‘Character strategies’ (Part One) – Dr Janina Fisher’s insights

smiley purpleby Penny Boreham, Intake Manger

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring some of the fascinating intricasies of Pat Ogden’s ‘Character strategies’ and hearing from the eminent Sensorimotor therapist and trainer, Dr Janina Fisher, about how observing and reflecting deeply about these strategies can assist therapists to find appropriate therapeutic interventions for their clients.

I am very grateful to Dr Fisher for her support both in writing this blog and for her invaluable assistance in the following weeks. Today’s blog has been written with her and the case study below has been shared by her.

by Janina Fisher and Penny Boreham

Pat Ogden’s ‘Character Strategies’

The concept of character strategies was first conceived by Reich, Fenechel and other followers of Freud but then elaborated by Ron Kurtz and incorporated into Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Reich’s term for these was “character armour,” making him the first to incorporate the body as well as the psyche into psychological theory. “Character armour” describes how the body adapts to the positive and negative forces in the environment in such a way that it both protects us and also allows us to adapt, defend against parental anger or rejection, and maximize whatever crumbs of love or attention available to us. Dr Pat Ogden sees these as survival strategies but also reflections of underlying, mostly unconscious, limiting core beliefs that help us to explain or conform to parental expectations and/or unmet needs.

Those experienced in body based psychotherapies become highly attuned to looking at the body and identifying the strategies that show up in patterns of structure, posture, movement, gesture, and tension. Like the groundbreaking psychologist, Erik Erikson, Ron Kurtz believed that we develop character strategies around childhood wounds experienced at critical periods of development. Although this model is not based in research, anyone who has raised children will immediately recognize these developmental stages! Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, like Erikson, sees the character strategies as a response to the environment’s success or failure in helping the child master each developmental task, keeping in mind that no one strategy is generally sufficient to handle all the challenges a child faces. Most of us will need a mixture of strategies.

Here are the nine character strategies as outlined by Dr Ogden:-

Character Strategy/Developmental Task To Which It is Related

Sensitive-Withdrawn is a response to the failure of basic safety in the first year of life.

Sensitive-Emotional is another strategy for responding to fear, loss, abandonment, and abuse in the first year.

Dependent-Endearing is when the toddler’s needs are not met by attuned parents, s/he must adapt in some way.

Self Reliant is a different approach to the failure of needs meeting.

Burdened-Enduring – between 2-5 years, the child’s developmental task revolves around the expression of will: can I have an impact on my environment?

Charming-Manipulative – this strategy and Burdened/Enduring are a response to environments that do not allow children to express their will, to have age-appropriate power.

Tough-Generous -as children become more independent, are they still allowed to be vulnerable?

Industrious-Overfocused – are they loved for themselves? Or for how they perform?

Expressive-Clinging – what do they have to do to get attention? Or is it given freely by parents?

All of these strategies are associated with particular physical signs, styles of emotional expression, relational styles, and core beliefs. The more therapists can read from these data, even without knowing the family, or early environment, the more they can understand what those core beliefs are and how they relate to our earliest needs and fears and affect our whole outlook and ability to deal with relationships. For example the first two strategies, Sensitive-Withdrawn and Sensitive-Emotional are very early preverbal strategies. The idea is we start developing these strategies shortly after birth or even in utero in response to feeling unsafe and unwelcome in the first weeks and months of life, and they relate to ‘existence, safety, security and embodiment’. If primary caregivers have not been able to provide these basic ingredients of secure attachment, a baby has few options: either to constrict and withdraw inside or to cry for help. Those are the two choices reflected in the two strategies.

Multi Faceted Strategies

It is important to remember that you cannot simply ascribe one character strategy to one individual. Many of these strategies are at play at one time in one individual client and come to the fore in different contexts and out of different experiences. An experienced therapist can help her/his client to acknowledge the presence of a dominant strategy, then another that emerges when the client is under more stress, and of course another that is there but has never been acknowledged.

Eliza was the youngest in a very violent family with three brothers and an older sister born with developmental delays. Her exhausted, shut down mother couldn’t welcome her, and there was no way for anyone in the household to feel safe. Her earliest response and strategy was sensitive-withdrawn: she was a very quiet, almost mute child. As she got to toddlerhood, old enough to express her needs, she encountered unresponsive or angry, demeaning parents, forcing her to become more indirect: to never express her needs/wishes directly but always be indirect, to charm rather than ask. By the time she was 10, Eliza was a talented ballet dancer and gifted student, but her vulnerability and emotionality were still the object of their scorn and sometimes even abuse. “Look, Eliza is crying again—what a baby! Wah, wha, baby!” Another strategy began to take form: Tough-Generous. Eliza would no longer show her feelings; she would be above these people who had hurt her. She would be better than they. Instead of withdrawing in the face of the verbal abuse, she began to lecture them, growing angrier and angrier when they didn’t listen to her. As an adult, Eliza’s internal terror of getting close to anyone or being out in the world could not be seen. Her Tough Generous strategy, whether she was generously supportive or angry and judgemental, hid the vulnerability and interfered with the successful use of her ability to be Charming Manipulative.

Strategies can be revealed in certain body patterns, such as holding and tension (sensitive-withdrawn strategy) or a military posture with a puffed up chest (tough-generous strategy), as well as patterns of emotional expression (fear for sensitive withdrawn or anger for tough-generous) and beliefs (“It’s not safe” or “I can’t let myself be vulnerable”). Someone with a particular strategy may not be able to perform some physical movements or express certain emotions or endorse certain beliefs, so often observing what actions and feelings are missing and developing these new patterns of movement can have a beneficial effect on someone’s emotions and thought processes.

Therapists Learning About Their Own Character Strategies

In Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, the therapist herself/himself is also asked to be aware of his/her own character strategies. Understanding these can help the therapist attune at a deeper level to clients with the same strategies and explore their responses to clients with different character strategies. For example, a therapist with dependent/endearing or sensitive/withdrawn patterns may find a tough/generous client very difficult to deal with. The charming/manipulative client might come over as untrustworthy or slippery to some therapists whereas another therapist will be entertained by the same client. The process of understanding a character strategy will reveal much to a therapist.

Over the next few weeks we will be looking at these individual character strategies in more detail, and will see how they provide another way for therapists to understand ‘the wisdom of the body’.

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day. 

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