The Concept of Character in the Reich and Lowen Tradition

Therapists working in the Freudian tradition in the twenties described two trends. One, psycho-analysis did not seem to be working as well as it should, given the demonstrated validity of many of its elements. Second, certain patterns of presenting problems seemed to go together with certain patterns of resisting interpretations, spurring the development of the concept of character. The question also arose, did the first trend have something to do with the second?

Wilhelm Reich also noticed that the patterns of character extended to physical appearance and posture. At a standstill in some cases, Reich resorted to having clients move seemingly-fixed areas like the jaw, to loosen things up. Often a flow of feeling and memories arose and progress started again. Reich came to believe that the question of character was central to psychotherapy. The physical manifestations he called armor. While Reich emphasized character, he neither created nor emphasized a thorough typology of character. Reich believed it was important to 'corner' the armor in a client, segment by segment.

Alexander Lowen however, made the concept of character more conspicuous in the thinking about change. Whereas Reich thought of character more as 'thematic' of early injury, Lowen thought of it more as a consistent, predictable set of alternative developmental pathways instigated by negative or inadequate environmental responses at critical junctures in early life. From extensive natural and clinical observation, he did create a 'tight' typology of character that included physical, psychological, familial and social aspects. It is that system that underlies how character is thought of in this tradition. Lowen defined character this way

... character structure is not a conglomeration of injuries and defenses which can be analyzed one by one, nor is it a series of scattered muscular tensions-a tense neck, a rigid jaw, contracted shoulders, etc.-- which block the flow of excitation and feeling in the body. True, each tense muscle or muscle group is the result of traumatic experiences which block the expression of feeling. But the character structure is an organized system of defenses aimed to promote the survival and security of the individual. And these defenses are integrated and coordinated to promote the maximum security which the individual feels necessary and yet provide an opportunity for the individual to try to find some fulfillment in life. It was not built in a day but over a period of years--six to be exact--during which the child strove to find some positive meaning in its life. It is a walled city or a fortress depending on the degree of fear.' It cannot be analyzed away, nor can it be demolished by force. It is part of the individual's nature, second nature to be exact, and therefore beyond the will of the individual to change.*

This defensive character is, perhaps, a way to provide a consistency of experience that provides a stop-gap consistency in the sense of self. As a stronger sense of self develops, a broader range of experience can be allowed. However, in natural development, it is the broader experiences that precede and develop the sense of self. Hence arises the tough, but not insurmountable, 'boot-strapping' problem of 'character-analytic' work in therapy and in lifestyle. For an adult, character works like a filter that screens out just those experiences that might broaden interpersonal awareness. Character becomes self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing.

Character is what seems to give life meaning and create an identity. A person tends not to see it as a handicap but rather an asset. In many ways, separating one's sense of self from a formed character seems like death. Character then, in this tradition, refers not only to a set of blocks and limitations, but also, and this is its dynamic quality, to an adaptive self that seeks love through conforming to an image of lovability and acceptability. The person does not usually realize they are conforming, rather he or she believes they are pursuing goodness. Character, however, differs from a 'false self.' A false self is a compensatory mental product that often is meant to refute the physical and biographical reality of the person. The prevalence of false selves is one reason that self-diagnosis of character often fails. It is the actual body, not the conscious aspirations that defines character.

Lowen defined five characters: Schizoid, Oral, Psychopathic, Masochist, and Rigid. He stated that this was not a classification of people but rather defensive positions. In his writings, Lowen 'defined' how characters are defined. His system works as a 'forced choice' --everyone one sees walking on the street for instance, can placed in one of the five characters. I have followed the forced-choice' tradition, but added one non-Lowenian characters (the Swollen Character of Stanley Keleman), because it seems useful. For a time, I had taken into the list the Symbiotic Character of Stephen M. Johnson. However, I have removed it as a distinct character and added Johnson's construct in the form of 'borderline narcissist' to the discussion of narcissism as a condition also in this section.

Lowen named the characters from psychoanalytic roots. The resulting names, unfortunately, seem pejorative, and, unless the derivation is understood quite well, confusing. And since bioenergetic therapy usually includes some part of an educational approach, the names are downright embarrassing to use with clients. Ronald Robbins came up with much needed alternative names that are evocative and address strengths as well as limitations. Robbins renamed Lowen's basic five character types; I have attempted (or rather I am attempting) to rename Keleman's character. The names 'stack up' this way: Creator (Schizoid), Communicator (Oral), Includer (Swollen), Inspirer (Psychopathic), Consolidator (Masochist), and Achiever (Rigid). In the Achiever or Rigid character, genitality is established and gender differences are strong, based on gender identification. This caused Lowen to define four subtypes that are essentially four separate characters: Phallic Male, Passive-Feminine Male, Hysterical Woman, and Masculine-Aggressive Woman. One could therefore speak in terms of the 'rigid group' of characters. The 'phallic male' and 'masculine aggressive women' can be renamed the Male Achiever and the female achiever, but the passive-feminine male and hysterical character have no easy name substitute that has come to mind. Also, it has been a question in this tradition where to map the 'old-fashioned compulsive' character onto the Lowenian typology. Lowen felt this presentation was very rare in the latter half of the twentieth century, but that the compulsive character could best be understood as an Achiever.

