What character is and factors affecting character formation

From the book Character Analysis, by Wilhelm Reich, M.D., Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1972.

The Function of Character Formation

The next question we have to deal with concerns the factors that cause the character to assume the definite form in which it is operative. In this connection, it is necessary to call to mind some attributes of every character reaction. The character consists in a chronic change of the ego which one might describe as a harden­ing. This hardening is the actual basis for the becoming chronic of the characteristic mode of reaction; its purpose is to protect the ego from external and internal dangers. As a protective for­mation that has become chronic, it merits the designation “ar­moring,” for it clearly constitutes a restriction of the psychic mo­bility of the personality as a whole. This restriction is mitigated by the noncharacterological, i.e., atypical, relations to the out­side world that seem to be open communications in an otherwise closed system. They are “breaches” in the “armor” through which, depending upon the situation, libidinal and other interests are sent out and pulled in again like pseudopodia. The armor it­self, however, is to be thought of as flexible. Its mode of reaction always proceeds according to the pleasure-unpleasure principle.

In unpleasurable situations the armoring contracts; in pleasura­ble situations it expands. The degree of character flexibility, the ability to open oneself to the outside world or to close oneself to it, depending upon the situation, constitutes the difference between a reality-oriented and a neurotic character structure. Extreme prototypes of pathologically rigid armoring are the affect- blocked compulsive characters and schizophrenic autism, both of which tend toward catatonic rigidity.

The character armor is formed as a chronic result of the clash between instinctual demands and an outer world which frustrates those demands. Its strength and continued raison d’etre are de­rived from the current conflicts between instinct and outer world. The expression and the sum total of those impingements of the outer world on instinctual life, through accumulation and qualitative homogeneity, constitute a historical whole. This will be immediately clear when we think of known character types such as “the bourgeois,” “the official,” “the proletarian,” “the butcher,” etc. It is around the ego that this armoring is formed, around precisely that part of the personality which lies at the boundary between biophysiological instinctive life and the outer world. Hence we designate it as the character of the ego.

At the core of the armor’s definitive formation, we regularly find, in the course of analysis, the conflict between genital incest desires and the actual frustration of their gratification. The formation of the character commences as a definite form of the overcoming of the Oedipus complex. The conditions which lead precisely to this kind of resolution are special, i.e., they relate specifically to the character. (These conditions correspond to the prevailing social circumstances to which childhood sexuality is subject. If these circumstances are changed, both the conditions of the character formation and the structures of the character will be changed.) For there are other ways of resolving the con­flict, naturally not so important or so determinative in terms of the future development of the total personality, e.g., simple re­pression or the formation of an infantile neurosis. If we consider what is common to these conditions, we find, on the one hand, extremely intense genital desires and, on the other hand, a rela­tively weak ego which, out of fear of being punished, seeks to protect itself by repressions. The repression leads to a damming up of the impulses, which in turn threatens that simple repression with a breakthrough of the repressed impulses. The result is a transformation of the ego, e.g., the development of attitudes de­signed to ward off fear, attitudes which can be summarized by the term “shyness.” Although this is merely the first intimation of a character, there are decisive consequences for its formation. Shyness or a related attitude of the ego constitutes a restriction of the ego. But in warding off dangerous situations which could provoke what is repressed such an attitude also strengthens the ego.

It turns out, however, that this first transformation of the ego, e.g., the shyness, does not suffice to master the instinct. On the contrary, it easily leads to the development of anxiety and always becomes the behavioral basis of childhood phobia. In order to maintain the repression, an additional transformation of the ego becomes necessary: the repressions have to he cemented to­gether, the ego has to harden, the defense has to take on a chronically operative, automatic character. And, since the simul­taneously developed childhood anxiety constitutes a continual threat to the repressions; since the repressed material is ex­pressed in the anxiety; since, moreover, the anxiety itself threat­ens to weaken the ego, a protective formation against the anxiety also has to be created. The driving force behind all these meas­ures taken by the ego is, in the final analysis, conscious or un­conscious fear of punishment, kept alive by the prevailing behav­ior of parents and teachers. Thus, we have the seeming paradox, namely that fear causes the child to want to resolve his fear.

