Tag Archives: Personality and Character Disorders

Dangerous Deceptions and Character Disorders

I’ve been posting on one of the principal distinguishing features of character disturbed and character disordered individuals: their penchant for serious, sometimes highly “artful” lying (see also:  The Art of the Lie and Why Some People Lie So Much). And while character-impaired individuals are notorious for having chronic problems with the truth, there are two types of deceptions in which they engage that present the greatest dangers to relationships. The first type of deception is the kind that prompted me to write my first book In Sheep’s Clothing. It has to do with what some theorists and authors have called the art of “impression management” (for an egregious illustration of this capacity, see the article: “I Am Not a Monster:” Impression Management Ariel Castro Style), and sometimes it can be carried to a highly pathological extreme.  There are, unfortunately, people who are simply not who they appear – proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing who, while they know their own  nature all-too-well, don’t want you to know who they really are so they can get what they want from you.  But as I’ve mentioned before and illustrate in my book Character Disturbance, character disturbance exists along a continuum (for more on this topic see the series of articles on the character disturbance continuum beginning with: Character Disturbance Exists Along a Continuum), so the degree to which someone knowingly and deliberately misreprents themself and with truly malevolent intent can vary considerably.  The second type of deception disturbed and disordered characters are known for is self-deception, which I’ll have more to say about in next week’s series concluding article.

I’ve told this story before, but I think it worth telling again:  I was asked to mentor a colleague who had recently carved some time out of his private practice to provide psychiatric services to a women’s prison.  It seems he’d been too often “conned” into prescribing several highly abusable drugs to inmates who in turn were selling them at a handsome profit and trading them for various favors.  And when I first gently approached the topic of why it probably wasn’t a good idea to simply take an inmate’s word for things when gathering the information necessary to make a diagnosis he asked a question that stands out in my mind even today:  “Why would they lie?” (Remember, this is a professional used to treating individuals who came to him in great distress and truly needed help).  Of course, it would have taken an eternity to list all of the umpteen thousand reasons folks who virtually lie for a living would have for casting false impressions, but suffice it to say that I had to really make the point that some folks simply don’t want you to know who they really are or what they’re really all about simply because they know that if they’re straight-up with you, you probably won’t give them whatever it is they want from you.

The most disastrous relationships I’ve witnessed over the years all began with a “con” of some sort. Sometimes the deception was both knowing and deliberate as in the case of one severely character disordered woman who completely but artfully misrepresented herself to a man of incredible financial means merely to gain access to part of a fortune and a lifestyle most of us could only dream about and the case of a notorious user, abuser, and “hustler,” who made it his life’s mission  to charm, seduce, exploit, and then callously discard women of great physical beauty. But other times the wool was not so calculatingly pulled over the eventual victim’s eyes. There are times in all of our lives when we simply don’t trust our better judgment – when we won’t let ourselves see what we’re afraid to see – or when we simply can’t accept what seems too unsettling or unimaginable to believe. And because the most skilled manipulators among us often know our vulnerabilities better than we do, if we’re “in denial” or put the mental and emotional blinders on for some reason or another, we unwittingly make a covert-aggressor’s quest to take advantage of us a whole lot easier.

We live in an age where character disturbance is certainly more prevalent and, arguably, more severe than it used to be. So it’s unfortunately quite dangerous to be too trusting a soul in our times. We simply can’t judge on appearance. And we have to be really sure about our own character health if we’re to fully trust our gut. We have to be particularly mindful, cautious, objective, and be sure to gather the facts. There are individuals out there who are not who or what they appear and if we take the way they present themselves to us at face value, we could easily be duped.  Fortunately, a person’s track record will often betray them. So, offer all those contemplating a relationship the same advice I gave the good doctor I referenced in the story above years ago: do your homework – look objectively at the history – don’t just take his or her word for things – be mindful of your own needs and vulnerabilities, and then maybe, just maybe you won’t get the wool pulled over your eyes.

Character Matters will again be a live program this Sunday so tune in at UCY.TV at 7pm EDT (4pm PDT) and join the conversation!

