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Josephs, L. (1994). Empathic Character Analysis. Am. J. Psychoanal., 54(1):41-54.

(1994). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 54(1):41-54

Empathic Character Analysis

Lawrence Josephs, Ph.D.

To speak of empathic character analysis could seem like an oxymoron to those who associate the term character analysis with the approach of Wilhelm Reich (1928). Reich's seminal work could be seen as the prototype of active and confrontational approaches to the analysis of defense and resistance. Such approaches by virtue of fostering an adversarial relationship with the patient have been thought to be lacking in empathy for the patient's narcissistic vulnerability. Kohut (1984) contrasted what he called the “penetration-to-the-unconscious-via-the-overcoming-of-resistances model” (p. 113) with a view of resistance as “a valuable move to safeguard the self, however weak and defensive it may be, against destruction and invasion” (p. 141). It is thought to be more empathic to treat character resistances as self-affirmative survival tactics rather than as self-defeating, self-alienating, affect-avoiding strategies that block psychological growth and express covert hostility toward others. Yet a potential liability in working with character resistances solely in terms of their self-affirmative function is to end up treating the patient with “kid gloves,” implying that the patient is so fragile or so suggestible as to be incapable of tolerating being challenged, questioned, or confronted with alternative perspectives to the patient's own subjective point of view.

The analyst must achieve a dynamic balance somewhere between being “a bull in a china shop” at the one extreme and “walking on eggs” with the patient at the other extreme. Technical controversies in the field have tended to become polarized resulting in either/or approaches to treatment. What must be sustained is a dialectical approach in which the analyst need not phobically avoid being confrontational for fear of being experienced as unempathic and in which the analyst need not phobically avoid empathizing with the self-affirmative function of characterological adaptions without fear of colluding with unconsciously defensive attitudes that block the progress of the analysis.

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