Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration

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The Theory of Positive Disintegration is a theory of moral development devised by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski. It consists of five levels which go from total self-interest to almost the complete opposite which is primary concern for others.

Level I: Primary Integration

Egocentrism is the ruling force in this level. Those who are at this level of moral development have little concern for others. They may be highly competitive and often win because they have no guilt or shame to stop them from doing what might hurt others.

Their goals tend to be limited to financial success, power, and glory. They lack the ability for empathy and self-examination. When things go wrong, they place the blame on others rather than take any personal responsibility.

Level II: Unilevel Disintegration

Individuals at this level of moral development are no longer totally self-centered, but they have not yet internalized a core set of values. They are motivated more by a concern for what others will think of them, by a need for approval or fear of punishment. The lack of internalized values make them easy targets for manipulation. They may experience inner conflicts but these are between external competing values, such as values of the social group and of the family.

Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration

At this level, an individual begins to develop an inner core of hierarchical values. Intense inner conflicts occur because the person is dissatisfied with who he is as measured against an ideal, against high personal standards. He will compare who he is with what he thinks he could or should be. The struggle to reach the ideal can lead to existential depression, despair, anxiety , and feelings of inferiority.

For example, a person may have a strong sense of honor and believe that any lie is a sign of moral failure or weakness. If they lie to get out of trouble, they can be overwhelmed by guilt and shame.

Those at this level also often feel morally out of sync with their peers whose values are not at the same high level of idealism. They may, for example, find it hard to accept that being less than 100% honest is at times socially acceptable, as on occasions we pay compliments we don't really mean.

Dabrowski considered this level a period of "positive maladjustment." It is the point at which a person can appear neurotic and maladjusted, but is on the brink of reaching a higher level of development. Therapists may try to help the person adjust to the norm's of society rather than help him or her reach the next level. Not everyone makes it to the next level. For some, it can be a life-long struggle.

Level IV: Organized Multilevel Disintegration

Those at this level have learned to adjust to personal ideals, to live according to those ideals. They have strong and unshakable values. They are able to accept themselves and others, have a strong sense of responsibility, and are committed to serving others. They exhibit strong empathy, compassion, and self-awareness. To reach this state, however, one has to have gone through the struggle of level three. His previous self must disintegrate to make way for the more ideal self.

Level V: Secondary Integration

Those who have reached the fifth level of moral development have reached their ideal. Inner conflicts have all been resolved.

Very few people reach this level, which is characterized by a life of service to humanity and living according to the highest and most universal principles of regard for humanity. Mother Theresa is believed to have reached this state.

A lesser-known fifth-level individual is Peace Pilgrim, who gave up all she owned and spent 28 years helping others find inner peace.

Significance of the Theory

Progressing through the five levels is not easy and in fact can be emotionally painful. Many people who travel the path from one level to the next do not always do so purposely. Instead, they find themselves thrust into the path by extenuating circumstances, which include the death of a loved one, a near-death experience, or even a mystical experience. They may also subconsciously sense that they are ready for the next level.

The most difficult transition between levels is the one between level three and level four, and many people struggling to get past level three would benefit from counseling, provided the one providing it has some understanding of the theory and of giftedness.

Without that understanding, a counselor may spend time trying to get the individual to adjust to life as it is rather than helping them move to the next level.

Once an individual begins to move into level four, the choice to move forward is a conscious one. The person is no longer afraid of the disintegration of the self and is able to accept the pain because he or she understands that it is necessary in order to progress to the higher levels of development.

Connection Between the Theory and the Overexcitabilities

Those individuals with strong emotional, intellectual, and imaginational overexcitabilities seem to have the greatest potential for attaining the higher levels of moral development with the emotional and intellectual OEs being the most significant.

Gifted Children and the Theory of Positive Disintegration

The theory applies more to adults than to children, but it is not unusual for some gifted teenagers to become concerned with the conflict between how things are and how they should be.

2 Sources
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  1. Schläppy ML. Understanding Mental Health Through the Theory of Positive Disintegration: A Visual Aid. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1291. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01291

  2. Mendaglio S, Tillier W. Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and giftedness: Overexcitability Research Findings. J Educ Gifted. 2006;30(1):68-87. doi:10.1177/016235320603000104

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.