Character structure is not easy to see. We generally feel it in a person before we see it. We feel it because that person can be difficult to relate to and seems to be locked into rigid responses that do not serve relating. We feel it because that person is often not able to look inside and take responsibility for their part in a situation. Interacting with them often doesn’t feel good.
Note: this article is going to explore from a position of ‘diagnosis,’ which can be perceived as judgmental by the person being ‘diagnosed.’ Rightly so, for people grapple with their circumstances as best they can. They become who they are as a result of attempting to navigate through circumstances that may have been less than optimal. And diagnosis is judgmental because it objectifies people, instead of honoring their experience. For the sake of clarity, we are putting a person into a box. We are truncating who they are in order to see patterns.
Every human is more than their structure. Structure merely determines what can be expressed in the outer world. It determines where there are supports and where there are limitations. Structure does not speak to the soul. It does not speak to the fact that a person feels pain, love, and joy despite their imperfections. However, we will explore from the diagnostic lens.
In yoga class the other morning, I noticed how our teacher Djuna (Mascall) Devereaux planted her legs and hips with specificity creating a stable base from which she could move her middle and upper body with a high degree of fluidity. Djuna could move her body to a greater degree, and in ways, many of us in her class could not. Her understanding of anatomy and how the structure of the body interacts with freedom of movement gives her a developed body awareness.
She sees into her body and how body structures support its motion. She understands when the structures of her body are engaged and when they are not. She is aware of and engages with the subtle aspects of her self, and her body/mind integrations become alive because of that focused awareness. As a result, there is the light within, and around her, that comes from that practiced and focuses awareness. Areas of the body/mind that may be unconscious or dead to awareness in others are filled with life in her.
In contrast, someone who does not practice yoga may not be able to lift their arm over their head. Or as they lean to one side, they may have to compensate by pushing out their hip, but they are not aware of this. They don’t have an awareness of the workings of their body. They are much more rigid and have much less movement and flow, not just in the body itself, but in their awareness of their body.
Consequently, the different areas of their body are more fused and do not have the differentiation of someone who has developed a greater awareness of their body through the practice of yoga. They don’t realize that their base is unstable or have knowledge of the muscles that are supporting various potential movements.
It is as if they live in a more frozen body that cannot move freely and does not have the life of awareness flowing through it. They cannot see into their bodies, and consequently, do not have much control over nor the ability to move their body in intricate ways. Their bodies are bound and caught in habit patterns.
What is character structure?
According to Wikipedia, “A character structure is a system of secondary traits [of thought, behavior, and emotion] that are manifested in the specific ways that an individual relates and reacts to others, to various kinds of stimuli, and to the environment. A child whose nurture and/or education cause them to have conflict between legitimate feelings, living in an illogical environment and interacting with adults who do not take the long-term interests of the child to heart will be more likely to form these secondary traits. In this manner the child blocks the unwanted emotional reaction that would have normally occurred. Although this may serve the child well while in that dysfunctional environment, it may also cause the child to react in inappropriate ways, by developing alternate ways in which the energy compulsively surfaces, ways damaging to his or her own interests, when interacting with people in a completely independent environment.”
To simplify the above quote, we would say that character is how you perceive, what you do, think, and feel. There is what would be called healthy character structures, meaning your structure helps you relate to others and be in the world in an open and flowing way and then there are what you would call personality disorders, which is more problematic character structure. The problematic character structure leaves the person with limited perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Like the person who does not practice yoga or another body/mind practice, they are more bound up. Their expression is caught and limited. They do not have the light of self-awareness infused into their being. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Anti-Social Personality Disorder are some of the more commonly known diagnosable character structures.
Character structure or patterns develop in childhood as a way to protect oneself from negative experiences. The behaviors stemming from more restrictive character structures generally negatively affect that person’s adult life and are challenging for others to interact with. The patterns that manifest cause relational difficulties and play a role in blocking that person from contact with their more authentic self. The character structure is like a restrictive habit set that locks that person into ways of perceiving and behaving, much like the bodily limitations of someone with a rigid body.
If you were to see character structure disorders as an image or bodily metaphor, you would see someone who hobbled along, with little freedom of movement always responding the same way to specific situations, rather than having the ability to choose their response and move freely, as a dancer would.
Here is an example of a person with a specific character structure describing their experience:
“I don’t know why people criticize me. It is so unfair and unkind. I’ve been a great mother, and I’m a great wife. I really am not treated right. I am a good person. Why are some people so mean to me? Ungrateful. They think they know everything. Well, I’ll let them know they don’t know anything. I am somebody — even though people don’t see it. I am somebody.”
Insight and mindsight
You will notice that there is no insight present. Or further, there is no capacity for Mindsight. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, “Mindsight is the way we can focus attention on the nature of the internal world. It’s how we focus our awareness on ourselves, so our own thoughts and feelings, and it’s how we’re able to actually focus on the internal world of someone else. So at a very minimum, it’s how we have insight into ourselves, and empathy for others. But Mindsight is more than just an understanding, Mindsight gives us the tools to monitor the internal world with more clarity and depth, and also to modify that internal world with more power and strength. So in all these ways, Mindsight is a construct that’s a bit larger than insight. It’s even larger than mindfulness because it’s really not just about being present moment to moment, but it’s about being present so you monitor what’s going on, but then modify what’s happening.”
The dialogue you read above is of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder describing their experience. That person is not saying, “I wonder why I get stuck in these patterns? Am I doing something that causes me to always feel criticized? What is the other person feeling that they are acting this way? Why do they feel as if I wasn’t there for them?” The lack of insight and Mindsight, as well as the desire to look in or be accountable for their part of a relational issue, is a dead give-away that there could be a characterological pattern present that no longer serves that person. Without that ability, how can a person begin to modify their relationship to themselves, to the world, to others?
