Tag Archives: character disorder

Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer

This week I’m introducing a series of articles on personality and character disorders.  It’s perhaps the most important and ambitious series I’ve slated for this blog to date.  My purpose is to lay out the fundamental principles of human nature and behavior in a framework that makes it easy for anyone to understand why the people in their lives do the things they do.  In the process, I hope to bring some sorely needed simplicity to some of the more complex aspects of human functioning and also some clarity to the often murky and confusing world of psychological and behavioral science.

Perhaps the learning difficulties I experienced as a child helped me acquire a knack for cutting through the sometimes confusing and  contradictory aspects of complex topics and zeroing-in with precision and clarity on the most essential points.  And I did my best in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance to use that talent to help folks understand the wide range of personality and character dysfunction so prevalent in our times.  In the upcoming series of articles, I hope to bring even greater depth and clarity to the topic, in the hopes that the readers will not only come to a greater awareness about personality and character dysfunctions but also arrive at a deeper understanding and appreciation of the material in my books and other writings.  The series will also serve as a prelude to the kinds of material I’ll be most often discussing during my upcoming tour of workshops and seminars across the country.

Ask anyone what a personality or character disorder is and you’re likely to get some vastly different answers.  Even mental health professionals harbor differing views on the topic.  And before you can understand what it means to have a personality or character disorder, you have to have a good understanding about what the terms personality and character actually mean as well as what constitutes the nature of any true psychological disorder.  But to adequately define either personality or character, you also have to dispel the many erroneous, contradictory, and inaccurate notions that prevail so widely on the subject.

What is personality?  Perhaps it would aid the cause of clearing up the most prevalent misconceptions by first outlining what personality is not:

  • Personality is not the same thing as a trait or distinguishing personal attribute.  A person might tend, for example to be somewhat shy in novel social situations.  But that shyness does not in itself define their personality.  It’s an aspect of their personality to be sure, but it’s not their whole personality.  
  • Personality is not merely the sum of a person’s traits.  While some choose to define personality as the aggregate total of an individual’s distinguishing characteristics, personality is actually a bit more complex than all of one’s personal attributes put together.
  • Personality is not the same as one’s temperament.  Some people are by nature more laid-back or pacific in temperament, while others are more high-strung.  Some are quick to anger and others are slow to react.  There are many different temperamental variables that contribute to personality.  And while temperamental variables are an important aspect of one’s personality, it’s inaccurate to say that a person’s temperament defines their personality.
  • Personality is not the same as one’s biologically-based predispositions or environmentally-acquired or learned “habits.”  Behavioral predispositions definitely play a role in personality, but they don’t define an individuals personality on their own.
  • Personality and character are not the same thing.  Although both of these terms are used quite loosely and often spoken of (even by professionals) as if they are just different ways to say the same thing, they are very different concepts.  Character is an important aspect of one’s personality, reflecting an individual’s ethics and integrity, but it is not synonymous with personality (there will be much more on this later).

So what exactly then is personality?  The term itself derives from the word “persona,” which is Latin for “mask.”  In the ancient Greek and Roman theaters, actors wore masks to depict certain emotions and also to denote gender.  That’s because only males performed on stage and the art of dramatization hadn’t evolved to the point where actors could produce, display, and convey various emotions at will.  It just so happens that the giants of classical psychological theories (Freud, Adler, Jung, etc.) and their followers conceptualized personality as the social “mask” people wore to conceal and protect their “true selves” from possible disfavor, ridicule, or rejection.  And this sort of conceptualization of personality dominated the fields of psychology and psychiatry for a long time, persisting in some circles even to this day.

Adherents to traditional psychology perspectives generally believe that we’re all basically the same (and also, basically good) behind the “wall” of our unconsciously constructed “defenses.”  Such folks believe that as the result of our fears – mainly fears about whether we’ll be safe or loved in this potentially hostile world – we unwittingly and reflexively put up barriers to our true selves and present a “front” to others that we think will successfully manipulate the safety and support we seek.  This conceptualization actually appears to have relevance and to hold a good deal of truth for some of us (especially those of us I affectionately refer to in my writings as “neurotic”).  But traditional personality perspectives have proved inadequate when it comes to understanding the makeup of the more unsavory characters among us.  That’s why for years, many in the behavioral science field (myself included) have advocated for a more comprehensive conceptualization of personality.  

Over the past several decades, clinicians and researchers have increasingly preferred a multidimensional conceptualization of personality.  And while traditional perspectives on personality are still held by many, the multidimensional perspective (the perspective I hold) is slowly but steadily replacing the traditional view because of how well it appears to explain the workings of all kinds (not just “neurotic”) of individuals.  I’ll be discussing that perspective in depth in the next article in the series.  And I’ll also be discussing the difference between personality and character.  We’ll then move into a discussion about when someone’s personality is rightfully considered disordered and also explore the most prevalent kinds of personality/character disturbances and disorders and their defining characteristics.  I expect the next few articles should spur considerable discussion, and I will welcome any and all (reasonable) comments and questions.



Demeaning as a Lifestyle: The Sadistic Aggressive

Over the past few weeks we’ve been discussing the various “aggressive personalities” (see, for example:  Antisocial Personalities:  The Unbridled Aggressive Pattern and Powers to be Reckoned With:  The Channeled Aggressors).  And because they are the most seriously character disordered of all the various personality types, I’ve attempted in these posts not only to provide as much information as possible but also to encourage discussion and contribution from the readers, who undoubtedly have stories to tell that can benefit others.  In this week’s post, we’ll be discussing a relatively rare but still significantly problematic aggressive personality sub-type:  the sadistic aggressive.

