An Introduction to Dabrowski’s Levels and Dynamisms

One of the great things about Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD) is that though it is essentially about growth, it doesn’t stop when childhood ends.  TPD charts a path through the growth that occurs in adulthood.  It’s this path that’s represented in one of the most well-known elements of TPD—the hierarchy of levels.  Whenever you read an article at Third Factor (or anywhere else talking about TPD) about one of the levels, ranging from level I to level V, this is what we’re talking about.

But what exactly do those levels represent?  In this article, for those of you who are new to the theory, we’ll break down that hierarchy of levels and explain what it means to go through each one.  As we do so, we’re also going to explain another concept you’ll hear mentioned in TPD—the dynamisms—because they’re the blocks out of which the levels are built.

A quick preface before we get started: there’s some talk in the academic Dabrowskian community about updating, enriching, and even re-envisioning these levelsparticularly levels I and IIbased on psychological data that wasn’t available in Dabrowski’s time.  We here at Third Factor think that’s important and fascinating, and we hope to explore some of these proposed developments in future articles.  For the sake of launching us all from the same starting point, however, this guide will focus on the levels as Dabrowski described them before his death in 1980.  Levels III through V, of course, are what interest most of us about the theory, and they seem to be holding up quite well as the science of psychology advances.

Understanding TPD’s Hierarchy of Levels

For those just joining us, let’s review the levels.  There are five of them, as follows:

  • Level I: Primary Integration
  • Level II: Unilevel Disintegration
  • Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration
  • Level IV: Directed Multilevel Disintegration
  • Level V: Secondary Integration

The names are admittedly a bit opaque, but don’t worry; we’ll break each one down shortly.  But looking at them all together, you’ll notice that they progress from a state of integration through various forms of disintegration and culminate with reintegration of a higher sort.  A positive disintegration, then, is one that gives you the power to climb toward that higher integration, while a negative one leaves you falling back down toward the security of primary integration, or trapped in intense suffering.

Most people do not experience all of these levels in their lifetime.  In that sense, they’re not developmental stages, along the lines of Piaget’s theory of childhood cognitive development.  Some people seem to be born some distance along the Dabrowskian road, and wherever a person starts, there’s no guarantee that he or she will progress any further.

So what does make a person start climbing up through these levels?  Dabrowski called it developmental potential (DP).  He listed three things that contribute to a person’s DP: overexcitability, talent/special ability, and that thing called the third factor, after which our magazine is named.  The third factor refers to a person’s drive to become his or her best self; or if you prefer, to an active, autonomous conscience.  It’s essential to reaching the highest levels in Dabrowski’s hierarchy.

Based on his work with high-DP clients, Dabrowski posited that people with sufficient DP will generally experience some form of positive disintegration over the course of their lives.  Moreover, their disintegrations tended to follow a predictable course, represented particularly by levels III through V in this hierarchy.  In that sense, you can look at TPD’s levels as a map of a very long road.  And what makes this map so valuable is that it provides way-markers for would-be humanitarians and catalysts who are seeking to forge ahead out of their psychoneuroses* to achieve true mental health, represented by the achievement of their own unique personality ideals at level V.  This is a particularly big deal when you realize that the path ahead often stands opposed to turning back to the earlier, more comfortable levels—which is precisely what a lot of people will be urging them to do.

*Modern psychologists no longer speak of “psychoneuroses,” but Dabrowski made frequent use of the term.  Here’s how it’s defined in the glossary of his 1972 book, Psychoneurosis Is Not an Illness:

PSYCHONEUROSIS. A more or less organized form of growth through positive
disintegration. Lower psychoneuroses are predominantly psychosomatic
in nature, higher psychoneuroses are highly conscious internal struggles
whose tensions and frustrations are not anymore translated into somatic
disorders.

Suffice it to say, other psychologists and psychiatrists did tend to see the psychosomatic symptoms as representative of an illness.  And even if Dabrowski said otherwise, he still wanted to help his patients get to the higher level ones, where the physical symptoms of distress, tension, depression, and anxiety would no longer plague them.