Characters are believed to arise from deviations from optimal child emotional development at different times starting from pregnancy until five years of age. Some characters are 'earlier' and some 'later'. Therefore Lowen's typology can be said to constitute a 'horizontal model.' Stephen Johnson believed it was useful, especially in psychotherapy, to map character not only according to the Lowenian horizontal model of character type, but also according to a simultaneous 'vertical model' of ego strength, which could be super-imposed on the horizontal model. The horizontal model, as will be explained later, is not really a continuum, but rather a depiction of five (or seven) final developmental pathways. However, the horizontal model does imply a quantitative gradient of 'selfness.'

Within the horizontal model are two 'lines' indicating qualitative changes. The first is between the schizoid or creator character and the rest. This is sometimes referred to as the 'schizoid condition' which differs from the 'neurotic condition' of the other characters. The second 'line' is between the earliest four (or six) characters and the Achiever or rigid, which is actually a group of characters, differentiating along sexual and gender lines, all of whom who share the features of 1) lesser only mesh-like armor, 2) energy flow from head to genitals and back, and 3) good reality testing. This group is increasingly a rarity in clinical samples, and, Lowen thought, increasingly a rarity in society.

A small controversy on the horizontal model is where to place the psychopathic or inspirer character: before or after the masochistic or consolidator character. Placing the inspirer after the consolidator has much bioenergetic basis--the inspirer, like the achiever, can displace energy outward well and can contact others on an energetic basis even if distorted. The overall disruptive and erratic social performance of the inspirer character is, on the other hand, cited as evidence of less mature development. This sounds more like a moral argument, however, and Lowen's horizontal model is a model of energetic, not moral development. The originating childhood injuries postulated for the inspirer character are usually placed at 18 months, before the origin of the masochistic or consolidator character, however the origin of the inspirer seems the least understood, and it is possible that in speculating, many may be working backwards from where they believe the inspirer belongs on the horizontal model.

Gender affects the expression of character greatly. The chromosomal and hormonal effects are very strong. Generally females are more empathetic and men more instrumentally oriented or systematizing. This dimensional difference is present in all characters, causing attenuation of some aspects and accentuation of others, but not really 'breaking' the character. Of course in the rigid group, the effects of gender are strong, but that is based on adult genitality, not just the empathizing/systematizing difference. Because biological gender is not environmentally-mediated, its effects on character are noted in the Reich and Lowen traditional only for purposes of recognition, not for purposes of change.

Character description is approached three main ways: 1) How the person looks and moves-- muscle tensions and restrictions being most definitional, 2) The typical real-time interactions and attitudes with others, say a therapist or a love interest, and 3) the typical biography that a character lays down on his or her course through life.

In the descriptions of character, body fat percentages and body fat distribution are relevant but not central. In our day, body fat has become an issue that draws judgment, but it is partly a red-herring as far as Lowenian character.

Character Focus and Character Analysis

Alexander Lowen came to believe that resistance to change ultimately resided not just in the body and not just in beliefs, but actually in character itself, intangible as it may be. That is, body work alone, or psychological work alone, or even perhaps both done in parallel, could not really unseat the limiting effects of character. Rather overall global character attitudes had to be confronted. This is called character focus.

Most therapy has followed Freud's cue in being led by free association. This is true also for practitioners that eschew or little understand Freud. Free association, of course, is somewhat of a misnomer in that it leads to material not completely random. It leads to 'what is really on the mind' of the client, and therefore, presumably led, eventually, to all that is necessary. However, long experience led to the conclusion that this was insufficient, especially as clients became more sophisticated. If resistances are 'analyzed and dissolved as they arise', then it seems that endless creative new resistances arise. The nucleus of resistance seems to be able to jump from manifestation to manifestation. This brings to mind Karen Horney's quip that the patient [client] comes to therapy to "perfect the neurosis". After enough work with the therapist around resistance, new resistances may be 'slicker' and even look somewhat like insight.