The sadistic aggressive personality (see my categorization in Character Disturbance) is a most unique aggressive personality sub-type.  All of  the aggressive personalities hurt people.  That’s because in their relentless, thoughtless, and undisciplined pursuit of their self-serving agendas, they’re quite willing to run over those whom they perceive as standing in their way.  They’ll do whatever it takes to “win,” secure the dominant position, or get something they want.  Still, for most of the aggressive personalities, causing pain and injury to others is not their primary objective.  Triumph is their ultimate aim, even if someone has to get hurt in the process.   Sadistic-aggressive personalities, however, are primarily interested in hurting, degrading, demeaning, and inflicting agony upon others.  And making someone else grovel is not only the major way sadists secure the dominant position their relationships but also an activity they truly enjoy.  

Now, I must reiterate that there are no real clear, distinct lines between these various aggressive personality sub-types.  In fact, all the aggressive personalities have many more features in common than they do attributes that separate them.   And sometimes a person’s overall interpersonal operating “style” can contain a few of the features of other personality types and sub-types.  Still, it’s helpful to categorize these folks because, for the most part, every individual typically develops a unique and relatively unchanging style of relating that best fits within one of the categories I outline in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing and the better you’re able to both recognize and understand how to deal with each type, the more empowered you’re going to be in your relationships.

In my first post of this most recent series (see:  Aggressive Personalities:  An Upcoming Refresher Course), I mentioned that early in my clinical studies I’d encountered a businessman who I would categorize as having traits of both the channeled-aggressive and sadistic-aggressive personality.  My experience with this person taught me quite a bit about the nature of character disturbance in general as well some of the key aspects of character disturbance that differentiate it from what had historically been seen as the universal human psychological dysfunction: neurosis.  For one thing, this person knew the kind of person he was  and what motivated him (remember, neurotics are supposed to be unconscious of their underlying motivations and the true nature of their actions), and he wasn’t at all afraid to acknowledge any of these things.  In fact, he was proud of all his unsavory attributes and told me so on numerous occasions.  He once told me completely unprompted that he knew that if he weren’t successful as a ruthless businessman, he would certainly have ended up in prison for most of his life because of his aggressive, defiant ways.   Society’s rules were barriers meant for the weak or insecure.  And he knew that he was made to defy rules and authority since the day he was born.  Fortunately, he happened into a circumstance that allowed him to make a great deal of money and amass a lot of power legitimately, and that’s what kept him out of jail.  Over time, this man would tell me a lot more about himself, demonstrating one of the more important axioms I’ve mentioned about character disturbance:  how much insight he already had (even though the insight itself provided no impetus for him to consider changing his behavior).   But perhaps an even greater teacher than this man’s self-revelation to me was the frequent opportunity I had to watch him in action.  And witnessing on many occasions how he terrorized and demeaned others as well as how much he enjoyed such behavior was a real eye-opener.

One day, while I was still present, the man I will call Vince called one of the female support staffers into his office.  He began to berate her in a most vicious fashion.  And he insinuated many times what little worth this person would have elsewhere on the job market and how fortunate she was to have her well-paying job at his company.   The degree to which he brandished rage had me shaking a bit in my own boots.  And the degree to which he seemed to make this woman feel small and to cower unnerved me.  After he finished berating her, he warned her of the dire consequences that would ensue if she didn’t pay heed to his demand for greater diligence on her part then summarily dismissed her.  But to my great surprise, as soon as the woman left the room, he looked at me and began to chuckle and grinned. He then told me plainly that he had pre-planned his expression of rage and that it was meant to instill fear in the woman, to make her feel like she’d have no value anywhere else but working for him, and that he was sure that as a result she would be more conscientious about doing what he expected of her in her job.

This man’s deliberate use of rage when in fact he was in an upbeat mood made me aware  how rage can be used as a manipulation and control tactic.  Moreover, it doesn’t have to arise out of genuine anger or hurt.  Rather, it can simply be used as just another tool in one’s arsenal to bring someone else to their knees and to get something you want (I discuss the use of rage as a manipulation tactic in In Sheep’s Clothing).   This man was also very adept at spotting really conscientious individuals who happened to be in one-down positions in their lives and were in dire need of support.  These were the kinds of folks he sought to hire because he surmised they’d be willing to put up with his bullying behavior.  And this man took not only took pride in his ability to reduce a person to minuscule size with his demeaning and berating but also truly enjoyed doing so.  It was one of his favorite pastimes.

I’ve encountered many sadistic personalities over the years.  They seem to be an increasing percentage of the aggressive personality types in prison settings these days.  And while they’re not very common in the general population, they can cause  an inordinate amount of distress in the lives of those who happen to become entangled in some kind of relationship with them.  

Traditional personality development theories have always viewed individuals like the sadistic personality as becoming the way they are because of deep-seated (and unconscious) feelings of inferiority stemming from being themselves subjected to severe abused or debasement as children. And while it sometimes turns out that such things might be factors, there’s plenty of evidence not all such personalities come from that kind of background.  Some sadistic characters I’ve encountered have even lied about or exaggerated adverse circumstances in their background it to engender sympathy and to make their innate heartlessness seem more understandable and even palatable.  And most of these individuals actually come from unremarkable backgrounds and simply see themselves as superior to those whom they perceive as weaker.  In their disgust of weakness and desire to feel superior, they take a sordid delight in belittling, demeaning, and torturing others. It simply makes them feel good to make someone else feel bad.  And to make other feel small and ineffectual makes them feel large and powerful.   All of the research over the past several years on bullying in schools bears out all I’ve been saying here.  Within the traditional models, bullies used to be seen as “cowards underneath” compensating for feelings of low-esteem by bullying only the weak and steering clear of the strong.  I always thought such views were flawed, and now, thanks to some good research, we now know better.  Bullies simply like to hurt people and target those they perceive as weaker, not only because such folks make easy targets but also because bullies have a natural internal revulsion to such personalities.  And when a young bully gets chronologically older but still hasn’t grown any emotionally, what you’re likely to get is a sadistic-aggressive personality of one degree of severity or another.

