Positive Disintegration, Autism & Individuation

I have just discovered this compelling psychological theory of self-development, and would like to share it with readers and also point out (later) how it seems to pertain to autistic qualities and their direct connection to the individuation process.

The following is taken from the Wikipedia page. I haven’t added any commentary, and  have only culled quotes from the first part of the page to keep this post short. I will post more tomorrow for those who don’t simply read the full article.

The Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) by Kazimierz Dąbrowski describes a theory of personality development.

Unlike mainstream psychology, Dąbrowski’s theoretical framework views psychological tension and anxiety as necessary for growth. These “disintegrative” processes are therefore seen as “positive,” whereas people who fail to go through positive disintegration may remain for their entire lives in a state of “primary integration.” Advancing into disintegration and into the higher levels of development is predicated on having developmental potential, including overexcitabilities and above-average reactions to stimuli.

Unlike some other theories of development such as Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, it is not assumed that even a majority of people progress through all levels. TPD is not a theory of stages, and levels do not correlate with age.

Developmental potential creates crises characterized by strong anxieties and depressions—psychoneurosis—that precipitate disintegration

For personality to develop, initial integrations based on instinct and socialization must disintegrate—a process Dąbrowski called positive disintegration

The development of a hierarchy of individual values — emotional reactions — is a critical component in developing one’s personality and one’s autonomy, thus, in contrast to most psychological theories, emotions play a major role in this approach

Emotional reactions guide the individual in creating his or her individual personality ideal, an autonomous standard that acts as the goal of individual development

The individual must examine his or her essence and subsequently make existential choices that emphasize those aspects of essence that are higher and “more myself” and inhibit those aspects that are lower or “less myself” based upon his or her own personality ideal

Critical components of individual development include autoeducation and autopsychotherapy

Most people live their lives in a state of “primary or primitive integration” largely guided by biological impulses (“first factor”) and/or by uncritical endorsement and adherence to social convention (“second factor”). He called this initial integration Level I. Dąbrowski observed that at this level there is no true individual expression of the autonomous human self. Individual expression at Level I is influenced and constrained by the first two factors.

Dąbrowski felt that our society was largely influenced by these lower two factors and could be characterized as operating at Level I. . . . Dąbrowski also described a group of people who display a different course: an individualized developmental pathway. These people break away from an automatic, rote, socialized view of life (which Dąbrowski called negative adjustment) and move into and through a series of personal disintegrations. Dąbrowski saw these disintegrations as a key element in the overall developmental process. Crises challenge our status quo and cause us to review our self, ideas, values, thoughts, ideals, etc.

If development continues, one goes on to develop an individualized, conscious and critically evaluated hierarchical value structure (called positive adjustment). This hierarchy of values acts as a benchmark by which all things are now seen, and the higher values in our internal hierarchy come to direct our behavior (no longer based on external social mores). These higher, individual values characterize an eventual second integration reflecting individual autonomy and for Dąbrowski, mark the arrival of true human personality. At this level, each person develops his or her own vision of how life ought to be and lives it. This higher level is associated with strong individual approaches to problem solving and creativity. One’s talents and creativity are applied in the service of these higher individual values and visions of how life could be – how the world ought to be. The person expresses his or her “new” autonomous personality energetically through action, art, social change and so on.

Development potential

Advanced development is often seen in people who exhibit strong developmental potential (“DP”). Developmental potential represents a constellation of genetic features, expressed and mediated through environmental interaction. Many factors are incorporated in developmental potential but three major aspects are highlighted: overexcitability (OE), specific abilities and talents, and a strong drive toward autonomous growth, a feature Dąbrowski called the “third factor.”

Overexcitability is a heightened physiological experience of stimuli resulting from increased neuronal sensitivities. The greater the OE, the more intense are the day-to-day experiences of life. . . . Combined with imaginational and intellectual OE, these people have a powerful perception of the world.[1]

Although based in the nervous system, overexcitabilities come to be expressed psychologically through the development of structures that reflect the emerging autonomous self.

Abilities and talents. As outlined, people at lower levels use talents to support egocentric goals or to climb the social and corporate ladders. At higher levels, specific talents and abilities become an important force as they are channeled by the person’s value hierarchy into expressing and achieving the person’s vision of his or her ideal personality and his or her view of how the world ought to be.

The third aspect of developmental potential is a drive toward individual growth and autonomy. It is critical as it applies one’s talents and creativity toward autonomous expression, and second, it provides motivation to strive for more and to try to imagine and achieve goals currently beyond one’s grasp.

Dąbrowski was clear to differentiate third factor from free will. He felt that free will did not go far enough in capturing the motivating aspects that he attributed to third factor.

A person whose development potential is high enough will generally undergo disintegration, despite any external social or family efforts to prevent it. A person whose DP is low will generally not undergo disintegration (or positive personality growth) even in a conducive environment.

Dąbrowski called overexcitability “a tragic gift” to reflect that the road of the person with strong OE is not a smooth or easy one. Potentials to experience great highs are also potentials to experience great lows. Similarly, potentials to express great creativity hold the likelihood of experiencing a great deal of personal conflict and stress. This stress both drives development and is a result of developmental conflicts, both intrapsychic and social. Suicide is a significant risk in the acute phases of this stress. The isolation often experienced by these people heightens the risk of self-harm.

Dąbrowski advocated autopsychotherapy, educating the person about OEs and the disintegrative process to give him or her a context within which to understand intense feelings and needs. . . . At the core of autopsychotherapy is the awareness that no one can show anyone else the “right” path. Everyone has to find their own path for themselves. As Joseph Campbell described the knights on the Grail Quest: If a path exists in the forest, don’t follow it, for though it took someone else to the Grail, it will not take you there, because it is not your path.

7 thoughts on “Positive Disintegration, Autism & Individuation

  1. Most intriguing. I hope to keep this ‘run of pages’ looked at – as there’s a lot here. (went back and forth some dozens of entries.). It seems that my sense of ‘some’ N’s being predatory in nature has traction.


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