Four Ways to Get Stuck

Stephen M Johnson is certainly a proponent of the Reich and Lowen tradition, but he does work more from the object relations end than the drive end. In his book Symbiotic Character, he takes Ronald Fairbairn’s internal object relations and describes four adaptive styles to a negating force (internalized bad object). I think for clinicians, this description has great value, so using Johnson’s/Fairbairn’s work as a starting point I would like to expand on these styles below (including naming them descriptively rather than numerically):


Here the person identifies with the bad object against the self. The bad object is veiled in the guise of principles or scruples.

  • Applies inhuman or impossible standards to themselves, somewhat more lenient standards to others. Identifies with succeeding in meeting these demands.
  • Appraises self quite harshly, and others merely harshly.
  • Keeps others involved by keeping the focus on should/good/right/best
  • Self-observation  over-active, and action is not natural or spontaneous.
  • Exaggerates the rights of others.  Considers violating social norms the same as violating the rights of others. Tries to follow social norms assiduously. In quite a quandary when social norms conflict because there is no option except to try to make things work.
  • Internalizes responsibility, internalizes failure.
  • Takes responsibility for all bad outcomes, even unforeseeable ones where he or she acted reasonably and responsibly.
  • Assigns self tasks where the effort and cost obviously exceeds the benefit
  • Behavioral and expressive repertoire constricted, but subjectively, this is viewed as discipline and not incapacity.
  • Views self as deficient, although may have substituted his or her own reasons and superficially rejected parental criteria for criticism. Strong sense of guilt.
  • May have superficially replaced family-of-origin repressions for a set of ‘more enlightened’ but equally limiting beliefs.
  • Difficulty relaxing, must keep busy to control feeling (unless depressed)
  • Uncomfortable in unstructured situations where there is no ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ behavior. (Fears punishment for inappropriate behavior of course but also does not trust self to be able to determine that)
  • Resents less constricted people, but has trouble criticizing them plainly.
  • Will inconvenience his- or herself greatly to prevent small inconveniences to others.
  • Has trouble distinguishing between the wishes of others and the demands of others
  • Will tend to punish self, calling it self discipline. May punish others, but this is completely unconscious


Here the ‘self’ ‘sneaks’ out on the bad object periodically, which blows off tension, but ultimately returns, like a runaway child, for punishment.

  • Inconsistent in applying standards, to self and others, being harsh or lenient and having difficulty finding a balance.
  • Usually fairly balanced (if not objective) in appraising self and others
  • Keeps others involved by exciting/seductive/bad/dangerous behavior
  • Self-observation  inconsistent
  • Blames self for keeping others from acting effectively in their own behalf
  • Respects the rights of others
  • Externalizes responsibility (usually), internalizes failure (usually)
  • Tends to comply superficially with expectations, but episodically rebels or ‘acts out’
  • Does not try very hard not to get caught
  • Violates social norms (sometimes flagrantly) but does not violate the rights of others


Here the person, like in the over-controlled ego state, identifies with the bad object against the self, but will start to protest at times of stress. Sometimes psychotherapy will help the person move from over-controlled to protesting, but if that is all that happens, there is little real benefit as this is still a very repressed condition.

  • Applies inhuman or impossible standards to his or herself, but protests the demands as if they come from others, and identifies with failure to meet the demands. In the course of this, applies such demands to others but doesn’t enforce them.
  • Appraises others quite harshly, appraises self merely harshly
  • Keeps others involved by keeping the focus on what has been unfair/hard/out-of-reach (reproaches and laments)
  • Self-observation over-active generally, dissociates from own hostile displays
  • Exagerates the rights of others, except where he or she feels they cannot succeed in giving those rights, then flips and protests the other has no right to expect this etc…
  • Considers violating social norms the same as violating the rights of others. When social norms conflict, blames somebody
  • Internalizes responsibility, but externalizes failure
  • Complains of powerlessness


This is the ego state that is described by “identification with the aggressor.” The person ‘becomes’ the bad object, and projects the vulnerable (and hated) self out onto others.

  • Applies inhuman or impossible standards to others, and enforces them sadistically. Holds self apart from and vigorously resists standards being applied to self.
  • Appraises others quite harshly, although may be seductive. Appraises self quite highly (though may not believe it.)
  • Keeps others involved by demands and accusations
  • Self-observation  under-active
  • Violates the rights of others, justifying it as righting wrongs
  • Disregards social norms, but may try to enforce them on others
  • Externalizes responsibility, externalizes failure
  • Often gravitates toward positions of power, police and military are obvious, and can be plainly abusive,  but may also be in a position where others can be judged and limited such as teaching, criminal justice, and social work.

Common Features

  • Joylessness and pleasurelessness
  • Lack of real desire or purpose
  • Tension in body
  • Insecurity
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2 Responses to Four Ways to Get Stuck

  1. Jangali says:

    I don’t know much about object-relations theory but how do you think these models compare/relate to the Reichian and Lowenian character types? At first glance (but without thinking about it too much), it would seem pretty one-to-one. #1 is rigid, #2 oral-hysterical, #3 masochistic and #4 psychopathological, with schizoid missing because the bad object is rather ignored.

  2. mjsamsel says:

    Sorry about the late reply I only saw your comment today.

    Actually I hadn’t considered character vis-a-vis this format. I do not think that the rigid is that self-negating. I think also that the schizoid has tremendous bad object introjected and if organized enough could well get stuck on #1. I agree that #4 would only operate permanently in a psychopathic structure, but might come out under stress in a ‘borderline’ condition especially with addiction. These ways of coping may also be more superficial than character–they could be moved through (especially if coached by the therapist unwittingly) in a way that different characters aren’t moved through.

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