It’s dangerous to think there’s any way to be truly safe in any kind of relationship with a sadistic-aggressive personality or immune from the effects of their abuse.  Some folks tell themselves they have sufficient strength to endure the torment they experience.  Others allow themselves to think that as long as they’re appeasing their sadist, they’re safe.   But even though sadists have much more respect for strength than they do for perceived weakness, there’s really no way to be completely safe with them or to be unaffected by the psychological damage they can inflict.  And sometimes sadists develop a special fascination with a particular “target,” taking a sense of “ownership” over that target and exacerbating the risk associated with trying to break free of their grip.  Moreover, sadists can have other aggressive personality traits as well, making them even more dangerous (sadistic predatory aggressives [alt: sadistic psychopaths] are without question the most dangerous people on the planet).  So it’s very important to recognize these personalities early on and do your very best to stay clear of them.

In next week’s post we’ll be talking about the covertly-aggressive personalities and the tactics they use to manipulate and control others.   We’ll round out the series with an article on predatory-aggressives (i.e. psychopaths, sociopaths) that will include some examples from high profile cases that have been in the news in recent months.


Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course

It’s been a few years since I first posted a series of articles on the group of disturbed characters I like to call the “aggressive personalities.”  I’m also in the process of compiling new material on the topic for possible inclusion in another book or in future revisions of my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance.  That’s in part because so many of the disturbed characters making news headlines of late appear at least on the surface to be individuals who have the characteristics of these personality types.  So, for these and a variety of other reasons, it seems timely to revisit the topic.  And because I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from folks about the examples I’ve included in recent articles about disturbed characters in therapy, I’ll be including several examples of aggressive characters behaving in the manner they are wont to behave in the upcoming series.

The idea of applying the label “aggressive” to a certain group of personality types dates from my graduate training in psychology.   It was well known even back then that clinicians found serious fault with the official psychiatric diagnostic manual’s classification of personality disorders, especially when it came to describing a type of personality prone to violate boundaries and limits, cause interpersonal pain, and create problems for society.  At the time, the only classification for such individuals was “Antisocial Personality Disorder” and the criteria for applying the label were not only stringent but also fashioned in such a manner that only career criminals seemed to fit the bill.  But it had long been observed that there were many individuals just as prone to behaving in irresponsible and even seriously malicious ways who never led lives of crime or had ever been legally sanctioned for major social norm violations.  One of my mentors particularly lamented this and noted that all of these problematic personalities, whether or not they were criminal in their behavior, exhibited an interpersonal style that was distinctly “aggressive.”  And this mentor made it clear that in realm of human interpersonal relations, aggression is not simply synonymous with violence.  Rather, human aggression is most often manifested in the unscrupulous and undisciplined will to power.  That notion made a deep impression on me and helped me understand many personalities I wasn’t able to yet accurately label.

While I was still in graduate school I also had the opportunity to work part time for a company whose CEO seemed to be unique aggressive personality type.  He was an absolute tyrant and his employees often quivered in their boots.  He seemed to have no compunction about berating these employees even for the smallest of matters, heaping verbal and emotional abuse on them and instilling terror as a means of controlling them.  He paid his key employees very well, however, and they were therefore quite dependent on him for their livelihoods.  But despite the success of his company, it was clear his style of relating to others (i.e. his personality) though on some level effective, was grossly dysfunctional.  He’d had several failed marriages and was at odds with several of his children as well as his current girlfriend.  Still, there was simply no appropriate label to apply to his personality type, at least according to the official categorization schemes.  One was tempted to label him antisocial, but he was a polished, astute businessman, not a criminal (though I knew him to engage in some business practices that I would characterize as somewhat shady), and was a pillar of the community, sitting on my corporate and civic boards.  But he appeared to have virtually no empathy for others, and was not only merciless in his treatment of some but also disdainful of those he perceived as weak.  I think Martha Stout might have labeled him a “sociopath next door,” but even she had formulated her thinking on the subject at that time.  Not too long after meeting this businessman, I encountered a client in one of our school’s training clinic who frequently boasted of his tenaciousness and “winner take all” approach to life.  But his history of relationships was a virtual train wreck, as he used and abused just about everyone he hooked up with.  Before long, I found myself formulating my own thoughts on aggressive personalities, and for several years I gathered clinical data on the various sub-types of this problematic character and worked to refine my conceptual scheme.   Not so incidentally, during my first years of practice, I encountered several examples of folks who were in relationships with people who presented a veneer of charm and civility but could be notoriously underhanded, back-stabbing, controlling, and manipulative.  I studied these folks closely, with particular attention to the tactics they used to aggress against others covertly.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The news of late has been dominated by high-profile personalities who seem to fit somewhere within the conceptual scheme I eventually developed.  There’s the Olympic runner who without a second’s hesitation fired rounds at someone whose identity he wasn’t even sure of only to assert and lament later that he “accidentally” killed the woman he loved.  Interestingly, his father blamed the tragedy on “sportsman’s instinct” – a notion that itself is worth exploring in more detail in the coming weeks.  There is also the pro football player who, with his “posse”, was in a shoot-out with some rivals that left two people dead, yet he not only claimed total innocence for himself (despite many indications of his culpability) but then tried to advance then notion that it’s not possible for God to commission a person to carry His message who has blood on their hands, so as a minister after all, he simply must be a good guy.  Then there’s the police officer who prided himself as a man of justice and integrity who viciously stalked and executed several innocent people, all the while justifying it by claiming that his victims were all in some way responsible for a greater injustice done to him.   And of course there’s the famous cyclist who had many of us thinking he’d overcome impossible odds with uncommon integrity, who now admits he not only lived a big lie but knowingly and aggressively destroyed the lives of those who tried to tell us the kind of person he really is.  Make now mistake, there are a lot of aggressive characters out there and only a few of them are convicted criminals doing time in prison.  And in the coming weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about all of them, and in greater depth than I ever have before.  I only hope that others will join in the discussion and contribute their own experiences sufficiently to make the important issues clear and helpful to all the readers.