Essentially, the libido-economically necessitated hardening of the ego takes place on the basis of three processes:

  1. It identifies with the frustrating reality as personified in the figure of the main suppressive person.
  2. It turns against itself the aggression which it mobilized against the suppressive person and which also produced the anxi­ety.
  3. It develops reactive attitudes toward the sexual strivings,
  4. It utilizes the energy of these strivings to serve its own pur­poses, namely to ward them off.

The first process gives the armoring its meaningful contents. (The affect-block of a compulsive patient has the meaning “I have to control myself as my father always said I should”; but it also has the meaning “I have to preserve my pleasure and make myself indifferent to my father’s prohibitions.”)

The second process probably binds the most essential element of aggressive energy, shuts off a part of the mode of motion, and thereby creates the inhibiting factor of the character.

The third process withdraws a certain quantity of libido from the repressed libidinal drives so that their urgency is weakened. Later this transformation is not only eliminated; it is made su­perfluous by the intensification of the remaining energy cathexis as a result of the restriction of the mode of motion, gratification, and general productivity.

Thus, the armoring of the ego takes place as a result of the fear of punishment, at the expense of id energy, and contains the prohibitions and standards of parents and teachers. Only in this way can the character formation fulfill its economic functions of alleviating the pressure of repression and, over and above this, of strengthening the ego. This, however, is not the whole story. If, on the one hand, this armoring is at least temporarily successful in warding off impulses from within, it constitutes, on the other hand, a far-reaching block not only against stimuli from the out­side but also against further educational influences. Except in cases where there is a strong development of stubbornness, this block need not preclude an external docility. We should also bear in mind that external docility, as, for example, in passive-feminine characters, can be combined with the most tenacious inner resistance. At this point, we must also stress that in one person the armoring takes place on the surface of the personal­ity, while in another person it takes place in the depth of the per­sonality. In the latter case, the external and obvious appearance of the personality is not its real but only its ostensible expression. The affect-blocked compulsive character and the paranoid-ag­gressive character are examples of armoring on the surface; the hysterical character is an example of a deep armoring of the per­sonality. The depth of the armoring depends on the conditions of regression and fixation and constitutes a minor aspect of the problem of character differentiation.

If, on the one hand, the character armor is the result of the sexual conflict of childhood and the definite way in which this conflict has been managed, it becomes, under the conditions to which character formation is subject in our cultural circles, the basis of later neurotic conflicts and symptom neuroses in the ma­jority of cases; it becomes the reaction basis of the neurotic char­acter. A more detailed discussion of this will follow later. At this point I will limit myself to a brief summary:

A personality whose character structure precludes the estab­lishment of a sex-economic regulation of energy is the precondi­tion of a later neurotic illness. Thus, the basic conditions of fall­ing ill are not the sexual conflict of childhood and the Oedipus complex as such but the way in which they are handled. Since, however, the way these conflicts are handled is largely deter­mined by the nature of the family conflict itself (intensity of the fear of punishment, latitude of instinctual gratification, character of the parents, etc.), the development of the small child’s ego up to and including the Oedipus phase determines, finally, whether a person becomes neurotic or achieves a regulated sexual econ­omy as the basis of social and sexual potency.

The reaction basis of the neurotic character means that it went too far and allowed the ego to become rigid in a way which pre­cluded attainment of a regulated sexual life and sexual experi­ence. The unconscious instinctual forces are thus deprived of any energetic release, and the sexual stasis not only remains permanent but continually increases. Next, we note a steady development of the character reaction formations (e.g., ascetic ideology, etc.) against the sexual demands built up in connection with con­temporary conflicts in important life situations. Thus, a cycle is set up: the stasis is increased and leads to new reaction formations in the very same way as their phobic predecessors. However, the stasis always increases more rapidly than the armoring until, in the end, the reaction formation is no longer adequate to keep the psychic tension in check. It is at this point that the repressed sexual desires break through and are immediately warded off by symptom formations (formation of a phobia or its equivalent).

