What is schizoid personality?
The term derives from the Greek word denoting a split or division. Originally in psychology the term meant a personality divided against itself. Schizis was seen as one of the hallmarks of dementia praecox, or schizophrenia. The schizoid personality was regarded as a less extreme or less complete form of schizophrenia. The schizoid individual was seen as prone to developing the psychotic symptoms typical of schizophrenia.
Today schizophrenia and most other psychotic disorders are seen as requiring a particular defect in the brain, or in its chemistry. Neither stress alone, nor quirks of personality by themselves, are sufficient to make an individual lose contact with reality so radically. Some persons seem to have the gene (if there is one) for schizophrenia without having developed the full-blown disorder. Today these persons are called schizotypal. The schizoid individual is something else again.
The schizoid individual is one who tends to avoid contact with people.
The current nomenclature actually distinguishes two kinds of persons who avoid contact with people. One person would like the contact but feels shy, anxious, or inferior, and is painfully sensitive to actual or fancied rejection. These are the persons whom others see as aloof, and who feel misunderstood as a consequence. If they hold themselves apart, it is because of fear, not disdain. This kind of individual has been called the avoidant personality.
The personality today called schizoid is the other kind, the kind that is more genuinely aloof, the kind that avoids people not out of fear but because he or she does not get much pleasure from interpersonal contact. These are the people who prefer to be alone, or who are more interested in animals or in inanimate nature, or in ideas or books.
None of these sometimes recondite interests are, of course, entirely devoid of what we might call human interest. The schizoid individual seems able to relate to people best when the relationship is indirect, by imagined dialogue with a book’s author, for example.
The psychoanalyst believes that the schizoid individual is no different from the avoidant, except that in the schizoid, the longing for relationship is so much more deeply hidden that it is unconscious. The schizoid person is not aware of, or needs to defend against, his or her interest in people, so goes the psychoanalytic reasoning. Usually it takes psychoanalytic interpretation to bring out the hidden social interest in the schizoid individual. The avoidant individual, on the other hand, knows and can tell you (provided he or she feels safe enough with you, and can overcome the shame) about his or her longings for interpersonal contact.
Psychoanalysts thus do not like the distinction between the avoidant and the schizoid individual, despite the contrast between the usually indifferent and calm manner of the schizoid on the one hand, and the anxiety and shame of the avoidant on the other.
English psychoanalysts Ronald Fairbairn and Harry Guntrip did the most to call attention to schizoid problems. They went so far as to assert that schizoid pathology was at the core of most problems seen by psychotherapists.
This formulation assumes that the natural or healthy human condition is to want to relate to other people, indeed to place relationships with people in first place. Where this motivation is not evident, it would mean that something must have happened to make the wish recede into unconsciousness.
Is it not possible, however, that the schizoid’s apparent comfort with the way he or she is should be taken more seriously than the psychoanalysts believe?
Clearly the schizoid individual sees human relationships very differently than do others. The schizoid individual sees more of the pain, and less of the pleasure, of relating. Fairbairn and Guntrip have proposed some ways that the young child learns such a viewpoint. There may also be some innate mechanisms that predispose a person to enjoy being with people less, and to need more time and space to be alone. (Schizoid characteristics are a matter of degree. Fairbairn and Guntrip envisioned a schizoid core in a variety of disorders and personality types.) Melanie Klein, another analyst of the so-called British school, first called attention to the intimate connection between schizoid and paranoid conditions. The paranoid individual is ever-alert to threats and readily sees himself or herself as the object, potentially at least, of persecution of one sort or another. Underlying the persecutory perspective is a grandiose one, in which the person views himself or herself as larger than life in some way — important enough to be a target for persecutors, important enough to be central to their plotting.
The underlying hallmarks of schizoid personality are fear of engagement with people and proneness to shame. Schizoid persons avoids other people — some by keeping to themselves in an obvious way, some by making their dealings with others indirect in various ways. The schizoid individual does not necessarily start out defiant, but can become defiant if treated a certain way.
Yet schizoid personality has been equated with introversion, which according to C. G. Jung is one of the two basic attitudes with which people approach the world. Jung reviewed much of the history of Western thought, and found that introversion and extraversion are equally valid and viable modes of existence. He also found, long before the times of pop psychology and its exaltation of “relating,” that the present age is an extraverted one that does not tolerate introversion. Freud considered introversion to be an unhealthy turning inward of psychic energy (libido) that was supposed to be directed outward and enlisted in the service of obtaining gratifications from relations with others. For Freud this meant sexual relations, directly or indirectly. Later developments in psychoanalysis (“object relations”) desexualized libido and made relationship the main motivator of human action and emotion. Extraversion became the norm of psychological health. The schizoid individual is considered unhealthy because he or she does not desire, or find the greatest fulfillment in, full and direct relationship with others.
Not everyone is like that, however, and it seems more useful to try to understand these differences between people rather than set up one pole of the continuum as the aspirational norm and dismiss the other as a problem or defect. The “English school” of psychoanalytic object relations says that schizoid problems originate in earliest childhood.
For Jung, introversion and extraversion are not primarily a matters of sociability or its absence. The introvert processes information differently than the extravert. The introvert looks to himself or herself and prefers to think things through before committing himself or herself to action. The extravert prefers to take action right away and see what the results are. It is tempting to compare introversion to philosophy and extraversion to the scientific method. Jung might have said that we are living in an age of empiricism in which philosophical reflection is suspect. Yet are both not necessary for a complete picture of the world? It seems that nearly everyone will show a predilection for one orientation or the other. In fact, those few who do not show a clear preference for the extraverted or the introverted pole seem to be at a disadvantage. If the schizoid person is at one extreme of the vast range of human social behavior, then one may wonder who is at the other, hyper-sociable end.
Schizoid persons are not necessarily interested in either the relationship or the self-exploration involved in psychotherapy. Even so, one might be perplexed and troubled by the pressure to be more social, or more authentically social. Coping with being different from others is often difficult, and psychotherapy can help with acquiring the necessary skills, but also with acceptance of one’s differences.
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