Lowen, like Wilhelm Reich before him, believed that only by helping the client see how his or her resistance fit a constellation of character, could the nucleus of resistance be overcome. An implication of this is that egalitarian and exploratory approaches to therapy and change, even one's including bodywork, if they fail to 'characterize' the problem, tended to only produce modest change in quality of life. From this arises the emphasis on 'tight' definitions of the character such as Lowen's basic five. Looser, 'Mr Potato Head' approaches in which character is described by an impromptu amalgamation of traits are prone to self-deception if done by the subject, and projection if done by another.

To Lowen, character was body and energy. Behavioral traits were seen as epiphenomena of the body. That is why targeted bodywork and character analysis could happen at the same time--to him, character analysis was body analysis, and a strictly conversational format was rarely necessary.

The Use and Misuse of Character Typologies

It can be stipulated at the outset, and a priori, that there are no 'pure characters'. This is because character types are ideas or concepts, and people are not ideas. However, a good question is: "as ideas, how real, and how discrete, can these character types be considered?"

First, 'character' in the Reich and Lowen tradition, refers not to personality per se, but rather to the body's mature structure (phenotype) and energy characteristics. Learned behavior can be thought of as a layer ('social layer') existing on top of character and shaping the final personality. The effect of character is so strong however that overwhelmingly, the person rejects whatever learning is character-dystonic, and accepts whatever learning is character-syntonic. That is why, in a discussion of behavior patterns, character makes an easy stand in for the concept of personality. It is also why psychotherapy with the learned layer (ideology) usually has such modest results.

Some very devoted Lowenian therapists state that character was over-emphasized in past decades. Certainly, using character simply to sort or pigeonhole people, or to rationalize interpersonal difficulties, is not legitimate. But clearly, an emphasis on character makes Reich and Lowen therapy a therapy of 'characterlogical transformation'. Character analysis is a way of 'cornering' resistance once and for all. But for adults, that transformation will probably never completely overwrite the 'starting character. As the hold of a particular character diminishes, one perhaps becomes an individual more or less, but never a model.

It is easy for those doing this work personally and professionally for a long time, to feel like failures if their own 'starting' character is quickly recognizable. But character is by definition unhidable, so to an experienced and compassionate practitioner, starting character is always visible. Reich and Lowen therapy is not about achieving an ideal and concealing final form. It is about acquiring flexibility in feeling and action.

It is natural to not want to be typecast. Everyone is unique. Lowen stated that there are many instances of clients being in between or at the "borderline" of categories. Character analysis is not a function of the purity of character but of the dominant mode of functioning. However, speaking in terms of widely mixed--(e.g. 'Heinz 57')-- character seems invalid. To do so requires believing often, that one can be high energy and low energy, overaggressive and unable to express aggression. If a balanced character is being thought of, than there is a character idea for that, the "true genital" character or the rigid character at the asymptote of armoring. This of course is an idea, not a description of an actual person that has ever been located.

If the overall picture of character is unclear, it could also be that deliberate compensatory styles ('scripts') are being lived out. Character is clearer sometimes if basic functioning is studied rather than stated goals or ideology. That is, what the person does is sometimes more relevant to understanding character than what the person says. If a student of character accepts his or her true starting character, accepting and understanding the characterology is much simpler.

Another question that arises is whether it is necessary to recapitulate all the 'later' characters in Lowen's horizontal (developmental) model to arrive at satisfying living. The nice guy in all of us wants to quickly assert the contrary, because it doesn't seem fair for the 'earlier' characters. Of course, no client needs to actually become later characters because after all, they do not represent normal development, but rather defensive positions. However, it is probably dishonest to pretend that some people do not have 'longer to go' More postponed developmental struggles have to be lived out. And this 'longer' lines up with how the person's starting character lines up in Lowen's horizontal model. It is a developmental model.

Overall the concept of character remains controversial, even among 'somatic therapists'. Since 'Lowenian' character is a concept of malfunction, a focus on character becomes a focus on what not to do, rather than what to do. This 'pathology' focus can itself become limiting. Reich moved away from an emphasis on character later, it is true, because he got away from treating individuals and treating adults. He felt prevention during infancy and childhood was the answer. Lowen is said to have emphasized character less in his later career. From reading his autobiography, this seems to be because he got away from lifestyle analysis, which tends to be character specific, and gravitated more toward essential core bodywork, which tends to include more 'multi-character' or 'pan-character' interventions, such as grounding or reaching. That is, he got away from 'what not to do' and starting emphasizing more 'what to do'. Nowhere in his writings does he indicate that he came to believe characterlogical assessment or characterological change were invalid concepts.

*Newsletter of The International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis Volume 18, No 2