In this neurotic process, the various defense positions of the ego overlap and interfuse. Thus, in the cross section of the per­sonality, we find side by side character reactions which, in terms of development and time, belong to different periods. In the phase of the final breakdown of the ego, the cross section of the personality resembles a tract of land following a volcanic erup­tion that throws together masses of rocks belonging to various geological strata. However, it is not especially difficult to pick out from this jumble the cardinal meaning and mechanism of all character reactions. Once discerned and understood, they lead directly to the central infantile conflict.

Conditions of Character Differentiation

What conditions, presently recognizable, enable us to under­stand what constitutes the difference between a healthy and a pathological armoring? Our investigation of character formation remains sterile theorizing as long as we do not answer this ques­tion with some degree of concreteness and thereby offer guide­lines in the field of education. In view of the prevailing sexual morality, however, the conclusions which follow from our inves­tigation will put the educator who wants to raise healthy men and women in a very difficult position.

To begin with, it must be stressed once again that the forma­tion of the character depends not merely upon the fact that in­stinct and frustration clash with one another but also upon the way in which this happens; the stage of development during which the character-forming conflicts occur; and which instincts are involved.

To gain a better understanding of the situation, let us attempt to form a schema from the wealth of conditions bearing upon character formation. Such a schema reveals the following funda­mental possibilities. The result of character formation is depend­ent upon:

the phase in which the impulse is frustrated;

the frequency and intensity of the frustrations;

the impulses against which the frustration is chiefly directed;

the correlation between indulgence and frustration;

the sex of the person chiefly responsible for the frustrations;

the contradictions in the frustrations themselves.

All these conditions are determined by the prevailing social order with respect to education, morality, and the gratification of needs; in the final analysis, by the prevailing economic structure of the society.

I he goal of a future prophylaxis of neuroses is the formation of characters which not only give the ego sufficient support

against the inner and outer world but also allow the sexual and social freedom of movement necessary for psychic economy. So, to begin with, we must understand the fundamental conse­quences of every frustration of the gratification of a child’s in­stincts.

Every frustration of the kind entailed by present-day methods of education causes a withdrawal of the libido into the ego and, consequently, a strengthening of secondary narcissism.[1] This in itself constitutes a character transformation of the ego inasmuch as there is an increase in the ego’s sensitiveness, which is ex­pressed as shyness and a heightened sense of anxiety. If, as is usually the case, the person responsible for the frustration is loved, an ambivalent attitude, later an identification, is devel­oped toward that person. In addition to the suppression, the child internalizes certain character traits of this person—as a matter of fact, precisely those traits directed against his own in­stinct. What happens, then, is essentially that the instinct is re­pressed or coped with in some other way.

However, the effect of the frustration on the character is largely dependent upon when the impulse is frustrated. If it is frustrated in its initial stages of development, the repression succeeds only too well. Although the victory is complete, the impulse can be neither sublimated nor consciously gratified. For example, the premature repression of anal eroticism impedes the development of anal sub­limations and prepares the way for severe anal reaction forma­tions. What is more important in terms of the character is the fact that shutting out the impulses from the structure of the personality impairs its activity as a whole. This can be seen, for example, in children whose aggression and motor pleasure were prematurely inhibited; their later capacity for work will consequently be re­duced.

At the height of its development, an impulse cannot be com­pletely repressed. A frustration at this point is much more likely to create an indissoluble conflict between prohibition and impulse. If the fully developed impulse encounters a sudden, unan­ticipated frustration, it lays the groundwork for the development of an impulsive personality.[2] In this case, the child does not fully accept the prohibition. Nonetheless, he develops guilt feelings, which in turn intensify the impulsive actions until they become compulsive impulses. So we find, in impulsive psychopaths, an unformed character structure that is the opposite of the demand for sufficient armoring against the outer and inner world. It is characteristic of the impulsive type that the reaction formation is not employed against the impulses; rather the impulses them­selves (predominantly sadistic impulses) are enlisted as a defense against imaginary situations of danger, as well as the danger arising from the impulses. Since, as a result of the disordered genital structure, the libido economy is in a wretched state, the sexual stasis occasionally increases the anxiety and, with it, the character reactions, often leading to excesses of all kinds.

