Prison of Permissiveness:
Understanding Adolescent Misery Today
Thomas Wind, D.O.
Adolescents have always been miserable, experiencing anxiety, pain, conflict, frustration, and anger in their relations with parents and with the opposite sex. In fact, adolescent difficulties in establishing independence and assuming the responsibilities of adulthood are as old as history itself. Is anything different today? Yes. Adolescent misery is worse in intensity, even more widespread, and its character has changed. The adolescent of today is also different from his or her counterpart prior to 1960. These phenomena can best be understood in the context of what has happened to our society and to the individual since that time.
In Ether, God and Devil, Reich wrote: “If today or tomorrow the authoritarian state organization were suddenly abolished so that people could do as they pleased, not freedom but chaos would result, years of utter disorientation would have to pass before the human race would learn to live according to the principles of natural self-regulation.” (1)
This hypothetical possibility described by Reich in the late 1940s has become the reality everyone must contend with at the end of the 1990s. The current chaotic social environment based on contempt for authority imprisons our youth as surely as if it formed walls around them. This leaves adolescents with no solid foundation on which to build their lives, leaving them trapped in a state of misery.
To understand what has happened there are four things to consider:
- The nature of individual armor.
- The nature of social armor.
- The breakdown of authoritarian social and individual armor that has occurred in the last fifty years.
- The development of a new, more destructive form of armor that has taken the place of the older form of authoritarian armor.
The Nature of Individual Armor
The individual’s armor is the root cause of adolescent misery because it distorts bioenergetic, emotional, and sexual functioning. Armor with its destructive effects was discovered by Wilhelm Reich, who began his work in the early 1920s as a psychoanalyst. He soon distinguished himself and was appointed by Freud to teach psychoanalytic technique. In this capacity and in his own clinical work, Reich observed that the individual’s character, with its chronic, rigid attitudes, served a defensive, emotionally protective function. He also observed that those with rigid character attitudes had chronic muscular rigidity and that both served the same defensive function. Because of this, he called these rigidities characterologic and muscular “armor.”
In The Function of the Orgasm Reich defined character as, “an individual’s typical structure, his stereotyped manner of acting and reacting” and the character armor as “the sum total of typical character attitudes, which an individual develops as a blocking against his emotional excitations, resulting in rigidity of the body, lack of emotional contact, ‘deadness.'” (2)
Reich developed character-analysis, a technique to dissolve character armor. Character attitudes are identified in the course of treatment and pointed out to the patient. Examples include the “nice little girl” (who never gets angry), the “strong, brave boy” (who never shows fear and sadness), and the aloof, “superior” intellectual (who is “above it all”). As the attitude is consistently pointed out, the patient begins to recognize and feel that his attitude is holding him back. He can no longer easily be so “nice,” “brave” or “superior,” and underlying feelings emerge.
After Reich discovered muscular armor, he had the patient breathe more deeply and he worked directly on spastic muscles to relieve their chronic contraction. As this occurred, feelings held in the tense musculature surfaced, and Reich encouraged their expression. He also found that with the dissolution of enough character and muscular armor patients reported experiencing sensations of “currents” or of “streamings” in their body. He later discovered that these sensations are the perception of the movement of a real life energy. He named this energy “orgone,” the currents “orgonotic streaming,” and the treatment to dissolve characterologic and muscular armor “medical orgone therapy.”
There are three basic layers of the emotional structure of every armored individual:
- The superficial veneer or social facade.
- The secondary or great middle layer, home of armor and the neurotic character, where the sum of all the repressions has built up, resulting in destructive forces such as rage, spite, sadism, contempt, etc.
- The healthy core, the home of the individual’s nature, what he is born with, and the source of healthy, primary impulses and excitation. Here is the simple, decent individual below all irrational impulses and inhibitions. Were it not for the armor, the healthy core would govern the individual’s life and he would be capable of self-regulation. This means that the individual can identify his feelings and needs and find constructive ways to express and satisfy them. Self-regulation requires the capacity both for self-expression and for rational self-restraint.
In its primary protective function armor guards against painful inner feelings and holds back expression of the destructive secondary layer. This stabilizes the individual although at considerable cost—it reduces his energy level and limits his capacity to function. Most importantly, the capacity for self-regulation is lost or diminished. When self-regulation is lost, moral regulation based on fear of authority or guilt becomes necessary. Also, if armoring is insufficient, anxiety may break through or destructive impulses from the secondary layer.
Another consequence of armor is a state of inner deadness or contactlessness. The primary meaning of contact, derived from the Latin “with touch,” is a meeting or touching, close union, a personal connection. In orgonomic science the meaning is further refined to include “the perception of excitation,” and both perception and excitation are understood to be functions of orgonotic streaming. Because armor blocks the free movement of orgone, the armored individual always has diminished or distorted sensations, emotions, and contact with himself, with others, and with the world. This disturbance of contact is called “contactlessness.”
