by Paddy Logan
In psychotherapy there are a number of specific approaches to bodywork. This article describes a model which I am most familiar with and will, I hope, give an insight into the clinical thinking within such an approach. The model is based on an integration of the theories of two psychotherapists.
Willhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen
Reich and Lowen devoted a large portion of their professional lives to understanding the impact on the body of formative process. Reich, who was a student of Freud and a gifted analyst, developed his theory of character structure defence at the turn of the last century. Lowen, who was a client and student of Reich in the USA collaborated in developing the model known as bioenergetics. In practice these models gracefully complement each other in their theories and approach.
Character Structure Theory
Character structure theory has at its core an inclusion of the body in its theoretical framework. The body is by no means a new area of self-exploration. It is probably one of the oldest sources for seeking understanding of internal and external realities. Within a psychotherapeutic process the impact of physical experience can be a revelation. Anyone who has experienced in therapy what is held within the charged physical memory of the body can appreciate this.
Generally people are inclined to make use of cognitive awareness in relationship to a self i.e. making sense of who we are and of what we feel and do through a thought form dynamic. We can think ourselves, in our minds, as a form of self differentiation. Within psychotherapy we frequently use cognitive memory for example to look backwards at our history, to observe how we got to here, why we have become who we recognise we are. This is not the full extent of our resources of self-information. We maintain an emotional context and an emotional history of self we also maintain a physical/somatic context of self – a body history. There is an obvious and significant triad here.
We do not function on a purely cognitive level, nor in a duality of cognitive / emotional levels. A basic statement of fact is that without a body nothing of what we think or feel can exist in human form. We cannot have feelings and thoughts without a physical form and claim to be human. It is this triad of self-identity that provides the ground for character structure theory. The fact of the triad is that the body is fundamental to an experience of being a self. The idea is simple. We are physical, emotional and cognitive beings in formation. We are here to grow. We are here to self-expand and self-express.
So as we grow the experiences which we digest, in forming a sense of self, have impacts within these three core aspects of self awareness; physical, emotional and cognitive. Whatever shapes the emergence of a person’s model for distinctive self-awareness, self-relationship and self-expression, will inherently affect each of these three developing layers of the self, the physical, the emotional and the cognitive. In the rationale of character structure theory this imbues physical development with clinical relevance. A person cannot be here without a physical form. The emotional and cognitive layers of the self, existing internally, are fundamentally expressed throughout the physical body. From birth the ‘me’ I recognise experientially – that is physically and emotionally – as who I am and the ‘me’ that cognitively recognises these layers are emerging simultaneously. This is a hugely complex emergence, manifesting into self-awareness, self-consciousness and self- recognition.
Some psychotherapeutic approaches which are currently practised include a focus on the early stages of life as having relevance within general psychotherapy process. In the character structure model the focus can be said to primarily be on the event of life from birth to approx seven years of age. There is no doubt that the self recognition of who ‘I’ am is significantly influenced as a consequence of experiences in these formative years. This period provides experiential impacts of core themes that become implicit in how a person forms their model of self-perception and self-expression. Our self recognition, which forms internally, is a natural flow of experiential self observation. This flow can be misdirected, limited and re-routed through the impacts of formative core experiences.
A core experience in this context is one which occurs consistently during the formation of self growth and self perception. It maintains its imprint and its impact upon the self developmental process due to its on-going experiential recurrence. We all grow up within an experiential continuum, the home place. The experiential quality of evolving in such a continuum promotes our self consciousness i.e. our consciousness of self. The extent to which we feel consciously able to express who we are is modified within the experiential continuum of the home place. The adaptations which arise in the formation of self awareness as a result of this are seen within a humanistic context as an evolutionary step.
The human organism naturally defends against what is painful to bear. When this defending is consistent and repetitious the defence becomes fixed in a dynamic that is recurrent. This is recognisable as a ‘way of being ‘ that reveals its limitations in specific core themes charged with deep anxiety. ‘being’ therefore becomes an action primarily of protection and defence and not of expression and revelation. This deep anxiety can be described as ‘core anxiety’. It affects behaviour style, modes of cognitive perception, access to emotional fluidity and the tendency of the body towards specific physical forms. This complex arrangement of self- protection, self-recognition and management of self-expression, affecting the three layers of the person, is known as a character defence structure.