The opposite of the impulsive is the instinct-inhibited charac­ter. Just as the impulsive type is characterized by the cleavage be­tween fully developed instinct and sudden frustration, the instinct-inhibited type is characterized by an accumulation of frustrations and other instinct-inhibiting educational measures from the beginning to the end of his instinctual development. The character armoring which corresponds to it tends to be rigid, con­siderably constrains the individual’s psychic flexibility, and forms the reaction basis for depressive states and compulsive symptoms (inhibited agression). But it also turns human beings into docile, undiscriminating citizens. Herein lies its sociological significance.

The sex and the character of the person mainly responsible for one’s upbringing are of the greatest importance for the nature of one’s later sexual life.

We shall reduce the very complicated influence exercised by a authoritarian society on the child to the fact that, in a system of education built upon family units, the parents function as the main executors of social influence. Because of the usually uncon­scious sexual attitude of the parents toward their children, it happens that the father has a stronger liking for and is less prone to restrict and educate the daughter, while the mother has a stronger liking for and is less prone to restrict and educate the son. Thus, the sexual relationship determines, in most cases, that the parent of the same sex becomes most responsible for the child’s upbringing. With the qualification that, in the child’s first years of life and among the large majority of the working population, the mother assumes the main responsibility for the child’s upbring­ing, it can be said that identification with the parent of the same sex prevails, i.e., the daughter develops a maternal and the son a paternal ego and superego. But because of the special constella­tion of some families or the character of some parents, there are frequent deviations. We shall mention some of the typical back­grounds of these atypical identifications.

Let us begin by considering the relationships in the case of boys. Under usual circumstances, namely when the boy has de­veloped the simple Oedipus complex, when the mother has a stronger liking for him and frustrates him less than the father does, he will identify with the father and—provided the father has an active and manly nature—will continue to develop in a masculine way. If, on the other hand, the mother has a strict, “mas­culine” personality, if the essential frustrations proceed from her, the boy will identify predominantly with her and, depending upon the erogenic stage in which the main maternal restrictions are imposed upon him, will develop a mother identification on a phallic or anal basis. Given the background of a phallic mother identification, a phallic-narcissistic character usually develops, whose narcissism and sadism are directed chiefly against women (revenge against the strict mother). This attitude is the character defense against the deeply repressed original love of the mother, a love which could not continue to exist beside her frustrating influence and the identification with her, but ended rather in a disappointment. To be more specific: this love was transformed into the character attitude itself, from which, however, it can be released through analysis.

In the mother identification on an anal basis, the character has become passive and feminine—toward women, but not toward men. Such identifications often constitute the basis of a masochistic perversion with the fantasy of a strict woman. This character formation usually serves as a defense against phallic desires which, for a short time, were intensely directed toward the mother in childhood. The fear of castration by the mother lends support to the anal identification with her. Anality is the specific erogenic basis of this character formation.

A passive-feminine character in a male is always based on an identification with the mother. Since the mother is the frus­trating parent in this type, she is also the object of the fear that en­genders this attitude. There is, however, another type of pas­sive-feminine character which is brought about by an excessive strictness on the part of the father. This takes place in the fol­lowing way: fearing the realization of his genital desires, the boy shrinks from the masculine-phallic position to the feminine-anal position, identifies here with his mother, and adopts a passive- feminine attitude toward his father and later toward all persons in authority. Exaggerated politeness and compliance, softness and a tendency toward underhanded conduct are characteristic of this type. He uses his attitude to ward off the active masculine strivings, to ward off, above all, his repressed hatred of the father. Side by side with his de facto feminine-passive nature (mother identification in the ego), he has identified with his father in his ego-ideal (father identification in superego and ego-ideal). However, he is not able to realize this identification because he lacks a phallic position. He will always be feminine and want to be masculine. A severe inferiority complex, the re­sult of this tension between feminine ego and masculine ego- ideal, will always set the stamp of oppression (sometimes of hum­bleness) upon his personality. The severe potency disturbance which is always present in such cases gives the whole situation a rational justification.

