Freudian Views on Schizoid Personality Disorder

Is schizoid detachment a deficit? No—it’s a defense.

Posted Oct 18, 2019

In general, the Freudian perspective can be contrasted with descriptive psychiatry for its focus on unconscious processes, conflicts, intrapsychic dynamics, and early-childhood experiences rather than the classification of disorders and surface symptoms (Bornstein, 2006; Havens, 1981; Westen, 1998).

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When it comes to schizoid personality disorder, a central difference between the psychoanalytic and the predominant descriptive accounts in contemporary academic psychology and psychiatry is that the former views detachment—a hallmark of the schizoid personality—as a defense that masks intense, over-stimulating, and painful emotional experience (e.g., McWilliams 2005; Ahktar 1987). In contrast, the dominant clinical framework views the schizoid person's detachment as a genuine lack of desire for social relationships, accompanied by social-cognitive deficits (Millon & Everly, 1985; DSM-IV, APA, 1994; see Livesley et al., 1985 for a review). 


Ahktar (1987) and Silverstein (2006) provided excellent reviews of the psychoanalytic views of isolated, detached, and withdrawn individuals. Ahktar (1987) pointed out that Freud’s concept of the “narcissistic personality” corresponded closely with present-day conceptions of schizoid individuals, conceivably understand as an inwardly directed libido (see e.g., Ahktar, 1987). According to Millon & Davis (1996, p. 45), Freud explained their psychic structure in terms of a weak, inhibited, or lacking super-ego and id in contrast to the overly developed and active ego. This narcissistic “structural organization” has been viewed as tied to their:

(a) indifference towards others and a lack of social connectedness (i.e., in the context of their inactive super-ego);
(b) lack of aggressive or sexual urges (in connection to their lacking id);
and (c) excessive concern with internal experience, thoughts, and imagination (in the context of their over-active ego) (see Millon & Davis, 1996, p.45).

Defense Style
Millon and Davis (1996; also see, Ahktar, 1987) reported that Reich postulated that common pathological character structures could be explained in terms of an inflexible, longstanding defense style that expanded to all facets of an individual’s personality. Reich (1945/1972) described personality styles as “character armor” in the context of their defensive function which he viewed as the result of an individual’s longstanding characteristic coping style that originated as a response to recurrent early childhood conflicts. Reich (1945/1972) viewed social isolation in schizoid individuals as a characterological defense mechanism against threatening and destabilizing, sexual and aggressive drives (Silverstein, 2006, p. 46; see also Ahktar, 1987; Millon, 1981; Millon & Davis, 1996 for reviews).  Reich (1945/1972) also identified depersonalization as characteristic of the schizoid personality type, highlighting their lack of connectedness to the external world and other people. Millon and Davis, (1996, p. 222) reported that Deutsch indicated that schizoid individuals possessed an “as-if” personality in which they go through the motions of life without actually feeling connected to anyone or anything, in a sense acting in ways that they know are appropriate but without any genuine feelings underneath (see Bernstein & Travaglini, 1999 for a review).


However, Silverstein (2006) also reported that schizoid interpersonal detachment could result from an intense subjective emptiness rather than as a defense against overwhelming drives. Silverstein (2006) reported that Melanie Klein viewed schizoid isolation as a primitive, regressed state of being in which splitting predominates (see Ahktar, 1987; Millon, 1981; Millon & Davis, 1996 for reviews). Klein (1996) reportedly hypothesized that schizoid individuals withdraw, detach, and isolate because of their split object representations (i.e., they project the dangerous, threatening, and persecutory—in other words, aggressive—aspects of themselves onto others in order to maintain a positive, sustainable view of the self) which results in the perception of dangerous, threatening others that need to be kept at a distance (Ahktar, 1987; Silverstein, 2006).

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More recent, British object-relational views of isolated, withdrawn, and detached individuals, such as Fairbairn (1952) and Guntrip (1969), see solitary, disconnected, and emotionally cut-off lifestyles as the product of maternal deprivation during early childhood which resulted in them equating relationships with emotional pain and traumatic experience, seeing others as persecutory (see Ahktar, 1987; and, Silverstein, 2006, for reviews). Guntrip (1969) identified the need to escape from external reality into one’s thoughts, fantasies, or subjective reality as a core characteristic of the schizoid character structure. He viewed this need as stemming from intense fears of a mental collapse in the context of primitive, unmet needs for safety and nurturance as well as the perception of a frightening and daunting environment (Guntrip, 1969, p. 87; also see Winnicott, 1965).

Guntrip (1969) reported that the schizoid personality has its roots in early infancy and described adult schizoid behavior—withdrawal into passivity, isolation, and internal reality—as symbolically and etiologically based in Melanie Klein’s description of the schizoid position. Guntrip (1969) postulated that recurrent early infantile experiences of being uncared for, unprotected, and unsafe in connection to caregivers and other people leads to a personality pattern characterized by the habitual turning away from one’s environment and relationships towards solitude, inactivity, and imagination—or the womb in symbolic terms—for safety. Somewhat consistent with descriptive psychiatry views, the British Object-Relational school identified schizoid individuals as not typically psychotic but on the border of schizophrenia (Silverstein, 2006).

In sum, the British object-relational school emphasized depersonalization—not being present, feeling dejected, alienated, rejected, detached, as well as experiencing the world as surreal—in addition to a subjective sense of one’s inability to form meaningful interpersonal relationships as core schizoid features (e.g., Guntrip, 1969; see Ahktar, 1987; Millon, 1981; Millon & Davis, 1996; Silverstein, 2006, for reviews).