By Penny Boreham, Intake Manager
Character Strategies ‘Tough Generous’ and ‘Industrious Overfocused’ (Part Five)
I am very grateful to Dr Janina Fisher, world expert on the treatment of trauma and Assistant Director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, who is joining me to reflect on how these strategies can assist therapists to find appropriate therapeutic interventions for their clients and better appreciate the role of the body, not just the mind, in our psychological issues and habits.
The founder of Sensorimotor psychotherapy, Dr Pat Ogden, describes nine ‘Character Strategies’ that unconsciously shape our perceptions, beliefs, and ways of relating to others. These ways of being are ‘survival’ strategies: i.e., reflections of underlying, usually unconscious, limiting core beliefs that once enabled us to explain or conform to parental expectations, needs for safety, and/or unmet emotional needs.
Although first introduced in the psychotherapy world by Freudian colleagues Reich and Fenechel, the character strategies were further elaborated by Ron Kurtz in the 1970s and then brought up to date by Dr Pat Ogden as she synthesised the neuroscience and attachment research into her therapy model, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Experienced practitioners of neurobiologically-informed 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.
Last time we looked at two of the ‘Character Strategies’ – ‘Burdened Enduring’ and ‘Charming Manipulative’ – that arise out of the challenges faced by the preschool child, and today we are giving a little more focus to another two of the nine strategies that develop in the latency years, also called by Erik Erikson the stage of “Industry versus Inferiority” :-
Tough Generous strategy is one adaptation to the central dilemma of this stage: mastery. Latency-age children have a strong drive to master their environments, to feel competent, to successfully accomplish new skills. Yet during the years from 6-12, children still want and need help—help that is attuned to their need for feel successful and competent. When instead they are controlled, bullied, or ridiculed, when their needs and vulnerability are used against them, children feel overwhelmed, weak and shamed. When caregivers are critical or ridiculing, unable to tolerate having a competent successful child, or when the peer group is bullying or humiliating, feelings of inferiority can become unbearable without parental support. The Tough Generous strategy provides a way to protect the child’s vulnerability while increasing feelings of mastery. He or she can create an internal sense of safety by appearing invulnerable, by generously taking care of others, by learning to ignore their own feelings, by avoiding being ‘one-down’ and by guarding carefully their sense of having power and control. This pattern can appear opportunistic or superficial when it means rapid changes in interpersonal style (think of politicians, for example), but the strengths of this strategy include its tendency to seek the leadership role, to have a vision, to be competent and articulate, driven to accomplish, and cool under fire—unless made to feel vulnerable in some way. Then the Tough side of the strategy emerges as anger, rage, or controlling behaviour.
Industrious Overfocused strategy results from a different type of parental environment, one in which love or attention is dependent upon the child’s performance, whether ‘performing’ means being a precocious ‘little adult’ or a young athlete, scholar, or musical/artistic prodigy. Love in this kind of family is conditional on performance. Parents may be demanding, withdrawn, narcissistic, or too busy and preoccupied with their own lives to focus on the child’s healthy needs for attention and support, but when the child is competent or successful, these caregivers respond positively. While discovering performance is an effective way to get attention, the child may always feel not quite ‘good enough,’ not appreciated for ‘being’ without ‘doing’. Because the underlying issue is connection and feeling valued, individuals with this strategy strive for a perfection that rarely can be met and never feel quite satisfied, no matter how much they have achieved or how much they are admired for their achievements.
The Impact on Relationships
A deep understanding of all these nine strategies offers therapists a paradigm for observing not only their clients’ relationships to others but also to us in the context of the therapeutic relationship.