If we compare this type with the one who identifies with the mother on a phallic basis, we see that the phallic-narcissistic character successfully wards off an inferiority complex which be­trays itself only to the eye of the expert. The inferiority complex of the passive-feminine character, on the other hand, is transpar­ent. The difference lies in the basic erogenic structure. The phal­lic libido permits a complete compensation of all attitudes which are not in keeping with the masculine ego-ideal, whereas the anal libido, when it holds the central position in the male’s sexual structure, precludes such a compensation.

The reverse is true of a girl: an indulgent father is more likely to contribute to the establishment of a feminine character than a father who is strict or brutal. Large numbers of clinical compari­sons reveal that a girl will usually react to a brutal father with the formation of a hard male character. The ever-present penis envy is activated and is molded into a masculinity complex through character changes of the ego. In this case the hard, mas­culine-aggressive nature serves as an armoring against the infan­tile feminine attitude toward the father which had to be re­pressed because of his coldness and hardness. If, on the other hand, the father is kind and loving, the little girl can retain and, with the exception of the sensuous components, even develop her object-love to a large extent. It is not necessary for her to iden­tify with the father. True, she too will usually have developed penis envy. However, in view of the fact that the frustrations in the heterosexual sphere are relatively weak, the penis envy has no significant effect on the formation of the character. Thus, we see that it is not important whether this or that woman has penis envy. What is important is how it effects the character and whether it produces symptoms. What is decisive for this type is that a maternal identification takes place in the ego; it finds ex­pression in character traits which we call “feminine.”

The preservation of this character structure is dependent upon the condition that vaginal eroticism becomes a permanent part of femininity in puberty. At this age, severe disappointments in the father or father-prototypes can arouse the masculine identifica­tion which did not take place in childhood, activate the dormant penis envy, and, at this late stage, lead to a transformation of the character toward the masculine. We very often observe this in girls who repress their heterosexual desires for moral reasons (identification with the authoritarian, moralistic mother) and thus bring about their own disappointment in men. In the majority of such cases, these otherwise feminine women tend to develop a hysterical nature. There is a continuous genital urge toward the object (coquettishness) and a shrinking back, accom­panied by the development of genital anxiety, when the situation threatens to become serious (hysterical genital anxiety). The hysterical character in a woman functions as protection against her own genital desires and against the masculine aggression of the object. This shall be discussed in greater detail later.

We sometimes meet with a special case in our practice, namely a strict and hard mother who raises a daughter whose character is neither masculine nor feminine but remains childish or reverts to childishness later. Such a mother did not give her child sufficient love. The ambivalent conflict with respect to the mother is considerably stronger on the side of hate, in fear of which the child withdraws to the oral stage of sexual develop­ment. The girl will hate the mother at a genital level, will repress her hatred, and, after having assumed an oral attitude, transform it into reactive love and a crippling dependency upon the mother. Such women develop a peculiarly sticky attitude toward older or married women, become attached to them in a mas­ochistic way, have a tendency to become passively homosexual (cunnilingus in the case of perverse formations), have them­selves looked after by older women, develop but a small interest in men, and, in their whole bearing, exhibit “babyish behavior.” This attitude, like any other character attitude, is an armoring against repressed desires and a defense against stimuli from the outside world. Here the character serves as an oral defense against intense hate tendencies directed against the mother, be­hind which the equally warded-off normal feminine attitude to­ward the male is found only with difficulty.

Until now, we have focused our attention merely upon the fact that the sex of the person mainly responsible for frustrating the child’s sexual desires plays an essential role in the molding of the character. In this connection, we touched upon the adult’s char­acter only insofar as we spoke of “strict” and “mild” influencing. However, the formation of the child’s character is, in another de­cisive respect, dependent upon the natures of the parents, which, in their time, were determined by general and particular social influences. Much of what official psychiatry looks upon as inher­ited (which, incidentally, it cannot account for) turns out, upon sufficiently deep analysis, to be the result of early conflicting identifications.

