The schizoid dilemma

What is ‘the schizoid dilemma’?

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It’s a common misconception that schizoids don’t want relationships (whether they be sexual/romantic relationships or platonic ones).

But this isn’t the case.

Many schizoids do want companionship, or at the very least, some sort of connection with others.

But the fear of what that companionship might bring – e.g., impingement, engulfment, loss of self  – keeps the schizoid socially distant. 

The schizoid finds safety in solitude. However, it doesn’t offer complete solace.  Indeed, there can come a point when the schizoid feels they’ve become too detached from other people. As a result, a profound sense of isolation can set in, to such an extent they fear they’ve become lost to the world, that they’ve ‘disappeared’. 

But the schizoid knows, should they attempt to reach out and reconnect with others, agony and anxiety will be experienced then too. 

This is what’s known as the schizoid dilemma. 

“It seems to me that as you try to connect (share, get close, communicate, take a risk), you feel unsafe (anxious, in danger, imposed on, intruded on), and then you withdraw (retreat, shut down, turn off, go into exile) in order to feel safe (free, in control, self-possessed, self-contained). However, this place of safety brings with it its own anxieties (dangers, alienation, isolation, disconnection, despair).” 

Ralph Klein, in Disorders of the Self: New Therapeutic Horizons: The Masterson Approach edited by James F. Masterson and Ralph Klein (2015) 

Self in exile vs slave 

Not only is this “conflict between the need for contact and need for distance” incredibly common amongst schizoid people – it’s also considered “the distinguishing characteristic” of the schizoid (Klein). 

Ralph Klein, building on the work of Harry Guntrip, developed two concepts to explain the schizoid dilemma – the ‘sadistic object/self-in-exile unit’ and the ‘master/slave unit’.

The ‘sadistic object/self-in-exile unit’ is the ‘nonattached unit’. This is how the schizoid relates to others when they are socially detached. 

The schizoid avoids getting close to others because they fear being controlled, attacked, destroyed by them.  So to protect themselves, they go into ‘exile’; they shun relationships and become solitary. This nonattachment unit – the self-in-exile – is “home” for the schizoid (Klein). 

However, “some schizoid persons go too far in their efforts to achieve” such a “safe place” (Klein). They enter an abyss of aloneness.  Completely cut off, untethered, the schizoid becomes aware of:

“the terror that awaits if one loses or relinquishes the capacity to communicate with others.  This potential primal agony or unthinkable anxiety works as a counterforce against all the schizoid patient’s defensive efforts to withdraw, retreat, and find safety from the sadistic-object world” (Klein). 

This anxiety propels the schizoid to emerge from their solitude and attach to others again. 

But for the schizoid, being in relationship turns out to be every bit as excruciating as total isolation. 

This is because the schizoid’s  ‘attached unit’ is the ‘master/slave unit’. They experience other people as “manipulating, coercive, and appropriating” (Klein).  They are unable to set boundaries and therefore go along with what the other person wants; they end up feeling engulfed, taken over, and lose their sense of self.   

And so what does the schizoid do? They go into exile again. 

The schizoid experiences some degree of pain whether they are alone or attached. When it comes to social connection, the “choice is to be enslaved or to be in exile… This is truly Hobson’s choice for the schizoid patient, the essence of the schizoid dilemma” (Klein). 

References and further reading

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One response to “The schizoid dilemma”

  1. Another thoughtful and interesting post!

    From my own experience, I would describe the pain of social interaction to be acute while the experience of social isolation to be more of a chronic lower-grade affliction that is always there. I would not say that I experience loneliness, but rather I suffer from an occasional lack of social stimulation. I like being able to control my interactions with others, preferably at a distance or with some sort of buffer.

    I sometimes wonder what I will do when (if?) I outlive my parents, who are my only source of real interaction. For me, the effort of maintaining friendships of any sort just requires more effort and annoyance than it is worth.

    Liked by 1 person

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