What is Positive Maladjustment?

Jessie Mannisto / September 22, 2021

There’s an easy answer and a much harder one.

We’ll give you the quick and easy explanation of Dabrowski’s idea of positive maladjustment. Then we’ll talk about all that goes into truly learning to answer this question.

The first educational precept derivable from the theory of positive disintegration is that one should foster authenticity. The road towards an independent authentic hierarchy of values is certainly very difficult, but it must be made clear that there is no other safe method open to man, because even the best system of moral norms does not work in practice, if its assimilation is not authentic and does not involve genuine inner psychic transformation. The idea of indiscriminate social adjustment, adaptation to what is, conformity to prevailing social standards, has to be replaced by qualified adjustment and, where necessary, positive maladjustment.

—Dabrowski, 1970, p. 120

If there’s one concept that’s a gateway into Third Factor, it’s positive maladjustment. If you understand it, you have a powerful lens to make sense of modern life’s turmoil.

Positive maladjustment is a key concept in Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD).  We’re gradually chipping away at explaining this theory though a series of articles; you may wish to start with our intro to TPD if this is the first you’re hearing of it (though you’ll be able to understand this article even if you don’t). In a nutshell, however, positive disintegration is the intense, painful, but ultimately healthy process of sorting out your true values, recognizing how and why you’re not living by them, and taking action to change this.  In this sense, Dabrowski’s theory is one of growth and development.  Historically, it’s caught on primarily among academics and psychologists working with outliers and otherwise uncommon people—which I note because those people are particularly predisposed to maladjustment.

If an uncommon person is going to develop into the healthiest version of herself, then positive maladjustment is probably the first step in that process.  She begins sorting out her values precisely because she senses her maladjustment to something around her.  She recognizes how much she doesn’t know—including whether she’s positively or negatively maladjusted.

But she has a gut feeling that she’s going along with something she shouldn’t be.

Why Are They Maladjusted?

Well, what kind of things? you may ask. Good question.

And of course, we’re taking the 30,000 foot view of a vast area of human experience, while the most valuable stuff is at ground level, in the details of individuals’ stories.  But with that caveat, let’s generalize.  Our maladjusted friends (whether positively or negatively so) are dissatisfied with something, but what?

Maybe they’ve failed to get a key need met in their lives.  Maybe they can see how the social structures contributed to that failure. That might anger them.  It might motivate them to want to change those structures, though they may not know how.  It might do both.

Maybe they have some burning energy that they just don’t know how to channel constructively.  Maybe they see others who have done what they didn’t. If so, they might be a smidge jealous. They might justly call the situation “unfair,” even as they still don’t know what to do about it.  Maybe they see both how they failed to get where they wanted to be and how their life circumstances contributed. (They might not be able to hold both in their minds at the same time, but both thoughts make an appearance.)

Maybe they have something they desperately want to say—something that really does have truth to it, as well as a heavy emotional weight—but they can’t find anyone who will listen.  Maybe they have a strong gut feeling about what is right, but they see some consequence to following that path, so they’re scared—and beating themselves up for their cowardice.

There are a lot of other possible examples, but I’ll stop there.  It’s easy enough to understand what maladjustment is.

But what makes it positive?

Both Adjustment and Maladjustment Can Be Pathological

To help us answer that, we should reflect on what it means to be adjusted.  Whatever else they believe, maladjusted people often feel frustrated with those we call “well adjusted.”  They might see in them—rightly or wrongly or a bit of both—what Dabrowski called negative adjustment.  Here’s how Dabrowski defined it in the glossary of his 1972 book, Psychoneurosis is Not an Illness:

NEGATIVE ADJUSTMENT. Nondevelopmental adjustment. Unqualified conformity to a hierarchy of values prevailing in a person’s social environment. The values are accepted without an independent critical evaluation. It is an acceptance of an external system of values without autonomous choice. An adjustment to “what is.”

In other words, someone who is negatively adjusted just goes along with what people tell him.  He doesn’t bother with pesky questions.  He does this even in the face of something that’s actively bad. Importantly, in a negatively adjusted person, there’s little to no autonomy.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

While that was fairly easy to explain in the abstract, it’s harder to successfully pin it to a person.  The label “negatively adjusted” may seem to fit someone from a single glance, only to fall away when you actually talk to him.  So remember that we’re flying at 30,000 feet here, at the standard cruising altitude for definitions.

Suffice it for our purposes to say that sometimes, when maladjusted people interact with adjusted people, the former may not have a great opinion of the latter.  The maladjusted person may quickly write off the adjusted person as negatively so—as nothing but a stupid, deluded, unquestioning normie.  They might be right.

They also might be wrong.  Sometimes, for instance, maladjusted people get so caught up in their pain that they develop a force field of faux-confidence. Whereas actual confidence can stand up to questioning, this faux stuff comes crumbling down if prodded too hard.  This particular type of maladjusted person is liable to lash out if you threaten that shield—and break down if you pierce it. (If you really want to get into the weeds, Dabrowski called this unilevel disintegration, which he said it was the most dangerous form of disintegration. But that won’t be on this week’s quiz.)