For example, individuals with ‘Tough Generous’ as a dominant strategy like to be in a ‘one up’ position, and find it very hard to form equal relationships. They feel anxious or threatened when others have intellectual, emotional, financial, or situational power over them—which motivates them to give generously of themselves but interferes with receiving easily from others. The fear of being overpowered and overwhelmed and the need to feel in control of whatever idiosyncratically makes them feel vulnerable can lead to either toughness or generosity. ‘Receiving’ help, support, compliments, even accolades, make all of us feel more open and vulnerable, which is highly triggering to this strategy. While this strategy can be loving and generous in relationship, the inability to be vulnerable leaves them open to being easily wounded, a tendency to ‘go tough’ when triggered, and difficulty taking responsibility for their anger or aggressive behaviour. Ironically, individuals with this strategy are often afraid of being hurt and long for tenderness but, when feeling challenged, they are easily angered, often appearing bristly or overbearing. In therapy, they are likely to get triggered by the inherent power differential in the relationship and by the invitation to make themselves vulnerable, leading to competition with or devaluing of the therapist. It is very important for therapists to understand this behaviour as a strategy rather than as a symptom of a personality disorder and to allow the Tough Generous client to be generous in giving advice, expertise, or praise.
Those with ‘Industrious Overfocused’ strategies can find it difficult to take the time to relax in relationships and open up their hearts. They are able to form healthy relationships unless compromised by earlier strategies, but they are constrained by the distractions inherent in the need to perform and accomplish in how much they can be authentically connected. Although the restlessness and dissatisfaction with themselves and others comes from the underlying need to be loved, conscious awareness is on the job, project or goal. Like the Tough-Generous, this strategy takes naturally to a leadership or ‘alpha’ role but is more likely to work harder than anyone else rather than control the process.
One of the hardest strategies to modify because it is rewarded in our culture, Industrious-Overfocused individuals are best reached by the therapist who appeals to their sense of fairness and goal-orientation. When it becomes a therapeutic or relational goal to spend more time with family or to leave projects unfinished/imperfect and let others complete them, they are more willing to put energy into change.
By the time he reached 35, Michael had founded several multi-million biotech companies, employed his mother and brother, stayed close to his university buddies, and was a motivational speaker in the business world. He was known for his vision, drive, fearlessness, as well as his impatience, controlling behaviour, and arrogance. But the loss of a girl friend turned it all upside down: to his surprise, he suddenly lost the passion for conquering the business world ‘mountains’. Not knowing what to do with a vulnerability he’d never felt before, his first instinct was suicide—alarming his family and friends who quickly found him a therapist—and then another and another as the first two didn’t pass muster.
At our first visit, Michael was ‘missing in action.’ He didn’t call, or text, but then suddenly appeared at my door a half hour late. Caught off-guard and babbling a bit, I invited him to sit down -only to have him look at me with disgust: “Oh my God, why did I come at all? I can already see you’re one of those ‘types’—just another ‘phony therapist’!” In retrospect, my spontaneous response was just right for this strategy: I started laughing. “Phony?! That is hysterical! I love it—phony. . . And what tells you I’m just another phony? What are you noticing?” Of all the names I have been called, in over thirty years of private practice, ‘phony’ is probably the worst fit. As I kept shaking my head and laughing, Michael started to laugh, too. In retrospect, I can look back and see that being late had made him feel ‘one down,’ and his strategy needed a quick ‘one up.’ My ability to laugh allowed him enough time to recover and connect to his generosity or what I call his ‘authentic self.’ Many times, in the two years since I first met him, he has thanked me profusely for saving his life—probably as often as he’s put me down as ‘just another therapist.’ We have mutually agreed he can and should give me advice in many areas but not on the topic of psychology!
As his Tough Generous strategy began to ‘relax,’ as we say in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Michael’s Industrious Overfocused strategy became more apparent. Now married, it has been hard for him to find time to spend with his new wife, to tear himself away from work and make her a priority. His business career is indeed very demanding, and the strategy exacerbates the time demands by driving him to be more thorough, better prepared, spend more time rehearsing his speeches, and to seize responsibilities from his employees when he feels he would do a better job. The impact of his Tough Generous father is apparent in his fear of being anything less than the best, just as it was in his fear of being vulnerable and humiliated. At times, the two strategies reinforce each other: for example, when his Industrious Overfocused Strategy makes it difficult to give up control of projects or tasks to staff who will not do as perfect a job as he might, Michael sometimes gets triggered into an explosion of Tough Generous rage. At those times, it’s difficult for him to hold on to the perspective that it’s his strategy that makes him better, faster, and more driven than his staff, not an inherently better moral fibre. In the Industrious strategy, he can maintain a broad perspective; in the Tough Generous strategy, everything is black and white with no shades of grey.
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