Psychotherapy Practice – The Role Of Character Defense and Strategy

Character defense and strategy is a perennial favourite among students of psychotherapy. Both an accessible subject and an almost impenetrable topic, it is fascinating and individualistic, with a typology that yields endless unique permutations of defense against life. This conversation I (R) had with a student (Q) presents a valid introduction to the subject.

Q: What do you mean when you say “defending yourself from life”?

R: We react against early experiences in infancy, childhood and adolescence that are intolerable or traumatic or both. They may be overwhelming, humiliating, shaming or conflicting. Don’t forget one of the primary tasks of early life is making sense of events, people and experiences. We need to make sense in an early childlike way of what happens in our universe and this form or structure that we impose on experience develops over time and developmental stages into a personal world view.

Q: But that’s good, isn’t it?

R: It’s necessary. We experience this sensible world view as a holding of ourselves and our universe in some kind of design, a structure in which we can live and function over time. But if we are questioning, inward-seeking, thoughtful individuals then we will be able to see that the world view we adopted is concerned less with reality and more a coping mechanism, less profound truth more reactive strategy.

Q: But it works?

R: It worked, but then very often the strategy turns against us by limiting our existence, our experience of life, our sense of potential, defining who we are and how much we can have and restricting our capacity for fulfilment and satisfaction in life so that we unconsciously sabotage ourselves in all kinds of positive endeavors. The anger that saved us becomes the devil that haunts us, the liberator of ourselves from intolerable experience becomes our harshest, abusive jailer.

Q: Are there different kinds of defensive strategies, a system for understating ourselves and how unconsciously restrict ourselves and our lives?

R: The theory of character typologies began in western psychology with Freud and progressed significantly through the observations and ideas of psychologists like Fromm, Klein, Jung and particularly Reich, whose book Character Analysis is the early classic and reference point for later developments. Subsequently Lowen and Pierrakos, Ron Kurtz and the Hakomi therapists, Stanley Keleman and David Boadella made significant contributions to the field.

Q: In view of the complexities of the subject, is it possible for you to give a clear overview?

R: There are several systems according to which typology you look at, but an overall summary would be something like this.

First, we have the schizoid type. This activity or life orientation in a person is a response to the experience of being unwanted and it predates any childhood experience whatsoever, because it originates in the womb. It is predicated on the feeling of not being wanted and subsequently not welcomed and furthermore that one does not really fit in with others, in social groups or in life itself. The schizoid feels most comfortable alone and is not really capable of relating in the true sense of the word. He or she will tend to withdraw from external difficulties with life’s events and particularly from relationships. The schizoid thinks, ponders, analyzes and theorizes and is most comfortable in the rarefied, higher strata of analysis and mental processes, untainted by emotional and interpersonal engagement.

Second is the oral type. This strategy evolves from deprivation and occasionally an overwhelming glut of nourishment in the form of food, comfort and engagement in babyhood. When a baby’s needs are not sensitively and considerately attended to the child grows up expecting a corresponding treatment from life. The oral personality expects to be taken care of, is disappointed abandoned or rejected and is unable to care for themselves. There is another version of this character defense in which the opposite or corresponding imbalance is adopted, i.e. I don’t need you; I can do it all without any help.

Third, the psychopathic character is all to do with power. ‘Power over’ is a reality, a real experience for the psychopath and he or she resorts to the kind of treatment experienced in childhood (around the age of 3) in relationship to others. There is never an equal, reciprocal intimacy from a psychopath in relationship, only an overpowering will. Dominance and the will to power are all important for the psychopath. Treated inhumanly, usually by mother, manipulation, seduction, emotional displacement and being made to feel special are all ploys that lead to the psychopath’s primary statement: I will never allow myself to feel vulnerable again.

Fourth is the masochist. The masochist’s formation of a sense of self has been arrested and prevented from fulfillment in childhood. The treatment which creates a masochist involves preventing the formation of boundaries, denying the right to an emotional life, or indeed to rights at all, not being allowed to say no (because it is wrong for a child to refuse or argue with its parent etc.). Adult masochists usually feel guilty, responsible and blameworthy and provoke punishment from others to relieve themselves of their hidden, forbidden rage and fury.

Finally, the rigid character is the hard-working, often workaholic type that avoids time for themselves, their relationships and any activity that does not involve them in the distraction of ‘doing’. Deep inside they have imbibed the statement: my feelings are not important. Usually the rigid character’s budding sexuality was denied or shamed by one or other parent in childhood. Sexually it becomes a challenge for the adult rigid to combine sex with feeling, making love with emotion. His or her supposed task, which is self-defeating, is to prove themselves worthy of love. But they can never succeed because whatever they do will not make then worthy; deep inside they want to be loved for themselves.

Q: But how exactly does each of these character types employ a strategy which “defends them from life”? And why would we choose to do that, rather than engage with life, live fully and enjoy ourselves?

R: The individual expression, mixture and layering of the character types are quite unique and individual of course. It is not a matter of treating it like popular astrology and saying, “I’m a rigid”, like some people identify with their astrological sun sign. However, to generalize, the schizoid’s defense is centered on the guiding statement: I must remain isolated; I am safe if I do not need. The oral character’s statement would be something like: You do it for me, because I can’t do it for myself. The psychopath’s mantra is: I must keep control, remain independent and never form a close relationship. The masochist’s is: I can never be free and will pay for intimacy by being submissive. Finally, the rigid’s guiding statement is: I can only be free if I do not want, so I must keep my heart closed.

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