Someone with this character structure feels they are special, and they often feel unappreciated for their perceived sense of specialness. There is an extreme sensitivity to even mild negative feedback. This is not about having a well-developed ego, for underneath this facade is a fragile sense of self-worth.
Regardless of what happened to this person as a child that caused them to develop in this way, as an adult, their reactions will cause difficulties in their relationships. Especially in close relationships like with a husband or child. Because there is no fluidity in how they identify themselves, there is only one response when someone sets a boundary with them or does not cater to them or treat them as they wish to be treated. They feel unseen and picked on. They get angry and self-righteous. They attack. They feel as if they are the victim.
They simply cannot take in the other’s point of view or needs and do not see how they may have injured another. They only experience their disappointment. A real discussion is not possible of this. There is a monolithic and undifferentiated quality to their beingness. This is a very painful position to be in.
Relating to a person with structural issues
It can be very confusing, frustrating, and painful for people trying to relate to the person with a character structure issue, or worse yet, being raised by a person with a character structure issue. Without a deep understanding of this person’s limitations, the most likely reactions from the other person are to either acquiesce to or distance themselves from that person.
The lack of insight a person with a character disorder has is not their fault. It is like a fish in the water. They cannot see what they live in. They are trapped in their structure, their lack of fluidity, and their lack of differentiation. They are trapped in their perceptions and reactions. There is no ability to live in a more expansive place.
So what do we do in the face of relating to someone like this? In my case, I may set a boundary with their behavior. I try to do so kindly. But I cannot take responsibility for their difficulty with my limits. I cannot help them see, for they are unwilling and seemingly unable. The structures that are in place keep them blind.
Long ago, they locked up painful feelings and found a way of coping that in a sense, keeps them in a cement straight jacket. I feel bad for a person caught like this. But people who must interact with a person who has these limitations, learn to find their own truth. They must if they are to develop their sense of healthy self-esteem. They cannot allow their value to rely on or be defined by someone who cannot see them.
What happens to a person who has been raised by someone with a character structure disorder? As children, we are shaped by those who raise us. We may be like the footprint to the foot. Who have we become as a result of being raised by someone with insufficient empathy for us, and limited capacity to see our needs (because their needs are put first)? We may conform to their needs, or maybe rebel. But we act in reaction to, not separate from. This relationship impacts our own structure. It causes us to restrict parts of ourselves. We may suffer from trauma or low self-esteem. Our experience with this person affects our life path. It may put us on a journey of self-reclamation and repair.
A journey of self-reclamation
That is the good that can come out of these disappointing relationships. We learn that we can access our intuition and begin to trust our internal voice. We let the other’s rule over us fall away, especially those we cannot please without twisting ourselves into an unhealthy knot. We choose to look inside and bring light and awareness to our own structure — whether physical or emotional and spiritual. And in the process, we can change our structure from one that has learned to conform to and be limited by the unhealthy needs of the other, to a structure that honors our own needs and desire for freedom and mobility.
While for non-character disordered people some of the more process and awareness-oriented therapies like gestalt therapy and depth type therapies such as art therapy, are effective to help us get below the mind; whether through contact with aspects of ourselves that emerge in images or through new awareness of patterns that arise in our mind-body connection. The focus is often on process rather than content. If we limit ourselves to talking about the content of what is, what we are conscious of, we may not allow ourselves to become more aware of deeper structures that are informing our lives. It is helpful to have a teacher or therapist to help us track, focus, and notice, to help us expand our awareness process.
With a characterological disorder, expanding consciousness is trickier. While art therapy may help “patients to develop adaptive, positive modes that indicate better mental health and self-regulation,” Masterson (2004) suggests “a three-step process to interrupt narcissistic defenses and bring to the surface the patient’s underlying painful affect.
1. Identify and acknowledge the patient’s painful affect with empathy and understanding.
2. Emphasize the impact on the patient’s self to indicate understanding of his or her experience.
3. Identify and explain the defense or resistance, which can be tied to step 1, by observing how it protects, calms, and soothes the patient from experiencing the painful affect. Care must be taken to avoid a narcissistic injury.”
The treatment is careful because narcissistic injury occurs easily. Empathy is coupled with the need to help the patient understand the relationship between the defense (behavior) and protection from pain (affect or feeling).
The more we understand about ourselves and others, the more we bring the light of awareness into our bodies and psyches, the better we can create a life of fluidity and aliveness. Ultimately the freedom of our bodies and psyches and the quality of our relationships to ourselves and others is our reward for the patient work of looking within and developing greater awareness and insight.
Character structure. (2018, December 5). Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_structure.
Siegel, D. (2017, September 15). What is Mindsight? An Interview with Dr. Dan Siegel. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-mindsight-an-interview-with-dr-dan-siegel/.
Mcdowell, A. (n.d.). Character Types & Quiz. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from http://alicemcdowellauthor.com/character-types/.
Haeyen, S., van Hooren, S., van der Veld, W., & Hutschemaekers, G. (2018, August). Efficacy of Art Therapy in Individuals With Personality Disorders Cluster B/C: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28926306.
Lancer, D. (2019, May 15). Individual and Marital Therapy with Narcissists. Retrieved September 28, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201905/individual-and-marital-therapy-narcissists
Originally published in Invisible Illness on September 29, 2019. https://medium.com/invisible-illness/yoga-as-a-lens-into-character-structure-7b8f6c35a467