Positive Disintegration (Level 2): The Theory of Positive…Yet Often Not

Deliberately evaluating where our attention goes and why provides a template for a lot of interesting discussions. The Theory of Positive Disintegration also serves as a useful template for navigating our values.

When I first came across Dabrowski’s TPD, I was confused by a lot of the key vocabulary in it, including the name itself.  For one, the word “positive” was somehow being associated with “disintegration.” The disintegration of what? I eventually came to understand Dabrowski meant the breaking up of the personality in order to reassemble it at a higher level.  

How Does a Personality Disintegrate?

  • Death of Loved Ones
  • Divorce
  • War
  • Economic Downturns
  • Substance Abuse
  • Narcissistic Abuse
  • Eating Disorders
  • Depression
  • The roulette wheel of psychiatric conditions

The List Goes On...

It would be unrealistic and difficult to say these negative events are opportunities for growth, but level two of this theory challenges us to approach them that way.

We have all seen or heard about people who have accomplished amazing feats in terrible circumstances. (For example, I just finished the book A Long Walk to Water about the war in Sudan and highly recommend it.) On the opposite end, we have also all met people who think life is out to get them.

According to Dabrowski, during events such as those listed above, a path splits between frantic narcissism (resulting from revealed vulnerability) or deep compassion for humanity (derived from intense pain and reflection).  What the theory suggests is we all make our own meaning, and we all choose which direction to move in.

Since life is going to keep throwing painful events at everyone, Dabrowski simply suggests we learn to choose between increased self-focus or recognition of universal experiences.  

Level 2: Loosening the Mental Structure

Some phases in life are more primed for the task of self-development than others by their very nature.

Puberty, menopause, stressful external events, psychological distress, anxiety - these may prompt someone into inner tension.  Essentially, anything that causes someone to question reality, their role in the world, and how they define themselves may send someone into level two.  

While providing an opportunity for inner growth, it is important to understand this level is still “unilevel,” meaning the inner dialogue and conflict operate in a horizontal way, like a frustrating loop or feeling of rocking back and forth.


Without conscious and self-disciplined devotion to the cultivation of an inner personality, competing values from the mainstream culture (and pre-determined social ties) will win-out and the person will find it hard to move up.  

I have a special interest in the mental health of young adults and creative artists with developmental potential who move into level two.  With the onset of abstract thought in early adolescence, those primed for disintegration may manifest existential breakdowns in a variety of ways.  These behaviors can range from wanting more alone time to an all-out crusade against surrounding established values.

Although this internal crisis is a natural part of moving up to level two for sensitive teenagers, it is rarely greeted by adults as a movement forward, rarely processed with the adolescent in terms of their personality development, and it’s tempting for all involved to say...


An easier land waits behind but a meaningful land waits ahead.  In essence, mental health struggles are the battleground between the trenches of level one and level three, and it takes an enormous amount of mental energy to make it out healthy.  Many are lost in a confusing crossfire within themselves due to suicide, addiction, or a painfully private struggle. Those that make it to level three have survived their own thoughts.

This Leaves a Large Question:

How does one move from listening to the values of others to valuing the subjective knowledge of one's own guiding voice?  

Dabrowski’s answer? Multilevel elements.

These inner elements may be present for those with a problem-solving approach that is inwardly directed and consciously oriented towards serving a larger purpose.  As mentioned earlier in this series, people come with different developmental potential for personal growth along with an awareness of the lower and higher voices operating within themselves.  

According to Dabrowski, it is important to have a predisposition that doesn’t dwell on outer conflicts or overly value social status in order to move into level three. A dash of social obliviousness can also be helpful.

The next post will more thoroughly discuss the characteristics of level three.