We do not deny the role played by heredity in determining the modes of reaction. The new-born child has its “character”—that much is clear. It is our contention, however, that the environ­ment exercises the decisive influence and determines whether an existing inclination will be developed and strengthened or will not be allowed to unfold at all. The strongest argument against the view that the character is innate is provided by patients in whom analysis demonstrates that a definite mode of reaction ex­isted until a certain age and then a completely different charac­ter developed. For example, at first they might have been easily excitable and enthusiastic and later depressive; or stubbornly active and then quiet and inhibited. Although it seems quite probable that a certain basic personality is innate and hardly changeable, the overemphasis of the hereditary factor stems un­doubtedly from an unconscious dread of the consequences of a correct appraisal of the influence exercised by education.

This controversy will not be finally settled until an important institute decides to carry out a mass experiment, e.g., isolates some one hundred children of psychopathic parents right after birth, brings them up in a uniform educational environment, and later compares the results with those of a hundred other children who were raised in a psychopathic milieu.

If we once again briefly review the basic character structures sketched above, we see that they all have one thing in common: they are all stimulated by the conflict arising from the child-par­ent relationship. They are an attempt to resolve this conflict in a special way and to perpetuate this resolution. At one time, Freud stated that the Oedipus complex is submerged by the castration anxiety. We can now add that it is indeed submerged but it re­surfaces in a different form. The Oedipus complex is trans­formed into character reactions which, on the one hand, extend its main features in a distorted way and, on the other hand, con­stitute reaction formations against its basic elements.

Summing up, we can also say that the neurotic character, both in its contents and in its form, is made up entirely of compro­mises, just as the symptom is. It contains the infantile instinctual demand and the defense, which belongs to the same or different states of development. The basic infantile conflict continues to exist, transformed into attitudes which emerge in a definite form, as automatic modes of reaction which have become chronic and from which, later, they have to be distilled through analysis.

By virtue of this insight into a phase of human development, we are in a position to answer a question raised by Freud: are repressed elements retained as double entries, as memory traces, or otherwise? We may now cautiously conclude that those elements of infantile experience which are not worked into the character are retained as emotionally charged memory traces; whereas those elements which are absorbed into and made a part of the charac­ter are retained as the contemporary mode of reaction. As ob­scure as this process may be, there can be no doubt about the “functional continuum,” for in analytic therapy we succeed in re­ducing such character formations to their original components. It is not so much a question of again bringing to the surface what has been submerged, as, for example, in the case of hysterical amnesia; rather, the process is comparable to the recovery of an element from a chemical compound. We are also in a better po­sition now to understand why, in some acute cases of character neuroses, we cannot succeed in eliminating the Oedipus conflict when we analyze only the content. The reason is that the Oedi­pus conflict no longer exists in the present but can be arrived at only by the analytic breakdown of the formal modes of reaction.

The following categorization of principal types, based on isola­tion of the specifically pathogenic from specifically reality- oriented psychic dynamisms, is anything but a theoretical pastime. Using these differentiations as our point of departure, we shall attempt to arrive at a theory of psychic economy which could be of practical use in the field of education. Naturally, society must make possible and encourage (or reject) the practical applica­tion of such a theory of psychic economy. Contemporary society, with its sex-negating morality and economic incompetence to guarantee the masses of its members even a bare existence, is as far removed from the recognition of such possibilities as it is from their practical application. This will be immediately clear when, by way of anticipation, we state that the parental tie, the suppression of masturbation in early childhood, the demand for abstinence in puberty, and the forcing of sexual interest into the (today sociologically justified) institution of marriage represent the antithesis of the conditions necessary to establish and carry through a sex-economic psychic economy. The prevailing sexual morality cannot but create the groundwork of neuroses in the character. Sexual and psychic economy is impossible with the morals which are so vehemently defended today. This is one of the inexorable social consequences of the psychoanalytic investi­gation of neuroses.

[1] Footnote, 1945: In the language of orgone biophysics: the continual frustration of primary natural needs leads to chronic contraction of the biosystem (mus­cular armor, sympatheticotonia, etc.) . The conflict between inhibited primary drives and the armor gives rise to secondary, antisocial drives (sadism, etc.); in the process of breaking through the armor, primary biological impulses are transformed into destructive sadistic impulses.

[2] Cf. Reich: Der triebhafte Charakter, Intcmationaler Psvchoanalytischer Verlag, 1925.