Character Neurosis

views updated


The term "character neurosis" did not originate with Freud. It grew out of difficulties in treating character pathologies, distinguished by the great resistance that character opposes to analysis. And its use spread in the wake of Wilhelm Reich's work on character analysis beginning in 1928. Sigmund Freud, in lecture 34 of his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]), underscored the often extremely long duration required by character analysis, but, he assured readers, "it is often successful" (p. 156).

It was undoubtedly a lack of success with such cases that led Reich to his conception of "character armor." At the time he was working at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Clinic with impulsive psychopaths. The problems raised by their treatment, he said, required a sharp focus on the structure of the impulsive ego.

The difficulties of regression in the transference, the inaccessibility of character fixations to analysis, and the difficulty of investing the analyst except in an idealizing mode (a defense against any erotic or aggressive investment) form the basis for the analysis of character pathologies. In his Vienna seminars between 1922 and 1926, Reich noted that the obstacle to a cure is found in the patient's whole character. He advocated a rigorous analysis of the character defenses, layer by layer, before any deep interpretation.

Hermann Nunberg (1956), denouncing what he saw as the artificial separation of the analysis of resistance and the analysis of deep contents, had serious disagreements with Reich with regard to the techniques to be implemented. In "Le traitement psychanalytique du caractère" (1928/1982), Sándor Ferenczi argued that the analyst has to reveal how character traits are unconsciously used to resist analysis and has to link them to the corresponding forgotten childhood experiences, in particular, experiences of seduction by an adult, for analysis to progress. This is in keeping with what he called analytic pedagogy, which makes use of his active technique. Following Ferenczi, Michael Balint (1932/1952) emphasized the effects of the fear of excitation, and indeed of pleasure itself, often the result of hyperstimulation of the child by an adult.

Later Otto Kernberg, in "A psychoanalytic classification of character pathology" (1970), sought to establish a form of classification based on the increasing severity of pathological manifestations by integrating the various nosographic and metapsychological data (agencies, part instincts). This terminology is reminiscent of Pierre Marty's 1980 classification of neuroses as well, poorly, or irregularly mentalized, or even as behavioral neuroses. According to Marty, the same metapsychological elements are paramount: deficiencies in mentalization correspond to deficiencies in object internalization and to acting out, which give rise to behavior disorders. René Diatkine (1966) emphasized the suffering of persons close to the patient; in his view, the ego-syntony of character protects the subject from anxiety. Henri Sauguet (1966) established a gradation between neurotic character (close to the symptomatic neuroses) and character neurosis (close to borderline states or even psychosis).

Despite the importance of, and the number of authors who have taken an interest in, character neurosis, in France this notion is obsolescent because the general focus has shifted toward problems of symbol formation and identity construction. The term nevertheless retains some currency among psychosomatically oriented analysts, particularly in France. One area being researched concerns the connections among the structure of the superego, the presence of the ideal ego (in Marty's sense), and the quality of mentalization. In "Névrose de caractère et mentalisation" (Character neurosis and mentalization; 1997) Michael Fain emphasized how character defenses play a protective role: "The disappearance of character traits more often attests to a dementalization taking place in an essential depression than to the resolution of a neurotic process."

Robert AssÉo

See also: Character.


Balint, Michael. (1952). Character analysis and new Beginning. In his Primary love and psychoanalytic technique. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1932)

Diatkine, René, (1966). Intervention au 7e séminaire de perfectionnement. Revue française de psychanalyse, 30 (3), pp. 324-344.

Fain, Michel. (1997). Névrose de caractère et mentalisation. Revue française de psychosomatique, 11, 7-17.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1982). Le traitement psychanalytique du caractère. In his Œuvres complètes. Vol. 4: Psychanalyse, 1927-1932. Paris: Payot. (Originally published 1928.)

Freud, Sigmund. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Kernberg, Otto F. (1970). A psychoanalytic classification of character pathology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 18 (4), 800-822.

Marty, Pierre. (1980). Les mouvements individuels de vie et de mort (Vol. 2: L 'ordre psychosomatique ). Paris: Payot.

Nunberg, Hermann. (1956). Character and neurosis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37 (1), 36-45.

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.)

Sauguet, Henri. (1966). Caractère et nevrose. Revue française de psychanalyse, 30 (3), 298-307.

Further Reading

Kernberg, Otto F. (1970). A psychoanalytic classification of character pathology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 18, 800-822.

Nunberg, Henry. (1956). Character and neurosis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 37, 36-45.