by Penny Boreham, Intake Manager
Character Strategies Part Three
This is the third of our series of blogs on ‘Character Strategies’. I am very grateful to Dr Janina Fisher, world expert on the treatment of trauma and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute faculty member, who is joining me to reflect on how these strategies can assist therapists to find appropriate therapeutic interventions for their clients and allow us to begin to consider how they can deepen our understanding of the stories revealed by our bodies as well as our emotions.
The founder of Sensorimotor psychotherapy, Dr Pat Ogden, describes nine ‘Character Strategies’, first described by Ron Kurtz. He believed that we develop patterns of body structure, movement and gesture, emotional expression, perception, and meaning-making in childhood that unconsciously shape our future perceptions, beliefs, and ways of relating to others. These ways of being are ‘survival’ strategies, reflections of underlying, mostly unconscious, limiting core beliefs that once enabled us to explain or conform to parental expectations and/or unmet needs.
Experienced practitioners of body based psychotherapies, like Sensorimotor, become highly attuned to not only listening to the spoken word but also observing body language. They observe patterns of structure, posture, movement, gesture, and tension. They are also alert for patterns of emotional expression, relational styles, posture and structure, and core beliefs. Keen observation of all these data can often tell us more about an individual’s story than the events remembered, allowing a better understanding of the core beliefs stemming from our earliest needs and fears. An experienced therapist can help her/his client to acknowledge the presence of a dominant strategy, a secondary strategy or one that emerges when the client is under more stress, and often another that might be present, in subtle ways, but has never been acknowledged.
Last time we looked at two of the ‘Character Strategies’ – ‘Sensitive Withdrawn’ and ‘Sensitive Emotional’ – (you can read about these particular strategies in the blog) and today we are giving a little more focus to another two of the nine strategies: ‘Dependent-Endearing’ and ‘Self Reliant’.
Dependent-Endearing and Self Reliant strategies reflect adaptations to the failure of caretakers to meet the child’s emotional, relational or even physical needs.
The Impact on Relationships
A deep understanding of all these nine strategies offers therapists a paradigm for observing their clients’ relationships to others but also to their ‘caregivers’, in the context of the therapeutic relationship.
For example, individuals with ‘Dependent-Endearing’ as a dominant strategy have usually experienced deprivation of physical contact, emotional attention, and other forms of nourishment necessary for healthy development. In environments that provide little needs-meeting but also little independence, the child is caught in a bind: with no way to meet his or her own needs and not able to express needs directly, s/he has to become dependent and helpless as the only way to communicate the wish for care. While feeling helpless to meet their own needs, there is also doubt and distrust that their needs will ever be met by others. The result is a personality style that others often perceive as “dependent” or “needy” but which is also non-threatening and open, very affectionate, tender, sympathetic and easy to trust and talk to. Feeling so intensely the yearning for someone to understand and care and the doubt that anyone will, it can be difficult for this strategy to appreciate what others offer rather than feel that the glass is chronically half-empty. Both loved ones and therapists can misinterpret the irritability and neediness of this strategy as evidence of being ‘spoiled’ and so it is important to keep in mind the situation for which it was once adaptive. Individuals with ‘Self Reliant’ character strategies also reflect having had to adapt to emotional and/or physical deprivation in the first three years of life. In families for which this strategy is necessary, however, neglect or deprivation is not accompanied by prohibitions against independence. In fact, precocious self-reliance is often encouraged directly, or indirectly, by the family—whether because overwhelmed parents need the child to be self-reliant or because it is a quality highly valued in the family culture. Whatever the cause of the neglect, the Self Reliant child becomes a very self-sufficient adult who asks for little and is often a very willing caretaker of others. Those with this strategy can appear unreachable and may not connect deeply, or consciously seek intimacy, in relationships. They also have a tendency to isolate and depend on themselves to meet all their needs: “as long as I can do it myself, why bother anyone else?” is their philosophy. Unlike the Sensitive Withdrawn individual, the isolation of the Self Reliant does not relate to a fear of contact with others but rather to how he or she assimilated missing experiences of closeness, support, and interdependence.
Leslie, a 40-year-old psychologist, grew up as the caretaker of her depressed, moody mother who vacillated between states of helplessness, withdrawn, inaccessible states, and rage. She could recall clearly how hard she tried to win her mother’s love without success: not only were her needs for attention and comfort threatening to her mother but so was autonomy, success in school, and peer relationships. In her 40’s, she still had the body of a 13 year old girl: short, slim, childlike. But despite professional success, Leslie felt perpetually failed: she felt that she always gave more than she got back, that her friends, family and therapist expected her to be self-reliant and didn’t understand that she couldn’t meet her emotional needs. “I don’t expect them to comfort themselves when they’re upset—why do they expect that of me?” In her career, her therapy, and in her personal relationships, things always started out on a promising note, but then Leslie would begin to feel “failed” again and collapse in hurt and anger. In her career, that usually meant failures of confidence in herself; in relationships, including therapy and failures of confidence in others.
In contrast, Samantha grew up without a stable physical or emotional home, much less parents: plagued by creditors and business failures, her parents moved once, if not twice, a year in the dead of night, leaving everything behind. Sometimes they lived in the family car, sometimes shared a motel room, then might have a house or apartment for a little while before inability to pay the rent led to another move and another new school for their children. Samantha was expected to endure the living conditions, whatever they were, and to care for her younger brother, like a nanny, while her parents were at work. By her 20s, she was financially, physically and emotionally competent, owning her own business and in a long-term relationship with a somewhat dependent partner. Had it not been for their couples therapist, Samantha would probably not have entered therapy at all. It would never have occurred to her that her feelings of aloneness and anxiety about the future might be a by-product of her childhood. It certainly would not have occurred to her that her partner’s complaints that she was cold and unaffectionate, too preoccupied with her business to be emotionally ‘present,’ had any merit at all.
For Leslie’s therapy to be helpful, her therapist had to communicate understanding of the little girl who literally had no option other than to be sweet and helpless and to remain disconnected from her competence. Samantha needed a therapist who could validate her competence and self-reliance without seeing it, pathologically, as ‘schizoid.’ In both cases, the therapist’s attunement and empathy for the strategy is a necessary precursor to work on ‘relaxing’ or modifying strategies.
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