Enter the Dynamisms

This brings us back to the dynamisms, which are one of the least discussed but most important elements in TPD.  Dynamisms are forces inside you that propel you to grow by disintegrating the way your present personality is structured and reintegrating it at a higher level, from a well-adjusted (i.e., highly integrated) but unhealthy personality (level I), through one that’s maladjusted, psychoneurotic, and disintegrating (levels II-III), to one that is reintegrated in a stronger, healthier form (levels IV-V)—one that is simultaneously more authentic and more pro-social.

With us so far?  Great!  Now we’re ready to explore each level.

Level I: Primary Integration

Level I, which comprises a very wide range of people, refers to a state that most people would consider mentally healthy.  That’s because people at this level do not experience the sorts of internal conflicts that lead to psychoneuroses and their somatic manifestations of distress.  They are, in other words, wholly integrated, hence the name of this level: primary integration.

An extreme example of a person at level I whom more conventional psychologists would agree to call mentally unhealthy is the psychopath.  Such people are so well-integrated in their drive to follow their own selfish impulses that they virtually never experience any inner conflict at all.  They are driven entirely by the first factor, i.e., their biological impulses.

But don’t let that give you a dark caricature of level I.  Indeed, many decent, upstanding, admirable people function at this level, including “salt of the Earth” types. They are those people who derive their values from an external source, including social norms and peer pressure—in other words, the environmental influences that Dabrowski called the second factor—and who don’t feel compelled to question or challenge these norms. Heeding social pressure isn’t inherently bad, after all: it might push someone to be a better parent, a better professional, and so on.  If they do go bad, however, their explanation could easily be that infamous claim that they were “just following orders.”

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Recall that dynamisms are key to the levels.  Level I, then, is defined as the absence of dynamisms, because dynamisms suggest internal conflict.

Level II: Unilevel Disintegration

People often move from level I to level II in the struggle to decide between two courses of action, neither of which appears to have any superior moral value.  For instance, they might be trying to appease two separate, contradictory authorities, causing them to feel trappedBecause they haven’t established their own internal values to guide them, people at level II are subject to high anxiety as they’re buffeted about by those of higher status, by social norms, or perhaps by changes to their own biological needs. Dabrowski called this unilevel disintegration because it’s a disintegration in which the individual can’t determine the higher path.  Lacking such a path out of the conflict, this person might attempt instead merely to avoid it or dull the frustration, perhaps by substance abuse or darker means.  That’s why Dabrowski saw level II as a dangerous stage indeed.

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The characteristic dynamism of level II is ambivalence. As they flounder without a direction, these people’s preferences and moods may fluctuate, seemingly at random. They are likely to experience indecision because they want two irreconcilable things at once. The second factor (i.e., external influences) can serve as a dynamism at this level as the sufferer tries to seek guidance to make sense of their ambivalences.  But when the authorities truly conflict and a person’s inner tension compels them to take action, that person might seek to determine which course of action truly is superior—and once they make that call, they’re making a leap to the next level….

Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration

At level III, a person begins to perceive higher and lower courses of action.  In TPD, that’s huge: our suffering soul now has a basis on which to build her autonomous values.  This perception serves as a dynamism called hierarchization.  It’s why this level of disintegration is called multilevel, whereas it’s spontaneous because emerges and progresses in people without their conscious direction.

The jump from level II to level III is the biggest leap between any two level. It’s said to take a huge amount of energy.  It’s also where the psychoneuroses—the inner conflicts that cause not only disintegration but reintegration—really start showing up, which means level III is brimming with dynamisms.  Someone at this level will feel shame & guilt over their perceived failure to live up to their values and to the image they’d like to hold of themselves.  They’ll experience the dynamisms of dissatisfaction with and inferiority toward oneself (as opposed to feeling inferiority toward others, more characteristic of lower levels).  And they’ll feel astonishment with oneself when they realize how they’re capable of behaving.

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All this creates a sort of meta-dynamism called positive maladjustment. This, of course, is when a person feels a conflict with the standards or values of his social environment as he pursues some higher way of being.  And that, of course, is a good thing!  But be careful: if all paths for development seem closed to someone at level III, they’re still in danger of a negative disintegration.

