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Talking to a Schizoid Personality

Nourishing the "empty" self of schizoid depersonalization.

Key points

  • A disturbing feeling of a hollow or empty self usually has a distinctive connotation of the uncanny and estrange, resembling depersonalization.
  • Dereism is the separation of associations from experience.
  • The development of therapeutic relationships is built on the characterological constitution of schizoid personality.

Schizoid is a paradox: a mixture of the unmixable and a combination of the incompatible. A sullen and cold outsider writes sensitive, insightful poetry.

A withdrawn and aloof hermit agonizes from loneliness and abandonment—a gifted loser who knows everything but is unable to accomplish anything.

Schizoid can be an enigma: an eccentric mathematician, murky philosopher, or dazzling artist. But schizoid can also bear a stigma: outcast or even destitute. Although many famous people have schizoid characters, a discriminative attitude still occurs—as if there is something shamefully wrong with being a schizoid.

This paradox reads in the very term: “schizis,” which means ‘split’ or ‘separation’ in Ancient Greek.1 Schizoid designates a character of discordance that is often compared to a disharmonic orchestra: the melody of musical composition is broken (split) into disconnected parts of separate instruments.

Therapy with schizoids reveals another side of the paradox. The different, distant, and detached schizoid has a textbook disinterest in relationships. As therapy means relationships, formal logic suggests the least affinity between schizoid traits and therapy. However–on the very contrary–clinical reality overruns this formal logic. The studies of schizoid factors conducted by Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn mark the relational revolution in psychology and the development of relational psychotherapy.

Fairbairn discovers the meaning of subjective internal relationships—a person’s reflections on her past, present, or future, her thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and fantasies—as building blocks of her personality. The type of character most prone to such reflection is schizoid, often preoccupied with intense introspection, analyzing her fears, memories, ideas, and dreams.

The famous metaphor of schizoid character given by German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer helps to understand this relational discovery and its application to therapy. Kretschmer compares schizoid to an antique Roman villa with its plain appearance and tightly closed shutters behind which lush, exuberant parties occur.

Schizoid, like an antique Roman villa, shows an unexpressive appearance with the tightly closed shutters of detachment, behind which inner fantasies flourish. The shutters symbolize the very schizis that divide the schizoid’s external appearance and internal world. Misled by its plain façade, a passerby overlooks the eventfulness of what is going on inside the villa. All lush, exuberant happenings behind the shutters remain unnoticed by such a passerby. The passerby can even think there is no life inside, and the villa is empty.

A therapist with the approach of this passerby looks at schizoid and sees her removed indifference, not only missing her internal experiences but also overlooking the very shutters of schizis.

A perceptive therapist looks at the same indifferent façade of schizoid but sees much more. Noticing the closed shutters of detachment, this therapist tries to catch some glimpses of what is happening behind them.

Covered by the shutters of schizis, inner fantasies, anxieties, and hopes are often symbolically connected to significant—both traumatic and encouraging - life experiences. Unfolding the knots of internal schizoid imagery helps diminish the tension of schizis. Therapy lessens the dissonance between thinking and feeling as well as the discord between the life in the “objective” external reality of other people, things, and events and the life in subjective internal imagery. The shutters of schizis become less tight, opening a way toward some integration of the world around and fantasies within.

Schizoids’ ability to reflect on their fantasies helped Fairbairn advance his relational theory. Schizoids’ abilities to reflect on their fantasies hold solid potential to facilitate therapy and improve the life of schizoids. But there is another side to this coin. Some measure of reflection enhances the understanding of inner imagery. But overwhelming relentless ruminations can twist this process, creating the feeling of empty self.

This vicious circle of ruminating can be compared with the impact of sunlight on the perception of an object. Without light, the object remains invisible. Sunlight helps to see the object clearly and sharply. But excessively bright and strong sunlight distorts perception with glare, blurring, or dark spots. The vicious circle of ruminating eviscerates the inner world of schizoid. Thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and dreams fade in the burning sunshine of exhausting self-analysis. ‘Alive’ and real subjective experiences are turned into unreal “fake” shadows.

This disturbing feeling of the hollow or empty self usually has a distinctive connotation of the uncanny and estrange, resembling depersonalization phenomena. Sometimes it is called schizoid depersonalization. Eugen Bleuler, the father of the conception of schizis and the author of both terms–schizophrenia and schizoid–coins the special term dereism (from Latin ‘de res’–‘far from matter’ or ‘away from reality’).

Bleuler sees dereism as depersonalization and at the same time as one of the forms of schizis: “The separation of associations from experience.” The phenomenon of digital depersonalization2 includes some elements of dereism.

The emotional factor plays a critical role in nourishing an empty self. Due to splitting, the paradoxical schizoid’s emotional life is often torn apart by contradictory ambivalent feelings. Schizoid anxiously seeks therapy and longs to reveal her fear, but at the same time freezes in fear and distrust; or retires in her shell, apathetic and aloof.

At one moment, a therapist deals with a cold, removed, and unperceptive person. It feels impossible to reach her and conduct therapy. However, the next moment, this person becomes delicate, sharp, observant and open to meaningful dialogue. The therapist’s emotional openness, loving assertiveness, and understanding presence help a patient find a way toward more balance between the outside and inside of the shutters of schizis.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Bezzubova E. (2020): Virtual self and digital depersonalization: between existential dasein and digital design. Mind and Matter 18 (1), 91-110.

[1] Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler advanced the conception of mental disease, ‘schizophrenia’ (split of soul/mind) and ‘schizoid’ character in 1911. About a decade later Ernst Kretschmer published his classical treatise on constitution that included comprehensive studies of schizoid phenomena.

[2] Bezzubova E. (2020): Virtual self and digital depersonalization: between existential dasein and digital dsesign. Mind and Matter 18 (1), 91-110.

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