The Drama of Development

Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD) is a complex theory of personality development that is relevant for understanding the emotional and moral development of gifted and creative individuals. The 12th International Dabrowski Congress was held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada July 14th – 16th, 2016 [].  

Our center has a long history of involvement with Dabrowski’s theory. Our Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, the nonprofit umbrella of the Gifted Development Center, and our psychological journal, Advanced Development, both were created to keep Dabrowski’s theory alive. Frank Falk, our Director of Research, and I conducted a Dabrowski Study Group at the University of Denver from 1980 to 1986. Nancy Miller, editor of Advanced Development, and Betty Maxwell, former Associate Director of the Gifted Development Center, were both active members of that study group. Frank, Nancy and I hosted the 10th International Dabrowski Congress in Denver. Kathee Jones, Assistant Editor of Advanced Development, was one of the presenters at that Congress. 
Overexcitability is a basic building block of higher level development in Dabrowski’s theory. Under Frank Falk’s direction, instruments have been developed and validated for studying the overexcitabilities (OEs) of gifted children and adults. Frank has assisted graduate students all over the world in researching the OEs. While we hear a great deal about the OEs of the gifted, we hear very little about the theory itself—the five levels of development and the arduous path to higher level (“multilevel”) development. This year’s Congress in Calgary focused on the growth processes (“dynamisms”) in the theory.
A Dabrowski Congress is always stimulating, but this year’s conference also inspired deep reflection.  Who am I in terms of Dabrowski’s theory? Where am I in my own personal growth? How do the constructs guide my journey?
A new way of personally understanding the theory is emerging for me. In many ways, I don’t fit the theory. I am an extravert. I laugh loudly. Dabrowski honored the gentle smile of the introvert. I do not meditate and crave solitude. I have never endured terrible suffering or overcome great tragedy. I have never contemplated suicide. 
I can’t even tell what level I’m at in TPD. I’m certainly not Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, exemplars of the highest level of development. At Level V, there is no inner conflict, no anger, no doubt—only compassion. A transcendent life lived in pure service to the greater good. At Level IV, one accepts responsibility for one’s life. There is no blame. Commitment to living a life of integrity means choosing the best in ourselves, self-mastery, often overcoming great sorrow. We can step outside our drama and observe ourselves as if we were watching a movie, completely accepting the character and wondering what will happen next. Level III is the dawning of awareness that there is a different reality—a different possibility for living life in a state of inner harmony. Level III (multilevel development) is a new perspective of life itself. It is intensely frustrating to feel in your bones that you are capable of being a kinder person—of reaching a place of no inner conflict, no self-doubt, no reactivity, no tendency to gossip—and continuously fail to be that person. 
Levels I and II represent normal reality. Self-interest reigns at Level I—unrestrained by others’ needs or altruistic concern with the good of all. It’s “all about me—always.” At Level II, awareness of others dominates the personality. “What will other people think?” Bereft of a moral compass, individuals at Level II often feel like victims of a world beyond their control. Am I oversimplifying? Of course! These are my own stereotypes of the five levels. This theory is exceedingly complex. Dabrowski’s exemplars of Levels IV and V, with unshakeable integrity and immense compassion, often appear beyond the reach of mere mortals.
Perhaps, like in creativity theory, with its Big C and little c, we need a Big D and a little d. Big C represents eminent creators; little c represents the creative process in everyday life. What if we applied this idea to Dabrowski’s theory? What if we saw TPD as the tenets of Big D development and applied the basic principles to guide everyday ethical development (little d)? What would that look like?
In little d development, we would look inward and examine ourselves, not outward in terms of labeling others. We would recognize that we can be at many levels simultaneously. We would read about moral exemplars and strive to become our best selves—modeling ourselves after those we admire. We would be aware that we will do inner battle over and over again with the self-righteous, judgmental parts of ourselves, and we will often lose. Dabrowski’s theory then would become a moral compass to help us determine if we are taking responsibility for our lives (“multilevelness”) or feeling like victims, getting angry and blaming others (“unilevel development”). We would aim to live lives imbued with integrity, responsibility and compassion for all. We would aspire to become someone who inspires others to become their best selves. We would view our journey dispassionately, with wonderment at our progress toward our ideals.