The dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is, at bottom, the fear of the journey to Hades. Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Defense mechanisms, like the propaganda apparatus of a modern state, function best when they sensor awareness of the actual (ambiguous) situation of the self. They foster comforting illusions and keep unpleasant realities out of consciousness.
Repression is the exclusion of a painful idea and its associated feeling from consciousness.
Isolation is the splitting off of appropriate feelings from ideas.
Reaction is replacing an unacceptable drive with its opposite.
Displacement is the directing of an unacceptable wish away from its original to a less threatening object.
Projection is attributing an unacceptable impulse to somebody else.
Denial is remaining unaware of a painful reality.
Rationalism is using reasons to disguise one’s own unconscious motives.
According to Wilhelm Reich, not only the mind, but also the body is formed by living in the ambiance of threat and violence. When we perceive danger, the body immediately prepares itself for fight or flight, glands and muscles switch to emergency status. Adrenaline courses through our system, the heart rate increases, and we assume a “red alert” stance. In the natural course of things, a threat arises and recedes, the lion approaches and retreats or is killed. But a culture that is at war or constantly preparing for a possible war conspires to create the perception, especially among its male citizens, that the threat from the enemy is always present, and therefore we can never let down our guard. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” So men, the designated warriors, gradually form “character armor”, a pattern of muscular tension and rigidity that freezes them into the posture that is appropriate only for fighting—shoulders back, chest out, stomach pulled in, anal sphincter tight, balls drawn up into the body as far as possible, eyes, narrowed, breathing foreshortened and anxious, heart rate accelerated, testosterone in full flow. The warrior’s body is perpetually uptight and ready to fight.
Reich proposed his orgone theory: that of the “life force” or energy that is the primary component of all matter and space. “primordial cosmic energy; universally present & demonstrable visually, thermically, electroscopically, and by means of Geiger-Mueller counters, in the living organism”.
He stated “Armoring is the condition that results when energy is bound by muscular contraction and does not flow through the body”(Reich:1936) . He saw that there existed character armouring which he defined as “the sum total of typical character attitudes, which an individual develops as a blocking against their emotional excitations, resulting in rigidity in the body, and lack of emotional contact ”. He defined muscular armouring as “the sum total of muscular(chronic muscular spasms) which an individual develops as a block against the breakthrough of emotions and organ sensations, particularly anxiety, rage and sexual excitation” (Reich:1936).
The overall effect of muscular armouring with character armouring created the individual. Alexander Lowen, who was an associate of Reich, best summed up this overall effect as “The character of the individual as it is manifested in his typical pattern of behaviour is also portrayed on the somatic level by the form and movement of the body. The body expression is the somatic view of the typical emotional expression which is seen on the psychic level as character. Defences show up in both dimensions, in the body as muscular armoring. ” (Lowen:1976).
- Character Analysis, Reich Wilhelm, 1975, 5th enlarged edition, New York, Farrar Publishing.
- Bioenergetics, Lowen Alexander, 1976, Penguin books, New York.
- Language of the Body, Lowen Alexander, 1971, MacMillan, New York.
Reich decided the patients’ body language could be more revealing than their words. He observed their tone of voice and the way they moved and concluded that people form a kind of ARMOUR to protect themselves, not only from the blows of the outside world, but also from their own desires and instincts. Most of us desire something, and immediately set out to find ways NOT to get it! Reich saw this process working in the body. Over the years a person builds up this character armour through bodily habits and patterns of physical behaviour. This being in the days before Kevlar, the armour was presented as a series of corsetry designs in canvas and whalebone, which included a shoulder-straightener for men. Reich called this work Character Analysis.
Perceptual defence by Guy Clayton
The phenomenon of perceptual defense has been known to psychologists since the 1940s. In the classic version of studies, a subject is repeatedly flashed a word very briefly, and the exposure duration is gradually increased until she able to identify the word correctly. Some of the words used are neutral, while others are vulgar or or disturbing in some way. The charged words do not become consciously visible to the subjects until they are exposed to considerably longer duration than the neutral words. If recognition and consciousness are the same thing, this result is simply incomprehensible. How could one selectively raise the perceptual threshold for things that have not yet been recognised? Unconscious perception provides the only explanation: the taboo word is recognised unconsciously, and the upper, conscious threshold is immediately raised in order to try to protect consciousness from the threat or emotional discomfort that the word has generated. Jerome Bruner, one of the investigators of research on unconscious perception back in the late 1940s, used to use the analogy of the ‘Judas eye’, the peephole used by the doorkeeper at a ‘speakeasy’ to distinguish between bona fide members, for whom the door opens, and undesirables, such as the police, who are shut out. Without the Judas eye, one could only tell friend from foe by opening the door — and then it was too late.