Meaning of Life, Meaning Research, Positive Living Newsletter

The Theory of Positive Disintegration

William Tillier, M.Sc.

In the last INPM newsletter, I introduced Kazimierz Dąbrowski and briefly reviewed the positive psychology approach he used in defining mental health. The healthy personality is traditionally defined by adjustment to one’s social and cultural norms (how well one fits in) and, in today’s world, being happy by being able to satisfy one’s basic needs in culturally acceptable ways. In the traditional model, one is either adjusted (conforms) or maladjusted (does not conform).

In the positive approach, however, personality is defined by the presence of autonomy, uniqueness, authenticity, and psychological growth (often construed as self-actualization), and by the ability to master one’s environment. Dąbrowski emphasized a self-aware and self-chosen personality, including a unique hierarchy of values, aims, and goals based upon one’s essential characteristics and one’s creation of a personality ideal for oneself. This approach to defining personality complicates the traditional binary assessment categories of being either adjusted or maladjusted.

Dąbrowski created a new model of adjustment that considers the wider variance of a positive approach and creates a more subtle and nuanced approach to adjustment. He proposed two types of adjustment and two types of maladjustment.

  • Positive adjustment. Adjustment to what ought to be, to one’s personality ideal, a mastery of oneself and conformity to what one believes one ought to do in life. Positive adjustment allows one’s higher sense of self to guide behavior and how one treats others in society. Good behaviour for the right reasons.
  • Negative adjustment. A robotic acceptance and conformity to one’s social and cultural mores without any deep reflection or modifications based upon one’s own personality characteristics. This form of adjustment reflects Nietzsche’s “herd personality.” As Dąbrowski used to say, “To be adjusted to a sick society is to be sick.” Good behaviour for the wrong reasons.
  • Positive maladjustment. In personal development, an individual will often come into conflict with his or her society. When one sees “what is,” one must often reject it based upon one’s inner sense of how the world “ought to be.” This maladjustment occurs on two levels; on a social and macrolevel as just stated—when one rejects “what is” in favour of “what ought to be.” The second level is a personal microlevel where one evaluates and rejects what is “less myself” and accepts or works to develop what is “more myself.” In this way, one moves closer and closer to one’s personality ideal. The idea of positive maladjustment requires a closer examination of maladjusted behaviour. Is the behaviour simply maladaptive, or are there deeper motivations that make the maladaptation positive and developmental? For Dąbrowski, positive maladjustment is a vital component in the developmental process of an individual. Bad behaviour for the right reasons.
  • Negative maladjustment. This reflects what we traditionally conceive of as antisocial and criminal behaviour. Bad behaviour for the wrong reasons.

These four approaches to adjustment are also helpful for us in understanding Dąbrowski’s developmental process of positive disintegration. Consider the example of Mary, a well socialized young woman (displaying negative adjustment) but who is very unhappy with life. Life just doesn’t seem to be turning out the way it ought to be. The main problem is religion: Mom and dad were strict adherents to a religion.

As a child, Mary attended services regularly with her parents and, as a teenager, was a volunteer at the Church. But now, after going to university for a year and living on her own, Mary didn’t feel right attending church for some reason. She had gone on her own many times, but it just didn’t feel the same. During that first year of university she had met many people and formed some good friendships; she had long discussions about all kinds of topics with her new friends. She began to question her faith and came to realize that she had been emulating the faith of her parents and that her deep beliefs were different. She wasn’t quite sure how they were different; she just knew they were. She decided not to go back to church (positive maladjustment).

This decision caused an existential crisis for Mary. She felt lost because she didn’t feel connected to the faith that she had relied upon, and yet she didn’t have a clear answer in terms of exactly how she felt about her beliefs. It was a confusing situation to be in, a feeling she described as “having lost the past without yet seeing the future.” She also had a crisis brewing in terms of her relationship to mom and dad — how was she going to tell them? They would probably disown her!

On summer break, Mary summoned her strength and sat down with her parents, telling them that she had the most frightening thing in her life to tell them. She blurted out how she felt and had to risk her relationship with her parents to be true to herself. Mary was shocked when her mother said, “Yes, I myself had the same experience. When I was a child, my parents raised me in a different religion, and it took me a long time to decide how I felt and where I should go with my faith. I ended up meeting your father at this new church, and it became a central part of our lives and, later, your life.” Mary looked over and to her relief, her father was nodding his head in the affirmative. Her mother went on to say that as an adult now, Mary had many decisions that she would have to wrestle with and make many decisions with only her feelings to guide her. Her mother emphasized that religion was one of those things that could not be decided logically or by information—it was not a decision about what kind of car to buy—faith was one of those things that you have to feel from within. Mary shared her confusion and again, her mother was empathetic and supportive. Her mother’s advice was not to be in a hurry, but to consider many different possibilities and see which seemed to fit her personality and her feelings least, and to see which fit her best in order to help her decide. Clearly, after their conversation, Mary was on her way to creating a personal and unique value hierarchy that would come to reflect who she is and how she feels. In other words, she was on her way to positive adjustment.

As this vignette illustrates, often the comfort and stability of one’s day-to-day life comes into conflict with one’s development. The conformity and commitment one takes for granted may have to crumble for the sake of one’s development. This is a stressful and chaotic experience, one that must be resolved through growth — through the development of a replacement foundation upon which one can build one’s life.

The successful navigation of this type of crisis is what Dąbrowski called positive disintegration.

In Dąbrowski’s vision of development, an individual will typically go through a number of partial disintegrations, of varying degrees of intensity, on different dimensions. Each partial disintegration and subsequent reintegration on a higher level contributes to establishing a secondary integration based upon positive adjustment. In some cases, disintegrations may be more global and impact many aspects of a person’s life all at once. For Dąbrowski, mental health involves a transition from one’s first primary integration (characterized by negative adjustment to external standards and mores), through the process of positive disintegration, ultimately culminating in a secondary integration (characterized by positive adjustment to one’s personality ideal).

In our next column we will examine the difficult question: Why don’t more people develop autonomy?