Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration: Some implications for teachers of gifted students

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

By Sal Mendaglio.

Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD) (Dabrowski 1964, 1967, 1970, 1972), while largely unknown in education, psychology and psychiatry, has found a home in gifted education. It has been used to address various aspects of gifted students’ functioning, including emotional sensitivity and intensity (Fiedler 1998; Piechowski 1997); misdiagnosis of conditions, such as ADHD (Baum, Olenchak and Owen 1998); creative personality (Schiever 1985); spiritual development (Morrissey 1996) and counselling (Hazell 1999; Colangelo and Ogburn 1989; Mendaglio 1998). Arguably, TPD has implications for the education of gifted students, but it provides no strategies or techniques that can be readily applied to the classroom. This cannot be used to criticize TPD because Dabrowski, a psychiatrist and psychologist, was primarily concerned with personality development and psychotherapy. In the absence of a comprehensive theory of giftedness, TPD offers a significant contribution to gifted education by providing provocative concepts that shed light on the affective aspects of gifted persons while simultaneously requiring an examination of our notions of giftedness itself. This article presents elements of TPD that have deepened my understanding of gifted persons and that may prove useful for educators. A theme in my presentation is that TPD is a theory of personality development (for example, Dabrowski 1964, 1967; Pyryt and Mendaglio 1993). As such, TPD is neither a theory of giftedness nor a theory of emotional development. It is a comprehensive, complex theory with far-reaching implications for understanding human development in general.

TPD: What’s in a Name? It is worth beginning with spelling out TPD again: theory of positive disintegration. In gifted education, theory of positive disintegration is used, but the most prolific writers in the area have reified the label Dabrowski’s theory of emotional development (Piechowski 1997; Silverman 1993). Unlike a rose, TPD by any other name is not TPD. Dabrowski proposes a comprehensive theory of personality development. His aims were more ambitious than helping us understand the intense positive and negative feelings witnessed in many gifted students, although his concepts are helpful in this area. In addition, he had little to say about emotional development in the sense that is used in developmental psychology (see Saarni 1999). Viewing TPD as a theory of emotional development obscures a cornerstone of Dabrowski’s theory: positive disintegration.

In Dabrowski’s (1964) theory, positive disintegration is the process by which development occurs. For Dabrowski, growth occurs through a series of psychological disintegrations and reintegrations, resulting in dramatic change to a person’s conceptions of self and the world. Positive disintegration forges a personality that motivates one to perform at increasingly high levels, emphasizing altruism and morality. However, not all disintegrations are positive. When negative disintegrations occur, psychoses or suicide may be the outcome. An important theme of TPD is the movement from an initial egocentric approach to life to an altruistic one. The factors needed for positive disintegration and their operation are primary concerns of TPD.

Positive disintegration propels a person to TPD’s higher levels of development. There are five levels of development: initial or primary integration; three levels referring to increasing complexity of disintegration called unilevel, spontaneous multilevel and organized multilevel; and secondary integration that refers to the highest level (see Dabrowski 1964). Levels of development may lead one to believe that TPD is a type of stage theory similar to well-known theories of development, such as Erikson’s (1963) theory of life span development and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (Piaget and Inhelder 1969). There are some significant differences between Dabrowski’s use of level and the notion of stage. For one thing, progression beyond level one, primary integration, is by no means universal in the population. In addition, progression through the levels is not accomplished in a linear, invariant sequence. The concept of level allows for progression and regression, for unique patterns of development.

TPD is not a theory of emotional development, though it provides some useful insights into emotionality. Dabrowski’s theory describes how human beings transform themselves from self-serving, conforming individuals to self-aware, self-directed persons who transcend their primitive natures and strive to “walk the moral talk.” Certain prerequisites are needed for the journey from egocentrism to altruism. One is familiar to us, namely, a facilitative social environment; the other, developmental potential, is unique to TPD.

Developmental Potential: Beyond the OEs Lie Complexity and Controversy Overexcitabilities (OEs) are by far the most frequently encountered components of TPD (for example, Tolan 1994; Gallagher 1985; Piechowski, Silverman and Falk 1985; Piechowski and Colangelo 1984; Piechowski and Cunningham 1985; Lewis, Kitano and Lynch 1992) but they are often presented out of the context in which TPD discusses them. Dabrowski’s (1972) notion of overexcitability is anchored to the sensitivity of the nervous system and is seen as above-average responsiveness to stimuli.

Overexcitability (OE) is a fundamental but not a sole indicator of the foundational concept of developmental potential. OE has five manifestations: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional.

Piechowski (1986, 191) provides a useful description of OEs

Psychomotor: movement, restlessness, drivenness, an augmented capacity for being active and energetic.

Sensual: enhanced differentiation and aliveness of sensual experience. Imaginational: vividness of imagery, richness of association, facility for dreams, fantasies, and inventions, animisms and personifications, liking the unusual.

Intellectual: avidity for knowledge, discovery, questioning, love of ideas and theoretical analysis, search for truth.

Emotional: great depth and intensity of emotional life expressed in a wide range of feelings, compassion, attachments, heightened sense of responsibility, self-examination.

Overexcitability is not unique to gifted persons, as some authors imply (for example, Bouchet and Falk 2001). In TPD, OE indicates the level of developmental potential applicable to the general population. The number and levels of OEs in persons affect their experiencing. When all five are present, emotional intensity results: “These overexcitabilities, especially the latter three (intellectual, imaginational, and emotional), often cause a person to experience day to day life more intensely and to feel the extremes of the joys and sorrows of life profoundly” (Tillier 1998, 50).