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

The Continuum of Character Disturbance – Part 2

In my books Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome, I make the point that disturbances of character exist along a continuum (for more on the spectrum of character disturbance also see the article: Character Disturbance Exists Along A Continuum) with folks varying widely with respect to how seriously impaired (or possibly “disordered”) they are in character and the degree to which there is some degree of “neurosis” in their makeup as opposed to pure character pathology.  Fortunately, individuals relatively devoid of all neurosis and who are therefore only severely character disordered are rare.  However, given the sociocultural “zeitgeist” or atmosphere of our times, character disturbance of some significant degree is unfortunately quite widespread, negatively impacting relationships and affecting just about every aspect of our lives. And pathological levels of character disturbance are certainly more prevalent than truly pathological levels of “neurosis.” Gone are the days when folks struggled with so much unreasonable guilt or shame or experienced emotional turmoil over their basic instincts so severe yet so repressed that they made themselves sick  (with such bizarre maladies as psychosomatic “blindness” and “paralysis”) with worry. In times past, mental health professionals spent most of their time dealing with such cases and other milder expressions of “neurosis.” But in recent years professionals increasingly find themselves dealing with some degree of character disturbance.

It can be particularly challenging to discern just where someone lies on the character disturbance spectrum.  All too often in troubled relationships the extent of a person’s character disturbance only becomes evident long after much damage has already been done. But because over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals on the CD spectrum, I’ve learned some fairly reliable ways to better recognize the indicators and by sharing some stories derived from that experience, you might also find it a bit easier to understand what to watch out for.  What follows below is one of those stories.

“Jack” (As always, events, names, details, and any other potentially identifying information in the following vignette have been altered to preserve anonymity) was your archetypal narcissist.  And even though three different mental health professionals were hesitant to formally assign the “disorder” label to his pathology (Many folks, including professionals, view such a label as necessarily implying hopelessness as far as treatment is concerned and therefore resist “stigmatizing” folks who function relatively well at least in some spheres of their lives with such a personality disorder diagnosis), if Jack didn’t qualify for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) diagnosis, then no one did (Of course, as many of you know, the disorder is no longer recognized as a distinct and reliably identifiable personality disorder in the official diagnostic and classification manual of the American Psychiatric Association – and you can learn more about this in the articles Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love and Big Changes Coming for Psychiatric Diagnoses). In fact, Jack’s life was a perfect example of a “disordered” personality pattern, with his relationships at work, at home, and in the larger community all significantly negatively impacted by his extreme egocentrism. grandiosity, and sense of entitlement.

When I first met Jack, I could see how others might be initially impressed or charmed but I quickly found myself having a highly negative gut reaction.  “Just who does this guy think he is?,” I found myself musing.  “Does he not hear himself?,” I wondered.  He was a successful business man to be sure.  But savior of the entire universe, I think not.  Still, that’s the way he came across – as God’s perfect gift to humankind.  I was more than taken aback.  Now Jack had only come to see me because he had to do so.  He’d gotten himself in some trouble because of his presumptuous behavior with a female co-worker and as part of his plea deal on the sexual harassment charges filed against him, he’d been ordered to get counseling. Now as readers of my books know, narcissists, especially in our time, tend to lie far more on the purely character disturbed versus “neurotic” side of the CD-Neurosis spectrum. Most narcissists really do think they’re all that, aren’t compensating for insecurities when they demand adulation from others, and know exactly what they do and why.  As I’ve stated many times at workshops, for the CD narcissist, it’s not that they’re unaware, it’s that they simply don’t care (especially about what others think). So whenever I’m dealing with a narcissist, I’m always looking for the possibility they have at least some degree of neurosis because that speaks to a much better prognosis.  Fortunately, it turned out that there was indeed some neurosis in Jack and it manifested in the telltale ways it typically does, once his substantial “defensive armor” was pierced, which, I must say, took a bit of doing.

