Back in the 1930s, a Austrian-born student of Sigmund Freud by the name of Wilhelm Reich announced to the world his idea of Characterology. Also commonly known as Character Structure, the basic idea was that people, over time, form set, coherent types of personality and body shape, based on their childhood experience.
For example, people with a strong, skinny and somewhat angular physique might be characterized, under Reich’s system, as Schizoid. This would also infer that, at the level of their personality, they would tend to live in a rather cerebral, abstract, or spiritual world.
Another type Reich designated was the Masochist. This character type was usually heavy-set and slow to move or respond. At a personality level, they would tend to live life grudgingly, frequently blaming and complaining but rarely taking positive action to change their life.
Reich originally identified 4 personality types:
A few years down the line, another was added – Psychopath – making a total of 5. Subsequent researchers and therapists sometimes sub-divided the Rigid character type into 4 or 5 sub-types.
Therapists such as Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, who came in Reich’s wake, utilised and developed his system to diagnose and treat clients. The basic approach was to have the client walk around and perhaps engage in some light exercise, such that the therapist could pick up from their posture and the way they moved which character type they might be.
Next, the therapist would ask the client to talk about his or her childhood, to gain further insights into their type, or to confirm the diagnosis. Once primary and secondary character types were identified, the therapist would get the client to perform certain Bioenergetic postures or Emotional Expression exercises, with the intention of integrating those aspects of their personality that were creating the distinct character type.
Over many sessions, slowly integration would take place and the client would feel both more psychologically whole, as well as having better posture.
One thing we can understand from this is the way that unprocessed aspects of our childhood become repressed into the body and bound into our muscle structure and fascia.
Although it was by no means a rapid solution, Bioenergetic Analysis, as this therapy became known, became popular in the 1970s and many trained under Lowen to become therapists. For a while, it looked as though Reichian Characterology could really take off and be a means to facilitate huge levels of positive social change. However, this didn’t happen.
Why Characterology Didn’t Take Off
There are an assortment of reasons why Reichian Characterology never really fulfilled its potential. Let’s take a look at some of these:
- With the emergence of the technological age, Western culture became increasingly “thought-based.” Human emotions and the sensation of the body increasingly became perceived as less important, whilst our thoughts, ideals and beliefs became more important. In the realm of therapy, this manifested as the emergence of more thought-based therapies, in particular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Therapists and their clients were fascinated by the possibility of changing lives by understanding and altering thinking. In all the excitement that surrounded CBT and similar approaches, Characterology found itself marginalised and increasingly regarded as “the past.”
- The labels Reich gave to each character type were most definitely pathologizing. As our culture went through major shifts in the 60s and 70s, people wanted therapy to become more user friendly in how it both perceived and treated clients. People didn’t want to be diagnosed as a “psychopath” or a “masochist” by some guy in a tweed jacket!
- Some of the beliefs that prominent exponents of Characterology had became very unfashionable. Reich himself was involved in a wide variety of fields, several of which either were or became controversial. The second most prominent therapist in this field, Alexander Lowen, has been criticized as “anti-gay” for some of his writings.
These factors all contributed to how Reichian Characterology found itself confined to the margins of the therapy scene by the beginning of the 21st century. Only a few well-known therapists still work with it, and it is otherwise not-so-easy to find. Barbara Brennan, Ron Kurtz, Steven Kessler and Pat Ogden are all names you can look up if you are interested.
But, despite this marginalization, Characterology still possesses a usefulness and a wisdom that has much to offer the world of the 2020s. Many people are beginning to find that mind or thought-based therapies are only working for them to a degree and are looking around for more body-based alternatives.
In addition, several of the therapists who’ve worked with Characterology have progressively softened the names given to each character type, making them more user friendly and, indeed, accurate.
Therapists like Pat Ogden and Steven Kessler have also succeeded in repackaging the character types as “survival strategies.” Many have found this a far more accessible way of understanding and applying this essential wisdom to their lives.
The term survival strategies refers to the techniques available to us, as infants and small children, to deal with situations and environments that we perceive as bad.
This might refer to our mother being too emotionally distant in our first year. Or a brutal, controlling father that excessively disciplined us aged 3. It could be a sense inside of us as a foetus that our womb was not welcoming to us. It might be an excessively repressive cultural environment that we spent our whole childhood in.
As infants and small children, we have very limited resources for self-protection. We don’t have physical strength to hit back or discourage physical abuse. We don’t have smart, street-wise moves to avoid being overly disciplined. We are largely defenceless, both physically and emotionally.
What we do have control of is where we put our attention. We can choose to simply evacuate our body – to not feel what is happening. We can project our attention onto someone else that we wish to be close to. We can send our attention deep down inside of us, to avoid feeling devastated by a situation. These strategies become available in the first few years of life.
Later on, we develop at least two more. We can harden our exterior as a defence, to not be emotionally drained. We can project our energy up into our chest, to create an aggressive front as a protection from attack.