Next week’s post will focus on the characteristics all of the aggressive personalities share as well as the factors the latest research is telling us about how such personalities develop.  Then, in subsequent weeks, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at each aggressive personality sub-type.   More than anything else, it’s my hope that the readers will – as a result of the series – discover a framework by which they are better able to judge the character of individuals they meet or know and to protect themselves against possible victimization in some way.



Therapy and the Face of Real Change – Part 2

As I tried to illustrate in last week’s post (see: Therapy and the Face of Real Change), genuine behavioral change always occurs in the here-and-now moment.  And last week’s example depicted an interview conducted with a single individual who had run afoul of the law several times and was facing possible incarceration.  In this week’s post, I thought I’d give an example of a married couple who had experienced multiple problems during the course of their marriage and who were (at the wife’s insistence) making another attempt (they had tried counseling twice before) at therapy.  Certain details of this case have been deliberately altered to completely ensure anonymity.  But the case illustrates so many common problems that arise in a relationship when character disturbance is present that perhaps many of the readers will be able to identify with the situation described.  My participation in the dialog will be signified by the letter “T”, and the wife’s (whom we’ll call Vicky) and her husband (whom we’ll call Bill) by the letters “V” and “B”, respectively:

T: “This is the second of our three evaluation visits, and I think we’ve covered about all the background information we need to discuss.  So now I think it’s time we clarify just what things need to be worked on.  Okay?

V: I think trust is the main issue.  I want to trust him again, but I don’t know how.  He says the affair with that woman is over and that it will never happen again.  But it’s hard for me to get past it.  I feel so betrayed.

B:  There she goes, dwelling on the past again.  I’m trying to put the past behind us.  I’ve taken responsibility.  I admitted my mistake and said I was sorry.   Now, I’m just trying to move on… to get things back the way they used to be.   But she just won’t let it go.  And we’ve already been to counseling.  And I realized then some of the things the therapist said I was in denial about.  I’m different now.  But she doesn’t want to accept that.  And she doesn’t ever want to be affectionate with me.

W:  I’m sorry, but it still hurts.

T:  Bill, you said you’ve taken responsibility.  But what I observed is a lot of blaming Vicky.  Not only didn’t it sound like you take responsibility, but you didn’t even hesitate or self-correct when you were doing all that blaming.  And Vicky, you mentioned last time that one reason you don’t trust Bill very much is because he doesn’t seem to take responsibility for anything.  Yet when he was doing his blaming, you didn’t call him on it.  In fact, you apologized.

B: I’m not blaming Vicky.

T:  Bill, you did blame her.  And you just lied about doing it.  Blaming and lying cannot build trust.  And those are two aspects of your character we’ve already talked about that you really need to work on more consistently.

B:  So what are you saying?

T:  I’m saying that to rebuild trust you must really take responsibility for the actions you took that destroyed the trust and the arduous work you have before you to rebuild it.

B: I guess I was still blaming her to a degree.  I think I even blamed her at the time I was cheating.  I told myself all kinds of things to justify what I was doing.  But I want her to forgive me so we can move on.

T:  Might I commend you on your willingness to admit your blaming.  And it seems like you’re being a bit more honest with yourself, too.  But you’ve still got a long way to go.  And the bigger question is what effort you’re willing to make and the pain you’re willing to endure to earn back the trust you destroyed.

B:  Vicky, I’m sorry.  And don’t for a minute think any of this is your fault.  I made a mistake ….oh… no,… that’s not right… Dr. Simon always says that making a mistake is like when someone accidentally steps on someone’s foot …. what I did was I betrayed your trust and now I need to earn it back.  But I know I’m an impatient man and I tend to expect more of everyone else than I do of myself.  I’m going to work on changing that.

T: Now that, sounds much more like taking responsibility.  And good self-correcting on the “mistake” thing.  But as we all know talk is one thing, and action is quite another.  The proof, as they say, is always in the pudding.  Why don’t you take some time between now and the next visit to propose some concrete steps you’re willing to take to earn some trust back.  Be specific about the behaviors you promise to work on.  Then, run them by Vicky.

B:  Okay.

V:  What do I do?”

Now, this case actually proved to be quite a difficult one with many ups and downs.  And it was extremely difficult to encourage Vicky not to do too much or to “save” her husband from the weight of the responsibility he bore for repairing the damage he’d done to the trust in their relationship.  I didn’t actually work with this couple after the 3 visit evaluation period.  I referred Vicky to another therapist for individual work (to address self-esteem and emotional dependency aspects of her personality that made her overly accommodating in relationships) and worked with Bill until they were both ready for joint visits with a marital counselor.  But what I wanted to illustrate most is what it looks like when a person is confronted on habitual responsibility-avoidance and manipulative behaviors, shows some willingness to correct them (in the moment!) and is encouraged to keep doing so.  In sound cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the focus is always on behavior and in the here-and-now.  The client’s job is to self-monitor and correct thinking errors and responsibility-obstructive behaviors, and the therapist’s job is to reinforce efforts toward genuine change.  It’s definitely not your traditional counseling format.

