We usually think of personality as something we bring into the world with us. We say, "She has a bubbly personality" or "He has a prickly personality." Some unlucky individuals seem to have slept through their alarm on the day when personalities were handed out, as in "She has no personality whatsoever."
We also measure, label, and categorize personalities. We take personality tests such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator MBTI® or a Big Five personality test to discover whether we are more introverted or extroverted, or more open or closed to new experiences. We speak in terms of personality types into which we can fit, and personality disorders with which we can be diagnosed. Unwilling or seemingly unable to change, we sometimes hang on to aspects of our personality stubbornly as though they were security blankets.
For psychologist and theorist Kazimierz Dabrowski, however, personality meant something quite different, requiring us to suspend our usual understanding of personality and replace it with something else entirely. According to Dabrowski, a personality is something that we give ourselves, that we can create and shape, especially in adulthood, through continual change.
In his book Personality-shaping through Positive Disintegration, Dabrowski offered this explanation:
"Personality, in the context of this work, is a name given to an individual fully developed, both with respect to the scope and level of the most essential positive human qualities, an individual in whom all the aspects form a coherent and harmonized whole, and who possesses, in a high degree, the capability for insight into his own self, his own structure, his aspirations and aims (self-consciousness), who is convinced that his attitude is right, that his aim are of essential and lasting value (self-affirmation), and who is conscious that his development is not yet complete and therefore is working internally on his own improvement and education (self-education)." [emphases added]
Were Dabrowski writing today, one can easily imagine his being drawn to the life of George Harrison, whom Martin Scorsese recently profiled in the documentary, Living in the Material World. Scorsese has said that what he was most interested in was Harrison's "intellectual spirituality," his "search for meaning, a search for the part of being human that seems to yearn for something that is more than the physical world. He ultimately may have found a way to live with himself, to a certain extent."
"The fundamental quality shaped by the everyday effort of the individual aiming at personality is the ability to meditate. We have referred to it repeatedly. It has its origin in a form of reflection, a predisposition for deep meditation, the ability to interrupt one's daily activity, and the need for frank 'philosophizing.' The individual may avail himself of the many works of various schools dealing with spiritual life in order to deepen this capacity for meditation. Retrospection and prospection and periodic isolation of oneself give definite results here."
Dabrowski proposed that we learn to observe ourselves from the outside, to discover our "true selves" and continually work toward realizing our best selves. He didn't think we should shirk from the negative feelings that come from knowing we are not as good as we could be. This self-education, as he called it, need not be viewed as fixing something that is broken in us; it is moving closer to the person we are meant (and want) to be, the person already inside us, as Dabrowski scholar Sal Mendaglio explains:
"Negative emotions triggered by inner conflict propel a person into higher levels of personality structures. In other words, these negative emotions are part of positive disintegration. As such, they do not require fixing. Whereas prevailing wisdom suggests that we intervene at such times to remove the emotional distress, Dabrowski advocates an acceptance of these intense negative emotions." Read More
One of the biggest challenges posed in the 21st century to a need for reflection and "frank philosophizing" is finding the necessary quiet time and mental space, allowing ourselves to "interrupt" our daily activity with "periodic isolation." Mick Brown wrote recently in London's Telegraph about how Harrison ultimately came to understand and live with his own control and choices:
"'What we are now is a result of our past actions, and what we're going to be is a result of our present actions,' he once said. 'So for certain things there's no way out. There's no way I wasn't going to be in the Beatles, even though I didn't know. In retrospect that's what it was, it was a set-up. At the same time, I do have control over my actions... I can try being a pop star for ever and go on TV and be a celebrity. Or I can be a gardener.' Which is what 'Beatle George' ultimately chose to be."
Olivia Harrison told Martin Scorsese, "If someone said you can have everything in five lifetimes or if you can have a really intense one, [George] would have said, 'give me the one, I'm not coming back here."
Hear and see more in the video trailer for Living in the Material World:
Dabrowski, K. Personality-shaping through Positive Disintegration. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1967
Mendaglio, S. "Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration: Some implications for teachers of gifted students." AGATE. Fall 2002 15(2) 14-22. Available online at http://www.sengifted.org/articles_social/Mendaglio_DabrowskisTheoryOfPositiveDisintegration.shtml