Deficit and Conflicts

Psychotherapy is about overcoming inabilities–and there are two main ways to approach these inabilities, as the result of deficits or as the result of conflicts. From the deficit point of view, the ability to proceed in life in a certain manner never developed, and encouragement is appropriate from the therapist. From a conflict point of view, ¬†desire or fear interferes with straightforward living, and judicious exposure and confrontation ¬†is appropriate from the therapist. Moreover, encouragement (and its cousin reassurance) could be detrimental because it parcels out the conflict between therapist and client instead of ‘forcing’ the client to handle both sides of it.

Deficits can be handled gently and non-confrontationally. In fact in this regard it is said it is better to “work with the client than with the client’s defenses.” Conflicts, on the other hand, do not succumb to half measures. Defenses must be aroused, named, stressed, and broken in titanic struggles. Therapists often divide into the two camps based on their individual eagerness or reluctance to challenge and confront.

Freud of course is the man who gets credit for ‘inventing’ the conflict model. The psycho-dynamic tradition is named in part for an emphasis on conflict The humanist psychology tradition arose partly in response to the inherent asymmetry of the conflict model where the therapist does the confronting and the client does the adjusting (possibly recreating the original narcissistic injury). However, humanism took the deficit model a step further by implying that all deficits were really only deficits in morale, and so the therapist does not have to have greater understanding (just great empathy).

Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen in some way married the two models by describing a process in which early conflict produced body and nervous system development that was deficient. The conflict existed in the past but the deficits exists now (but importantly the deficits are not just ones of morale, but ones of neuro-muscular capacities). Bodywork addresses the deficit model and character analysis addresses the conflict model.

However, within bodywork, the polarity recreates itself. Classic bio-energetic exercises are about confronting a conflict physically. They are ‘stress’ positions. Alexander Lowen prescribed bodywork on the basis of deficit but led it on the basis of conflict. But in my work, it has come to be my conviction that the idea of developmental stall is very relevant especially to ‘early’ characters, and that a less conflictual type of bodywork, neuro-muscular training, is beneficial. After all, a stressed system may adapt further, but it does not grow, either in strength or discrimination.

The extent to which character armor is given teleological explanations in the Lowenian analysis has been unsatisfying to me. That is, that the ultimate effect of character armor being the cause of that very armor’s original development would make sense if a human will had interceded and managed the process, but it seems too glib in itself to explain a purely biological event. Likelier, character armor is the oft-repeated result of trial and error in adaptation among the biological and developmental forces occurring in a young human.

In Reich and Lowen therapy, (and all effective therapy) deficit work will itself lead to a particular conflict. Most early ‘pre-oedipal’ character structure have adapted secondarily to a regressed role. Assuming the adult role–both the burdens and the prerogatives is the implied goal of deficit work and so may be resisted.

Michael Samsel

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