Jack would have to be made to retell his implausible version of the events leading his legal difficulties many times before anything resembling a plausible true account would emerge. And for Jack to finally render the truth, he’d have to stop minimizing, projecting blame, and denying the substance of his wrongdoing.  When, however, to my great surprise he did, something truly unexpected (but indicative of a better prognosis) happened:  he broke down.  In fact, he sobbed for what seemed like hours.  And after he more fully realized just what he had done and the damage it had caused his victim, he demonstrated something else most more character-impaired narcissists don’t:  a commitment to changing both the ways in which he did and looked at things and who he was as a person.  Jack would work actively on himself and his character for years beyond the requirements of his plea deal.  That’s the way it is when there’s enough conscience in someone and they’ve overcome the truly neurotic denial (for more on the nature of denial the chapter on manipulation tactics in In Sheep’s Clothing, the section on the nature of denial in Character Disturbance and the articles:   Denial – What It Is And Isn’tDenial – Manipulation Tactic 4, “Denial” Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1, and Traditional Therapy Biases and Denial) they’ve been in for years. “Jack’s” story is instructive in many other ways, which is why I’ll have much more to say about him and the things that can help you determine where someone lies on the neurosis vs. CD continuum in next week’s article. Character Matters will be a live broadcast this Sunday at 7 pm EDT (6pm CDT and 4pm PDT), so I can take your calls.  Perhaps you’ll have a story to share about a narcissist or some questions to ask about how to better tell where one of these types might lie on the spectrum of character disturbance. Advance Registration information for the webinar scheduled for September will be posted on this site in the next few weeks.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Character Disturbance Exists Along a Continuum

In my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome, I make the point that character disturbance is always a matter of degree.  Just as we’ve come to learn that autistic conditions exist along a continuum (the official classification now carrying the label Autism Spectrum Disorder), character disturbances exist not only on a continuum of intensity and severity but also on a spectrum that reflects the relative presence of what has been long called “neurosis” as opposed to pure character pathology.  Very few individuals are virtually devoid of any neurosis or are severely character disordered.  Most folks lie somewhere along a continuum that reflects varying degrees of neurosis vs. character disturbance.  I’ve written about this topic before (see, for example: Character Spectrum Disorders).  But in lieu of the widespread confusion that still exists about the spectrum of character disturbances, I though it best to introduce a new series on the topic.

The nature and severity of a person’s character disturbance are big factors in determining how amenable they are to various professional interventions as well as what kinds of interventions are most likely to be effective.  And getting it right when it comes to assessing where someone is on the character disorder – neurosis spectrum can be really tricky at times.  I can’t count the number of occasions a person another professional had deemed “nearly impossible” to work with was referred to me because of my reputation for dealing with highly disturbed characters only to find the person to have considerable neurosis (giving me a lot, therefore, to work with).  Similarly, I’ve come across my fair share of individuals who’d made the rounds of helping professionals and managed to receive just about every diagnostic label in the book except the severe character disturbance that was truly responsible for their problems.

Knowing where someone truly lies on the character disturbance spectrum is not only important for professionals trying to properly assess and treat but also for individuals trying to make sound judgments about a potential relationship partner.  Without a good sense of what to look for and how to evaluate what you find, you run the risk of learning far too late and after much unnecessary heartache how character impaired your partner might be.  So, in the coming series, I’ll be presenting some vignettes designed to illustrate the behaviors, attitudes, and other warning signs that might indicate the person you’re thinking of getting involved with or have become involved with has serious character issues or is even, perhaps, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” And because so many of the commentators possess the wisdom of their own experiences, I hope many will be willing to share their insights, especially anything they did in fact notice on the front end of their relationships that might have served as “red flags” if they’d only given greater credence to their gut instincts and paid more serious heed to their reservations.

Next week’s article will feature an in-depth look at two of the biggest red flags for serious character pathology, and, therefore, big potential problems for a relationship.

I’ll be traveling over the next several days, so Character Matters this Sunday evening will again be a rebroadcast of an earlier program.  But we’ll be back live Sunday, June 7 and I can take your calls then.  Also, look for details to be posted in the next 3 weeks or so on the upcoming Webinar in September as well as information on registration and early registration.  We’re still working on the best platform and format that will provide the most interactive capability as well as affordability but hope to have all those issues resolved soon.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Misunderstood Psychology Terms-Pt 2: Personality & Character

Perhaps no two concepts in psychology are as confusing at times as personality and character.  That’s in part because the definitions of both terms have evolved over time. But it’s also because certain misconceptions about the terms have persisted over the years not just in the minds of the general public but also in among professionals.

I once gave an instructional seminar to some 3rd year medical students (wanting to enter psychiatry) on the different approach needed to deal with character disturbance as opposed to neurosis.  One young man in the front row was shaking his head in a negative direction the entire seminar, whereas most of the audience appeared not only receptive but affirming. This person later made some statements and asked some questions that revealed he harbored two all-too-common misconceptions:  that personality and character are one and the same thing and that every personality style is a manifestation of a particular type of neurosis.  

