Are You a Participant or Are You an Observer? Do you engage with feeling, or analyze from afar?

participant observer

The last of the four genetic elements of temperament is Participant/Observer. We have addressed the other elements – Internalizer/ExternalizerIntrovert/Extrovertand Active/Passive –  as they digest maternal NurtureThe orientation as Participant or Observer determines how one relates to the people and scenarios of the play of consciousness as a whole. A Participant is naturally oriented to be immersed in and emotionally involved with others. He easily and naturally engages through feeling. The natural orientation of an observer, on the other hand, is to process at a distance, rather than be immersed in the feeling relatedness of the scenario of the play. An Observer tends toward thinking, caution, circumspection, reticence, and figuring things out.

For example, let’s say a Participant is diagnosed with lung cancer. From his emotional orientation, he plunges into pain and fear, sadness, despair, and anger. He wells up with tears, cries, and screams that his life is over. An Observer, in the same situation, removes himself to “understand”. He distances himself and analyzes the situation. He discusses the implications. On what is the diagnosis based? What are the survival rates? What are the treatment options? What are the protocols, and what are the side effects of the drugs? “Understand” literally means to “stand under” and evaluate, rather than be immersed in, and feel the scenario. In that sense, he stands outside of it. Nonetheless, the Observer is still a part of the play and subject to its plot. He is in the same situation as a Participant, but is removed and doesn’t feel it. We are all participant/observers of our plays. Our primary orientation is just a matter of where on the participant/observer axis we fall. Some Observers might do well to be more like a Participant and be more engaged and reactive. Whereas some Participants might do well to be more like Observers and pull back and have some perspective.

What happens to an Observer who is subject to abuse and deprivation? An Observer, in the context of abuse, tends toward distancing himself, removal, emotional withdrawal, and obsessing. In fact, in the extreme, when he separates himself from feeling anger, he is literally beside himself (with anger). His natural inclination is to distance himself from feeling the pain of his sadomasochistic drama. The observer strategy is to flee off of the stage of engagement, i.e., flight, not fight. He withdraws and removes himself from emotional absence, rejection, and abuse, as well as from physical abuse. We can see how this works when as a child, he is beaten. The observer response is to withdraw from feeling the sensation of being hit, to numb himself during the beating. Since the beating parent’s goal is to elicit a participatory response from him, to make him cry and beg for mercy, the unintended consequence of observer withdrawal is to increase the attacks and S&M engagement. This does not, of course, remove him from the sadism. In fact, it has the unintended consequence of subjecting him to even more abuse. Hence the Observer temperament contributes to the masochistic position in one’s play.

Emotional absence and rejection is the most important aspect of maternal sadism. The response to the pain of Mother’s absence and rejection, for the Observer, is to remove himself emotionally. He takes flight from the inhospitable stage of the theater of consciousness. This withdrawal protects his unloved self by a hibernation from the maternal nuclear winter. His Authentic Being does not die. It remains inaccessible, timelessly removed in an coma. This Observer, removed from his Authentic Being, becomes emotionally withdrawn and inaccessible. “I am a rock. I am an island.” He becomes cold and removed, like his mother.

A Participant, in the context of abuse, tends toward over emotionalism, loss of control, and boundary blurring with others. For example, sexual and/or physical abuse as a child, may well result in filling the emptiness inside with impulsivity, aggression, heightened and falsely dramatic feeling states, sexual promiscuity, shifting scenario frames, minimal perspective, intense superficial attachments, sado-masochistic enactments, labile emotional states, and mood shifts from excitement to suicidal despair.

All four elements of temperament work in concert to form our unique play of consciousness. Remember, temperament is the ‘Nature’ that fields maternal ‘Nurture’ Not only do each of us have a unique constellation of temperament, but every person has a specific balance for each temperamental dynamic. Each element of temperament is on an axis, on which there is a prevailing position. This is true for all four elements. Not only that, but one or another of the four temperamental elements may be more pronounced and powerful than the other ones. This would make that specific element of temperament more influential in the formation of one’s personality. I want to emphasize that by temperament, we are talking about inborn temperamental styles, not pathology. The individual array of our temperamental aspects, when digesting parental nurture, create the varied and wonderful scope of human personality. Our cortical imagination, oriented by our temperament, writes a specific and nuanced character world in each of us, which is as unique as our fingerprints. Remember that it is the degree of abuse that is digested into our plays that generates suffering. Temperament merely determines the specifics of the expression of that pain into psychiatric symptoms.

Since all of us have both aspects of each temperamental pair in us, the full scope of the human drama lies within the consciousness of all of us. We have within our imaginations, all of the features of all character worlds. In fact, we dip into aspects of many of them in our daily lives. We all have the potential for love, caring, creativity, selfishness, cruelty, abandonments, emotional isolation, projective blaming, rage, egotism, fears, anxiety, so-called depression, flight from unwanted moments, fraudulence, emptiness, helplessness, and hopelessness in our routine living. This is the stuff of human drama. Each of us settles on our particular character drama as our major life solution. I propose that these four elements of temperament, as they digest our nurture, represent how the brain actually operates as it constructs our plays in consciousness, and that they encompass and determine the full spectrum of human character.

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