Wilhelm Reich Psychotherapy – The Perfectionist or Obsessional (Rigid)
The need to be perfect is a false illusion. We are born and designed to be human and live within that humanity which is the paradox of perfection within our imperfection. The rigid person essentially rejects their own nature, sexuality and humanity, and seeks instead to be an idealised version of themself, one in which perfection is the only choice in all aspects and dimensions of life.
Wilhelm Reich introduced the notion and science of Characterology and its 5 basic character types. Each character type has a set of bodily postures, muscular skeletal structuring, touch, feeling, and contact presentations to the world, and also a cognitive and emotional set of equivalent issues, plus a mask or presenting appearance to the world.
There are a number of terms that were used to describe the various types of this personality types in the old Reichan and psychiatric derived language that Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowan, and John Pierrakos tended to use in Reichan therapy, Bioenergetics, and Core Energetics respectively. This character structure is also referred to as the “Perfectionist” and the “Obsessional” when working with clients in a more archetypal way that is less pathologising.
The childhood dynamics that setup a person to have a Perfectionistic outcome are typically those where in the emerging oedipal stage from age 3 to 4 up to about age 7, or in early teenage years, the child was continually rejected by the parent of the opposite sex, and possibly also of the same sex. At this age the child will have natural instinctual impulses to gravitate to the parent of the opposite sex, and will undergo an innocent and infantile falling in love process with that parent.
This process sees the child become vulnerable and fully open-hearted to this parent, and being at an oedipal stage, it may also involve having infantile sexual impulses towards that parent. The responsibility of this parent is to be aware of this emerging dynamic and work skilfully with it, such that the child is not rejected, used, punished or shamed for having natural impulses of the heart and their sexuality.
The wounding parent is often a Perfectionistic person themself, who by definition, has a closed heart, lives in their head, and is threatened by others feelings. In any event the adult parent will dismiss or criticise or punish or reject the child who approaches them out of love. This crushes the child who will learn from such repeated attempts to form a defence that prevents them from being rejected and from feeling the painful feelings at all.
A parent may also feel uncomfortable with a child’s infantile sexual behaviour and shame them for this, or react angrily, so leaving the child to believe there is something wrong with this part of themself. One parent may use the child’s love interest in them as a tool to trigger reactions and anger in the other parent. Here one parent plays a cruel game where they encourage and exploit the sexuality and love of the child in order to create competition with the other parent. When it becomes too much, or threatens the relationship with the spouse, the manipulator withdraws from the used child, or humiliates or punishes them for these previously encouraged behaviours.
The child learns that it is unsafe to love sexually with an open heart and to experience natural human rivalry. The child will start to control themself so their impulses and urges do not lead them into painful outcomes, and by splitting themself in this way, they disown these impulses and feelings into their unconscious, and start to compensate by wanting to please the parent and win love in other ways.
In one type of outcome, because they feel flawed and wrong for having their natural impulses they decide to become fully in self-control and to become “perfect” and to achieve at whatever will win them praise and love and positive attention. In this first dynamic, the wounding parent will often be critical and perfectionistic themself, and so demand perfect behaviour, perfect academia and sporting achievement from the child if the child is to please the parent, which every child does, and will adopt now as the substitute for the disowned natural sexual love feelings which have been rendered unsafe.
This stance by the parent is abusive and wrong, and effectively uses their own children to promote the false ideal of perfection in the family. Many such parents may also be narcissistic and want “trophy” children they can trot out to others and show off, and whom they can boast about their sporting and academic achievements. The real authentic child is lost in all this, and becomes a false idealised self in order to survive and be accepted.
Another outcome is a person who uses over dramatisation and expression of their feelings in order to prevent them feeling their true feelings. This stance was commonly labelled “The Hysterical Woman” as the literature tended to associate this behaviour with women. It also carries the label of the Histrionic personality. This outcome is often related to a history of inappropriate encouragement and exploitation of the child’s sexuality and the resulting competition it fostered with the other parent.