As I outlined in one of last year’s posts (See: Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer):

  • Personality is not the same thing as a trait or distinguishing personal attribute.  It’s also more complex than merely the sum of a person’s individual traits.
  • Personality is not the same as a person’s temperament.  Temperamental variables are an important aspect of one’s personality to be sure, but it’s inaccurate to define someone’s personality by their temperament alone.
  • Personality is neither comprised only of one’s biologically-based predispositions nor is it merely a reflection of their environmental influences or learned “habits.”
  • Personality and character are related but nonetheless different concepts.  Although both of these terms have been used quite loosely and often synonymously (even by professionals) they are very different constructs.  Character is an important aspect of one’s personality – the aspect that reflects one’s ethics and integrity, but it is not synonymous with personality.

So what exactly then is personality?  The term derives from the Latin word “persona,” meaning “mask.”  In the ancient theater, actors wore masks to depict various emotional states and also to denote character identity and gender.  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.”  And 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 always proved inadequate when it comes to understanding the makeup of the more unsavory characters among us, and we now live in an age where pathological neurosis is less common. That’s why for years, many in the behavioral science field (myself included) have advocated for a more comprehensive view of personality.

Over the past several decades, clinicians and researchers have increasingly preferred a multidimensional conceptualization of personality. They’ve also tended to view personality as the distinctive “style” a person has of engaging with the world.  While even traditional theorists (i.e. those who view personality as a social “mask” or facade, defined by one’s “unconscious defenses” against their fears and anxieties) have conceptualized personality as an individual interaction style, informed professionals today no longer view these styles as manifestations of a person’s neurosis or an unconsciously constructed facade. Rather, they view these styles as a genuine expression of who the person really is and how he or she prefers to relate. Moreover, within the multidimensional perspective, a variety of critical factors are thought to contribute to the development of each person’s unique style of relating, including:

  •  Constitutional factors  (all the factors that comprise a person’s biological “constitution”), such as:
    • Heredity (genetically-conferred or influenced traits and predispositions)
    • Temperament
    • Other biological variables (e.g., hormonal levels, biochemical balances or imbalances, etc.)
  • Environmental factors, including:
    • learned behaviors and learning failures
    • socio-cultural influences on and consequences for behavior
    • trauma
    • exposure to drugs and toxic agents
  • Developmental factors, and perhaps most importantly:
  • Dynamic interactions between all the contributing factors during various phases in a person’s development.

Over time, a dynamic interaction between all the aforementioned factors contribute to the development of a person’s unique “style” of perceiving and relating to others and the world at large.  And the degree to which any of the aforementioned factors plays a more dominant role in the shaping of personality style varies from individual to individual.  Generally speaking, once a certain “style” develops and solidifies, it remains intact and relatively unchanging across a wide variety of circumstances and throughout most of a person’s life. However, for many folks, certain aspects of their personality do change as they grow, acquire wisdom, and mature.   Few of us can say that we are exactly the same person we were 20 or 30 years ago.  Still, at our core, most of us retain a unique identity that most of our friends and acquaintances can easily recognize as distinctively “us.”  Some folks, however, either as a result of experiencing extreme trauma during their formative years or because they have an innate predisposition toward high cognitive and behavioral ambivalence, never seem to “solidify” a stable personality.  The result is often an erratic and unpredictable pattern of emotional expression and behavioral conduct so distinctive that it appears as a “style” of its own (This is the case with Borderline Personality, and for more on the topic see:  Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder).

Most personality styles are adaptive in the sense that they draw upon the person’s natural inclinations as well as their learned experience to form a distinctive and functional “strategy” on how to deal with life’s challenges, get one’s needs met, and prosper.   But sometimes one’s distinctive way of coping can, in and of itself, present problems.   When a person’s “style” of perceiving and engaging with the world is 1) inordinately intense (i.e. the behaviors associated with their preferred style of coping far exceed the bounds of expression considered normal for the culture), 2) Inflexible (i.e. the person doesn’t appear able to moderate their responses or implement alternative coping strategies), and 3) resistant to modification despite a clear lack of functionality, it’s considered a “disorder” of personality.  