Within the core anxiety there is a central developmental dilemma which is unresolved. This dilemma forms through an exposure to hurt which is consistent in its form and application. This creates thematic hurt which, as we grow, impacts upon the process of self-differentiation. The presence of this unresolved hurt provokes anxiety and the inner relationship with this anxiety can be viewed as the maintaining of a central split in the person. It has the power to curtail and limit self-awareness and self-expression. It provokes a fracture in the developmental stages of discovering what it means to be.
Within character structure theory a core experience can be seen as forming within the experiential continuum in which we grow- the home place. It is an environment which is experientially consistent in its presence and its impacts. Core experience forms slowly and is not the result of a sudden shock – like an accident or an attack. It rises from the experiential backdrop we grow up with.
Through a core experience is a consistent impact sustained during formation of the sense of self in a child. The relationship with who we are is deeply influenced by what we learn experientially about being a self. If for example I learn through consistent experience that hurt or shame or frustration are part of being ‘me’ then my self-relationship will mirror the impacts of that struggle. The child does not differentiate between the experience of self – which is fundamentally a physical/emotional event- and the rationalising of that experience which is a cognitive/emotional event. So when I feel e.g. shame / fear / rage / despair consistently – as I form – the experience becomes interpreted as an aspect of my self identity. What I feel about being me is what I am. As a child, carrying these experiences, ‘I am’ the shame, ‘I am’ the fear. We live within who we sense we are and when who we sense we are is experienced as painful then it is an experience of self that impacts upon us in a conflictual way. We form a cognitive recognition of self and in that we are associated with the pain. In that form of self lays a consistent, experienced thematic hurt.
To be oneself, is to become exposed to what appears unbearable, and so to be oneself becomes contaminated with fear/anxiety. The child’s self-consciousness becomes unbearable to itself, as a result this vulnerable and exposed sense of self fragments. The fragmentation occurs through the three developing layers of self. The split is present within the cognitive, the emotional and the physical layers of the person. This is where a character defence forms. The child has no option but to avoid the self that frightens and threatens and to construct a version of self that supports avoidance of this. The version of self that is formed is a functional model of relating to the self and the world. It is formed unconsciously although there are choices made in its construction. What emerges from this process is a character structure. Because it is designed to not admit into consciousness the aspects of the person that are unbearable it is called a character structure defence.
What Reich and Lowen and subsequently others developed from these ideas was a detailed clinical map of the adaptations utilised within the being of a person to form a character structure defence. This was possible when he linked core impacts in childhood with specific periods of fundamental growth. The additional insight
Was his recognition that all these processes and experiences are sustained and enmeshed within our physical form.
A Character Structure viewpoint
A character structure perspective perceives the body as an equal partner in the formation of self and also in the formation of a core defence. There can be recognition of defences in a physical form because the body shares in the defence. It expresses the defence through its form. The fundamental shape a person evolves into is not separated from the thinking and feeling self they are familiar with. The physical self does not grow in a separate process outside the persons lived history. Within a character structure perspective of process there is a cognitive thinking self, an emotional feeling self, a physical experiencing self. The psychological self can be known e.g. in the use of language, thought structures etc. The emotional self can be met e.g. in projected feelings, empathic engagement. The physical self becomes visible in the body form. As noted earlier what discovered was the developmental inclination of the physical form towards a specific range of shapes provoked by experiential history. It is this last tier where developmental process becomes tangible in a physical form, because how a person manifests in their physical form is inclusive of any core defence.