Level IV: Directed Multilevel Disintegration

People reach level IV when they gain more conscious control over their growth.  That’s why it’s called directed (or sometimes organized) multilevel disintegration.  By level IV, they are actively striving to adjust themselves to their personality ideals rather than to social norms.  That doesn’t mean they rebel against all external influences: people at level IV may choose to affirm those norms, but they do so after reflection and by choice, not out of a fear of punishment, a desire to conform, or an automatic deference to authority.  A committed Christian at level IV, for instance, isn’t following the authority of his church just because that’s what he was taught to do; he is aspiring by choice to be more Christ-like.  (That’s just an example, of course.  Religious belief or lack thereof is not related to person’s DP or level of development.)

As we talk about the possibility of rejecting social norms, however, it’s essential to note that a person at level IV is highly pro-social.  This means they are guided by higher values in their interactions with others despite their conflicts with lower level features of their society.  Thanks to their emotional overexcitability, people at level IV are guided by the dynamisms of empathy and responsibility to others, including the need for justice and to protect others from harm. Think here of those people who hid Jews from Nazis.  No one argues that it’s mentally healthy to be well adjusted to Nazism.

While the dynamisms of level III can be traumatic, in level IV we see the shift toward genuine mental health underway. People at this level are self-aware and exhibit self-control, which have a chicken-or-egg relationship with a dynamism called autopsychotherapy.  Dabrowski sought to help his patients develop a capacity for autopsychotherapy, which involves managing one’s own mental disequilibrium in pursuit of higher levels of functioning.  This goes hand in hand with education of oneself, a dynamism that comprises any effort to learn and grow in accordance with one’s values.  The dynamism subject-object in oneself involves looking at oneself critically, as if from the outside, while also recognizing others as subjects in their own right.  A person’s third factor takes the lead in guiding them at level IV, meaning they reject both internally- and externally-suggested courses of action that don’t live up to their standards.

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Level IV is where inner psychic transformation occurs.  People truly can change the way they react and behave, becoming more sensitive to others, deepening their capacity for love and friendship, and so on.  They can also transcend their innate psychological traits—for instance, an extravert can become more introverted (or vice versa).  A person who loves to charge ahead can develop patience.  A cautious person can develop confidence.  That this happens through organized multilevel disintegration suggests that the person is really working consciously to achieve this transformation.

Level V: Secondary Integration

Level V is the goal of Dabrowskian development, though it’s a high bar indeed.  Certainly the examples that many spiritual traditions revere—the likes of Jesus or Buddha—would be examples of level V.  Dabrowski himself said he had never personally met anyone who had reached level V, though his colleague Michael Piechowski later suggested that there are more people out there at this level than we might expect.  Based on his studies of the lives of Peace Pilgrim, Etty Hillsum, Bret Dofek, and Eleanor Roosevelt, he suggested that they all reached Dabrowski’s highest level of development.  Many others who did not achieve public attention may also be at this level, quietly living their lives according to their values and making impressions on others.  These human beings have succeeded in fully reintegrating their personality structures.  They are now living in accordance with their personality ideal, the defining level V dynamism.

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This concludes our basic introduction to Dabrowski’s levels and dynamisms.  We hope this will make the theory of positive disintegration more accessible, the better to help you aspiring catalysts lift yourselves—and those around you.  In future issues, Third Factor magazine will build on this foundation with more articles that touch on just what’s happening at each of these levels.  In fact, we’ve already started!  In this issue, we continue our exploration of Robert Kennedy’s life and suggest that he reached at least level IV during his campaign for the presidency, and we discuss how meditation is a formalized way of practicing the dynamism subject-object in oneself.  In future issues, we’ll dive more into new perspectives on Dabrowski’s levels, dive deeply into the dynamisms, and share more stories of people following this path.

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Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org + posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.

Executive Editor at chris@thirdfactor.org + posts

Chris Wells, Ph.D. is Executive Editor of Third Factor and Director of Qualitative Research for the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development/Gifted Development Center. She is an educational psychologist, author, and parent of a twice-exceptional son.