You can find other therapy vignettes in Character Disturbance, and a complete description of the most common responsibility-avoidance and manipulation tactics in In Sheep’s Clothing.

Therapy and the Face of Real Change

One of the main points I make in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing (I also discuss this issue from a somewhat different perspective in The Judas Syndrome), is that change – legitimate, genuine, potentially lasting change – always manifests itself in the here-and-now moment.  It’s not an empty promise to be better but a here-and-now decision to do differently.  And over the years, I’ve had the blessing and privilege to witness some of the most impaired characters make significant changes in their lives.  Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered many persons extremely resistant to change – even among those who vociferously protested that they were a different person.  This begets the question of how you know someone is really making changes, especially when they’re involved in the therapeutic process.

People working toward genuine change have a distinctive character about them and display some readily observable signs that they truly mean business.  Folks who are all talk and no action are also easy to spot, especially if you know what to look for.  Here’s an example based on a real case (with certain details altered to ensure anonymity).  It’s a portion of an interview I did with an individual who’d had repeated problems with the law and was facing incarceration for the first time:

Q:  Why are you here today?

A:  They told me if I get some counseling I’ll have a better shot at getting some justice.

Q:  And who is “they?”

A:  My lawyer.

Q:  Okay.  So, in what way do you think I might be able to help you?

A:  To tell you the truth, I don’t really need no help.  I seen someone before.  Lots of times.  Didn’t do no good, though.  But I got my act together now.  I ain’t gonna do those things that got me in so much trouble no more.

Q:  You’ve had therapy before?

A:  Yeh, I seen lots of doctors and everything, and my momma…, she put me in one of those places one time and the judge said they was gonna help me get over what they said was my depression and stuff.

Q:  Were you depressed?

A:  I was when I got there!

Q:  What had you done that your mom and the Judge thought you needed that kind of treatment?

A:  Man, they was makin’ it out like I was some kind of criminal or something.  I had missed a little school, but I was going to get me a job.  And they got me for havin’ some “weed” in my car, but I wasn’t gonna sell it like they said, and besides, who doesn’t sell a little weed or get a little high sometimes.

Q:  Were there other problems?

A:  Well, my momma says I pushed her down, but I didn’t really, she tripped.  And she was in my face, just like she does a lot.  I told her to back off but she wouldn’t.  And they’re calling it assault and battery.  But I’m tellin’ you, I’m a changed man now.  I even go to church sometimes and everything.  All this other stuff they’re saying about me is just bull^&*&^!

Q:  If I were to decide to work with you, you’d have to show me some degree of willingness to really change.

A:  But I am changed.  I already done told you that.

Q:  Saying you’ve changed is one thing.  Showing that it’s true is quite another.  And in just the few minutes you’ve been with me, whenever you had the opportunity to accept responsibility, instead you minimized the seriousness and criminality of your misbehavior, you rationalized and made excuses, and you blamed others for your situation.  And you made no attempt to stop yourself.  Instead, you did the very same things right here today that you’ve done for a long time and that got you to the point of facing the consequences you’re now facing.  So, from my standpoint, I’m not seeing that you have actually done much changing or that you’ve even given much attention to the task.  And if I were to take you on as a patient, my job would be to encourage and reward you for doing things very differently.  Your job would be to catch and correct yourself whenever you’re tempted to engage in any of the tactics you typically try and which I have outlined on this thinking errors and manipulation tactics worksheet right here.  And you can start by admitting that talk is cheap and that you haven’t really done all that much to change your ways of doing things.

A:  I guess ya got me there, doc.  What’s next?

Now, of course, this example only illustrates a start for potentially helpful therapeutic process.  And suffice it to say that not all my encounters with disturbed characters have been anywhere near as promising as this one was at the start.  Besides, even this case proved to be a very much up and down, backward and forward situation for quite some time.   But I provided the example to help illustrate two things:  1) what to look for in the here-and-now that tells you whether someone is really changing in any meaningful way; and, 2) the very different character any therapeutic encounter with a disturbed character must have (I’ve addressed two other similar issues in this regard in some prior articles – see, for example:  Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy and Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”).  The most important thing to remember is that it’s always about the behavior.  And once you know the specific behaviors to be mindful of, you’ll get a clearer picture in the moment about the status of someone’s character development.


Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”

By now, many of you readers are familiar with stories several of the readers have shared about their experiences in some form of therapy or counseling with a character-impaired relationship partner.  And perhaps you have also read some of the articles I’ve posted on the topic (see, for example:  Character Disturbance, Neurosis, and Therapy, Character Disturbance: Getting the Right Kind of Help) and are familiar with the caveats I’ve suggested must be observed when traditional methods are used to assess and deal with character dysfunction.  Some of you might also have read the various articles I’ve written on the rampant misuse – even by professionals – of certain psychological concepts, especially “defense mechanisms” and specifically the defense mechanism of denial.  But recently I’ve received an absolute deluge of emails (and contacts through the contact feature of this blog) from folks who’ve experienced frustration and disappointment in their counseling experiences.  Complaints range from the therapist being effectively impression-managed or “conned” by the disturbed character to even possibly blaming the victim in a covertly abusive situation.  But one of the main complaints about therapy experiences seems to be related to misconceptions about the concept of denial.  So, in the first of several articles that will once again address some of the typical pitfalls of traditional approaches, I thought I’d speak to the issue of denial, what it really is, what it looks like, and the problems that can be caused when it’s misinterpreted in therapeutic situations.

