Home Concepts Interpersonal Relationships Piercing the Armor: Professional Coaching and Vulnerability

Piercing the Armor: Professional Coaching and Vulnerability

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A very controversial (and some would say “mad”) psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich (1980), provided a very insightful observation about the “Character Armor” that some of us wear as a way to protect against vulnerability.  We see this character armor in people with whom we associate (and perhaps in ourselves) through a pattern of rigid behavior and seeming indifference to the interactions of people around them. It is not that these men and women are sociopaths or hermits living in a cave—they work with and around other people and are often quite effective in getting their work done and monitoring the work of fellow employees. And these folks clearly care about those with whom they live and work – it is just that this caring attitude doesn’t show up very often.

The Armor of Uniforms and Roles

Sometimes, we see armor that people wear in more visible ways. They are wearing uniforms and are often engaged in roles that relate to safety and life-and-death issues: police officers, firemen, military, physicians, judges – even the armor of the C-Suite coat-and-tie (tailored dress or pants suits for female execs). The armor seems in one sense to be very appropriate and justified for these men and women. It is a matter of collusion: we want these uniformed men and women to be error-free. So, they must pretend to be error-free or, better yet, wearing the armor, they come to believe themselves that their decisions and actions are error-free. They need to eliminate (or at least reduce) their own cognitive dissonance: I must believe that I make no mistakes or I am undeserving of this uniform and the people’s trust in me.  They are vulnerable to vulnerability (the shattering of their image). Who do they turn to for help – other members of their same role-group?

A “softer” version of Reich’s character armor is to be found in the description of “persona” by Carl Jung and his associates (Jung, 1955). As a prominent psychoanalyst who broke away from Freud, Jung suggests that all of us carry around and present to other people a “mask” (persona) that allows us to present a self that is appropriate to the specific setting in which we find ourselves. While this persona can be changed somewhat from one setting to another, it tends to become rather stiff and unchanging as we grow older or as we begin work in a specific job and are assigned a specific role in our family and society.  The persona not only enables us to act in a predictable manner (which is reassuring to other people with whom we interact) but also enables us to “engineer” our own presentation self: we can be kind, humorous, challenging, aloof, earthy . . .  whatever works best for us. Most importantly, our persona protects us from vulnerability.

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