“The entire world of past experience (is) embodied in the present in the form of character attitudes. A person’s character is the fractional sum total of all past experiences.”
Character Strategies form in the early developmental stages of childhood; connected with attachment theory, they are formed in response to a lack of nourishment at any given stage. As we pass through these stages, we learn certain psychological and social functions at each particular stage. The natural development of theses stages is often interrupted through relationships to significant people or other trauma such as illness or sudden loss. Interruption leaves the developmental function distorted, incompletely learned, or completely cut off.
Character is the sum of our memories, patterns, beliefs, and feelings. Character strategies are simplifications and are abstract; no one completely embodies a character, we are usually a combination. But, acknowledging character strategies provides insight into how people handle their life situations and gives ideas to how we can work with an individual.
Character Strategies and Body-Centered Psychotherapy
All body centred approaches have been built up and adapted from the work of Wilhelm Reich. Reich was the first person to reunite the body and mind in therapy as he developed the approach of character analysis, outlining the five basic character types. He found that people with similar childhood experiences had similar bodies and that people with similar bodies displayed similar psychological responses.
Character strategies were further developed in the work of Ron Kurtz, founder of the Hakomi Method and by Pat Ogden, founder of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Body-centered psychotherapy identifies eight character strategies.
Body centred therapies are integrative; Ron Kurtz has said: “psychotherapy is anything that works”. In Expressive Arts Therapy there is a similar mindset. Although the work is focused in the arts, the Expressive Arts Therapist also recognizes the significance of an individual’s movement and gestures as a reflection of psychological issues.
How Character Strategies Effect Our Physiology
The psychological traits associated with the character strategies are demonstrated in the body. Our musculature gets contracted to support the belief systems that we form around the functions which get truncated during our development. Psychological information can be discovered by an individual’s posture, quality of movement, muscle and bone development, facial expressions, relational style, how they look out at the world (what their eyes say), and overall impressions we intuitively get from our first interaction with a person.
It is important to note that character is something superimposed, like a costume we wear. Character strategies are not who a person actually is; through awareness and a body centred approach we can change our belief systems. Just as the body contracts to form a particular armour in response to our psychological beliefs, our psyche will also respond to changes in our body. We can notice this when taking on a different posture e.g. slumping or rounding the shoulders in a withdrawn posture vs. taking a more confident stance in a power pose.
Identifying Character Strategies
Character strategies are how we respond to the world. We are not in our strategies all of the time; we go into them when we are under stress or in trauma. Watching for our habitual way of acting in the world we can see which strategy will surface. Once we recognize it, a big part of the work is done. After noticing the strategy a few times, it will not surface as intensely, and rather than believing in the strategy we can observe that we went into it again and make a choice to respond differently.
These strategies are not all negative, however; we formed the strategies at a young age to be able to function in the world. There are very positive aspects to each strategy. The purpose of acknowledging the strategy is to be able to shift out of the aspects of the character which are holding someone back, and allow them to embrace the positive aspects of the strategy so they can flourish in the world.
The 8 Character Strategies
There are five basic character types which have been developed into eight character strategies.
Schizoid – Sensitive/Withdrawn
Psychopath – Tough/Generous and Charming/Manipulative
Masochist – Burdened/Enduring
- Ron Kurtz, Body-Centered Psychotherapy
- Barbara Brennan, Hands of Light: A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field
- Heather Dawson, Lecture notes