True denial is an unconscious action of the mind to defend a person against the experience of unbearable emotional pain.  I give an archetypal example of it in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance:

Let’s take the [case] of a woman who has been married to the same man for 40 years.  She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress.  The doctors then tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is now virtually brain-dead, and will not recover.  Yet, every day she is by his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him.  The nurses tell her that he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway.  The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she only replies, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.”  This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial.  She can hardly believe what has happened.  Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities.  The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together.  He seemed the picture of happiness and health.  He didn’t even seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital.  Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone.  This is far more emotional pain than she can bear just yet.  She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her.  She’s not quite ready to face a life without him.  So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit most likely temporary) defense against the pain.  Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial will break down. When it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.

Now it’s crucial to remember what it really looks like when true denial breaks down, especially when people of otherwise decent character have done something (especially to someone else they purportedly love) so reprehensible that they can’t bear the pain of acknowledging it for a time.  When they do acknowledge it, however, what you should see is a person racked with the pain, grief, and sadness that they were once unconsciously defending against.   You should see genuine remorse and contrition about what they now realize they have done.  And they should be filled with a desperate desire to make amends (not just idle talk but a real, genuine motivation to take action) and do right by the person they hurt, work hard to merit forgiveness, and demonstrate a commitment never to behave in a similar manner again.

Recently I was called into consultation on a case where a serial cheater was in “relationship repair” therapy for over 18 months, and by the therapist’s account, was only recently,  and just barely, “coming out of denial.”  This philanderer had made the claim that he “turned to someone else in a time of weakness” because his wife had become “emotionally cold and distant.”  And he’d claimed that he had “blocked out” the tremendous guilt he felt and was also truly “unaware” of the damage he was doing to his marriage (even though he had to concoct literally hundreds of elaborate stories to explain suspicious circumstances over the years, knowing full well the impact that would be felt if his affairs came to light).  The therapist noted that she’d encountered similar circumstances “numerous times” in her career and thought his explanations plausible.  When I asked her how that would square with the fact that he first cheated only 4 weeks into his marriage (which both parties admit was full of passion at the time) and his second affair began while he was still involved with his first cheating partner, she had no ready answer.  Nor did she have much to say when I challenged her about why she might accept so many explanations at face value (which is okay when someone is not character disturbed) without first screening for whether the person she was dealing with was of impaired character, which would dramatically increase the likelihood that all the “plausible” explanations might really be nothing more than crafty lies and attempts at positive impression management and manipulation.  But most importantly, she was at a total loss for words when we discussed the nature of denial and what you should witness when an otherwise decent person who’s done something horrible and out of character comes to their senses and denial breaks down.   For this was a man, who instead of displaying anguish over what he had done and an eagerness to make amends was constantly berating his wife (in front of the therapist) with comments like:  “Why can’t you just let go of this?” and “What do you want from me?; I’ve already said I was sorry a thousand times!; and, “You’re making starting over impossible.”  And although she was blind to the fact, the therapist had become a co-conspirator in the vilification and continued victimization of the aggrieved party.  The proof of that was this man’s use of 18 months of therapy not to “overcome denial” or take on the hard challenge of real change but to covertly jockey the family finances to his favor in advance of a possible quick exit and continue his most recent affair in a more stealth manner while appearing to be concerned about saving his marriage.

As I have said before, traditional frameworks can be not only ineffective but also frighteningly enabling sometimes when it comes to understanding and dealing with character dysfunction.  That’s because the perspectives themselves often cause the true nature of circumstances to be misinterpreted.   In the coming weeks, I’ll have more to say on such topics as what real guilt and contrition look like, what a sincere desire to change (as opposed to empty promises to appease) looks like, and several other issues that might assist a reader who’s sought help for their relationship problems to better assess the benefit they might be deriving from the process.

Character Disturbance, Neurosis, and Therapy

Insight-oriented psychotherapy, which is the most common form of therapy, is tailor made for most of us neurotics.  Why?  Because it provides us with exactly what we need:  insight into the emotional roots of our dysfunctional behavior – emotional roots that are largely unconscious because of the degree to which we’ve repressed our feelings and blocked out of our conscious awareness the unresolved emotional conflicts of our past.  That’s why we tend to appreciate it so much when our counselors interpret the “dynamics” of our problems and shed a “new light” on our circumstances.  And because the ways we might have been trying to cope with our issues were inadequate and making us feel badly, we both need and value the help we inevitably derive from the whole therapeutic experience. But as I pointed out in the prior post (see: Insight, Neurosis, and Character Disturbance) whereas neurotics need and value insight in therapy, disordered characters are already keenly aware of their problematic attitudes and behaviors.  As I’ve said countless times in workshops in a little rhyming mantra:  they already see, they just disagree.  That is, disturbed characters harbor beliefs and attitudes which are at odds with pro-social norms.  So, wasting time in therapy trying to get them to “see” is unnecessary and pointless.  There simply isn’t anything anyone could possibly say or bring to their attention that they haven’t heard a thousand times before from a variety of sources and in a variety of circumstances (still it’s amazing how many therapists will spend inordinate time and energy trying to get the disturbed character to “see” the error of his or her ways). Disturbed characters need something entirely different from the therapy process.  But unfortunately, few therapists are equipped  to provide them what they really need.  That’s primarily because most therapists are still overly aligned with traditional perspectives and insight-oriented approaches.

