Inner Conflict as a Path to Higher Development : Part I

I have often referred to and written about the Theory of Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dabrowski on this blog.  His is a theory about the process of personal development that I  can strongly relate to in a real and significant way.  But rather than attempt to speak to this theory again, I have decided to post an in-depth and thought-provoking article on the subject that I came across about a year ago.  Although it focusses somewhat on growth ignited through mid-life crises, I believe it is relevant to all stages of life or anytime a crisis compels us to find our truth, re-unite with our authentic selves and move forward towards higher personal development.   I have edited the text slightly in order to reduce some of the volume and will post it in three parts over the next week in order to reduce reader fatigue..  

If you are in any way, shape or form travelling the path to self-actualization and have faced the challenges involved, I have no doubt that you will find this article both extremely insightful, and in many ways, utterly comforting.   

Written by :  Linda Silverman, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Maxwell, M.A.

It is sometimes forgotten that the meaning of crisis is “a turning point.”  Rather than hardship thrust upon us, crisis may be an invitation to higher development and an indication that growth, issuing from deep within, is struggling to occur.  This article re-examines such crises from the vantage point of a theory of emotional development (Dabrowski, 1964, 1967, 1972; Dabrowski with Kawczak, A. & Piechowski, M. . 1970, Dabrowski & Peichewski, M. M., 1977a,b) which sees inner conflict in a positive light.  This theory, called by its creator, Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980), “The Theory of Positive Disintegration,” grew out of his own anguished wartime observations of the best and worst of human possibilities and is the basis of a new way of looking at what facilitates growth.

Mid-life crisis feels like the disintegration of the self, a loss of self-definition.  It is as if the ground of former assumptions falls away; what was formerly important loses its “juice”.  The experience can often be terrifying, for the individual may believe that when the self is stripped away, nothing will be left.  “Under all my facades, I am going to be revealed as a non-person.”  What causes it all to come apart?

One factor may be loss.  A spouse dies or exits through divorce.  Parents die.  A rebellious child leaves home.  Youth fades in a culture that cherishes youth.  Being needed, the role of the selfless nurturer, or the strong shoulder that`s always there to provide comfort, become less important as children become independent or partners become absorbed in ever more demanding careers.

But there is often another, more mystifying component – that inner, undefinable sense of unease, that feeling of despondence, or even despair, for no good reason, of wrongness which one cannot put one`s finger on.  Having done all the right things and done them well, there now wells up a terrible, gnawing sense of unease and bewilderment.  Those so stricken ask, “what have I done wrong?”  Why do I feel this way?”  Depression clouds over everything.  All of the people and activities which once gave life meaning have lost their power.  There is a profound feeling of emptiness which nothing seems to fill (Firman & Vargiu, 1977).

In the past, people with such feelings were often advised to ease the situation by taking up something new :  a hobby, volunteer work, a cause – something to “take your mind off yourself.”  They were seen as temporarily disoriented by a lack of purpose, as brooding neurotics needing to be returned to normalcy.  It was as if their feelings had no validity.  It was expected that people undergoing such anomie needed to come to their senses and “snap out of it.”

Dabrowski`s Theory speaks to these feelings in a new way.  The theory describes a transformative process, a pathway to higher level development, which requires the disintegration of restrictive psychological structure in order that movement toward a new integration at a higher, self-actualized level of development may occur.  It differs from more familiar stage theories; it states that the higher level structure and the lower level structure exist side by side; the higher one does not grow out of the lower one but, in fact, acts in opposition to it.  This creates inner conflict between two different conceptions of reality.  As the higher level structure expands; the lower level structure diminishes, but not without a fight for its survival.

The theory posits five levels of development, each of which represents a distinct psychological structure and creates a unique world view. 

