One of the main reasons I wrote my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing is the fact that many times, folks in relationships with disturbed characters found themselves frustrated, angry, and eventually depressed as the result of trying futilely to get the other person to change.  It became apparent to me that the real key to restoring a sense of sanity and balance in the lives of those victimized by irresponsible characters was to stop trying so hard to change the other person and to learn how to empower oneself by setting new terms of engagement for any dealings with them.

Just because you don’t have the power to change someone else, doesn’t mean that you can’t help facilitate change.  In fact, every time you avoid enabling irresponsible behavior (primarily by recognizing and responding appropriately to manipulative and responsibility-avoidance tactics whenever you encounter them), you increase the chances that the irresponsible behavior pattern might eventually change for the better.  That’s why every encounter with a disturbed character can represent an opportunity for what I call “corrective emotional and behavioral experience.”

Remember, disturbed characters in your life probably don’t need any more insight.  There’s nothing about their problem behaviors that they haven’t heard many times before from many different sources.  So, trying to get them to “see” the error of their ways is not only pointless, it’s unnecessary.  Rather, what they really need is correction.  They need to be confronted on irresponsible behavior, held accountable for it, and have the message sent home in no uncertain terms that any kind of engagement with you will require them to conform their conduct to more acceptable standards.  That’s why every occasion of engagement can be an opportunity for change.

Now, of course, just because someone might be willing to change some aspects of their behavior in the presence of one or two persons and only on some occasions doesn’t mean that they’ve changed their overall character stripes.  But the more often that they’re held accountable by others, and the more often they’re expected to abandon their typical manipulative  tactics for more appropriate behaviors, the more “practiced” they become at being responsible.

In my new book, Character Disturbance, I give several vignettes that illustrate interactions with responsibility-challenged persons and the potentially constructive aspects of those interactions that can facilitate change.  The vignettes highlight the principles that must be observed if genuine change is to occur over time.   The principles advocated don’t just apply to therapists attempting to intervene therapeutically.  They also apply to every kind of interaction between the disturbed character and anyone else.  Once you get the gist behind the principles at work, you’ll stop inadvertently reinforcing the same old destructive patterns of behavior the disturbed character in your life exhibits and every encounter with them can then become an opportunity for change.

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11 Responses to Facilitating Change in Irresponsible Characters

  1. Celia
    Mar 18, 2011

    Very well spoken.

    The way I see it, recognizing these behaviors is half the battle. Once I recognized them, I had to learn how best to respond in order to not enable, and instead, challenge and correct them. My efforts were hampered by his ability to hoodwink others with his artful manipulation, and not able to RECOGNIZE disturbance for what it is, they enabled him and made my efforts not as effective as they could be. Sometimes, instead of challenging him, they would collude with him and challenge me (“why aren’t you talking to him?”).

    They say these people have the best chances of changing when everyone around them stops enabling them and begin to correct intolerable behavior. Unfortunately, the work of manipulation has survived generations and most cannot recognize it. Many grow up accepting disturbance as a normal part of life and find putting boundaries very unfamiliar and counter-intuitive.

    • Dr. Simon
      Mar 19, 2011

      Well said, Celia. And thanks so much for the comment.

  2. Michael
    Mar 24, 2011

    Your first book was a revelation to me, so helpful to learn I’m not crazy in dealing with one particular person in my life. What’s interesting is I now see these behavior traits in others as well.

    The post above is such helpful, critical help to people like me and many others. Continue to give, serve others, etc. but find that fine line where you aren’t also enabling. In my case, I have to enable (and that makes me seethe) at time because other people whom are important are involved yet with practice, I hope to get better at setting boundaries and limits and taking back what the narcissist and sociopath expects and usually gets.

    Great work.

    • Dr. Simon
      Mar 26, 2011

      Thank you for your kind words and comments, Michael.

  3. crackers
    Apr 21, 2011

    I’m skeptical about this though. Won’t a manipulative person respond to this by becoming more and more sophisticated at obfuscating their aggression?

    This reminds me of my experience working with software. Every time you improve software security, the hackers improve their techniques. So you have to make the security even more sophisticated, but then the hackers get more sophisticated again. It’s a cycle that never ends.

    It concerns me that the same thing would happen with manipulative people. We confront them on their manipulative tactics, so then they just come up with more sophisticated ones.

    • Dr. Simon
      Apr 22, 2011

      For some disturbed characters, their “style” of relating to the world is so ingrained and so preferred, that they are indeed prone to hone that style even more when challenged to change. And some folks who are more covert in their aggression can become more overt once someone pegs their behavior (and vice-versa). But over time, and with consistent challenging, limit-setting, and boundary-drawing from a wide variety of sources, change is still quite possible, even for some of the most disturbed characters. Nonetheless, one still needs to be on guard. Some willingness to behave differently at various times is not evidence of real change. Only consistent, appropriate behavior over a substantial period of time and over a wide variety of situations is evidence of that.

      • crackers
        Apr 23, 2011

        Wow, great answer. That is very reassuring. Thanks. :-)

  4. Donna
    Jul 02, 2011

    My relative whom I have daily contact with is continually manipulating me either through someone else or directly. I have read both your books and relieved to learn about this behavior. I still am struggling constantly in one way or another with her behavior. I can never tell when she is sincere in her needs or another manipulating tactic. She uses her neediness as a way of gaining from me in one agenda after another. (she does this to others also) Her needs change but she is constantly looking for more. I am very close to her because I watch her son, my grandson everyday. She and her son lived with us for more than 4 years, as I was discovering from your book,
    in “sheep’s clothing”, I learned that there are people indeed with this disturbed character. We asked her to move which has given us some relief. But the manipulating continues… almost constantly for one thing or another. I am praying for her and hoping somehow I can learn how not to enable this behavior, but I am not sure of anything. It is sad because if she was more sincere, we could enjoy one another, with my lack of trusting her, I tend to avoid her as much as possible. I love my little grandson very much, he is precious to us. Thank you for writing these books, they have been very enlightening.

    • Dr. Simon
      Jul 03, 2011

      Thank you for your kind words about my work. It sounds like you are doing all you can do to make the situation better. Remember, you only have control over one side of a relationship – yours.

      • Donna
        Jul 04, 2011

        You’re welcome and thank you for your encouraging reply.

  5. Lauren
    Sep 05, 2011

    I am going through a (previously) very nasty divorce with a man I really love. I have read your books and multiple other books on manipulation, boundaries and lying. Unfortunately, his irresponsibility and projected blame/manipulation tactics had become too much for me to handle. I left, with our two young daughters, and have avoided him in hopes that the loss of his family would make him address his character flaws and begin to take responsibility for his actions. As through the course of the relationship, his mother stepped in and assisted him financially and routinely as much as she could. How do I cope with two people (husband and mother-in-law) that work together and are constantly enabling one another. I want to work things out with my husband but can’t under the current circumstances.

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