Disturbed characters need something very different from therapy.  What they need is what I refer to in Character Disturbance as “corrective emotional, cognitive, and behavioral experience.”  Try to give them advice, and they’ll often retort: “I know, I know.”  This not only demonstrates how consciously aware they already are (at least intellectually) of their problems but also attests to the fact that they’re not bothered enough by their way of doing things to consider changing them, or they have been so successful getting their way by doing those things that they don’t have any motivation to change their ways (i.e. their habitual modus operandi).  So the prime therapy task is not getting them to “see” what they’re doing but to practice thinking differently about things and, most especially, doing things differently.   And this always occurs in the moment of benign but definite confrontation.  That’s when genuine change always happens:  in the here and now. Disturbed characters in therapy need to have someone artfully challenge their dysfunctional beliefs, destructive attitudes, and distorted ways of thinking, challenge their stereotypical behaviors and tactics, and invite them to try out some alternatives.  And, as in traditional therapy, fostering change can only take place within the context of a conducive relationship (whether it be a therapeutic relationship with a counselor or any other relationship).  The relationship must be devoid of negativity yet firmly focus on confrontingsetting limits, and most especially, correcting thinking errors and maladaptive behavior patterns.  Corrective emotional, cognitive, and behavioral experience means the artful, consistent challenging of someone’s dysfunctional beliefs, destructive attitudes, and distorted ways of thinking, stymieing their typical attempts at manipulation and impression management, enforcing boundaries and limits on their behaviors, and structuring the terms of engagement in a manner that prompts them to try out alternative, more pro-social ways of relating. Then, it’s crucial to reinforce them for their willingness to try out new, more constructive ways of thinking about and doing things.

Naturally, there are some disturbed characters whose pathology is so great or so deeply ingrained that they’re truly non-amenable to therapy.  But those cases are actually quite rare.  As I’ve noted many times before, character disturbance exists along a continuum (see: Character Spectrum Disorders), with most disturbed characters falling somewhere along the spectrum where appropriate intervention can still be quite helpful.  And, as I’ve also noted in all my work, character disturbance is manifested in several different and unique ways, each needing to be dealt with differently.  Still, intervention is possible and potentially quite helpful.  But actually securing appropriate intervention is difficult because of the persisting dominance in the professional community of traditional orientations.  And what most people really mean when they (therapists and lay persons alike) say that there’s no real  hope for personality and character-impaired individuals is that they’ve tried traditional approaches only to have experienced the truly frustrating results.

When In Sheep’s Clothing first came out, there were hardly any professionals aligned with the cognitive-behavioral perspective.  So much of what I had to say at the time seemed radical and not everyone received it well.  In fact, many professionals from a wide variety of disciplines took issue with me and the few other writers willing to speak on personality issues on the whole notion of character disturbance, insisting that everyone with psychological problems must be coming from an insecure, fearful, and emotionally scarred and wounded place and that most of the problems some of us saw as personality or character issues were really caused by underlying yet undiagnosed or untreated clinical conditions like anxiety disorder or depression.  But time, research, and the testimonials of thousands have demonstrated the validity of the perspective I advanced then and continue to refine today.  And now that the developed world is experiencing an epidemic of character disturbance (Japan has become the latest country to publish a new edition of In Sheep’s Clothing and soon, Character Disturbance as well), the perspective is proving more appropriate and timely than ever.   Unfortunately, I still hear horror stories from folks who desperately sought help only to see their situations worsen.  For this reason, in my next post I’ll be presenting some firsthand accounts of therapy encounters that made a difference for folks in relationships with impaired characters.  The names will be changed and the circumstances altered to ensure anonymity, but you’ll be able to get the picture.  Hopefully, the examples I’ll share will give some hope to those of you still struggling to find the right kind of help to deal with a troubled relationship.  And I’ll be highlighting some of the key concepts I outline in both my books about the big differences that apply when engaging therapeutically with impaired characters as opposed to neurotics.

Aggressive Personalities: Part 1

What I call the “aggressive personalities” are the folks who cause the greatest problems both in the conduct of interpersonal relationships and for maintaining the social order.  Below is a link to the second to the last brief clip from my upcoming “webinar” series on disturbed characters  and the abuse and toxic relationships they foster.  Next week, I’ll provide a link to the last excerpt from the series.  Then, we’ll be beginning an entirely new series on a topic that more people have written me about than any other: How to restore sanity and overcome the scars of being in a relationship with a character-impaired person.

Here are some links to Part 1 of the “Aggressive Personalities” segment:

To the Dr. Simon Facebook page featuring the video (this page contains other video clips you might find informative and helpful, so please “like” the page as well as the videos and get your friends to do the same!):  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dr-George-K-Simon/107693189310127?ref=hl

To the YouTube video segment itself:


I also have a big favor to ask the readers.  As some of you know, I am the principle composer of a patriotic composition that I was inspired to write in 1998 in anticipation of the new millennium.  At the time, I was working on a yet unpublished work on the interdependence of freedom and character.  It’s my contention that the real greatness of America has always resided not so much in her military might or economic clout but in her people of good character who honor her best ideals, strive to keep the promise of those ideals, and upon whom the very survival of freedom depends.  Since the song gained some exposure following 9-11, word of mouth has prompted schools, church choirs, civic organizations, bands, and other groups to request performances of the song, and to my great surprise and humble appreciation, the song and its message have now been carried to audiences totaling well over a million, and I have posted many of the performances from across the country on my new Facebook page for the song.  One of the most recent performances featured a full orchestra and 52-voice choir bringing thousands at the huge “Celebrate America 2012″ event in the bay area of California to their feet (link provided below).  So, if you’re of a mind to do so, please share the “Anthem for the Millennium (America, My Home!) Facebook page with your friends, invite them to “like” the page itself, and also invite them to listen to the various renditions by folks from around the country that I have posted on the page and on YouTube.

