In the book The Dynamics of Concepts from 1972, Kazimierz Dąbrowski regrets that in psychology, conflict is often undesirable and connected to negative and even pathological experience. It is a conflict with society, an external one.
If the external conflict exists, why does psychology not notice the possibility of the internal one in human life? Because Dąbrowski used the term ‘inner’ conflict rather than internal, I will also apply this particular term. Poetry and literature give us the same example of a quarrel with oneself or even with God.
We can ask for the meaning of the conflict. Why is it so important in human life? Why do we argue with others, oneself or God?
I am looking for an answer to this question in Dabrowski’s theory, which covers many aspects of existence.
Dąbrowski emphasizes that the more conflicts and the stronger disequilibrium, the richer the development of the person (Dąbrowski, Piechowski, 1977, vol. 1). In addition, multilevel conflicts have a much more meaningful influence on mental growth than external conflicts. They dynamize the development by strong feelings of judgments of oneself and insight into the demanding direction of changes.
Horizontal or Vertical Conflict
The intensity of conflicts depends on the strength of the developmental dynamism, but not every dynamism is just as meaningful in the way of development. Only some of them can lead to constructive and structuring changes.
According to Dąbrowski:
In unilevel disintergation, conflicts are horizontal, the opposing tendencies of equal value; phenomena are perceived as relative, arbitrary, governed, for the most part, by moment and circumstance. In multilevel disintegration, conflicts are vertical between “higher” and “lower” relativism and chance yield to a developmental hierarchy of autonomous direction and autonomous choice (Dąbrowski, Piechowski, 1977, vol. 1, 66).
In addition, on the higher, it means multilevel development, conflicts are more reflective and less impulsive. When they are associated with over one level, they lose an unambiguous character. For this reason, one does not so strongly convince that one is right. In this way, one allows more solutions to a problem. In this sense, conflicts open new perspectives on human life.
Important to realize that conflicts are connected to human needs. Examples of lower needs are comfort and satisfaction, and higher needs are a need for reflection or realization of sexual desires. Another conflict concerns extraversion and introversion as a collision in life activity.
Dynamisms and Conflicts
Conflicts in Dąbrowski’s theory motivate to change an attitude or perception of reality. They are like tectonic movements. They lead to the creation of new geological structures. In this metaphor, their counterparts are a hierarchy of values and personality.
Dąbrowski notices: Then, they [conflicts] are more complicated, more conscious, more useful, and belong to the group of dynamisms which accelerate development and constitute increasingly higher levels of the inner psychic milieu (Dąbrowski, 1972, 68).
In spite of a special role of dynamisms in development, Dąbrowski treats dynamisms and conflicts as equal in this explanation. How can we understand it? The dynamisms are strong emotional long-term simulations that shape the development of the inner milieu of a person.
Can dynamisms play a role in conflicts in human life? In fact, there are two categories of dynamisms, such as 1/ astonishment with oneself, disquietude with oneself, inferiority feeling toward oneself, dissatisfaction with oneself, a feeling of shame and guilt; 2/ the dynamism of creativity, the third factor, the dynamism “subject-object” in oneself, inner psychic transformation, and identification (Dąbrowski, 1972).
They can be distinguished into two groups. First of all, there are dynamisms responsible for a deconstruction of primitive structures of the psyche. The second category of dynamisms has a crucial meaning in the process of shaping personality.
We see it that the first group of dynamisms includes less conscious and external conflicts. Also, they stimulate the process of disintegration. The second one includes more conscious and inner conflicts that are related to integration as a process of organization and structuralization of the inner milieu.
Conflicts and Overexcitabilities
In the first place, overexcitabilities, especially intellectual and emotional, can be triggers of conflicts leading to growth by widening one’s consciousness.
Strong emotional and strong intellectual overexcitability lead to a powerful conflict between a personal feeling, and relationship-oriented intuitive approach to life and an approach which is probing, analytical, and logical (Dąbrowski, Piechowski, 1977, vol. 1, 65).
Consequently, the conflict shows that one’s feelings can be different that one expects they should be in this case. Although the logic explains the reasons and consequences of actions, feelings reveal hidden motives and unconventional solutions. In the external conflict, feelings can break a social schema.
Correspondingly, thanks to overexcitabilities, we can get into the motives of our behavior, the more hidden or covered by education, and social expectations. In this way, we come to an inner conflict – conflict of values.
The Essence of the External Conflict
When we start our comprehension, it is worth specifying our subject more precisely and distinguishing between the external and inner conflict. What is “the external conflict”? It is a kind of emotional or intellectual collision with others. We can also say that it is some kind of misunderstanding. Its reason can be a lack of full or proper knowledge about some matters or completely different way of thinking and feeling about some problems.