Yet another outcome was the person distracts themself from their feelings by preoccupying themself in their heads with obsessional thoughts and/or compulsive rituals and behaviours. This outcome is often related to a history of inappropriate encouragement and exploitation of the child’s sexuality and the resulting competition it fostered with the other parent, but in addition there was actual punishment as well of the child for having these thoughts and feelings, despite being encouraged to do so. It is often considered as well that this outcome can also be the result of the previous early life wounding occurring that we know as the Unwanted Child.
The resulting outcome of the bodymind of a predominant perfectionstic person who adopts either the classic “perfectionist” role, or the Histrionic role, can be summarised as a person who presents harmony, order and perfection to the world. Both sexes show an athleticism and harmony in their bodies, with symmetry to their bodies.
They can be particularly beautiful and graceful, with the men having either a graceful boyish manful look like actor Jude Law, or a more rugged countenance like actor Daniel Craig. This is because the muscular armouring in the Perfectionistic person may be visually subtle and athletic due to its mesh-like configuration in the chest and back, while the face is youthful, or the muscular armouring may be more angular and plate-like, creating a more squared off physique, and pronounced facial muscles, possibly with a squared off jaw.
The female typically follows the physical outcome of a harmonious, athletic, attractive body and face where there is good symmetry in the body. A person such as the model Megan Gale typifies this outcome. Both sexes will have a good uniform breathing pattern that involves the chest, diaphragm and belly, but the breathing will be shallow in order to suppress feelings in the body. Both sexes may have problems with their throats either physically or at least as a communication channel, as the unconscious fear of being criticised, scorned, wronged, or rejected for speaking their opinion or truth, leaves many Perfectionistic persons with a block in their throats to represent this fear of speaking up.
Their bodies reveal their attempt of achieving perfection more than it does revealing major blocks or flaws or somatic wounding beyond the key points noted here.
These 2 types of Perfectionistic persons have pride as a key fault, and will have a deep conviction of being superior to others which they may not publicly admit. They may still have a strong connection to the parent of the opposite sex, and may be “Daddy’s little Princess” or “Mummy’s little Man or Her Prince”. This relationship speaks of this infantile triangulated and sexualised relationship that may still be in place decades later even when the child has grown into an adult.
It is not uncommon for this childhood or early teenage origin dynamic to still operate when the child is an adult, and will effectively still create a triangle as the spouse of the parent in this dynamic is often sidelined, resentful of both of them, and unable to compete with the child for the spouses attention or affection. This also explains why these perfectionists as adults often created triangulated relationships, as this dynamic may be normalised to them now, after all these years of living it in a family system.
They may still triangulate their own adult love relationship by still having the original parent “on a pedestal” where their current relationship partner is in competition with that parent, cannot please that parent, and where they feel the hostility of that parent towards them. This can be the archetypal “mother-in-law” who criticises the new girlfriend as not being “good enough for my boy!!”.
The adoption of the “need to be perfect” stance towards life by this personality type, sets up that Perfectionistic character to be effectively like a mouse on a treadmill, driven to be constantly achieving and striving for perfection and yet seemingly getting nowhere as they constantly encounter their true but rejected less than perfect natures. Life to them is essentially a checklist of ongoing external challenges and accomplishments to be conquered, and the Perfectionistic personality is very competitive within themself, and secretly with others. They must secretly try to win. It’s a life or death struggle for many, a win-lose equation for most of them.
Even when they win, their underlying anxiety gives them little time to stop and smell the roses, and take in their achievements. They are already focussing on the next challenge(s) and items to be ticked off in life. Nothing must challenge their thus far achieved status and level of perfection. To be perfect means to always be in control of the situation at hand. Perfectionistic characters are in total self-control, which contrasts with the Leader/Controller who focuses control on those around them.
Perfectionistic persons therefore do not cope well with unforseen events or circumstances that spoil their plans that see them lose control that expose them to criticism, or expose them to inadequacy or not being perfect. The Perfectionistic person is constantly checking in with themself to ensure they are maintaining their mask of perfection and control to the world.