These 5 survival strategies correspond to the 5 character structures. We shall look at how they interrelate shortly.
Although people seeking therapy are more likely to be familiar with the notion of character structures, rather than survival strategies, I personally find the latter a more appropriate way to broach the topic. The strategies give you more useful information, and support the client to better understand both the origin of that type within their own childhood and how it is likely manifesting now in their behaviour and relationships.
That said, it’s good not to entirely dismiss the character structure. Some people find them easier to relate to and, as mentioned, more people are anyway familiar with them.
Table of Correlations
As mentioned, different therapists have created different ways of designating type over the years. Here’s a table that shows how different labels correspond and also interrelates character structures with survival strategies:
|Reich / Lowen
|Schizoid||Dreamer, Unwanted Child||Leaving||Sensitive – Withdrawn|
|Dependent – Endearing
Self-reliant – Independent
|Masochist||Endurer||Enduring||Burdened – Enduring|
|Rigid – Phallic Narcissistic
Rigid – HystericalRigid – Passive Feminine
Rigid – Masculine Aggressive
|Industrious – Overfocused
Expressive – Clinging
|Psychopathic||Inspirer, Leader||Aggressive||Charming – Manipulative
Tough – Generous
You may find all this a little chaotic, especially if you like things clearly laid out (a classic “rigid” trait!) Working with real people, however, things are never really so clear cut anyway.
The easiest way for the average person to make useful sense of Characterology is to slowly go through each pattern of behaviour, using the links to each type below, and see how it applies in their own life. Slowly making your own correlations in this manner is of immense psychological value.
Am I One Character Type?
Historically, clients seeking therapy with this system were diagnosed with one character type as primary and another as their secondary. This may have worked well, or have been accurate, for some people or in times gone by. (Note that parenting techniques in Western culture have changed considerably since Characterology was originally described in the 1930s.)
However, my experience of myself and of working with clients has made it clear to me that the majority of people make use of all 5 strategies. They frequently use different strategies in different situations. Perhaps with a lover we behave as the Oral type (Merging pattern). Dealing with conflicts at work we might be Endurer type (Enduring pattern). Whilst around friends, perhaps we are more inclined to be the Dreamer type (Leaving pattern). Maybe once in a while, when in crisis, we find ourselves becoming the Inspirer type (Aggressive pattern).
What is useful, however, is to investigate each character, one at a time. Perceiving ourselves as a mixture of all of them, whilst accurate, can also be a way to avoid engaging with the material.
If you wish to create personal change with this system, I recommend that you study each of the types for one week to one month at a time. Give yourself space to investigate each type or pattern within your own being thoroughly. Search for it passionately within yourself and see where it shows up in how you relate.
Using Characterology in Bioenergetics
Assigning clients to one or two character types and then treating them with Bioenergetics was the basic therapeutic method practiced by Alexander Lowen and the school he founded – the IIBA. Many therapists outside of this school do the same.
But I have a somewhat different approach. I accept that everyone will benefit from Bioenergetics. We can all do with being more grounded and more present in our body. It is simply that one might focus slightly more on certain exercises if someone has one character type especially dominant.
For example, evoking strong emotions might not be so useful for the Dreamer / Schizoid character type as it might send them out of their body. For the Endurer type, however, strong emotions like anger can be very useful, as long as they can accept the feeling as being their own.
Thus I see Characterology as being useful in two ways. Firstly, for the client to come to better understand how their own childhood has forged who they are today. Secondly, to ensure that the client doesn’t first receive exercises that might be too much for them.
Why are the Characters usually placed in a certain order?
Different schools of thought around Characterology place the character types in different sequences. The most useful way I’ve found of ordering them relates to the age at which they are activated.
For example, as the Oral type generally relates to a lack of connection with the mother in the first year of life, it usually goes before the Endurer type, which relates to the experience of receiving excessive control around the age of 2.
The Dreamer is nowadays often placed before both of these, as it is believed that this pattern may well begin in the womb.
Rigid characters and Inspirer characters usually follow after these three, though I’m not aware of any consensus about which should come before the other.
You will also notice that some of the Characters in the chart above are subdivided into smaller groups, the Orals and the Rigids specifically. In the case of the Oral, this was because it became apparent that some Oral characters would “harden” over their neediness, become highly self-reliant, and channel all their energy into helping others. This type became known as the Compensating Oral.
Rigid characters have been divided in 4, or occasionally 5, subtypes. Because this type of character arises after the infant develops sexuality, these subtypes are also gender-specific. The Hysteric and the Masculine-Aggressive are female Rigid subtypes. The Phallic-Narcissist and the Passive-Feminine are male Rigid subtypes.
Below I include links to a comprehensive description of each character type, along with ideas for treatment direction with Bioenergetics.
Character Structure – Wilhelm Reich
The 5 Personality Patterns – Steven Kessler
The Language of the Body – Alexander Lowen