This is a defence developed by them in response to and as a result of consistent experiential trauma in formative years. Just as the cognitive and the emotional layers reveal to us the person of the client so also can the body. This is because we evolve and grow physically as well as emotionally and cognitively during those formative years. Within a therapy relationship the thinking or cognitive form of self identity that a client has developed can be recognised clinically so too the emotional form of self identity can be clinically acknowledged. Equally the physical form of the client is a statement from the body about self-identity and has clinical relevance. The physical formation process is not separate from the cognitive or emotional formation process.
In character structure theory this triad of formation requires a three tiered process of hypothesis. It includes an equal emphasis on physical as well as emotional and cognitive manifestations of defences to self expression. Character structure theory includes an emphasis on how the body, in its naturally manifested form, its fundamental shape, reveals much to the clinically informed eye about the evidence of core trauma and core defence formation.
It is important to understand the concept of defence formation being used here, the defence is a response. It is a response of form and sensing as much as of perception. The physical form is a third rung of a three step ladder of defence formation. The body shape is an expression of the physical dynamic provoked in that formation, the body has no unconscious. The body is always in now. Where there is cause and provocation to fundamentally edit experiential awareness of the self what we might understand as a split or a fragmentation manifests. This is because consciousness of a felt sense of self that presents as un-containable does not rise into physical awareness and expression. The person is not exonerated from the effects of the wounding in their physical attitude. The limitations on clear experiential awareness of self-presence remain intact. The anxiety and the character defences which sustain to manage it produce habitual states of reaction to self expression. For example at the edge of awareness of this anxiety a person can tolerate a consistent internal experience of threat and inner conflict and even choose this rather than move towards processing it.
As therapists we recognise such demonstrations of fear expressed in this way as resistance. This anxiety forms through childhood. Children cannot provide an accurate rationale of adult self-
differentiation to their experience. The persistence of anxiety laden energy linked to the experience of self directs the child into a false self-relationship. In this self relationship the anxiety is interpreted by the developing child as an expression of a flawed internal self. This flawed aspect must be concealed both internally and externally – in order to survive as a self. The limitations of the defence on self-recognition and expression are pushed out to the edge of self awareness and held at bay there. This is achieved by the character structure which has developed in part to resist and in part to contain self awareness. The person cannot access themselves experientially beyond this barrier of fear. The experiential resistance is too great a force. There cannot be a fluid cognitive sense of self developed which includes what is of the person beyond this point. There cannot be a transparent, emotional context of self recognised beyond this point. Both of these are hidden beyond what is tolerable to the persons self awareness and therefore unavailable to self-understanding.
The body differs here. You cannot hide the external form – you have to have a body. In this way you cannot hide the form which you manifest nor the statement of intent which it reveals. The physical form expressed by the person caught since childhood in a split reality is ‘ of ‘ that reality and therefore contains and reveals it. The implication from this is that the core ego defence is also biological in its influence on the source of self- presence, experiential self-awareness and spontaneous self-expression available to the person of the client.
Alexander Lowen was deeply influenced by character structure theory and the experiences he had known from including his body in the process of analysis with Reich. He enriched and developed the theory. He devised many specific clinical movements and positions which help disclose and discharge the bioenergetic impact of the core defences. In this sense bioenergetics could be seen as a model for applied character structure theory.
Using bioenergetics involves the direct inclusion of physical experiences as part of the therapeutic exploration. In general humanistic practice a client may be asked about the emotion they feel at some relevant point. What are they feeling now? In a bioenergetic model the person may be asked to locate this feeling within their body, for example to give it a position or a movement. The person may then be invited to engage with their physical experience in further exploring what they said they were feeling.
The core defences which are described in character structure theory are also central to bioenergetic theory. Lowen developed the link between cognitive, emotional processes and biological form/ shape. His theory covers the clinical rationale of why we take on particular tendencies in the range of primary shapes we grow into. It generally surprises people to discover that the range of shapes possible for humans is in fact quite small in number. This perspective does not of course set out to contradict genetics. Within a process context we are each inheritors of the impacts of our guardians process and they in turn of their parents process – usually our grandparents – and they in turn of their parents process and they in turn etc. So we are part of a long chain of impacts and developmental influences. Our ‘capacity to be’ is a relevant factor in this.