The Nature of Social Armor
Just as the rational forces of love and work sustain natural, individual functioning, so do these same forces determine natural social processes. And, just as individual human armor binds energy and distorts functioning, so, too, does social armor bind society’s energy and distort its functioning, giving rise to social pathology and sociopolitical ideology.
For the purposes of this presentation social armor can be defined by describing some of its manifestations, such as:
- Irrational rigidity in social institutions (the family, organized religion, the military, educational institutions, the government, etc.).
- The ideologies from which this rigidity arises.
- Mechanism and mysticism, which are the two antithetical forms of armored thought shared by masses of people.
Mechanism views all life functions to be as predictable as machines. As Reich wrote, the mechanistic man “thinks mechanistically, produces mechanistic tools and forms a mechanistic concept of nature.” For example, emotional illness is seen only as the result of irrational beliefs, or disordered brain chemicals and receptors, or genes. Social pathology is seen as the result of ignorance, economic factors, and so forth. Accordingly, if only the right educational intervention or the right chemical treatment can be found, any emotional illness or social problem can be cured. Taken to its extreme, every human problem can be solved by intellectually understanding its mechanics. This assertion is a mechanistic cornerstone of authority. Mechanistic thought cannot meaningfully apprehend the destructiveness of the secondary layer because it does not acknowledge the difference between the healthy core and the secondary layer.
Directly opposed to mechanism is mysticism, which senses life energy but cannot understand it and therefore attributes it to spirits, forces, or values outside oneself. In this view, for example, emotional illness is seen as a symptom of moral weakness, sin, or spiritual conflict of the individual. And although the destructiveness of the secondary layer is acknowledged, as is the difference between the core and the secondary layer, this difference is understood in terms of good and evil forces, such as God and the Devil. Taken to its extreme, problems resulting from human destructive impulses are unsolvable except through the miraculous intervention of a higher power. This assertion is a mystical cornerstone of authority.
Although mechanism and mysticism are in direct opposition to one another, in traditional authoritarian society they work together to support patriarchal authority. Neither of these views can apprehend the role orgone energy, armor, and the incapacity for sexual satisfaction play in emotional illness and social pathology.
Consider the myth of adolescent life in the 1950s depicted by the popular media in Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. In those TV shows the adolescent is portrayed as asexual. He lives in a loving, stable home in a caring, cloistered, church-going neighborhood. No one questions the authority of the father, the church, the school, and the police, or the validity of the scientist’s prediction that life will be better for all through modern technology. The opposing forces of mechanism and mysticism can be seen here clearly supporting each other.
The two major forms of socio-political ideology are conservatism, which is based on socially armored thinking in the form of mysticism, and liberalism, which is based on socially armored thinking in the form of mechanism. Differences in socio-political ideology are in part derived from differing patterns of armor—the conservative defends himself primarily by means of muscular holding throughout the body and the liberal by means of holding predominantly in the brain.
Generally the political right serves to maintain and conserve social institutions and ways of life, while the political left strives to change existing social institutions. When equal, the constant opposition between these forces maintains a state of social equilibrium and stability. When social armor on the left and on the right is intact, the masses function most rationally in their daily social activities. Irrationalism is minimal and most individuals are apolitical.
Social armor and individual armor are closely interrelated. Social armor, in particular the structure of the family, perpetuates individual armor and has a profound effect on the forms of individual armor that are produced in each new generation. At the same time, the specific forms of individual armor that appear in each new generation determine what type of society will be constructed as the older generation passes away. Social armor’s primary function is to preserve armored society, just as an individual’s armor preserves his ability to function, albeit in a diminished capacity. In the same manner that individual armor helps to contain destructive impulses from expression, social armor helps to contain cultural forces that could bring about the collapse of the existing social system.
The Breakdown of Authoritarian Social and Individual Armor
More than fifty years ago the shift in society away from repressive authoritarianism began to accelerate. In the 1960s, people more openly rebelled against authority. They demanded freedom, took drugs, and vowed to “make love, not war.” Like parents throughout the ages, they were determined to give their children a better life than they had had—in this case to raise them differently. Blocked by their own armor, however, they could not fully appreciate the difficulties involved in raising healthy children. Thinking they were freeing their children from the repressive effects of authority and rebelling against traditional values, they adopted an attitude of permissiveness. The result has been a progressive breakdown of the authoritarian social structure characterized by the following stages.
