By Nina Koren, PhD
Graz, 23.5. 2020
The virus is a tiny and relatively simple organism. Yet it impacts our lives in a way that is very new to many of us, particularly in the Western and Northern parts of the world: We are concerned that our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, might be at risk, as modern medicine does not yet have much to offer us as treatment. In some parts of the so-called developed world, hospital staff had to leave some patients untreated in the context of overwhelming numbers of people needing urgent medical attention.
In some parts of the developed world, some doctors and nurses have died from working without the necessary protective gear, which has often been lacking. We wonder whether our economies might break down, resulting in our losing comforts we are used to. Our governments are taking measures which only a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable – freedoms we took for granted have been drastically curtailed from one day to the next. At the same time, many questions regarding the virus itself remain unanswered.
For many countries in the less privileged parts of the world, such levels of uncertainty have been the norm for decades, without this bothering the rest of the world enough to offer the type of support which could have facilitated change.
Those of us who were born after World War 2, in geographical areas of prosperity and higher sociopolitical safety, the current intensity of uncertainty is new and unexpected. This situation is not how we grew up. We now realise that the belief we grew up with, that we are in control of our lives, was an illusion – an illusion which is now crumbling. Ideally, this will help us face reality more clearly and understand where change is needed.
This window of uncertainty offers us a blank screen: Can we tolerate the not-knowing? Do we have to fill the empty space? In many cases, the “filling” consists of beautiful solidarity, compassion, and creativity in handling a new situation.
For each of us, this uncertainty triggers fears – and we project our defenses against the anxiety, as well as our thought patterns and beliefs onto the blank screen. Each of us projects our own movie onto the screen, and the story we then see in front of our eyes is often far from being akin to a charming romance.
So how might our characterologies play out in the context of the pandemic? This was an intriguing question raised by my colleague Roi Stark Narunsky in an online forum dedicated to the subject. Characterology is a concept developed in body-oriented psychotherapy; it explores and describes how our early wounding creates “survival strategies”: patterns of thinking and acting, which help us cope with painful feelings in our childhood. These patterns are not seen as characters, which define who we are. They are instead understood as being a complex road map to help us observe and discern our automatic reactions to life challenges and to find ways to heal the pain. They are intended to help us discover what lies beneath our defense strategies as well as, our authentic and spontaneous core responses.
Alexander Lowen, an early student of Wilhelm Reich, defined five major character styles. In this article I relate them to some of our possible reactions to the corona-crisis. This is intended as a short overview, which might be followed by a more detailed description in a later text. The name of the five structures are Freudian terms used by Lowen from 1947 on. Their meaning has evolved over time; I give an overview description in each sub-chapter.
For those who look at life through the lens of the schizoid character defense structure, imposed measures such as, self-isolation and a home-office might, at first glance, be experienced as a dream come true: Avoiding contact with others, which is a significant pattern of this defense, finally is not only officially accepted, but it has even become a recommended priority. Introverts enjoy the isolation.
At the same time, it is essential not to forget that the defense is only a way not to feel the fear underneath: In the person using the schizoid defense it is experienced as existential terror, a feeling which is very difficult to tolerate. To avoid the terror, we might engage in bypassing of all sorts: Some of us question the existence of the virus at all. Some put all the attention on positive visions, stating that this virus will bring about a wholly transformed and loving world – which would be wonderful. Some share posts with Bill Gates’ visionary view of a sustainable new world.
Clear goals and dreams help us navigate through a crisis; yet they might become a schizoid defense if they keep us from facing – and ultimately resolving – difficulties arising in the now.
The corona-crisis certainly is no comfort for those of us who dare to feel the terror triggered in them. Often, they hardly leave the house anymore, even in countries with less severe lock down measures; and they certainly are the last ones looking forward to re-opening social and economic life.
The learning task here is: finding safety even in a world of possible threat – finding clear discernment. Learning to connect – with others, but also with the planet – the earth suffers from our lack of connectedness.
Yes, the story of the toilet-paper and empty shelves in supermarkets … Let’s admit it: Most of us went to buy larger quantities of nearly everything: sanitary equipment, pasta, rice or chocolate. The announcement of the lock down made visible one of the major fears in all parts of this globe – the fear of deprivation, of not having enough, of starvation.