This personality develops a form of “analysis paralysis” where they go to endless lengths in thinking in “what if” outcomes about any planned action or project. They seek to work out the best way forward and anticipate the consequences and outcomes so they can steer a path away from anything that will see them again humiliated, punished, exposed, and made to seem less than perfect. This mental gymnastics sees them prone to fall into procrastination, intense recurrent thoughts in their heads, negative and fear based thinking, and so results in them having procrastination in life as an issue. The obsessional form of this personality learns to retreat into this world as an escape from guilt and other feelings.
The Perfectionstic character presents beautifully in body and in mind, and through the self control and adherence to the highest stands of bodily image via grooming, dress, deportment, and physical health and fitness, they cut a stunning near perfect figure to the world. Likewise they attempt perfection via the intellect and are normally very intelligent and disciplined in study and work, and are reliable, hard working, but often require black and white, formal work and intellectual frameworks in order to make them feel safe. They are over-represented in “black and white” industries and careers such as engineering, law, accounting and administration of rules and policy.
The Perfectionistic personality fears the “grey” of subjective and interpretive careers and subjective debates as they fear being wrong, or being criticised or exposed as less than competent or perfect in this place. The Perfectionistic personality will often procrastinate over a new task or discipline they have not mastered for the same reason, and will often suffer a lot of anxiety in this procrastination period, before the looming deadline kicks in a rush of activity right near the end of the deadline, as a larger fear of true failure causes mobilisation to occur.
The Perfectionistic personality tends to value thinking above feeling, being right above being in truth, and living to an image versus living from their hearts. They work out what society values as important in all areas of life, and then chases after that ideal. In a sense, due to their real inner low self esteem, they compensate via what is termed outer or other-esteem by achieving everything possible, and having the most degrees and achievements, the best house, the right suburb to live in, the most connected friends, the right accessories that fashion trends dictate, the mandatory holiday, and being seen to socialise in the trendiest settings and with the right people. Partners must share this outlook on life and it is not uncommon to find two Perfectionistic personalities living together in their attempt at living “the dream” together.
So what is wrong with all this you say? Nothing except that it hides a high level of social and general anxiety, it often results in Depression, Generalised Anxiety Disorders(GAD), Addictions, or burnout long term in an attempt to keep this lifestyle going. Like the little black duck on the pond they look so cute and peaceful from afar, but underneath the water the little ducks legs are kicking furiously to keep the appearance going and the duck afloat. Many ducks drown over time as the illusion of perfection cannot be maintained and the motto “what is not in truth collapses” shows up.
The Perfectionistic personality suffers from an intense “inner critic” or internalised critical voice of the parent(s) or authority figure that made them feel unlovable in their humanity in the first place. This inner voice typically is constantly scanning others and noting if the Perfectionistic person is better or less perfect than that other person, often across a number of reference points. The Perfectionistic person often then feels sick inside when later alone that they have then within their own private thoughts just done a character assassination on that other person from such a critical mind. This then makes the Perfectionistic person loathe themself, feel bad and they then criticise themself again, and try harder in the future, thus perpetuating the cycle of criticism and low self esteem they try to escape through perfectionism.
In reality the Perfectionistic character is more focussed on failure than success, more sensitive to criticism than others, displaces and mistrusts positive feedback with their own internal critique of how things could have been better. Outsiders imagine the Perfectionistic character has it all in life, and are often envious of their achievements, but to the Perfectionistic person themself, they are normally unable to feel or truly be happy within themself or with their own achievements.
The Perfectionistic person only can then put happiness out into the future and often has a form of thinking based on outcomes like “once I achieve x then I will be happy”. This cognitive distortion means they stop being a human “being” and instead become a human “doing”, where they cannot sit still and just do nothing, but must always be doing something, and start to get anxious when they feel frustrated that they are wasting precious time, or they “should” be doing something more substantial. The Perfectionistic person will often overwork and may sacrifice socialising for work, and they often struggle with anxiety based sleep disorders and workaholism.
The Perfectionistic person is often ruled by black and white thinking where they often live to rules and other black and white constructs, or try to impose such frameworks on others. They often speak in terms of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and their rigidity mixed with perfectionism gives them little heart and little compassion in how they live. The Perfectionistic person often mistrusts their feelings and so retreats into “living in their heads” , becomes critical and negative and judgemental of others as their inner critic starts to surface and be manifest in their personality.
At work the Perfectionistic person will achieve and get promoted through a combination of intelligence, application, overwork, and competitiveness. However once in power they often demand perfection from others who do not understand this insane drive to achieve at the expense of happiness and life balance. The Perfectionistic boss will launch angry judgemental tirades at staff who they judge as lazy, stupid, weak or incompetent. This type of boss may micro-manage and be unable to trust others via delegation, and will typically introduce many rules, black and white reporting systems, statistics and only view success through financial or other empirical Key Performance Indicators. Staff turnover and absenteeism due to stress is high in workplaces where a Perfectionistic boss rules and sets the tone for the workplace culture.
It is common that these personalities show a generational link, with either one or both parents, either the same sex or other sex parent, having the same Perfectionistic personality that they then as parents then create in one or more of their children. The parent wounds the child through their perfectionistic demands, betrayal of the child’s sexual love, harsh black and white thinking, and criticisms and judgements they visit on their children they are supposed to love. At home the spouse or partner may suffer as the Perfectionistic person is normally emotionally unavailable, is mentally often not present, and living in their head or are still in their office in their heads.
The partner and the children will feel unseen, unappreciated or unloved, and will typically withdraw and start to either avoid the Perfectionistic person, or please them via perfect achievements at sport or academia in order to be “seen” or to get “love”. The first born child often becomes the “perfect” child and goes down the path of being the “good one” or the “achiever perfectionist” themself, whilst the second born is often unseen, and may rebel and act out the negative disowned qualities that horrify and shame the Perfectionistic parent, and shame the family who are expected to present Brady Bunch perfection to the world.
In the long term either the Perfectionistic person or their neglected partner may start to have an affair outside their relationship. As a child their united sexuality and love, as symbolised by their pelvis and heart, was made wrong, and became the basis for humiliation, shame, punishment and exploitation. As part of shutting down their feelings and creating defences against being hurt again, they split their love and sexuality between two people in all future situations. By this they will tend as adults to have a “confidante” which whom they can have “heart to hearts” but no sex, and then have a separate partner to whom they submit sexually but will withhold their heart.
When this person enters a relationship this split stance towards sex and love can be confusing for partners. They may start a relationship with a strong libido, but as they fall in love they face the internal tension of being betrayed again, and so unconsciously split their love and sex, or pelvis and heart. For many this will mean giving the partner sex, but withdrawing and relating “from their heads”, with little emotional connection. For some they will cultivate a “friend” outside the relationship at this stage, thus creating a triangle which resembles their childhood triangulated dynamics, and where they displace their heart needs.
Sometimes the relationship will progress where the Perfectionist gives their heart and head to their partner, but shuts down their pelvis or sexuality and libido leaves the relationship. They become more like “brother and sister” emotionally and with no sex, but maintain the facade to friends and the world of the “perfect couple”. In this dynamic the Perfectionist or their partner may eventually act out a sexual affair in order to satisfy their unmet sexual needs. The Perfectionist personality often has triangulated relationships, and affairs whilst inside relationships can be a major issue in their life.
In our work we describe this as a pelvic/heart split. In a relationship the person tends to shut their heart down and be actively sexual for a period but not really open their heart, since they actually fear emotional intimacy. The Perfectionistic person experienced the painful rejection and criticism in childhood as heart breaking and so as a defence is now closed off to being hurt in that vulnerable way again. They instead only offer part of themself to a partner, typically their thinking intellect and sexuality and keep their heart closed, with other persons existing outside the relationship to whom they have their heartfelt relations with.
The two ways of being, in the heart and the pelvis, are normally never expressed through a single person or partner. If a Perfectionistic personality was to be fully vulnerable to another person again then they could be hurt and betrayed again which is too big a risk to take, and too much of a fear to live with. What often happens in a relationship with either one or both persons having a Perfectionistic personality present, is they connect sexually and mentally or intellectually well in the first stage.
Once the heart shows up in the relationship for one or both of them then they live a dilemma of how not to get hurt. What occurs is either they keep their hearts closed and live in the status quo of having a sexual and intellectual bond, sacrificing the heart and its feelings, or the sexuality shuts down as the heart in one or both of them opens. In either dynamic they cannot get fully hurt as they are not fully open or fully vulnerable to the other person, and so can better cope with betrayal or criticism or judgements from the loved one. Unfortunately this can also lead to the person who shuts down their sexuality then being tempted in fantasy or in reality to having an affair where it’s purely sexual and where they never intend to leave their partner. This person gets all their needs met through two different persons in a triangulated dynamic.
The Perfectionistic personality struggles with constructive criticism or negative criticism, or indeed even feedback said from an empathic place can be perceived and received in an overall sensitive and personal way. They can get overly wounded and withdraw, and in extreme examples where they get publicly exposed or they perceive shame there are well known examples of such successful person’s suiciding.
In a well known example, the recent Global Financial Crisis saw Adolf Merckle, the worlds 44th richest man, drop down the rich list to number 94. For 99% of the population this position would still see themself as a vastly wealthy person with opportunities, achievements and resources beyond what all of us will not see in this life. In his world the perceived loss of face and loss of control was unbearable and he threw himself under a train in his own perceived sense of failure and shame.
Some authors also note that some people become perfectionistic in order to thrive or survive in their careers. In Australia, Charmaine Dragun was an attractive Australian television presenter who had both the pressure of being a well known public figure on Television, and was in her own words strongly perfectionistic. In the competitive world of television and media, media celebrities often are looking over their shoulders at upcoming talent who no doubt covet their job. In media, image is everything and in recent accounts of female media personalities who once worked in Australian TV, the pressure to be perfect and sexual and beautiful on camera was a benchmark by which they were judged.
Charmaine had reportedly been struggling with Anxiety and Depression for which she was receiving help, and these disorders are a common issue for the Perfectionistic personality. She was reported to have had a solid relationship, but reportedly felt “empty”, which is a common feeling that Perfectionistic personalities feel with the perfection trap they create for themselves in life. Charmaine was reported to be “emotionally troubled”, and possibly suffered Bipolar Type 2 disorder. She reportedly was beset by negative thinking and feelings of hopelessness. Charmaine had some suicidal feelings during all this and eventually committed suicide when she became overwhelmed with her life circumstances.
The Perfectionistic personality often resists entering therapy due to the notion that they must be perfect, and doing therapy or getting counselling is an admission of failure. Often it is only after their own self-controlling efforts to run their life to the illusion of perfection have failed, that they enter therapy in crisis. Also the Perfectionistic personality may end up in counselling due to being unable to remain faithful in romantic relationships, where the idea of an affair may be acted out in reality.
The Perfectionistic personality may collapse into an Anxiety or Depressive disorder, or suffer Chronic Fatigue or burnout or an illness related to a suppressed immune system, as they are unable to keep up with their own relentless demands to achieve more and more. This is becoming more common in our society with terms such as Executive Stress or Executive Burnout often describing this dynamic.
I mentioned earlier a third type of Perfectionistic personality that uses obsessional thinking, or compulsive ritualised actions as a defence and distraction from being in their forbidden thoughts and feelings. This type of Perfectionistic personality often had the Unwanted Child wounding in the womb, or in early life. Here it is believed that the Obsessional type redirects their own will towards controlling what is uncontrolled, that being one’s spontaneous thoughts, impulses, desires and feelings.
Coming from an Unwanted Child and/or Perfectionistic child background where the world and parents were hostile, and/or from the situation where they were punished or used or humiliated in their own sexual love feelings, the Obsessional develops an inner sentinel which issues internal dialogue warnings, admonitions, commands, directives and warnings. This sentinel can be believed by the Obsessional to be an external alien force, voice or evil possessing them, and not understood or accepted to be part of their inner life. The Obsessional believes they are compelled to obey the directives of this sentinel. The sentinel is a more severe form of the classic perfectionists “inner critic”.
The parents of this Obsessional type are found often to be stern, exacting, rigid, rule based, cold personalities who were threatened and disgusted by the spontaneity of the child, and who punished and threatened the child until the child gave up their true self and became a “perfect” child. The child must enact self-control to suppress their instinctual behaviours and become the false perfect self demanded of them by the parent(s). Commonly one or both parents are either threatened or competitive with the child’s often intelligent and creative original nature.