Dabrowski recognized that this sort of thing happens.  The reason he qualified positive maladjustment is because not all maladjustment is by definition positive.  Here’s how he defined negative maladjustment in that same glossary:

NEGATIVE MALADJUSTMENT. Rejection of social norms and accepted patterns of behavior because of the controlling power of primitive drives and nondevelopmental or pathologically deformed structures and functions. In the extreme case it takes the form of psychosis, psychopathy, or criminal activity.

Aiming for Positive Adjustment

Okay, okay, you say.  We know there are people out there suffering from true mental pathology—that there is such a thing as negative disintegration.  What we want is to be able to understand this much less intuitive positive sort!  So what does positive maladjustment look like? (You guys ask such great questions!)

To answer that, let’s consider what such a person is aiming for.  And that, of course, is positive adjustment.  Merely being in a disintegrated state is not desirable; Dabrowski was clear about that.  It’s not virtuous to be an unhappy mess per se.  It is only sometimes the means to that end.

And Dabrowski’s glossary sketches out that end for us:

POSITIVE ADJUSTMENT, or developmental adjustment. Conformity to higher levels of a hierarchy of values self-discovered and consciously followed. It is an acceptance of values after critical examination and an autonomous choice. It is an adjustment to “what ought to be.” Such hierarchy of values is controlled by (or developed from) the personality ideal.

Far from the unquestioning, uncritical type who just accepts everything he’s told at face value, a positively adjusted person has given these things thought, wrestled with the complexities and the consequences of this or that side, and decided what his values really ought to be.  He then “conforms” to that.

Far from the unquestioning, uncritical type who just accepts everything he’s told at face value, a positively adjusted person has given these things thought, wrestled with the complexities and the consequences of this or that side, and decided what his values really ought to be.

Importantly, his chosen values could be the same as the ones his unquestioning, negatively adjusted neighbor conforms to; the difference is the positively adjusted person truly believes it’s the right path and understands why.  This is where that autonomy we mentioned earlier comes in. (In this sense, the Dabrowskian path is often charged by an intellectual activity that some might call “overthinking,” especially in the acute disintegrative stage.  Personally, I’d counter that it’s not overthinking if it’s leading somewhere constructive.)

Since it came up in that important definition, it’s worth understanding how Dabrowski used the term “personality ideal,” too:

PERSONALITY IDEAL. An individual standard against which one evaluates one’s actual personality structure. It arises out of one’s experience and development. At first the ideal may be an imitation, nevertheless, with the growth of individual awareness it becomes authentic and autonomous to eventually become the highest dynamism in the development of personality.

Earlier, I mentioned confidence, contrasting it with the force field of faux-confidence sometimes projected by the negatively maladjusted.  As I personally see it (and this is influenced by Dabrowski, but I didn’t pull this directly out of his work), here’s the difference: before you can build true, healthy confidence, you need a stable foundation of authentically held, well-understood values.  The faux kind lacks that.  If you know what you believe in and why, it’s a lot easier to stand up for it. I find that developing a Dabrowskian personality ideal is indeed helpful in this exercise.

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Positive Maladjustment Defined

And so we finally have the backdrop against which positive maladjustment can stand in contrast.  Here, at last, is Dabrowski’s definition:

POSITIVE MALADJUSTMENT. A conflict with and rejection of those standards and attitudes of one’s social environment which are incompatible with one’s growing awareness of a higher scale of values which is developing as an internal imperative.

What do you think, readers? For some, this may be kind of unsatisfying.  After all, it doesn’t make it entirely clear whether your maladjustment is positive or not.

It does, however, point you toward the place you’ll find that answer.  It’s in those higher values. If your highest values demand that you stand autonomously outside the crowd, then that’s what you have to do. That, my friends, is when maladjustment is positive.

Allow me to share one more definition.  It’s not a core concept that you hear Dabrowski fans tossing around, but when my eyes fell on it, I thought how useful it might be to Third Factor readers.  Here it is:

PRESPASM. A state of “preparation” for psychic spasm resulting from painful external or internal stimuli and tension. These stimuli evoke unpleasant reactions and result in fear or flight (avoidance) in acute, unconscious forms.  

I do know that overexcitable people—orchids, if you like, or rainforest minds—switch into fight-or-flight mode especially easily. Sometimes it’s over purely cerebral content.  After talking to several people who see some value in positive disintegration, I can say that this prespasm is where their stories tend to start.  These are the details on the ground that are so hard to see from the 30,000 foot view. It’s in the concrete details of individual lives that these abstract concepts really come to life.

Are you going into fight or flight mode at the thought of actually living by your values?  Well, here’s the good news: it means you’re aware that you’re going along with a group that’s deviating from a value that you know to be important. In other words, you’ve perceived a higher path. (For the overachievers, Dabrowski would say that’s what makes your disintegration multilevel.)

Are you going into fight or flight mode at the thought of actually living by your values? Well, here’s the good news: it means you’re aware that you’re going along with a group that’s deviating from a value that you know to be important.

If you’re stuck there, then here’s what I’d suggest, based on my understanding of Dabrowski’s work: get a good handle on what your values truly are.  Make sure you’re truly defending something good and worthy. We all can fool ourselves; we can all think of people who are confident that they’re doing the right thing, even as the rest of us see something they’re missing. Developing a hierarchy of values is not easy. If it were obvious, life would be far easier.

Ultimately, however, if you’re aware of your authentic values, you’re going to want to stand up when they’re trampled.

That, in the end, is positive maladjustment.

Header image by Hayden Dunsel (

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