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 what our bodies reveal.
By Dr Janina Fisher and Penny Boreham
The founder of Sensorimotor psychotherapy, Dr Pat Ogden, describes nine ‘Character Strategies’ outlined last time in our blog Character Strategies introduction that unconsciously shape our perceptions, beliefs, and ways of relating to others. These ways of being are, in essence, ‘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: patterns of structure, posture, movement, gesture, and tension. They are 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.
As we outlined last week it is essential that we don’t simply ascribe a single character strategy to one individual. 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 is there but has never been acknowledged.
Today we are giving a little more focus to two out of the nine strategies: ‘Sensitive Withdrawn’ and ‘Sensitive Emotional’.
‘Sensitive Withdrawn’ and ‘Sensitive Emotional’
What Dr Ogden describes as ‘Sensitive-Withdrawn’ character can best be understood as a response to the failure of basic safety in the first year of life, while ‘Sensitive-Emotional’strategy is often a response to loss, abandonment or abuse in the first year. Both relate to the earliest fundamental issues of ‘existence, safety, security and embodiment’.
If the behaviour or availability of primary caregivers in that crucial first year results in the experience of fear, threat, danger, or overwhelm, a baby has only two options – to constrict and withdraw inside or to cry for help.
‘Sensitive-Withdrawn’ Character Strategy develops under the impact of abuse or what is termed, “frightening or frightened caregiving.” Caregivers may be depressed, withdrawn, dissociated, addicted or chronically angry–frightening rather than comforting to the infant. The result is that child’s basic trust in the world is shaken. Those of us with this strategy tend to be internally frightened, extremely sensitive, often suspicious or on guard, finding it difficult to make contact because it feels as if the only safety is withdrawal far inside.
‘Sensitive-Emotional’ Character Strategy reflects an almost polar opposite approach to safety: cry for help and never stop crying—the only safety lies in making sure you are heard. Thought to be the outcome of some days, weeks or months of good attachment followed by sudden loss, death, separation from or rejection by caregivers, the child’s trust in the world and relationships is also shaken. Panic, frantic attempts to communicate the need for help, intense separation anxiety, and yet difficulty feeling soothed by those who do try to help—all these responses are inherent in the strategy.
In both cases, it is as if the individual is still ‘there,’ still not safe, still abandoned and panicked, still trying to survive in the only ways young children have available.
The Impact on Relationships
A deep understanding of these strategies can of course offer huge insights into our relationships to ourselves and others. The concept of the character strategies offers therapists a paradigm for observing their clients’ relationships to others but also to us in the context of the therapeutic relationship.
For example, those with ‘Sensitive Withdrawn’ as a dominant strategy can sometimes leave others baffled as they tend to shut down, retreat, avoid closeness and remain distant. Feeling endangered by others, they are hypervigilant, easily perceiving others as rejecting or hostile. Their loved ones can feel abandoned or misunderstood. At the same time, there are benefits to a strategy that takes us deep inside: this is a strategy shared by innovative thinkers and individuals who are imaginative, perceptive, creative and analytical.
Those with ‘Sensitive Emotional’ character strategies often make contact through emotions rather than understanding. They crave to have their intensity mirrored and met, have anxiety about separation and loss of intense contact, and often have a tendency to blurring of self/other differentiation which can lead to enmeshment with others. But again, there is a positive reward to this strategy: these are individuals who can tolerate intensity, seek and enjoy close relationships, and are passionate, enthusiastic and creative.
