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by Jessie Mannisto / March 15, 2020

Dabrowski’s Dynamisms: Subject-Object in Oneself

Dynamisms are the heart of the theory of positive disintegration. But what exactly did Dabrowski mean by that abstruse term, “subject-object in oneself?” Our editor explains this powerful process.

Dynamisms. They’re probably the least discussed part of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD). They’re certainly nowhere near as well known as the construct of overexcitability (OE). But while OE is the hook that most often prompts a certain type of person to recognize him- or herself and become curious about TPD, dynamisms are where the action happens. In the language of creative writing, if overexcitability is character, dynamisms are plot. And you can’t have a good story without a good plot.

Basically, dynamisms are the processes of disintegration and reintegration themselves—and that makes them the core of the theory. But they’re described in language that’s pretty abstruse. Dabrowski’s work is full of terms like “inner psychic milieu” and “disposing and directing center.” If we crack the jargony shell, however, we find some great insights about the process of becoming the people we aspire to be. As I’ll discuss in future articles (and have touched on before), I’ve found that understanding these processes can help us become more effective in areas such as social activism and creative writing. They can also shed light on ordinary, everyday life.

If overexcitability is character, dynamisms are plot. And you can’t have a good story without a good plot.

With that in mind, we here at Third Factor are going to build on our overview of the dynamisms with a series of pieces focused on diving deeper into them. This magazine was, after all, named for one of them—but we’ll get to discussing the third factor later. I’ve decided to kick this series off with the dynamism that feels most fundamental to me: the process that Dabrowski called subject-object in oneself.

In a nutshell, subject-object is something like acting out Freaky Friday (you know, that old movie where a mother and daughter trade bodies for a day) all in your mind. You begin to see yourself as others see you (i.e., objectively), and at the same time, you develop an ability to grasp something of others’ internal (i.e. subjective) selves.

As Dabrowski Explained It

In order to educate himself a man should, as it were, split himself into a subject and an object—that is, he should disintegrate. He must be the one who educates and the one who is educated and he must isolate in himself the active entity and the one which is subordinated to it. (Dabrowski 2015, p. 37)

Dabrowski identified subject-object in oneself as one of the core dynamisms of positive disintegration. It is a process that begins with observing one’s own mental life and evolves into critical self-examination. It replaces our subjective internal lens with an objective one. It’s a little like Albus Dumbledore’s pensieve, a magical tool that allowed the Hogwarts headmaster to physically draw thoughts out of his mind and place them in a bowl in front of him, giving him a new perspective from which to analyze the contents of his mind. In a similar but less magical way, through subject-object in oneself, Dabrowski said that the individual will come to know better “the motives and aims of his own actions, his own moral, social, and cultural self.” (1967, p. 96)

Isn’t that just introspection? Dabrowski anticipated this response and said the two should not be equated (see 2015, p. 95). You see, when people talk about introspection, they might mean merely observation, aimed at understanding ourselves as we are. Subject-object has a loftier goal. It involves our motives and our aims—the sort of stuff out of which we can discern some actions to be higher and others to be lower. That discernment of moral value is at the heart of positive disintegration because it constitutes hierarchization. And hierarchization is the dynamism that makes multilevel disintegration (level III-IV) possible. Subject-object, therefore, is a force not only for self-understanding, but for growth.

Noble? Maybe. Painful? Certainly

It’s easy to see how this process can give rise to another dynamism—specifically, one with the self-explanatory name dissatisfaction with oneself. Surely none of us want to feel dissatisfaction with ourselves. Most of us spend a fair amount of energy shielding ourselves from our imperfections; that often goes double for sensitive, intense, and conscientious people. Dabrowski observed that such people are prone to feelings of disproportionate guilt, especially over issues like a perceived waste of one’s potential, betraying one’s own ideals, or a supercharged sense of responsibility (1972, p. 3).

But that’s precisely why dissatisfaction with oneself, when confronted and faced, becomes a force for growth. You can probably intuit how positive disintegration follows when these dynamisms engage. Dabrowski said disintegration involves a loss of “tenacity”—language that might evoke an image of the fibers of our inner self (that is, the “inner psychic milieu,” in Dabrowski’s language) coming unwoven through “conflicts, contradictions, and collisions” (2015, p. 96).

That all sounds noble, and to be sure, it is—when it’s real. But Dabrowski also warned us not to trick ourselves. He decries “illusory moral progress” in the form of mere camouflaging of our negative traits or shifting our negative energies from strangers to our own families (2015, p. 14). In other words, it’s not enough to reframe genuine flaws as strengths to make ourselves look better; it’s not enough to be nice to most people, but reserve a few people (perhaps those least likely to abandon us!) as targets for our negativity. Looking in that pensieve—being objective—means facing the parts of ourselves that aren’t so pretty.

Seeing Others As Subjects

That brings me to an aspect of this dynamism that I particularly like, but that isn’t often talked about.