As I suggest in my book Character Disturbance, character is better defined as the aspect of personality that reflects one’s moral integrity.  The word character derives from a Greek word describing the distinctive mark engraved on a printing plate. The nature of our character “marks” our personalities with respect to our social conscientiousness and personal ethics.  When the nature of a person’s character impairs their ability (willingness) to function in a pro-social manner, we say they have a character disturbance. And when that impairment is so intense, inflexible, and resistant to modification despite adverse consequences, we say they have a character disorder.

For much of the modern era, there’s been a bias in the professional community against recognizing personality and character disturbances and disorders and their role in psychological problems.  But because we live in an age in which so many socio-cultural factors both promote and reward character dysfunction, that bias has been steadily waning.  It’s really hard to find a case these days where personality is not a major player in a person’s difficulties, regardless of the clinical label they might be given. There are relatively few problems that come to the attention of mental health professionals that are strictly the result of disease processes, biochemical abnormalities, extreme and unusual circumstances, inevitable response to trauma, or strictly involuntary factors.  Personality factors, and sometimes character issues, often play significant roles in problems, even though they’re not always recognized, diagnosed correctly, or afforded the kind of attention they warrant in treatment. That’s why in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome, and in my numerous online articles, I’ve focused so heavily on personality and character issues and the roles those issues play in people’s difficulties.  

This Sunday’s Character Matters program will include a further discussion of these topics but will also reserve ample time for an open forum on topics of the listeners’ choice.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1

We live in “the information age,” so there’s plenty of material out there on psychological matters. There are weblogs (i.e. “blogs”) galore on the internet that deal with personality, relationship, and other psychological matters. And for many years there’s been a plethora of self-help books as well as books on every psychological condition imaginable. You would think the abundance of information would make for a fairly well-informed and knowledgeable public. But for a variety of reasons, many psychological terms and concepts are often still poorly understood or even misunderstood.

The biggest danger in not understanding certain concepts accurately is that a person can be placed at a big disadvantage when it comes to dealing with problems of a psychological nature, whether those problems involve themselves or others with whom they have a relationship. All too many folks have found themselves ill-equipped to deal effectively with a situation because they were either misled about or failed to grasp its true nature.  The current series of articles will address some popular misconceptions and the principal reasons misunderstandings occur.  It will also attempt to clarify important concepts, terms, and principles in a straightforward, easy-to-understand manner.

There are many reasons for all the confusion and misunderstanding about psychological terms and principles, many of which have become an established part of common parlance. These days, it’s not uncommon for terms to be bandied so loosely yet so inaccurately (sometimes, terms are simply “invented” or existing terms are re-defined) that they lose all validity (hence the term “psychobabble”). Even some very valid concepts and terms are subject to misunderstanding, partly because they’re inherently complex and difficult to understand, and partly because clinicians sometimes don’t do a very good job of explaining them. To compound matters, mental health professionals sometimes also misuse terms.  And even when terms are correctly understood and they’re sometimes misapplied to a situation (Sometimes this is the result of misdiagnosis or inadequate assessment on the professional’s part) as is the case, for example, when a purely elective bad habit is labeled a “compulsion” or repeat misbehavior even in the face of adverse consequence is prematurely labeled an “addiction.” All of this can significantly disadvantage a person seeking help.

Perceiving the nature of a problem accurately and labeling the psychological realities underlying it correctly are of paramount importance when providing or seeking help (I give many examples of this in Character Disturbance). Perhaps nothing can do more potential harm than misperceiving or mislabeling key behaviors and dynamics in a troubled relationship. I remember all-to-well the first example I came across of this phenomenon when I was doing the clinical research for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing. A couple came to see me who’d been having problems for years.  The husband had been labeled as “commitment phobic” by a prior therapist.  As the therapist saw it, his “mistrust of women,” must have stemmed from his relationship with an “overbearing” mother who likely  “wounded” and oppressed him in his youth, and therefore caused him to both fear and avoid true intimacy and commitment like the plague.  Supposedly, he feared being “devoured” by his wife and preserved a sense of personal power and identity by having frequent, casual affairs with women who “meant nothing.” These dalliances nonetheless left his wife feeling betrayed, abused, and neglected. But having bought into the notion that her husband was actually starved for genuine and faithful love “deep down,” this woman spent years trying to prove her steadfastness and loyalty and that intimacy with her was truly “safe,” (It took a heroic effort on her part to be intimate with someone who’d so deeply hurt her so often) believing that to be the only prayer she had of helping him “heal” and resolve his issues. That case and many others like it taught me the importance of framing things accurately and using terms correctly. Words have meanings. And those meanings have implications for our understanding. So it’s crucial that a therapist “frame” things accurately.  It’s one thing for someone to have a genuine “fear of intimacy” but it’s quite another for that person to have a penchant for “sensation-seeking” behavior, a tendency to view and treat people merely as objects of gratification, and a callous disregard for the impact of their behavior on another.  When the woman in this case came to see her husband as the character disordered abuser he was and not the fearful wounded child she’d labored years to heal, a new life opened up for her. Perhaps I taught her to see things more accurately, thereby empowering her. But she and her husband also taught me plenty about the importance of correct framing and labeling, thus empowering me in my work.