And it’s great that these fears came to the surface so clearly: Ultimately, it is this human belief in not having enough and needing more which our planet suffers from most. We consume many times more than the earth has to give. We have lived with a pandemic of greed for many years now. So maybe each piece of toilet paper 🙂 can become a reminder of our learning task: Instead of filling up feelings of emptiness with consumerism, we need to learn to nurture ourselves in ways which are healthy for ourselves and our surroundings.
At the same time, the onset of a potential global economic crisis will challenge us even more profoundly to face our fears of not having enough. Sometimes, they might appear in the disguise of downplaying the virus’s risks or justifying higher death tolls as a means to secure our economic base. How about we try to do both: Allow ourselves to feel the fear – and then, from a place of being real with ourselves, check out solutions which take into account a caring approach for all, which does not play out health against money, or the economy against those who wish for more protection?
In any case, standing together will be what our societies need in the years to come. And this might be a beautiful healing response for many, not only to the person using the oral defense.
What might be more threatening to our masochist defense than the idea of an unseen ‘something’ invading our bodies and taking control? And then, also, witnessing that state authorities limit our freedom to go out and to make our own decisions? Whoever carries these fears inside, is having a tough time these days. While our friends with oral defenses might spend hours talking and chatting extensively on zoom and social media to distract themselves from their feelings, people with the masochistic defense tend to retreat deep inside themselves. I have friends who use this defense who haven’t contacted me a single time since the onset of the pandemic – and who have to overcome considerable inner resistance to even reply to my tender attempts for contact.
At the same time, the current situation might also seem like a dream come true for those using this defense: Finally, the government itself tells every person to keep a minimum distance to others – which fulfills the need to have their own space respected. In Austria, the authorities, with some sense of humor, recommend to keep a distance of the size of a baby elephant; for my friends who use the masochistic defense, it could even be a full-grown elephant bull.
Respecting other people’s space, respecting other species’ space – this might be our collective learning task in terms of this pattern of defense.
A crisis calls for strong leaders – and those of us who carry aspects of the psychopathic defense within have felt very activated during these times: We were the first to offer webinars on how to strengthen our immune systems and how to survive a virus attack; many of us got engaged in helping to buy and produce masks or gloves for medical staff. And many have now become warriors who want to find the truth. Often, they come from an authentic wish to help save lives or save the economy; they fight against state attempts to abuse the virus crisis by limiting civil rights permanently. Critical voices, which question the decisions taken, are particularly needed in times when we lack approved routines to handle a pandemic and have to accept extra-ordinary measures.
In the more defended expressions, these warriors engage in fights to prove that their idea of truth is the one and only truth – they don’t leave much space for the possibility that we might need months or years to understand and evaluate this virus and the crisis. We might also find the idea of the survival of the fittest in this thinking pattern, and some might engage in the battle of their life in fighting against what they perceive to be dark and evil forces which seek to take control. Here, again, Bill Gates appears in the posts on social media – but this time as the villain.
We all are called to step into our leadership these days – a leadership, which is not directed against others, but is rooted in trust and shared care for each other and our living conditions. We all are called to become leaders for a healthy and kinder world.
For this character style also, this crisis offers many possibilities to express oneself: We can wear our masks perfectly and precisely as recommended by virologists. We can hold our distance from others perfectly – and get irritated about the schizoids, who, in their occasional absent-mindedness, bump into others. In the more intense forms of the defense, disinfection of hands, door handles, tables, and shopping carts might reach perfection, even obsessive levels, particularly when the rigidity covers a schizoid underlay with existential terror and fear of germs.
So what might look comforting to those who carry much rigidity, also reinforces deep-rooted patterns of having to function in a certain way to feel safe.
They will retreat into isolation even more – while following their true and hardly acceptable need to let go of control would lead to space for vulnerability.
This brings us back to the starting point of this article – living in uncertainty feels vulnerable to us all. While we find many ways to compensate, it is our vulnerability which helps us to connect with each other. We harbor tender feelings and sweet longings; our bodies and immune systems are as vulnerable to disturbances as is the ecosystem we live in. May this crisis let us become soft and help us remember that we belong – to this planet and each other.
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