First, there is a weakening of the authoritarian family. Because armored individuals reproduce armoring in their offspring in the context of the authoritarian family, its weakening has resulted in new generations with less and less muscular armor and consequently more individual anxiety and a diminished capacity for self-restraint. At the same time ocular armor has intensified, increasing perceptual distortion and supporting impulsivity. The effect of these changes has allowed the secondary layer to break through with increased expression of destructive social behavior and pregenital sexuality (criminality, drug use, cheating, pornography, promiscuity, sado-masochistic sexual practices, etc.). While these forms of neurotic behavior are not new, their incidence has significantly increased and that which was suppressed or hidden in the past is increasingly and openly revealed. The phrase “let it all hang out” was popular, although few would have predicted it’s more destructive and sadistic correlate—”in your face.”
In reaction, social anxiety has increased, as have efforts to overcome this unease. Examples of these contactless substitute activities include the epidemic of alcohol abuse among teenagers and young adults, “hooking up” (the trivialization of the heterosexual relationship), the proliferation of mysticism and mystical practices, and the wholesale embrace of technology without regard for possible adverse effects.
Next, there has been a further loss of contact with the biological core, giving rise to personal and social alienation, cynicism, and a feeling of helplessness in dealing with social problems. For example, imagine the reaction of parents in the 1950s on learning their children listen to music glorifying the murder of police officers and rape. They would not have felt the helplessness or cynicism that many modern parents feel.
Finally, increasing disillusionment with and breakdown of the established mechano-mystical social order has occurred. With patriarchal authority held in contempt, mechanism and mysticism no longer form opposing pillars supporting each other and society. They have become mutually exclusive and antagonistic, each seeking to discredit the other, fueling further disillusionment and loss of respect for authority.
Several factors have contributed to the breakdown of the authoritarian social order. Most importantly, neither mechanistic science nor mysticism had been able to provide satisfactory solutions for the many serious problems confronting mankind as the first half of the twentieth century came to a close. Two world wars had devastated human society and uprooted people from their settled ways of living.
The activity of the modern liberal character has also contributed to the disintegration of the authoritarian family. The modern liberal is fundamentally different from the true liberal. For example, both the true liberal and the traditional conservative can agree that work is the solution to the material needs of human beings and can cooperate to establish social institutions that support individual responsibility for work and its just compensation. The modern liberal, on the other hand, feels profound contempt for such solutions, which he expresses as sarcasm, and under the guise of “caring” intervenes in people’s lives in a way that interferes with their motivation and capacity to work. For example, modern liberal legislators and judges undermine the authority of an employer to discipline or to fire the hostile employee who is disrupting the work environment and making his co-workers miserable in the process.
The modern liberal inflicts the same type of damage on adolescents when he interferes with the authority of teachers to discipline or expel the disruptive student who robs his fellow students of their opportunity to work productively in school. Similarly, modern liberals in the media continually push against the accepted boundaries of what can be depicted in movies, television, print, and music. As a result, adolescents are surrounded by titillating and disturbing material that excites the secondary layer, increasing their misery and rebelliousness. Thus, the modern liberal, consciously or otherwise, functions to destroy rational authority and the authoritarian social order.
The widespread use of illicit drugs is another contributing factor to social breakdown. They intensify ocular armor and weaken armor in the lower segments, resulting in a loss of contact and increased anxiety, which leads to further drug use. Drug use also has a deleterious effect on personal relations and work performance. It is associated with criminal behavior and the increased acceptance of drug use by all segments of society.
Finally, environmental pollution interacts with atmospheric orgone, causing it to become overcharged or deadened. This degradation of the energetic environment surrounding people includes the biophysical effects produced by television, computer screens, and building design which requires fluorescent lights and windows which cannot be opened. The resulting bioenergetic effects exacerbate all the factors previously described.
The Development of a New, More Destructive Form of Armor
The forms of individual and social armor existing fifty years ago have broken down to a significant degree. However, this does not mean that armor itself is disappearing. On the contrary, new forms of armor have developed that replace the old ones; in particular authoritarian social armor has been replaced by anti-authoritarian social armor. “Anti-authoritarian” means opposed to all forms of authority, even rational authority.
Anti-authoritarian social armor expresses itself pervasively today with destructive consequences for everyone, including adolescents, their parents and teachers.
- There is increased impulsive behavior.
- Increased ocular armor results in a loss of perceptual clarity including an inability to recognize the destructive consequences of indiscriminately permissive attitudes. Intellectual activity in the form of rationalization is heightened, providing justification for both parental irresponsibility and adolescent acting out.
- With the breakdown of social armor, anxiety builds in individuals and society. For example, as people see or are exposed to more acts of rage, such as senseless shootings, they naturally become more anxious. Knowing that police authority has been weakened and fearing that the judicial system will allow criminals to go free intensifies fears for personal and public safety.
