Positive Disintegration: How loss leads to growth and nothing is really negative

Imagine for a moment what life must have been like in Poland after World War II.

Cities destroyed by war.

Culture and government fractured by the initial invasion of 1939 that opened the European theatre and spawned the war.

The psychological landscape in ruins, composed against a backdrop of the horrors and atrocities that people had witnessed each other commit. Chaos – at its most extreme – leaving nothing but rubble in need of rebuilding.
Coming from this context was a man named Kazimierz Dabrowski who had a simple idea: that nothing is ever really negative.

While most of us will (fortunately) never have to experience such an extreme, we do experience our own personal devastations – crises or stresses that seem too much to handle, too devastating that they obscure the path forward. These states can emerge for a myriad of reasons, yet they all share a common element: there is a dissonance between what our present moment is and what we would like it to be.

Buddhism teaches us that we should learn to accept the flow of life, to detach and strive for compassion in the face of suffering. While this approach has its utility, taken at its extreme it neglects the opportunity that personal strife can afford.

Dabrowski called his idea the theory of Positive Disintegration. At its core, it says that loss, sadness and unease are essential for personal development. It isn’t that loss and sadness are intrinsically negative, rather that we have been socialized to believe that certain situations should elicit certain reactions and that we are to interpret our emotional reactions as being either positive or negative.

In the view of positive disintegration, emotions are contextual. There is no inherent goodness or badness to them – there is no innate suffering – only a psychological reaction to them. As such, when we contextualize the state of loss or sadness in personal life as being vital to development and growth, we can view them from a positive light and as states that are to be experienced and explored rather than remedied.

Dabrowski recognized that people start life in a state of primary integration. They behave and think in accordance with their inner impulses and what society teaches as the correct way of life. Through states of personal dissonance, where there is a discord between what you experience and what you believe, a person has a chance to enter into the process of positive disintegration. They are able to recognize that their inner values and beliefs no longer effectively correspond to the world around them. They are able to disintegrate previous belief structures, world perspectives and behavioural patterns in order to reconstruct them to be more in line with a developing set of personal values that are independent of impulses and socialization.

States of unease and tension become the motivation – the energy and catalyst for change – that are necessary to dissolve and reconstruct a person into a more complex and unique individual. Without them we would remain in a state of primary integration, aligning our thoughts and behaviours with little effort to actualize our full potential.

So remember the next time things seem blue, when loss or sadness feels too much, this is your mind’s way of telling you that there is more inside yourself to develop, that there are new opportunities for you to explore and grow through.

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