Level 1

At Level 1, individuals are basically egocentric and there is little genuine concern for others except in the sense of care for one`s property: my family, my business, my bowling team, my neighborhood.  Individuals at Level 1 use others to meet their own needs as a matter of course; it is a natural and even a moral obligation – taking care of number one (and one`s property).  There is no self-reflection, no acceptance of guilt, no conscientious scrutiny of the results of their actions upon others, no emotional sensitivity.  There is no inner conflict.  All conflict is externalized, opposing whatever obstructs the fulfillment of desires.  Since there is no inner life to come between such persons and their ambitions, they may well obtain power by ruthless means.  At worst, the Level 1 personality is psychopathic, with no indications of growth potential.  At best, toward the upper end of Level 1, are found a large portion of humanity: decent, hard-working, law-abiding people who are affectionate toward family and friends, hold beliefs that are strong but unexamined and generally uphold the social fabric.  Acculturated and accommodating, they support established ethics and values.

Level II

Individuals at Level II have less self-assurance.  They have a gnawing sense that they lack some indefinable something and they look for fulfillment and validation in other people, in group movements and in being helpers and rescuers.  They are very concerned with the question, “What will others think of me?”  The essential ingredient of self-development, an inner hierarchy of values that sorts out real convictions from accommodations to others, is lacking in such people.  Since they have not wrought a means of directing their behaviour from the inside, they rely on others to approve or disapprove what they do.  They feel confused, powerless, uncertain about everything, and inferior to others.  They conform to group standards out of a need for security, rather than out of a true commitment to those standards, but may move from group to group or from lover to lover seeking greater self validation.

A large group of people operate at Level II.  They have ambivalent feelings and inconsistent behaviour, reflecting their confused inner life.  Often they are drawn toward self-improvement projects but have a difficult time making progress because they tend to jump from one technique to another, eager to try whatever is touted as newest and “best.”  Some become relativists as they develop a sophisticated realization of how values vary from culture to culture.  They may tolerate a wide variety of moral climates without taking any set of values seriously.

Some people remain all of their lives at Level II and some with greater inner potential move on.  Robert and Peichowski (1981)) labeled those who stay at Level II “conservers” and those who go farther “transformers.”  Conservers tend to defend the homeostasis of the present organization of their lives.  Transformers more readily move forward into the disintegrative process.

There are many important distinctions between conservers and transformes that have relevance to women and men in mid-life.  Conservers tend to be insecure and in need of validation from their world.  Much of their energy is consumed by their need for self-esteem.  They continually seek to bolster their low opinion of themselves through achieving the approval of others or through convincing themselves that they are good people – self-sacrificing, giving, caring, responsible people.  They may indeed be warm, sensitive, easily moved, motivated to work for the welfare of others, and extremely concerned with the search for ideal personal relationships.  They may be focused on the needs of others to the point of being quite empathic, but often their empathy takes the form of overidentification with others, so that they lose themselves in the drama of others’ lives.  Empathy may quickly turn to disdain if they don’t feel appreciated for their caring.  Their emotionality may take the form of dependence on others, jealousy, or self-deprecation.  They experience a great deal of guilt about possibly not living up to others’ expectations, and they are also quite capable of using guilt to manipulate others.  The classical picture of the “selfless” mother who peppers the soup well with guilt is one picture of the Level II personality.  

Although by society’s standards, Level II is considered “normal”, there are striking clinical implications in this population.  Individuals at Level II are more prone to psychosomatic disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, phobias, and even schizophrenia.  Their emotionality may not be well directed, but the very fact that it exists at all makes Level II developmentally advanced from the callous assurance of Level I.  Their confusion is their first step in the disintegrative process of higher development.  Many people stay in this confused state for their entire lives, clinging to their weak sense of self, and protecting themselves from further disintegration.  But some move forward, risking everything they believe themselves to be to find a higher truth; these few are the transformes who move on to Level III.

Next Post :  Level III…

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This entry was posted in Humanistic Psychology, Positive Disintegration, Psychology, Self-Actualization, Self-Concept and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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