Concepts and terms I plan to explore in this series include: passive-aggression (especially, vs. covert-aggression), anger management, ego defense mechanisms (especially as contrasted with manipulation and responsibility-resistance tactics), Bipolar Disorder, shame, guilt, remorse, personality and character disorders, addiction, acting-out (especially, as opposed to “acting up”), denial (especially, vs. lying), compartmentalization, symptoms (vs. signs) “co-dependence” (vs. emotional dependency), neurosis (especially as it contrasts to character disturbance), psychopathy and sociopathy, post-traumatic stress, and “being defensive” (as opposed to actively going on the attack).  This is by no means an exhaustive list.  There will be other topics covered as well.  But I’d also like to invite the readers to submit questions they have about and terms concepts about which they’re unsure and to share experiences in which they were unsure about how to accurately “frame” the problem, and I’ll do my best to address the issues before wrapping up the series.

This week on Character Matters there will again be ample time for open-topic discussion, so tune in if you can and if you have questions about terms and concepts or want to share an experience about how a misconstrued situation disadvantaged you when you sought help, I’d very much welcome your call.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Character Disorders and Malice

All of us have done harm to others, and most of the time such harm is done inadvertently or unintentionally. But there are some among us who do harm maliciously. Just what is malice anyway? The word has its roots in the Latin, Old French and Spanish word for “evil” or “bad.” And from a legal perspective, malice is defined by the conscious intent to do harm. For some, such malevolent intention is the very definition of evil.  But what, you might wonder, would make a person deliberately want to hurt someone else?

Traditional psychology paradigms suggest that people behave maliciously as a defense against perceived hostility or anticipated injury.  In other words, as anxious, insecure people, to some of us the best defense appears a strong offense.  Traditional paradigms also suggest that people lash out only when they’re angry and that anger is always a response to feeling wronged. But time and ample research has not been kind to these antiquated notions. We now know that people hurt others for reasons other than merely defending themselves against perceived threats or the anxiety associated with anticipated injury. And the abundant research on predatory or instrumental aggression indicates that people who intentionally harm others can be motivated by many factors other than anger.   

Now none of us is immune to causing harm. Sometimes we can inflict pain on others out of sheer ignorance or even carelessness. But this is not the same as intentionally doing something to injure someone. And disturbed and disordered characters are unfortunately among those who hurt people intentionally and for a variety of nefarious reasons. While it’s almost unfathomable to most folks (especially the  “neurotics” among us), some of major reasons disturbed and disordered characters engage in malicious behavior include:

  • To punish.  Disturbed and disordered characters don’t like it when you don’t see things their way, do the things they want you to do, or give them what they want from you. And they’re more than willing to make your life miserable as a way of coercing you to comply. They’re particularly vindictive fighters whose cardinal rule of engagement is simple:  Give me what I want and you won’t get hurt.  Defy me, and there’ll be some sort of hell to pay.
  • To feel powerful.  Some characters just want to feel one-up and on top of you. And they’ll do whatever it takes to make you knuckle-under or remain in a one-down position.  They hurt you because they can, and knowing they can makes them feel big and strong.  Disturbed characters often build themselves up at the expense of  others.
  • To take advantage.  As I point out in In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome (as well as in many of the blog articles), for disturbed and disordered characters, it’s always about position.  And when they seek personal gain, it’s generally at someone else’s expense.  Succeeding at the task of interpersonal exploitation also helps confirm for them their already problematic (inflated) sense of self-worth and perpetuates their attitudes of superiority and entitlement.
  • For the thrill of it.  For the some of the most seriously disturbed characters, doing harm to others is a source of great amusement.  It’s a most sordid type of fun.  It actually gives them joy to relish in the suffering and misfortune of other.  And there are some disordered characters (see also the three articles on the Sadistic Personality) who are particularly prone to this.
  • They lack the attributes of character that might motivate them to do otherwise.  Some folks don’t have the kind of conscience or inner controls that might keep them from doing things that might hurt others.  So when something happens that they don’t like and they feel like lashing out, they simply do so because there’s nothing in their makeup that makes them give pause or hold back.  Some even have such deficits in empathy that simply doesn’t bother them enough to think twice when it comes to harming someone else.  They’ll do what others generally wouldn’t dare simply because they don’t care.