This song is not a product designed to make money.  Its sole purpose is to carry the message about character and freedom and to inspire us as a country to be great again, by motivating others to treasure our blessings and honor our best principles. So, many thanks in advance for passing the word.  Just follow the links below:

To the new “America, My Home!” Facebook page with several posts of the song’s performance (please be sure to “like” the page!:


To the YouTube studio performance of the song popularized during the week following 9-11:


and:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvlEHVa0SB4  (higher audio resolution)

To the YouTube video of the “Celebrate America” performance (during the 4th of July weekend):


Understanding Predatory Aggressors

As I mention in my book Character Disturbance, we do a lot more “fighting” in life than we do “running.”  And while most of us “neurotics” fight in principled and disciplined ways (that’s what assertiveness is all about), the disturbed characters among us are unscrupulous fighters determined to get the better of us.  But the nature and prevalence of human aggression is generally poorly understood.  This is especially true when it comes to differentiating reactive vs. predatory aggression.  To avoid victimization, you really must heighten your awareness about the kinds of aggression disturbed characters exhibit.

Aggression can be overt (out in the open so everyone can see it) or covert (veiled or carefully concealed so that a potential victim is caught unaware).  It can be direct (aimed at a particular person) or indirect (carried out through intermediaries). It can also be active (defined by what a person does) or passive (revealed by what a person doesn’t do).  And as I mention in In Sheep’s Clothing, perhaps there is no more common misunderstanding than the difference between passive and covert-aggression.    But it’s also true that many of the traditional psychology paradigms made it all but impossible for folks (lay persons and therapists alike) to appreciate the difference between reactive and predatory or instrumental aggression.  In fact, it’s the tendency on the part of most folks to assume that fear and/or anger underlies all aggression that makes it really hard to tell when someone is neither afraid of you or angry with you but simply preying upon you!  Predatory aggressors are a very different lot.  And sometimes they victimize out of pure desire or for amusement.  Below is a link to a video segment from my upcoming DVD and webinar series on character disturbance, explaining the difference between predatory and reactive aggression:


Character Spectrum Disorders

In recent years, we have come to realize that conditions like autism are not singular entities but rather part of a broader spectrum of conditions.  As a result, we now have a much improved ability to detect the various manifestations of developmental delays such as Asperger’s Disorder and to provide the most appropriate early interventions for those conditions.  But we have been much slower to recognize the broad spectrum of character dysfunction.  And largely as a result, there has been a lot of confusion in people’s minds about how to correctly label and deal with those persons in their lives who behave so irresponsibly.

Several years back, books were coming out every day about Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  And for some time, many folks thought that the descriptions of narcissistic behavior adequately explained the problems they were having with the dysfunctional persons in their life.  As a result, it suddenly appeared that there were narcissists everywhere.  More recently have come all the books on psychopathy and sociopathy, and for some time following, the internet blogs were full of stories of psychopathic ex-spouses and the “sociopath next door”  And when it was announced that the official diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association is probably going to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a definitive classification (for years it has not included psychopathy as an official condition, either), some people were up in arms while others were left scratching their heads.  For a lot of reasons – mostly media hype and lots of misinformation – there’s now more confusion than ever about the nature of character disturbances.

I was among the first to propose that character disturbance exists along certain continua or spectra and that we needed to take a fresh look at our ways of conceptualizing character-impaired individuals.  It went against all convention when I suggested that it’s a mistake to see all personality types as different “neurotic” styles (there’s still a popular and long-selling book with a title asserting that they are) and that and that there’s a continuum upon which everyone rests that runs from primarily neurotic to primarily impaired in character.  I also suggested that there’s a continuum of character dysfunction – based on the nature and severity of symptoms – that ranges from having certain undesirable character traits to having a full-blown character “disorder” or marked impairment in a person’s social functioning.  And in my book, Character Disturbance, I took great care to present a framework that can help almost anyone understand the entire spectrum of character dysfunction and where someone they know might lie along that spectrum.

Given the nature of our times, it’s a safe bet that the person causing you grief in your life has a character impairment of one type or another.  And despite all the recent hype, the likelihood they’re a full-blown psychopath is fairly low (not saying here that you can’t be dealing with one).  More recently, the authors of the book Almost a Psychopath have acknowledged that there are folks who are empathy deficient and tend to manipulate in relationships but who lack the level of cold-blooded callousness to warrant a formal clinical diagnosis or the label of psychopath.  Such folks often fit much better under the covert-aggressive formulation that I first introduced in my book In Sheep’s Clothing.  And you can read the confession of one such individual, who recognized himself when reading the book, in one of my prior posts (the link to Confessions of a Covert-Aggressive Personality is broken right now but will soon be fixed).  And the very fact that he was distressed enough about what he knew to be true about himself and wanted to work at becoming different argues against the notion that he was a psychopath.

The main thing I’ve tried to do with both of my books is to present a framework that the average person can understand that explains the wide range of impaired characters they’re likely to encounter in their lives and to offer practical suggestions about how to deal with such folks.  And over the years, In Sheep’s Clothing morphed from a small independent publication to an international bestseller (entering its 17th year in print).  That’s mainly because of strong word-of-mouth recommendations of readers to family members and friends.  Most gratefully, the very same thing is happening with Character Disturbance.  As its readers gain better insight into the broad spectrum of character dysfunction, as they are empowered to improve their life circumstances as a result, and as they spread the word to others about the benefits of the perspective I offer, Character Disturbance will most likely eventually enjoy the same if not better success than In Sheep’s Clothing.  No fancy promotion, outrageous claims, or hyperbolic commentary on the trendy labels of the day, just simple, practical ways to understand and deal with the character impaired individuals in your life.  And because I know that such individuals exist along a continuum, if there’s a person in your life making you miserable, I know you’ll find them somewhere among the descriptions I provide in Character Disturbance.