Character Formation

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Character is a psychological notion that refers to all the habitual ways of feeling and reacting that distinguish one individual from another. Sigmund Freud had a sustained interest in the question of character formation, since it touches on the major themes that interested him: "anatomo-physiological destiny," memory traces, and, more generally, the role of acquired traits, as well as the function of sublimation with regard to the "remains" of the pregenital libido.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud defined character in relationship to the unconscious: "What we describe as our 'character' is based on the memory-traces of our impressions; and, moreover, the impressions which have had the greatest effect on usthose of our earliest youthare precisely the ones which scarcely ever become conscious" (pp. 539-540). This definition posits character as a sort of memory, a collection of traces. Five years later, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud emphasized individual psychic activity: "What we describe as a person's 'character' is built up to a considerable extent from the material of sexual excitations and is composed of instincts that have been fixed since childhood, or constructions achieved by means of sublimation, and of other constructions, employed for effectively holding in check perverse impulses which have been recognized as being unutilizable" (pp. 238-239).

In 1920, in an addendum to the Three Essays that reiterates material presented in the article "Character and Anal Erotism" (1908b), Freud summarized, "Obstinacy, thrift and orderliness arise from an exploitation of anal erotism, while ambition is determined by a strong urethral-erotic component" (p. 239, n. 1). Character derives from instincts, but not directly, since reaction formations and sublimations intervene. Thus, as Freud noted in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b), "The pre-existence of strong 'bad' impulses in infancy is often the actual condition for an unmistakable inclination towards 'good' in the adult" (p. 282).

With the development of the notion of identification, that of character took on additional dimensions. Character formation was understood to be based on the mechanism of identification, that is, unconsciously identifying with character traits derived from objects. According to Freud in The Ego and the Id (1923b), when a lost object is reestablished in the ego, thus allowing an identification to replace object cathexis, this "makes an essential contribution towards building up what is called its 'character' " (p. 28).

The notion of character thus evolved in Freud's work. The importance Freud attributed to it can be seen in his remarks in "Freud's Psycho-Analytic Procedure" (1904a), where he wrote, "Deep-rooted malformations of character, traits of an actually degenerate constitution, show themselves during treatment as sources of a resistance that can scarcely be overcome" (p. 254). However, determining character traits is not easy. In "Some Character-types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work" (1916d), Freud noted that it is not the character traits that patients see in themselves, nor those attributed to patients by persons close to them, that pose the greatest problem for analysts; rather it is the previously unknown and surprising peculiarities often revealed in the course of analysis. Freud analyzed some of the character types revealed through analysis, including those of subjects who claim for themselves the right to perpetrate injustice because they believe they have been subjected to it themselves, subjects "wrecked by success" (pp. 316 ff), and finally, taking a perspective that changed criminology, "criminals from a sense of guilt" (pp. 332 ff).

Karl Abraham (1925/1953-1955) returned to the specific issue of the anal character. A broader, more central notion of character can be found in the work of Wilhelm Reich (1933/1945). The idea of character analysis, and especially that of "character armor," are linked to his theories of a biological energy that he later named "orgone energy." Subsequently, these theories became a separate discipline from psychoanalysis, "bioenergy." Citing the work of Edward Glover and Franz Alexander (who contrasted character neurosis and symptomatic neurosis), Reich reconsidered the known character types (hysterical, obsessional, masochistic, etc.) under the presupposition that the primordial function of any character type is to defend against stimulations from the external world and against repressed internal instincts. The character analysis he developed consists in isolating in the patient the character trait that is the source of greatest resistance and thus rendering it analyzable. His general idea is that the ego forms a character trait by taking over a repressed instinct to use as a defense against another instinct. Thus, character is essentially a mechanism of narcissistic protectionhence the term "character armor."

After Reich, character became far more important among psychoanalysts whose work focuses on the ego. In the United States many studies have been published on this topic, notably Heinz Hartmann's Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation (1939/1958).

Sophie De Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Character.


Abraham, Karl. (1953-1955). Contribution of the theory of the anal character. In Selected papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1925)

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1904a). Freud's psycho-analytic procedure. SE, 7: 249.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1908b). Character and anal erotism. SE, 9: 167-175.

. (1915d). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

. (1916d). Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work. SE, 14: 309-333.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

Hartmann, Heinz. (1958). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1939)

Reich, Wilhelm. (1945). Character-analysis: principles and technique for psychoanalysts in practice and in training (Theodore P. Wolfe, Trans.). New York: Orgone Institute Press. (Original work published 1933)

Further Reading

Lewin, Betram. (ed.) (1966). On Character and Libido Development. Six Essays by Karl Abraham, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.Arlow. Jacob A. (1990). Psychoanalysis and character development. Psychoanalytic Review, 77, 1-10