Saturday, September 19, 2009

Characterological problems

There is a concept in psychotherapy known as characterological problems. Consider the human personality as such:

This shows that we all have a core character or our basic personality. Based on that we have a whole range of other thoughts, feelings and behaviours which are more peripheral and not so much a reflection of our basic character.

In Transactional Analysis it is said that in the first years of life we all develop a basic life position. We make a decision that either we are OK or Not OK and we also make a decision if others in the world are OK or Not OK. This will form part of our basic character.

As we go through life of course we will operate and behave and feel in a whole range of ways. However if one looks at one’s overall direction in life then one can define a theme. Everybody is on a particular life path and more often than not will end up at the end point of that path on the day they die. There are a number of ways of determining this life path with a few questions:

What will they write about you on your tombstone?

If you had to write a sweatshirt message on your T-shirt what would it be?

If you keep going the same way you are now what will you be like in 20 years?

You are on your death bed. Who is there and what are they saying?

The answer to these questions will start to indicate your character or as it is sometimes called your life script theme. Of course along the way you may do a whole number of things that seem not to be following that life script but over 10 or 20 years one will see that they are following that life script. And thus we have the difference between character and the more peripheral behaviours. Over time the peripheral behaviours will fulfil or demonstrate the character.

Some times clients present a problem that seems to be very resilient. It will be very resistant to change. At other times they present problems that are quite amenable to change. One explanation for the very resilient problems is that it is what is called a characterological problem. That is, the problem has strong links or ties to the persons basic character. Of course whilst peripheral behaviours can change relatively easily our character is much more stable and takes much longer to change. With character problems one has to change their character (in part) to change the problem. Hence the problem being very resistant to change.

Sexual orientation is part of our basic character, thus behaviours reflective of that will be very persistent

Consider the smoking of cigarettes. I smoked from about age 15 to 25 and have not smoked since. Originally I smoked from a rebellious position. I was told that I was not allowed to smoke cigarettes and should not smoke because it was bad for me, which meant of course that I did smoke. Over time as I grew I stopped smoking from the Rebellious Child ego state but kept smoking because it was a habit. I was smoking purely out of habit.

Eventually I gave up a few times by simply going cold turkey for a couple of weeks. This broke the nicotine addiction and it also broke the actual habit of smoking. Since that time I have not smoked again and have no desire or urge to smoke.

For others this is not the case and they will try many times and ways to stop smoking but all to no avail. When this happens one gets the sense of a very resilient piece of behaviour that is very resistant to change. Thus it may reflect a character problem. That is, the behaviour of smoking cigarettes is closely linked or tied to their sense of character.

The most obvious explanation for this is what is called the oral character. This person did not successfully complete the oral stage of development (0 to 18 months of age) and thus they remain fixated in part at that stage. Many people of an oral character fixation can smoke cigarettes because it is constantly stimulating the mouth or oral zone as it is called.

This person does not smoke cigarettes for the peripheral reasons of rebellion or habit. They are smoking because they have an oral character and thus to stop smoking permanently they have to alter their character, not just the piece of behaviour. Hence the act of smoking is a very resilient piece of behaviour. One forgets about contracts to stop smoking, nicotine patch's and so forth and works on the character through the transference relationship and the relational.

Interestingly these people can sometimes stop smoking but their problem is not to get off the drug but to stay off the drug. Because I don’t have such oral character issues the urge for me to smoke when I stopped was insignificant. For the oral character, when she stops smoking, she will have a persistent and strong desire to take up smoking again because the basic character remains as it is. Hence the smoking of cigarettes is a characterological problem in this case.

A good example of this is provided by fellow blogger, Kahless who makes the comment:

“I guess my smoking is a character problem. Funnily I have given up a number of times - gone cold turkey - but its the staying stopped that is the problem. I just constantly have a voice in my head saying, just have one, just have one, its no big deal! You can control it.

