The client’s history walks in with him: Character strategies

by Penny Boreham, Intake Manager

William Reich

William Reich

In our last “Inspiration and Reflection” blog our clinical director, Dr Charles Hallings-Pott, referred to the ‘Character Strategies’ developed by the founder of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Pat Ogden.

Dr Hallings-Pott described them as “the strategies we construct around the childhood wounds we have experienced”. Over the next few weeks we will be exploring some of the fascinating intricacies of this typology, examining some of the individual character strategies that Pat Ogen has defined, and hearing from practicing Sensorimotor psychotherapists as to how the use of this typology has helped them find their way to the most appropriate therapeutic intervention for a client.

Systematizing and Categorizing

Over the last few generations, psychoanalysts, therapists and psychologists have been continuously devising categories to help us work out connections, similarities and distinctions, in their effort to understand the complexity of the human condition and to communicate about it with each other. There have been many attempts to systematize the connections between physical characteristics and personality. Pat Ogden has been directly influenced by Ron Kurtz (who she worked closely with at the Hakomi institute) and he in turn was hugely influenced by William Reich, who was a major influence on the field of body psychotherapy as a whole.

William Reich (1897-1957)

Wilhelm Reich was a colleague of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and was influenced by Freud’s ideas about the effects of childhood development on our minds. However, Reich was also deeply interested in how each of our developmental stages impacts on our whole system/our body. William Reich wrote of “muscular armour” and how we can observe humans expressing personality in the way they move their bodies. He wrote about how difficulties around birth, early feeding problems, overwhelming parental control or early feelings of sexuality would create different ‘character structures’. Reich would work with these using breath techniques, massage, exercises and body postures.

Ron Kurtz often quoted Reich as saying that “the client’s history walks in with him”.

Kurtz explained in an interview:-

“it’s the way he shakes your hand and holds his body. The adaptations are written in the posture; they’re written in the muscle tension. The kind of posture where a person looks at you with a slight angle of their head, they don’t look directly at you – that’s an indicator, a postural indicator. As in Bioenergetics and Reichian work, locked knees are an indicator of orality, or a puffed-up chest is an indicator of a psychopathic personality. So all the character patterns, to me, are a subset of indicators and these are indicators of implicit beliefs, like the puffed-up chest: “I have to be tough, I can’t let people in, I can’t be honest with people.”- all those things are written in the posture; you just have to know how to read it”

Our postures are an embodiment of our beliefs, and those beliefs may not yet even be conscious, they may not have been verbalized

“It takes courage to be a client”

Ron Kurtz also described the process of giving feedback to clients after studying how they held themselves and observing how their bodies had formed over the decades: – “they’re shocked that these beliefs are there [are evident] but they recognize them….They have to be willing to allow the therapist to experiment, which will evoke some of these early, painful situations.They will just come up as emotions at first, where the person will get very emotional and not know why, and then a little while later they start to have a memory that fits that emotion. It takes courage to be a client”

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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