Case Studies for ‘Sensitive Withdrawn’ and ‘Sensitive Emotional’ by Dr Janina Fisher
Emily and Paul came for couples therapy after dating for just ten months. Already, their relationship was in crisis, and it had barely begun. “Actually, we broke up after four dates and just got together again four months ago,” Emily explained, “because I can’t be in a relationship with someone who can’t feel anything!” Her voice was accusatory, eyes brimming with tears, hurt and anger in her facial expression and body language. Paul said nothing—just put his arm around her shoulders and looked adoringly at her. It was clear he loved her but also that he was a man of few words. As the session proceeded, Emily alternated between childlike hurt, a therapeutic analysis of Paul’s behaviour (“he obviously has issues if he can’t express his feelings”) and angry accusations that put him down. Yet Paul was clearly trying hard to ‘show up:’ “This is all very new to me, and Emily doesn’t realize I can’t turn my feelings on like a faucet. I don’t even know what I feel sometimes—it’s not that I’m refusing to tell her.”
Without using the words ‘character strategy,’ I described for them how each had come to the relationship with a different survival strategy. Emily, I observed, was hypervigilant and on guard for signs that Paul wasn’t truly there for her, and she automatically assumed the therapist/expert role when something he said or didn’t say triggered her. On the other hand, Paul’s survival strategy was to ‘retreat first, ask questions later.’ He said he felt safer saying nothing versus trying to express himself and observed that Emily’s criticism fed into his strategy because he felt as if he was ‘walking on eggshells,’ trying not to upset her.
When I asked them both, “How was this survival strategy helpful to you as children?” they at first were puzzled by my assumption. Using a quotation from Frank Sulloway, I told them, “Personality is a way of getting out of childhood alive. How did these strategies help you do that?” Paul’s description of his childhood made that point: “the only place I was safe was in my room, and it looked more like an office than a kid’s room—everything had a place and was in its place, exactly the opposite of the rest of the house. That was chaos—we were a big family and my mother was a scary lady—the only safe place was away from her. Now, when Emily gets upset or I can tell she expects me to do or be something, I just go away. I don’t mean to—it’s what happens.”
“So the ‘office’ is now inside you, huh?” I commented. “And what kind of going away is it? Is it a panicky retreat? Or going numb and fuzzy?” Emily at this point tried to interrupt to tell me: “He’s passive-aggressive.” I responded by setting a limit, something that would not be helpful with a Sensitive Withdrawn individual but often necessary with Sensitive Emotional: “Well, Emily, that really doesn’t tell me much—that’s just language we use when we’re frustrated with people whose survival strategy is to go away. I need to know what takes him away and where he goes.” “You’re coddling him,” she said angrily.
“Is confronting him working, Emily?”
“Well, no—but you can’t let him off the hook.”
“Emily, when you were young, how did this ‘family therapist’ strategy help you survive?” “My mother was a trauma survivor, and I was her whole world—which meant there was no room for me to be a child and have needs. I always had to take care of her—it was suffocating. Whether she was angry or needy or normal or depressed or scary.” “And how did it help to be her therapist?” “It was my way to differentiate myself—to tell her that what she was doing wasn’t right—without pulling away and freaking her out.”
It made sense: for Emily, the Sensitive Emotional patterns allowed some control: she could maintain a connection to her mother but still fight for recognition that she was a separate person. However, her mother’s moodiness always left her feeling anxious: what was going to happen next? Would the loving mother show up—or the scary one? Was she loved or would she be abandoned? For Paul, the Sensitive-Withdrawn strategy allowed the creation of an internal safe place where he didn’t feel the overwhelm of what was happening around him. With no way to have an impact on his abusive mother, it was the only possible option. But now that he wanted to reach out to Emily, to make her feel safe, he couldn’t control the automatic retreat and disconnection from his feelings. It was easier for Paul to understand his strategy but harder for him to change it. For Emily, the challenge was to accept that her responses were equally the byproduct of a strategy rather than a sign of being the more emotionally healthy of the two.
The next steps for both will be to understand their strategies and to see them as the problem, not the relationship. In working with character strategies, we do not seek to change them or eliminate them. Our goal is to ‘relax’ them so that other strategies can grow and a more authentic self flourish.
This is part of our series of blogs in which Dr Janina Fisher has joined Penny Boreham to write about ‘Character Strategies’, and it is itself part of a wider series which is 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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