Unfortunately, many folks have remained in highly toxic, abusive relationships because they misjudged the motivations their relationship partner had for doing the harm they did (and, therefore, also misjudged the character of the person inflicting the abuse).  In the next few articles, I’ll present some examples of this.  And hopefully, in the discussion, others will share experiences that together with the articles will help those in troubled relationships better understand both the character and the motivations of the person acting with malice.

This Sunday will feature a special Easter edition of the Character Matters program on UCY.TV.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

How To Deal With A Narcissist – Part 2

Narcissism has been a hot topic in recent years, with many books written on the subject.  And interest in Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in particular skyrocketed in advance of the news that the most current edition of the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health professionals (DSM-V, released May, 2013) would be dropping the disorder as an official diagnostic category.  Heightened interest in NPD as well as concern and even some outrage over the DSM committee’s decision might well have been expected because even without official recognition as a distinct and valid diagnostic category, anyone who has ever had to deal with a person warranting the label knows NPD to be both a very real and extremely hard to deal with personality disorder.

NPD is not the first personality disorder to be “demoted” from official status, nor is it likely to be the last.  Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder met the same fate when one of the earlier editions of the diagnostic manual was published.  And of the conditions that have “disappeared” from the fully accepted list, many have done so for the same reasons: 1) the growing realization of the flaws inherent in traditional psychology theories (theories based on the concept of neurosis) and the declining influence of those theories within the professional and research communities with regard to understanding personality; and, 2) confusion and division among mental health professionals (especially those closely aligned with the “medical model”) with regard to the defining characteristics of certain conditions, especially personality disturbances and disorders (I address the confusion many mental health professionals helped perpetuate for years regarding passive-aggressive vs. covert-aggressive personalities in my book In Sheep’s Clothing).  Last week’s article highlighted some of the bad advice that’s still being disseminated fairly widely with regard to narcissists and how to deal with them (see: How To Deal With A Narcissist).  Both this and next week’s article will provide you some information that will help you better understand who these folks really are, what really makes them tick, and how to maximally empower yourself should you find yourself in some kind of relationship with them.

We all start out in life as narcissists.  That is, from infancy through early childhood, we tend to think the world revolves around us and around our desires (Notice, I did not say needs because not all of our “desires” represent true physical or emotional “needs”).  And we tend to gravitate toward the people, places, and things that we think will satisfy those desires and reject or distance ourselves from those that don’t.  A big part of developing a mature, decent character has to do with overcoming our natural egocentrism and coming to a mental and emotional place where we can truly value, empathize with, and have consideration for the rights, needs, and desires of others.  But some people never sufficiently develop such a capacity, and there are many reasons for this, including:  an inherent inability to empathize,  the experience of being over-valued, the experience of cultivating too much power too early (as is often the case within a dysfunctional family system), a cultural environment that promotes and rewards attitudes of entitlement, and the experience of being overly recognized and rewarded for one’s innate talents and traits as opposed to being credited for the willingness to display pro-social attitudes and behaviors.  And that’s why, in my book Character Disturbance, so many of the “Ten Commandments” I advocate for building good character focus on correcting these narcissism-fostering factors.