The emphasis in most discussions of subject-object is on looking inward—the “seeing oneself objectively” bit. But throughout his writings, Dabrowski is clear about the importance of striving to understand others—of trying to glimpse each person’s individuality, or subjectivity. Of the many definitions of subject-object in oneself in Dabrowski’s glossaries, not all highlight this element, but the entry in his 1972 volume, Psychoneurosis Is Not an Illness, includes it:

SUBJECT-OBJECT IN ONESELF. One of the main developmental dynamisms which consists in observing one’s own mental life in an attempt to better understand oneself and to evaluate oneself critically. It is a process of looking at oneself as if from outside (the self as object) and of perceiving the individuality of others (the other as subject, i.e. individual knower). (1972, p. 305)

I would argue that you can’t engage in subject-object without object-subject. Dabrowski’s work strongly implies a set of allocentric, prosocial ideals.

Indeed, I would argue that you can’t engage in subject-object without object-subject. That’s Mannisto and not Dabrowski right there—but then again, maybe it’s not. Dabrowski’s work strongly implies a set of allocentric, prosocial ideals. Empathy, too, is given the status of a dynamism in TPD. In Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, Dabrowski speaks multiple times of the need for sensitivity to the values and needs of other people. Consider this passage:

We shall be able to treat other people just as we treat ourselves, applying a proper measure when estimating them, and to build up righteousness in our actions after we rid ourselves of the tendency to allow our own selfish interests to govern our judgments and behavior. The measure of stability in a moral attitude, so conceived, will be how benevolently we treat and how prudently we judge our enemies. So understood, honesty and truthfulness toward ourselves and others reflect the principle “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (14)

Or this one:

Self-knowledge is positively correlated with the knowledge of others. For knowledge of one’s self is not possible without association with other people, without orientating oneself to the content and motives of their behavior, which again implies the necessity of orientating oneself to one’s own behavior, motives, and attitudes toward the environment. (12)

It Takes Practice

Truly envisioning the world from another person’s perspective is a complicated experience. On one hand, it tends to increase our empathy for them; on the other hand, and perhaps at the same time, we might still be upset by what we see. Everyone has small-minded impulses. We might see in others the same undesirable stuff we see in our own pensieve. As the Soviet dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote,

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Dabrowski acknowledged this, too. He noted that we must recognize and accept the generally primitive character of our needs and the smallness of our aims “as actual, factual structures”—and simultaneously as structures containing the nuclei of something greater. He continued,

A proper attitude in respect to reality should be shaped in accordance with the principle that knowing all is not only forgiving all but also being ready to give a hand to those struggling with difficulties on the road to perfection, and developing in oneself the attitude of syntony and cooperation. (12)

Dabrowski noted that we must recognize and accept the generally primitive character of our needs and the smallness of our aims “as actual, factual structures”—and simultaneously as structures containing the nuclei of something greater.

Remember that Dabrowski warned us not to fool ourselves. Since putting myself out there as a supporter of Dabrowski’s theory, people have at times complained to me about TPD fans who seem to believe themselves to have reached level IV+ who nevertheless seem not to practice the syntony (i.e., empathy) and cooperation that Dabrowski urged—in other words, who seem not to engage in subject-object themselves.

To this fair observation, I have responded, well, there’s an opportunity for us to practice subject-object ourselves. It’s not something we can generally expect from others, no matter how they may seek to present themselves; we have to decide to do it ourselves regardless. But I have met people who clearly have mastered it. Dabrowski encouraged us to have faith that, with practice, our ability to be aware of others’ subjectivity and to hold an objective view of ourselves will move from flashes of occasional insight to a more continuous way of perceiving.

Raising Society

For the pessimistic, I have one final observation. Dabrowski wrote all this after living through two world wars and the Stalinist takeover of his homeland. After all that, he still had this to say:

The fact that humanity survives and develops serves as evidence that the advantage is on the side of positive qualities. True, there are periods in the lives of individuals and epochs in the life of communities in which the domination of positive characteristics is disturbed, in which the negative traits of man awaken, mobilize, come to power, and reveal their destructive influence. This happens when an individual finds himself, or a community finds itself, in conditions liberating or even intensifying the most primitive driving forces of man, such as the brute instinct of self-preservation, instincts of fighting, cruelty, primitive sexual drive, aspiration for power, and a desire to subdue other individuals or societies by force.

However, the periods of downfall usually do not last long. Man’s instinct for development, which in perfection, sooner or later gains power and reinvigorates and enhances the positive values. These values, sustained, consolidated, and developed by tradition, legal order, and moral and customary standards, may undergo jolts and perturbations, may be driven back to the level of potentiality, but can never be eradicated. Even in periods of collapse they survive in us in the form of moral readiness and yearning for their revival and full realization. As they constitute the foundation and prerequisite of the cultural and moral existence of humanity, these values are indestructible; they have existed from the beginning of man’s history, and are unchangeable in their essence, though revealing various degrees of development and richness. (2015, p. 5)

Everyone longs to be understood, but so few people are truly bold enough to understand themselves. Doing both at the same time can have a nearly magical impact.

The process that Dabrowski dubbed subject-object in oneself has struck me as essential to bringing us out of these periods of downfall. It’s through this process that we remember that others are like us, and that we are like them, no matter how we clash. It reminds us that we, too, can go off the deep, dark end, and that just as we might need help to find our way back to the light, others will, too.

Everyone longs to be understood, but so few people are truly bold enough to understand themselves. Doing both at the same time can have a nearly magical impact, even for those of us who never attended Hogwarts.

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