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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

Energy and Character

by John Lawson 1997, 2006 

    In contemporary scientific thinking, energy is defined as the "ability to do work."  This conceptual definition reflects a tendency to view reality in terms of objective measurements.  Thus, the amount of thermal energy needed to raise a given quantity of mercury a certain distance in a glass tube is measured as "temperature."  As the old joke has it, the difference between the non-scientist and the scientist is illustrated by the two boys who go swimming.  The first sticks his foot in the water and says: "It's cold!"  The second replies: "I'll get a thermometer, and we'll find out."
    On a personal level, we all know subjectively whether we are feeling high or low.  We know if we are worn-out or bummed-out, up or down, perky or excited, overflowing with zest, revved up, or simply out of gas.  In fact, expressions such as these generally tell us something about the quality of our energy as well as its quantity.  They are invariably a good indicator of the degree of our energetic vitality at a given moment; and when they describe our usual state of being, they give us an indication of the texture and liveliness of our personality.  We need no scientific instrument to determine a human being's energy level.  In ourselves, we can experience how energetic we feel, and in others we can observe how energetically they behave.  If we rely on our observation of another's behavior and also on the other's report of his or her own experience, then we can gain insight and understand a great deal about that individual's character structure.
    In Reichian Energetics, we work directly with the character structure of an individual by addressing the quantity and quality of a person's energy level.  We know that the quantity of energy is directly related to the depth and adequacy of a person's breathing.  Deep, adequate breathing, in turn, depends on the balance and tonus of the muscular system.  If the skeletal muscles are chronically contracted or habitually dystonic, the respiratory waves cannot flow freely through the body, and the energy level will be insufficient.  The arrangement of the muscular blocks or constrictions can be evaluated in terms of their role in the suppression and distortion of feeling and movement.  When energy is dammed up, all of the blocks work together to divert the flow away from its natural path, and this diminishes the self-awareness of the individual and alters his or her self-image.  The energetic experience of the person then becomes dammed up in stagnant pools of unresolved emotions that are encircled by rings of armor.  A situation of stasis, or lack of movement, prevails.  This is the organismic anchoring of what Fritz Perls called the "unfinished business" in the life of the person.
    As disruptive of pleasurable living as it necessarily is, the blocking of energy serves a definite function.  The origin of the blocking, or armoring, is to be found in the early period of an individual's life.  Such blocking represents a personal adjustment to the intolerable conflicts which result from the painful experience of inadequate care and nurturance.  Many insightful writers from varying traditions have commented on the frequent hostility, rejection, hatred, callousness, and ignorance exhibited by adults dealing with children. [1]  Such treatment, on an individual level, gives rise to the disruption of personal functioning in the form of restrictions in breathing and contractions in the organism.  Early on, these serve the purpose of blocking feelings and curtailing natural impulses that are sensed to be threatening and that, indeed, are threatening in the given environment.
    While the armoring of the organism is meant to act like a dam to control feelings and impulses, we all know that dams sometimes break and overflow.  Similarly, individuals may have trouble containing impulses.  They may act erratically and in ways that are inappropriate.  Such behavior is rapidly becoming the cultural norm today.  It is as if there were too many feelings - too much suppressed energy - to be contained, and the only relief to be had from an intolerable tension is to open up the flood gates and to "let it out."  The person then "loses it," meaning that he or she loses control.  There is usually some precipitating factor in these instances, though it may appear to be minor: a frown from one's supervisor at work or a relatively insignificant failure of empathy on the part of a mate.  Such minor events may elicit a major experiential and behavioral response on the part of the individual.  Such occurrences have become increasingly common as the frenzy and stress of contemporary living accelerate.
    While the event that acts as a stimulus to the loss of self-control may be significant, it is only part of the story.  When impulsive behavior is characteristic, we find that there is a structural weakness in the individual's capacity to contain emotional impulses.  In fact, a great deal of attention has been paid to this situation, which has become the subject of a considerable amount of psychoanalytic theorizing. [2]  In any case, while admitting that repression (compulsive suppression of impulses) indicates a disturbance in natural functioning, we must recognize that lack of impulse control is not the solution to the problem.  It is merely another problem, and often it is even more destructive than the classic inhibitions that were so common in Freud's time.  Let us attempt to understand more clearly the nature of energetic flow in the body.  We can do this by using the analogy of a river.
    The energy of a flowing river is contained naturally within its own structure: the bed and banks of the river.  Sometimes the currents move more rapidly than at others, and sometimes the river overflows its banks.  At other times, the river may be shallow, due to a draught.  All of these variations occur naturally, without the presence of artificial dams.  Following this analogy, we can say that in healthy functioning a person's energy is channeled through a balanced and stable character structure that is relatively free of restrictions.  Such a character structure reduces to a minimum any tendencies either toward unnecessary inhibition or toward "acting out" in an impulsive manner.  Both inhibition and impulsiveness are the result of the systematic damming up of energies.  In the first instance, the dams are rigid and markedly restrictive; in the second case, the dams are weak and inadequate.  This situation can be visualized as a spectrum in which impulsiveness and inhibition are polar extremes deviating from the healthy center of balanced energetic functioning.
    In serious personal growth work, the primary direction of constructive change will vary, depending on where individuals find themselves along the spectrum of blocked functioning.  For some, it is necessary to establish an improved structure for self-containment.  In doing so, such individuals will experience increased functional integration and an improved energy level.   For others, the exceedingly rigid blocks must be dissolved so that suppressed impulses can break through and life can become more exciting and meaningful.
    Obviously, the possible variety in character structures among individuals is considerable.  If, however, we keep in mind the energetic basis of life, we have a key to understanding that variety; and we have a basis for deepening our awareness of how best to proceed in working on an individual level to reduce or eliminate the blocking of natural functioning.  The goal must be to shift the quality of our functioning toward the centerline of energetically charged living within the context of a dynamically stable personality structure.  In this way, we work to meet the challenges of contemporary living by deepening our connection with life itself in a concrete and practical way.

[1]  See the work of Lloyd deMause, particularly his introduction to The History of Childhood (New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974) and his essay "The History of Child Abuse" (The Journal of Psychohistory 25 (3) Winter 1998; available for downloading at
The prevalence of destructive behavior of adults toward infants and children can be observed regularly in almost any public place, such as a supermarket or a shopping mall.  No specialized training is required to discern such behavior.  All that is necessary is a basic sensitivity to the experience of the child.  It is this basic sensitivity, unfortunately, that is all too often lacking.
[2]  See, for example, Otto Kernberg. Borderline Condtions and Pathological Narcissism (New York: Jason Aronson, 1975).

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