So many people write to ask me whether manipulators or other disturbed characters can ever really change that I posted an article addressing this very question a couple of weeks ago (see: Top Question about Manipulators: Can They ever Really Change?). Just as frequently, folks inquire about where and how they might get the appropriate kind of professional help to deal with the disturbed character in their lives, and I have an article posted on that topic as well (see: Character Disturbance: Getting the Right Kind of Help). People also frequently ask me how they can protect their children from the negative influence of their spouse or partner once they’ve become clued into their destructive ways. Often, a person will ask this question in tandem with a question about how to make friends, acquaintances, or others “see” what they have finally come to see with respect to the character of the problematic person in their lives. Somehow, it feels vindicating to them if they can get everyone else around them to appreciate just how much wool the disturbed character once pulled over their eyes.
Before addressing the aforementioned issues directly, I think it’s important to emphasize one of the general principles I advocate strongly in my writings, including my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. It’s absolutely critical that folks understand and respect the areas of their lives where they do and don’t have power. Why? Because whenever we invest any time, energy, or emotional passion in something we don’t have power over, we set ourselves up for a sense of defeat, loss, and eventually, depression. That’s why it’s absolutely essential to put your energy and effort in what you have power over, namely your own behavior, and not to fret so much about the things you have little control over anyway, like what someone else’s reactions or opinions might be.
Naturally, a caring and concerned parent doesn’t want to expose their child to harm. And there are certain instances in which a parent must take firm measures to ensure a child’s safety. But it’s also possible to become far too concerned about the “negative influence” a disturbed character might have on a child’s development. It’s also often a waste of time and energy to engage in a personal crusade to open the eyes of family and friends to someone’s true character. So I often advise folks to keep themselves focused on their own conduct, because that’s where the power lies. Children are always observing. And they don’t just pay attention to what we say. They mostly notice what we do. We have the power to model for them what appropriate, principled, behavior is all about. They come to understand character by the character we ourselves display. And they’re perfectly capable of contrasting that character with the character of others. The same is true for our family and friends. The better our own nobility shines, the more someone else’s character deficiencies stand out like a sore thumb. We also have the power to assist our children in their own quest to develop character by providing appropriate encouragement and recognition. And it’s crucial to be as attentive to their effort as it is to recognize their successes. Bottom line: the best way to protect children from negative influence is provide them with as much positive influence and encouragement as possible. We all have the power to model, lead, and encourage. And because it’s simply not possible to insulate our children from all the negative influences that exist in the world, the stronger our leadership and support is, the more “inoculated” our children will be against the forces we fear might corrupt them. And to do this effectively requires tons of energy – energy we couldn’t possibly have if we were depressing ourselves fighting the losing battles we sometimes fight to make things happen that we don’t have the power to effect.
Sometimes the fruits of doing the right thing aren’t realized for some time. One parent to whom I gave the advice above remained mad at me for several years thinking that her children would simply be lost to her as a result of the negative influence of her manipulative ex-husband. He would poison their minds, she feared, and eventually estrange them from her. But her children grew up not only to appreciate the big difference in the character of their parents, but to do their mother very proud by the kinds of persons they became (patterning themselves largely on the example she set for them). And she’s glad she stopped fretting about whether her friends, family, or even her children would be deceived or negatively influenced by her character-impaired ex because she now enjoys the fruits of all the efforts she made to exemplify a better course. In the end, she did more than protect her children. She guided them to a place and a level of living none of them even dreamed possible during the darker days. And she had the energy to do it because she didn’t invest herself in the lost causes she was once tempted to pursue.