In the first part of the 20th century, Austrian Psychoanalist Wilhelm Reich developed a theory explaining how we respond both physically and emotionally to the challenges we meet in life, especially in early life. From his studies, others have expanded on his discoveries – Alexandar Lowen, Johnson, Painter, Ida Rolf and many others. There is also a similar body of knowledge in some shamanic traditions. Following is my interpretation of character structures, integrated with my learnings from Gestalt Psychotherapy and many other modalities.
The idea behind all of these is that:
- Human beings are made up of emotional, mental and physical parts that operate as a unit and influence each other;
- Living involves encountering things and events that threaten us; and
- We adjust to these events by “armoring” ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally.
Depending on when the events occurred, and the context surrounding these events, human beings will typically “armor” in predictable ways. There are 5 primary ways, and these are called Schizoid, Oral, Masochist (sometimes called the Endurer), Rigid, and Psychopath (sometimes called the Challenger). These terms are sometimes hard to swallow, and are meant to highlight the kinds of issues those armored in this way encounter.
That’s the protective side. There’s also a good side to this: the ways we armor ourselves are also the ways we interact and learn from our environment. The 5 primary ways we interact are projection, confluence, retroflection, introjection and egotism. These – to my mind – correspond directly to the character structures. In Gestalt terms, we use all of these capabilities to “creatively adjust” to the events in our enviromnent that impact us – either positively or negatively.
If we adjust in a positive way, we are better able to process what we encounter; if we adjust negatively, we armor ourselves and are eventually not able to process what we encounter; instead we react to triggers in our environment that we seek protection from.
I will speak briefly about each of the 5 character structures in the next 5 weeks. If you find this interesting, there are many texts on this subject for you to read, and I along with my friend and colleague Jane Mactinger will be holding a workshop on Character Structures in the near future. Stay tuned for a date and time.
Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .