Functional Models: Drives, Layers, Segments, and Character Armor

There are several fundamental models in the Reich and Lowen tradition that meld biology with emotion and interpersonal functioning. These are neither mechanical and conclusionless like many bio-chemical models popular in science, nor are they based on magical thinking and wish fulfillment like some mystical healing models made available to the hopeful. Rather they are functional models. That is, they do not see human life as determined solely by biology, but they do not see human life as something that can 'rise above' natural forces merely by wish or sentiment.

Drive versus Object

The drive theory was an organizing idea started by Freud, although mainstream psychoanalysis has de-emphasized it.

The Reich and Lowen tradition of therapy has found the drive theory a useful organizing idea, and has retained it. Basic human life force or energy is believed to transit from some type of inside or center out toward the world and other people. When the drives are working well, a person can succeed in a social, sexual and work sense. Drives move the person toward objects, which can be people or things. A competing emphasis, called object relations, is that those objects that happen to be people have a role in eliciting and shaping drives in other people, and that the availability of good objects cannot be taken for granted. Object relations emphasizes the appropriateness of the engaging other to help a person heal. It is posited that the original failure of a 'good enough other' was the hampering event in emotional development, and that in psychotherapy with adults, the therapist must be an exquisitely good enough object to allow the real self of the client to be freed.


Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen believed it was more important for a therapist to be a coach to get drives going again, than it was for the therapist to be any particular object except warm, honest, and straight-forward. In their work, almost the entire emphasis was on 'repair' of the drive of the individual. It was assumed that when the drive was ready, appropriate others would appear.


This is a controversy in ideas that is not possible to settle. It is useful to note that 'drive' is more of a biological idea, and that object relations is more of a psychological idea. The Reich and Lowen tradition is more tied to ideas of biology (as was Freud) than is modern psychoanalysis. Perhaps the following is a useful synthesis: drive-oriented work is necessary to 'deconstruct' restraints of character, and at that point (a very painful point), relational availability and work is helpful for the 'reconstruction.'

The Organizing Idea of Layers

The layer model goes along with the drive theory. In the three layer model, a core of pure wholesome life force is posited, corresponding to the viscera. This is surrounded by a muscular second layer. Under less than good emotional development, the muscular layer develops armor and pure impulses are distorted into secondary drives. The third or surface layer contains intellect and ego. Sometimes four layers are described, the additional layer being an affective layer between the core and muscular layer.


While the surface layer is where pleasure and contact takes place, ironically to develop feeling and purpose, it is necessary to work with deeper layers. Pleasure succeeds when impulses from the core come to fruition at the surface.


Many of us think of our deeper part being our private thoughts and fantasies. However, these are part of mind and belong to the surface layer. The core is neglected almost universally in our culture. There is sometimes a ideology against superficiality ( really cosmetic efforts) toward 'higher' things, but generally this leads to intellectualization of life


The layer model may at first be taken as more conceptual and not too biological, however, it has been compared to the three types of embryonic tissue: endoderm (viscera) mesoderm (muscle, bone, connective tissue) and ectoderm (skin, brain, and nerves)*


Here Sheldon's three character types are relevant: endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph. They are named for the layer in which the 'self' of these types reside. Though less detailed, Sheldon's typology is basically consistent with Lowen's idea of character. Usually, when Sheldon is mentioned in science classes, the psychological correlates of the body types are left out or greatly abbreviated--the cultural mind body split at work.


Most medical thinking about human functioning is based on will. To that end, the brain, the voluntary motor system, and especially the nerves carrying the impulse from the brain to the motor system is seen as paramount. The distribution of these nerves does not follow segments from top to bottom neatly.


However, certain 'neurotic' behavior, such as conversion reactions like 'glove' paraesthesias, do follow segments. For this reason mainstream medicine has dismissed this as faking, either conscious or unconscious. However, the vegetative systems, especially the autonomic control of circulation, does follow segments because the blood circulation is more uniformly segmental.


That is how the neck can said to have an 'energy block' when in fact there are many nerves and blood vessels that provide for and transit through the neck. The segmental model is so important not because it is a precise map of where to do bodywork (although Reich partly thought so) but rather it is a way to think of human functioning and the limits on that functioning not in terms of will but rather in terms of vegetative functioning. This is the same pattern as for 'hysterical' paralysis or 'hysterical' numbness that is well documented in the psychiatric literature completely independent of Reich.

'Character' Armor

Although the term armor is meant to refer to a demonstrable situation in the body, it is slightly more abstract than layers or segments. Armor is a metaphor referring to the muscular spasms, decreased motility, postural misalignments, and character attitudes which an individual develops that act as a defense against the breakthrough of unwanted or intolerable feelings, sensations, emotions, or experience. Muscular armor functions, mostly, as a defense against anxiety, anger, fear, and sexual excitation. Interpersonally, this armor leads to emotional rigidity, poor contact with others, and a feeling of ‘deadness.’ Unlike layers and segments, which are in between parts of the body, armor is in between the person and certain experiencesThe forces producing armor can be described as three types:


Premature Containment. Very small children naturally act upon strong feeling without thinking. Civilization of any type is not possible on that basis. Adults are expected to incorporate thought and belief into final action. For that to happen, feelings need some temporary containment. Alexander Lowen referred to this capacity as self-posession. Self possession allows feelings to inform and motivate cohesive, humane, creative action in the world. However, self-posession is not neurologically possible for a child under six, and only gradually becomes available after that. Caretakers eager to give children a head-start to success often push children to 'control themselves' so they may 'learn' and behave in a way that pleases others. In this situation however, the containment can only be produced with massive muscle tension and breath holding. An example is premature toilet training before the sphincter is myelinated. It must happen with massive tightening of the gluteal and hip muscles. This tension will usually become life-long and certainly undermine the very security that precociousness is supposed to provide!


Traditional cultures make no demands on children under six, but rather control the environment so that the child can come to no harm and do no real harm. Our culture's emphasis on attainment first has made it a temptation and eventually a social norm to hurry children. The ego of the parent may want the child to be special. Because children develop cognitively rapidly at certain points, a small precociousness from being pushed can seem like giftedness when compared to others the exact same age. But as children reach maturity the difference flattens, while the opportunity for self knowledge has been lost, and an insecurity has been instilled.


Horror. Some experiences simply cannot be emotionally processed because they are so contrary to the conditions of nurturing. A small child witnessing parents fighting may be in this situation. Addiction, abuse, violence, manipulation, are all common in families with young children. Abuse of the child by someone who should be taking care of the child is the height of horror. Even an angry look from a parent is horrific to a small child that depends on the parent. A child's body will feel something is very wrong, but the adults will indicate that they accept the situation so the child is torn and must leave his or her body behind by muscle tension, shallow breathing, diminishment of the senses, and dissociation.


Environmental Negation. The environment here is almost always human caretakers. The aliveness of a child is not accepted because it reminds the caretaker of his or her own deadness. The child learns that certain types of movement or expression brings on the wrath of others. The child learns to avoid some behaviors at all costs. Innocence may be negated with abuse. The adults may act like the child is in competition, and the child senses he cannot 'survive' the competition and so must find a way to not compete.


There are two ways to think of armoring phenomenon, as arrested neuromuscular development with some compensatory distortions, or as a imposed change on an already developed function. The former is probably true of 'early' character aspects, especially before age two, and the latter is probably true of armoring that happens at age four and five. That is why bodywork for 'early' problems may best be methodical and developmental, while bodywork for later problems may best be explosive and 'releasing'. It is probably fair to say that both Reich and Lowen emphasized releasing type bodywork.


Limitations based on developmental arrest are unconscious of course--the individual has no way of knowing what they are missing. Limitations based on imposed changes (holding) becomes unconscious. With armor in place, the conscious control no longer has to actively defend against certain impulses or desires. As tenacious as psychological defenses tend to be, they can still slip or be overwhelmed at times, but armor tends to be 'always on.' When armor is fully in play, it it said that a person is exhibiting a 'character defense' and anxiety is fairly low. When armor has been weakened, either through therapy or chance experience, a person is said to be in an 'anxiety defense' An anxiety defense generally will seem more irrational than an armored character defense but within this model may also be thought of as more healthy because problems are closer to awareness even if distorted. It is important to understand that bodywork can precipitate much anxiety, and this is not necessarily a step back.


The word armor of course has a connotation of something that resists penetration. Wilhelm Reich developed the concept because he felt that some psychoanalytic patients were unaffected by in-session interpretations and out-of-session events that 'should' have affected them strongly. It was as if things 'bounced off' them. The name armor implies that the phenomenon comes into existence to fulfill this purpose. That is a teleological explanation, which for biological phenomena, may be misleading. If the purpose is no longer relevant, then the phenomenon should disappear right? This is in fact how many therapist approach the problem--trying to convince the client to 'just drop' the defense, it is no longer needed. That is not how biology works. A more physiologically sound model is allostasis below.


The Amoeba

The amoeba is a one-celled animal, that is, a protozoa. Under a microscope, it can be seen that an amoeba naturally reaches out into its environment. If poked however, the amoeba contracts. What is interesting is that having contracted from the first poke, the amoeba will contract more readily and longer to a second noxious stimulus. The comparison to humans (metazoa) that have been hurt almost makes itself. What is clear with the amoeba, is that this is not a cognitive problem, the amoeba has no brain "to erroneously overgeneralize," or otherwise form a cognitive distortion. Contraction is a biological reaction, not a mental mistake.