Where the person has an Unwanted Child background there is often a more survival oriented need for this rigid Perfectionistic outcome. The Obsessional based perfectionism prevents the collapse and fragmentation of the person occurring. The person imposes a self-will in order to maintain order in the face of internal chaos and this must be maintained as their internal life is often threatening to fragment. The order and structure is maintained through this internal sentinel that keeps watch and uses ritual and rules to make the person functional.
Regardless of their background the Obsessional type typically is a person under constant internal pressure to do, behave, feel and think the right thing. They attempt to control their own feelings and motivations so they are the right kind of person and do not offend. This keeps them busy behaviourally and cognitively, and fends off any impulse to sidetrack off into spontaneous and therefore unsafe territory. Their intense and narrowly focused attention, particularly to detail, coupled with their noted doubt, indecision, and procrastination, keep them safe from making mistakes.
The Obsessional can be quite stilted, pedantic and rigidly correct in social settings, being an observer more than involved, with others seen as the personification of the social rules, expected niceties, and imperatives they must live up to, and so are submissive to those above them, and punishing to those below them who must comply and follow the rules, have proper attitudes and values. This subjugation of those below them is the basis for them recreating their childhood wounds, and so sets up possible trans-generational wounding in this type in families.
Over time the suppression, self-regulation, and self-vigilance, they impose on themself, coupled with their feelings of their internal self collapsing into chaos if they do not keep their obsessions and rituals going, can create depression. In their world, as they feel threatened or stressed or overwhelmed, it only leaves them with a strategy of more of the same. Here they will obsess more, be more compulsive, increase rituals and behaviours, and often at this point there intrudes into consciousness some repressed thoughts of a sexually sadistic or somehow otherwise hostile nature.
At this point they may act out their darker thoughts, or regain control and punish the “bad” part of themself for having such thoughts, or for acting them out. They may also collapse or act out if exposed by someone else in a way that humiliates or shames them as wrong or uncovers an aspect of them they have tried to suppress and hide.
This Obsessional personality does not typically exhibit the harmonious body of the classic Perfectionist personality. If they have the earlier Unwanted Child wounding their bodies will show that characterology or bodily characteristics. The Obsessional personality shows itself more in their mental life and behaviours than it does in the body. The ocular segment block, which is found in other personality types, and which principally shows in the eyes, the facial and jaw muscles, and the rear neck line where the skull meets the neck, will normally be present. This acts to repress feelings coming from the body into the head, and creates a split between the head and the body, which results in the person ”living in their heads”.
The Perfectionistic personality is also partly present in the related development of the Narcissistic personality, and the two tend to share some similar outlooks on life, self, and what drives them in life. Most Narcissistic personalities also tend to have a developmental background that involves the dynamics shared by the Controller/Leader personality type. Refer also to my articles on Narcissism in the Articles section of this website.
- Eastern Body, Western Mind, Anodea Judith, 2004, Celestial Arts, USA.
- Character Analysis, Wilhelm Reich, 1975, 5th enlarged edition, New York, Farrar Publishing.
- Bioenergetics, Alexander Lowen, 1976, Penguin books, New York.
- Language of the Body, Alexander Lowen, 1971, MacMillan, New York.
- Character Styles, Stephen Johnson, 1994, W.WW Norton & Co New York.
- Characterological Transformation – The Hard Work Miracle, Stephen Johnson, 1985, W.W. Norton & Co New York.
- Free Yourself 1 – Releasing Your Unconscious Defence Patterns, Annie Marquier, 2005, Findhorn Press, Scotland.
- Free Yourself 2 – The Power of the Soul, Annie Marquier, 2005, Findhorn Press, Scotland.
- Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton, 2005, Mountain of Love/Elite Books, USA.
- Core Energetics, John Pierrakos, 1990, LifeRhythm Publication.
- “Dragun’s Suicide “Preventable”, Gabrielle Knowles , The West Australian newspaper, Saturday October 16, 2010.