The longest time I stayed quit for was for a year; at age 30.”(end quote)



  1. I guess my smoking is a character problem. Funnily I have given up a number of times - gone cold turkey - but its the staying stopped that is the problem. I just constantly have a voice in my head saying, just have one, just have one, its no big deal! You can control it.

    The longest time I stayed quite for was for a year; at age 30.

    As for the questions, I have seen them before and I can only ever answer the last one. There will be no-one around when I die. I have a strong conviction of that.

    Anyway, hope you are well Graf.

  2. Oh and it doesnt bother me that I will be alone when I die, it just will be that way.

  3. Hi Kahless,

    I thought your comment about smoking was very good in the context of this post so I have editted the post to include your comment. If you don't want it there just let me know and I will remove it.

    I must admit when I wrote that part of the post I was thinking of you as I know we have spoken about your smoking in the past.

    I must say that I felt some sadness when you said that your final life script payoff is to end up alone. But as you say that does not bother you so my sadness is my problem.

    People who have the life script to end up alone usually achieve that in one of two ways. They either push others away by being insulting, offensive and angry or they simply withdraw from others for some reason they have created in their head.

    I have never experienced you as pushing me away but I have experienced you as withdrawing from me at times. When that has happened in the past, I just usually wait and so far ecah time you have come back and I must say it is good when you do.


  4. I don't know why i smoked. I was a bit like you i guess. Started as a teen and ended early 20's. Didn't ever really get addicted to it though and only really smoked socially. Buy a packet of smokes at or before a gig and smoke with everyone during breaks and stuff. But you could guarantee that there'd be no smokes left at the end of the night - share and share alike i guess the saying would have been.

    I tried again a couple of years ago (socially again) just intrigued as to whether i'd like it or not. YUCKY! *spit spew*

    Not exactly a successful attempt so i just don't. Smoke anymore that is.

    So nice to be home again though!

  5. Good to hear that you are home again Roses, but I did not even know that you had gone away!

    Holley smokes!


  6. Hi Tony,

    I have no problem you using what I say; I know when I comment that this is a public arena. The only place where I ask for care is on Facebook as there are a few work colleagues listed as my friends. But I know you know that too.

    I am not sure alone bothers me particularly.

    You are spot on the money about me withdrawing; and yes I can tend to come back. If I am annoyed about something I will withdraw and come back when I am over it. I am not one to harbour on anything for long as I usually forget what irked me in the first place!

    I have noticed that you always acknowledge me in a nice way when I return, so I dont feel bad about returning.

    As you say, I am usually irked about something I have created in my head. If I havent created in my head and know as fact, I withdraw for good. I like to think I am a laid back person, but I do have some odd tenets every now and then, that I conform to.

    Us people are odd eh!

  7. That is good news Kahless that you tend to come back. If there is ever anything that you think I have done to offend then please check it out with me backchannel as I know I am not wanting to do that.

    So either you would have been over sensitive or I would have been insensitive but I imagine that it could be sorted quite quickly.

    Regarding your FB I didn't know that about your work mates being friends there, so I assume others do not as well.

    I am going to be over your way in Europe in a months time!!


  8. I googled solutions for oral character tonight. I found a website that recommended having your tongue pierced so you have something permanently in your mouth! they said it was a good cure for smoking, nail biting etc....

    That tickled me!
    I dont fancy having a stud in my mouth though!

  9. Well that is a new one one me Kahless,

    I have never heard that suggestion before for the oral character.

    I must agree. a stud in my mouth does not sound appealing


  10. What if I have no idea what I would put on a tombstone/t-shirt?

  11. Hi Anon,
    Well as a start draw your tombstone and gravesite and that might help


  12. My youngest smokes...she got her tongue pierced...she still it didn't "cure" her smoking. Any other suggestions on how she can quit? I don't think it has even crossed her mind, to quit, that is. I (her mom) worry about her health.

  13. Hello Anon,

    You need to read up on the stages of change model and see where your daughter fits in that model