So, we can consider that the first reason for external conflicts is a variety of human characters that sometimes clash. The second one can be a lack of trusting others or a fear of directness in relations with others.
From Dąbrowski’s point of view, because the external conflict is founded on the self-preservation instinct that motivated people to fight or aggression.
Therefore, the external conflict is a confrontation with the environment. It is a situation when one tries to signal one’s own point of view that can be against someone’s expectations.
As a result, in Dąbrowski’s theory, ambivalences and ambitendencies are an essence of the unilevel external conflicts. Ambivalences are fluctuations of the opposite feelings, and ambitendencies are fluctuations of the conflicting actions.
Also, Dąbrowski applies many examples of ambivalences, such as obedience and rebellion, inferiority and superiority, hate and love (Dąbrowski, 1973).
To clarify, ambitendencies are the opposite tendencies just like suicide and self-preservation instinct. For this reason, there is one in a deadlock between destructive and constructive tendencies.
Unfortunately, finding a developmental solution to this crisis is not possible at the level of the unilevel disintegration. When the multilevel aspect of conflict appears, the situation changes positively.
External Conflicts in Therapy
The external conflicts are the strongest in the period of defiance, puberty, and menopause. According to Dąbrowski in Elements of Development Philosophy, they have a character of opposition, depression, and aggression (Dąbrowski, 1989).
Because the conflict can be unconscious, especially the external one, it appears in the company of somatization frequently. Dąbrowski defines psychosomatic reactions which are effects of somatization of conflicts as a […] collision between conflicting sides, bring attention to these states, and consequently to what is happening inside the individual’s mental and emotional structure (Dąbrowski, 1972, 67). In this way, the body signalizes conflict, which consciousness gradually assimilates and resolves by consciousness.
Additionally, the external conflicts are associated with the unilevel disintegration, so a mental tension is sometimes very high and linked to an extremely intensive experience. They have a similar level and intensity, for example, excitement and depression. One seeks destructive solutions such as alcohol, drugs, or suicide to discharge this tension sometimes (Dąbrowski, 1972).
When the mental structures are too solid, we can observe the opposite tendency in Dąbrowski’s therapy. Polish psychiatrist in Psychotherapy by Development from 1979 calls this technique – loosening mental structure. This effect is reached by causing external conflicts because the inner ones are impossible in the mentality domineered by instincts.
Neuroscience and conflict
The tendency to fight is one of the unconditional reactions in dangerous situations. According to neuroscience, humans have a tendency to react: fight, flee, or freeze. First of them is a symptom of the aggressive attitude of strong and self-confident individuals.
In the light of neuroscience, these three forms of reaction are part of heritage after human – animal ancestors. So, it is an animal aspect of the human soul and a leftover after the evolution of human species. The limbic system of the brain is responsible for them. It is characteristic of the emotional lives of all mammals.
Considering Dabrowski’s theory, the unconditional reaction is part of the lower, animal side of human nature, especially aggression. In conflicts, its symptom is aggressive, instinctive and impulsive courage of the unilevel disintegration. On this level of development, it is hard to talk about the emotional life of a person who does not care completely about others’ feelings and needs.
Conflict and Adjustment
However, flee and freeze are the animal reactions similar to fight, they have a different character. Dabrowski appraised them more positively. Flee or freeze are characteristic for more sensitive or less-confident humans. It is a question of adjustment of the line of unilevel and multilevel disintegration in external conflicts.
Therefore, flee or freeze reactions are the result of a lack of capability and courage of direct confrontation with an opponent, which results from a higher level of threat and stress in contact with the outside world. With time, we can observe changes in this attitude.
Dąbrowski notices: Hence, frequent maladjustment to the “lower” self but adjustment to the “higher” self. Increasing courage in standing up against conformism and externality. Search for the creative “newness” and “otherness”. Rejection of norms forced upon one by external pressures (Dąbrowski, Piechowski, 1977, vol. 1, 193).
It is a conflict with external schemata and norms, which limits one’s growth. Conflicts with expectations of milieu are often traumatic, although necessary experience in the development. Without conflicts, it is impossible to distinguish oneself from a milieu in an axiological sense.
Bear M.F., Connors B.W., Paradiso M.A. (2016). Neuroscience. Exploring the Brain, 4th ed., Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer,
Dąbrowski K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness, London: Gryf,
Dąbrowski K. (1973). The Dynamics of Concepts, London: Gryfą,
Dąbrowski K. (1979). Psychoterapia przez rozwój [The Psychotherapy through Development], Warszawa: PTHP,
Dąbrowski K. (1989). Elementy filozofii rozwoju [The Elements of Philosophy of the Development], Warsaw: PTHP.