The Psychopathic Structure
by Kat Anam Langer & Prema McKeever
When a child feels deeply betrayed in their trust, usually by their primary caregivers or also by a sibling or teacher, they may develop what Wilhelm Reich refers to as the “Psychopathic Structure”, also known as the “aggressive” or “controlling” pattern. This structure usually starts to develop between the ages of 2-4 years old. During this time small children want to start playing away from their parent – but still in visual range – while also feeling seen and validated. It’s common for children to ask for feedback on their new skills and learnings – ‘Did you see how high I jumped?’ – and attention and acknowledgement of the child’s experience by the parents is crucial. In this stage children are half-way between starting to do new things and still needing help/assistance in having things done for them (tying shoes, getting dressed, getting something to drink, reading a book, etc). They are becoming more aware of the outside world and excited by things around them. Their sense of self and self-esteem arises from following their impulses and taking action.
What can go wrong is that, instead of the child’s curiosity, play and impulses being supported they can be denied or manipulated. The important adults don’t join in with them, – perhaps they are tired or emotionally preoccupied. Perhaps the child was often pushed or encouraged to be independent before they were actually ready. They may have experienced shaming or belittling if they needed help. This can lead to the unconscious belief that they won’t really get what they ask for, but will be manipulated or betrayed instead. Or there can be a denial of the child’s true feelings or reality – a child expresses feelings and are met with a variation of “You don’t really mean that, dear’; ‘Of course you’re not sad, nothing to be upset about’; ‘There’s mommy’s brave boy”… All these sorts of interactions are actually profoundly out of contact with the child ‘s true experience.
These kind of reactions hurt the heart. They also can prevent a child from learning about the authentic emotional needs of others and feeling empathy. Ultimately, the child may give up on any expectation that authentic emotional connection with other people is possible. From an Attachment Theory perspective this type carries several of the characteristics of the avoidant attachment style.
Their wound of feeling betrayed or alone in a moment of need leads them to believe that the world is a hostile place in which only the strongest and fittest survive. As a result, they learn early to turn inward towards their own resources, strength and willpower for lack of love and support from the outside world. Since they fear vulnerability and have no faith in love, they often become loners and resolve to not needing anyone or anything outside of themselves for fear of losing control to others again. These types often develop a compelling set of survival strategies, making them powerful leaders at best and tyrannical rulers at worst.
When speaking of the “Psychopathic Structure”, as with all other character structures, it is important to remember that the widely used pathology-based terms for these patterns cannot be directly associated with the psychological pathologies, e.g. of psychopathy or schizophrenia. Meaning that if somebody shows signs of a psychopathic pattern it does not automatically make them a psychopath in the clinical sense. Within all patterns there is a vast range of healthy and unhealthy expressions and behaviours that a person may adopt and, with time, also learn to grow out of and heal. In turn though, a pathological psychopath, sociopath or narcissist will likely carry the childhood wounding of the psychopathic structure.
The gifts of this pattern come from turning their focus and energy inwards, from where they reference themselves, allowing them to develop a strong sense of self and who they are. Their capacity to gather, channel and use energy at their will towards goals, projects, people and challenges can make them strong manifestors and, at best, Masters of Energy who radiate their aliveness, intensity, engagement and awareness to the world. They can become strong, independent and willful individuals with sound decision-making and survival skills thanks to their self-referencing abilities.
When stuck in the psychopathic pattern, a person remains consumed in their attempts to protect their vulnerability, turning their fear of hurt and betrayal into defence and towards controlling others so they cannot be controlled themselves. This may show through sophisticated manipulation tactics and, in fact, this type is often highly intelligent and eloquent, or through mental or physical aggression or violence towards others. They fear loss of power and are unable to let others be in theirs, leading to dominating, controlling behaviours. They lack empathy and an ability to feel others for their strong inward focus whereby they reference only themselves. To those around them they may appear needless and cold-hearted as they cannot allow themselves to be seen as weak or dependent on others. Contrary to the other types, the psychopathic type is connected with their anger and they are comfortable expressing it, usually towards getting what they want or to dominate others.
Physically, this type develops a strong armoring in the upper body, around the chest and shoulders, in an attempt to protect their vulnerable hearts. In relation to their strong, over-developed upper body, the lower parts of their body remain smaller and less developed, resulting in a V-shape of the body with broad, strong shoulders and narrow hips and thin legs. Energetically, they appear ungrounded due to the disproportion of their upper and lower body parts and inflated at the level of the chest and neck/head area. Their eyes are often compelling, with an intense gaze that exerts power and control which can easily be felt by others. Their bodies tend to be athletic and strong but are prone to injuries due to their tendency for pushing themselves too hard and ignoring their body’s limits and needs. This type tends to be disconnected from feelings, also towards their own feeling states.
The key to healing unhealthy psychopathic patterns lies in rebuilding this type’s trust and connection with others. They have learnt to rely on only themselves for safety so it is important for them to experience emotional, psychological or physical support in difficult situations when they would normally shut others out. Sadly, this type will often not be able to heal or transform their patterns due to their deep fear of showing their vulnerability and losing their power. They tend to be resistant to therapy and will rarely seek support unless their defenses are fundamentally broken. Even in such a case, they would tend to use therapy to re-build their original strength and armor, followed by a quick exit.
Breathwork in particular can be a very powerful modality for this type as it gives them an opportunity to safely relax into the care of a space holder while surpassing their usual conscious defences. This experience reprograms their original trauma, sending signals to the nervous system that it is safe to be weak and vulnerable in the presence of others. When working with this type it is important to help them sense their buried sadness, grief and abandonment, with a focus on de-armoring the upper body and to encourage the energy flow downwards towards the under-charged belly, pelvis and legs. The therapist needs to be prepared to be tested as this power-conscious type will only respect someone based on competency rather than pure authority. Over time, this type has convinced themselves that they are invulnerable and that nothing and no-one can hurt them. Having an experience of opening the heart again and allowing them to feel vulnerable in a safe space can be incredibly transformative and healing for this type – or, conversely, lead to them having to re-build their armor, throwing them back into their patterns. First and foremost it is important to communicate openly and truthfully with this type as their strong referencing abilities make them very sensitive towards lies and inauthenticity. Being able to trust what they hear automatically allows them to relax and become more open towards the person they are dealing with. At the deepest level, this type believes that they are bad humans and completely unlovable. Showing them that they are lovable and bringing them in touch with their gifts, such as directing their power towards good causes, will also help them transform and move towards healthy expression of their pattern.
If you are a therapist and you are interested in learning how to work with the Reichian character structures, please see details of our upcoming Special Skills Workshop in May 2019 in Poland.