expression of inappropriate instincts in favor of abiding by the laws of the land. In cases where developmental potential is strong, the third factor emerges as a new critical force in transforming lower instincts and critically examining one’s environment in the promotion of individual development. The role of mores and values shifts—the individual constructs their own hierarchy of values and inappropriate behavior is now inhibited because the individual sees that it is inherently wrong: No external laws are required to guide one’s behavior. Social roles are critically examined and become mediated by the individual’s deep essence. For example, Abraham Maslow’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, but after one semester Maslow rejected the idea in favor of pursuing his interest in psychology. This dynamic can be summarized simply: Do I follow my instincts (first factor)? Do I follow my teachings (second factor)? Or do I follow my essence (third factor)?


A key part of the genetic potential consists of instincts. Dąbrowski’s approach was characteristically complex. We share some instincts with animals, such as survival instincts, instincts of aggression and sexual instincts. As well, there are instincts that are characteristically human and not shared by animals, such as the developmental instinct, creative instinct and the instinct of self-perfection. Finally, Dąbrowski observed humans do not universally display these higher instincts: Developmental potential (along with these higher instincts) is distributed in the population dimensionally, varying from very weak to very strong.


Another critical part of developmental potential involves the forces and movers of growth—the dynamisms. The dynamisms are biological or mental forces that control our behavior and development. Dąbrowski included instincts, drives, intellectual processes and emotion in formulating dynamisms and he described some 20 different dynamisms. Again, true to form, Dąbrowski described a hierarchy of dynamisms, with different dynamisms operational at different levels of development.


I have left one of the central elements of development potential to the end of this essay—overexcitability. Overexcitability has two main aspects: a lowered threshold to incoming stimuli, both from within and from external sources, and second, a higher than average response to incoming stimuli. This creates a heightened psychological sensitivity: The day-to-day experience of life is heightened. Dąbrowski called overexcitability a tragic gift because both the highs and lows of life are intensified and because we live in a world that is not appreciative of, or receptive to, people who display overexcitability.

The construct of overexcitability described by Dąbrowski must be differentiated from the idea of the highly sensitive person as described by Elaine Aron. Although the underlying phenomenon the two authors are describing may be the same, the role played by sensitivity is vastly different in the two approaches. There is no sense of a developmental role for sensitivity in Aron’s model.

Dąbrowski realized that his description of developmental potential was difficult to operationalize, in part, because it involved so many broad and interrelated features. To address this, he suggested that developmental potential could be assessed on the basis of three components: overexcitability, special abilities and talents, and the third factor.


This column has introduced the notion of developmental potential and touched on a few of its components, including the three factors of development, dynamisms, instincts and overexcitability. In our next column, we will dig deeper into these constructs and discuss the role of psychoneuroses and overexcitability in development.