- There is a preoccupation with distracting, superficial, trivial events and with “personalities” at the expense of the essential, vital elements of personal and social life. A confused sentimentality has replaced emotion and good judgment, as demonstrated by the dramatic idealization of individuals such as Princess Diana and John Lennon.
- There is an increased sense of entitlement.
- There is increased reactive expansion in an attempt to overcome increased anxiety. This manifests in compulsive materialism, empty and contactless socialization, reckless spending and borrowing, hedonism, drug and alcohol abuse, “laid back” indifference, and mystical involvement in New Age groups.
- There is blurring of the boundary between the individual’s private and public life. The individual no longer exercises the discrimination and judgment needed to keep his conflicts to himself or within his private life. He begins to act them out not only within his family, but also in places like the workplace, the legal system, on the highway.
- There is a decline in natural expansive functions such as genuine social contact.
- There is a lowering of educational standards and a general decline in social manners and form. In the authoritarian social order qualities such as honesty, decency, natural charm, and grace were valued as an ideal, even when core contact was not experienced in an immediate and sustained way. With anti-authoritarianism the older ideals are devalued. The new ideal is to be popular, famous, or politically correct.
- There is a fascination with and growing acceptance of secondary layer expression and behavior by the younger generation. Violence and the many forms of pre-genital sexuality abound in the music, videos, computer games, and Web sites that attract young people. These “harmless diversions” desensitize people to the distinction between living from the healthy core and from the neurotic, destructive secondary layer.
- There is a blurring of the distinction between healthy, heterosexual love (adult genitality) and other neurotic human sexual behaviors such as phone sex, cybersex, and pregenital sexuality including sadomasochistic activities in which excitement is derived by being “nasty,” “dirty,” or otherwise degrading to one’s partner. People are urged to avoid being judgmental and to accept all sexual behaviors as equal.
In an authoritarian society, young people are repressed and their sexual frustration, their lack of genital gratification, is discharged in rebelliousness, usually against parental control, in the expression of sadistic behaviors such as fraternity hazing, bullying, and so on and in the aggressive play of sports. In the current anti-authoritarian social order, young people’s lack of genital gratification emerges as social anxiety. This provokes today’s “typical” adolescent behaviors but also involves a masochistic need to reduce inner tension by any means. Common examples are physical masochism in the form of body piercing and the use and abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol (“binge drinking”). Moral masochism is expressed by internalizing the politically correct rules of the anti-authoritarian social order at the expense of one’s own feelings and integrity.
With the disintegration of the authoritarian family, we now see child rearing marked by many parents’ inability to give their child adequate emotional contact. Instead, they abdicate natural parental authority and permissively indulge the child’s impulses, while conveying underlying attitudes of resentment, fear, and withdrawal. This contradictory and confusing behavior provides the worst kind of frustration of the child’s need for contact. It leads the child to aimless, chaotic behavior and to irresponsibility. Inevitably, there is an increasing lack of connection between parents and their children, a separation that was first noted in the 1960s and called the “generation gap.” It has continued to widen ever since, evidenced at earlier ages by the familiar term “latchkey child.” In its most severe form, parents and other adult authorities either ignore or fail to respond effectively to the danger signs of emotional illness and the destructive behavior of some adolescents at home, at school, or on the Internet. Had it not been for this self-imposed exclusion of adults from the lives of adolescents, the murders at Columbine High School very likely could have been prevented.
Adolescents have always experienced misery, a consequence of intense sexual feeling frustrated by individual and social armor. Because of the breakdown of the patriarchal family structure and authoritarian social order and the rise to prominence of anti-authoritarian social armor (with its attendant contempt for authority and permissiveness), adolescent misery is more widespread and more intense today than it was fifty years ago.
Is there a solution? Yes, but it is not an easy one. Children must be raised in a functional way that prevents the formation of significant armoring, thus preserving their capacity to be self-regulating, independent and responsible. This requires their parents to be able to make and sustain adequate emotional contact, to clearly perceive their children’s needs, to differentiate between healthy core impulses and those that are neurotic, and to be able to say “yes” and to say “no,” that is, to affirm the health in the developing child and to restrain the child’s neurotic behavior when necessary. Medical orgone therapy for children and for their parents can be of great benefit in preventing the development of problems in adolescence. It does so by dissolving armor which interferes with the all-important ability to make and sustain emotional, energetic contact.
- Reich, W. Ether, God and Devil/Cosmic Superimposition, Volume 2. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1949.
- Reich, W. The Function of the Orgasm. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1942.
 Adapted from a presentation of the same title given at the 1999 A.C.O. Annual Conference, “Treating Adolescent Turmoil in the Current Social Breakdown,” October 24, 1999.