For Reich and Lowen the most immediate site of our being is our body. What we achieve when we are free to be – to experience being – is to function freely conscious of who we are. If we are fluid and compassionate and patient within our physical experience we can remain present to ourselves and by implication to others. We all carry an active concept called history but the present is an experience and is never a recollection. By learning and daring to ‘ be ‘ present on all three layers i.e. the cognitive, the emotional and the physical a client develops and deepens the creative authority of choice. So if I could not cry ‘ then ‘ I will never cry ‘ then ‘, but I can cry now – provided I am free to allow this experience of my self to come into experiential consciousness.
Within psychotherapy at depth it becomes possible for the person to experientially know the differences between reactive anxiety and authentic self expression. This is a choice which bioenergetics seeks to make available in relationship to the body-self. Through concrete experiential engagement with the physical, the client can find an additional source of authenticity, a means to energetically process the character structure dilemma in the here and now. A method to safely approach the body release of early formative impacts that have been soaked into the non-conscious and stored within the three tiered system of the person as a character defence. For this reason in bioenergetics validation is available from the therapist for physical discharge.
Theory in practice
The application of bioenergetic theory and character structure theory in practice is based on active engagement with the body. The inclusion of the physical urges and the blocks to expression of these as encountered within the process work. Both Reich and Lowen used applied skills (e.g.) the choreography of movement, position and breath, to facilitate the engagement of the physical within the session. These skills are the cutting edge of a bodywork approach of this nature. Arising from the work of Reich and Lowen are specific maps linking body shape to core experiences and defence formations. The inclusion of an observation of the body provides a fuller basis for a reliable hypothesis to be formed early in the relationship, within the first moments of meeting in fact.
The body form provides an initial insight into what the person is needing to defend and protect against at a core level. This is valuable. The therapist with such information can orient towards a client more accurately. Perhaps more importantly a therapist can orient more congruently towards meeting the clients core defence system or its effects as manifested within the process relationship. It is the defence that we are most frequently in relationship with during the different stages of process.
As with all psychotherapeutic approaches, so in an integrative model, there are crucial and clear margins of practice applied. Any clinical skill included as part of a person centred approach is bound to the code of ethics under which the practitioner works. It is the same with an inclusion of a body oriented approach as described here. There are very specific requirements for clinical engagement. Inviting the body to express process at depth requires knowledge, skill and nerve. It is based on a live connection with process and a clear grounding in theory. It requires the capacity in the therapist to be experientially present in a truthful and unguarded attitude of availability. This is a humanistic position. It seeks to facilitate an emergence of trust in the person towards the experiential content of the process. This is then available to the search for understanding and change which clients are inevitably undertaking by meeting in the first place.
Born in Austria in 1897. Graduated from medical school in Vienna 1922. He was a student of Freud. He became one of the psychoanalysts who gathered around Freud until their ideas clashed. With the rise of political aggression and the slide into World War II Reich left Europe. He arrived in the United States in 1939. Over the next fifteen years he developed further his theories of energy formation. The work he became engaged in was radical and controversial and he did express a political opinion through applying his theories to society and government. In 1954 an injunction by the courts banned his writings. He was found in contempt of court and imprisoned in Lewisburg. He died there in November 1957.
Born in New York in 1910. He graduated in law and taught it. He also worked as an athletic instructor. In 1940 he began study at a course offered by Reich. Two years later he entered therapy with Reich. From 1945 Lowen was trained as a Reichian therapist and in 1947 he attended medical school from which he graduated in 1951. During the next few years he collaborated with two other Reichian therapists – J. Pierrakos and W. Walling. From this involvement the Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis was created in 1956.
Since then the bioenergetic model has spread its influence across many professions and disciplines around the world. In order to provide a little depth to the rationale of the body within process this article has focussed on the theoretical concepts present in an approach currently in use. This is at the expense of examining in more detail the practical aspects of its application. That’s another day’s stretch.
Paddy Logan is a partner in the Integrative Psychotherapy practice in Rathmines, Dublin.