Most people start thinking about changing the way they relate to a narcissist long after life with them has already become unbearable.  And in part this is due to the fact that early on in the development of a relationship a person can completely misperceive (or be deceived about) the narcissist’s true nature.  I’ll give you an example:  Tom, as I’ll call him, seemed to simply adore Jane.  In fact, he appeared to love her even more than he loved his 1965 restored Corvette, and everyone knew how much he loved that car.  He and the car were virtually inseparable in that he spent almost every waking minute with it and pampering it – conditioning the leather seats, polishing the chrome, buffing the daily coat of wax to a see-yourself-in-it shine, etc.  But once Jane caught his eye, and perhaps for the first time in his life, Tom started spending less time with his car and centering his attentions on Jane.  Tom thought Jane one of the most beautiful creatures he’d ever laid eyes on and he doted on her, often sending her flowers, buying her trinkets, and giving her gift certificates to some of the most upscale clothing stores.  He had her on his arm at a variety of social events and sung her praises so openly that Jane was both flattered and overwhelmed to the point of near embarrassment with what seemed his deep appreciation for her.  It wasn’t until Tom began criticizing Jane for “not caring enough” to look her very best when they went out (after all, this would reflect negatively on him and his image as a person of stature and influence in the community) and picking out her clothes himself that she began to suspect the superficiality of what she once regarded as his “appreciation” of both her and her appearance. And when he began trying to control who she could associate with, she began to feel treated much like he treated his car (which she, among others, was not allowed to touch without permission!) – a possession he adored and protected in some ways, but a possession nonetheless. Later, Jane would learn that Tom’s early “adoration” wasn’t really about her at all but rather about him and the how it made him look to have successfully snagged such a beautiful person.  Everyone would look at him and think:  “Wow, those classic cars, a beautiful woman, that gorgeous house, and good looks himself besides – boy, does that guy have it all!” Jane would also eventually come to realize that despite all the attention and passion Tom displayed, he did not and could not really love her.  In fact, he didn’t really even love his car.  Narcissists love only themselves and all those things they see as “extensions” of themselves.  Fortunately, Jane realized all this early enough to save herself a lot of heartache.  And while for a time she found herself missing the attention and adulation, she knew she was probably saving her sanity when she gave Tom the boot.

The time to test the degree of genuine regard someone has for you as a person and for your needs, wants, and feelings, is long before the effects of their flattery start to wear off.  Deep down, most of us want to be loved, not adored.  And we want to be cherished, not possessed. So it’s incumbent upon us to “test” those we’re thinking about becoming intimately involved with for certain important aspects of character and to make sure they pass the test before proceeding. Getting involved with a person with narcissistic traits or features of any other character disturbance follows a predictable course and usually results in disaster.  So the time to take action is very early on, which is difficult for most “neurotic” folks because they’re typically so overly conscientious and hesitant to make harsh judgments.  And remember that lots of things can appear like love and appreciation on the surface, which is why you always have to scratch below the surface and test both how genuine and how mature and healthy someone’s regard for you really is.  Just because someone shows high interest in you doesn’t mean they really value you. And just because they might shower you with affection doesn’t mean they really care about you and your welfare.  When it comes to someone’s character, the things that really matter must be tested well and over a period of time.  And when warning signs do appear, we owe it to ourselves to pay them heed.

Everyone knows that you don’t always have good warnings about someone’s character (because of their skill in the arts of deception and impression-management), and sometimes you find yourself in situations where you simply don’t have a choice about whether to be involved in some way with a narcissist or otherwise character-disturbed person (e.g., a narcissistic boss, supervisor, or co-worker, relative, neighbor, etc.). Next week’s article will focus on the best ways to empower yourself in situations in which in you have no choice but to be involved in some way with a narcissist.

I’ll have more to say on narcissism on my Character Matters program this Sunday night.  And in the coming weeks I’ll have some information on a new discussion forum centering on the principles in my book The Judas Syndrome.

How to Deal with a Narcissist

There’s a lot of information about narcissists available these days.  Unfortunately, a lot of the information is still biased by longstanding but generally erroneous notions about what persons with narcissistic personality traits or disorders are really like and how they get to be the way they are.  Recently, I did some of my own searching on the internet and found some relatively good as well as some very bad advice about how to deal with a narcissist.  In an attempt to separate the good advice from the bad and set the record straight about what most narcissists are really like and how to best deal with them, I thought I’d more closely examine some of the information and advice I came across at one of the more frequently visited sites dealing with this topic.

There is a wikiHow article that several individuals contributed to and which you can check out for yourself (I have provided the link here, but please exercise caution when reading the article!) titled How to Deal with a Narcissist.  How heavily the article was influenced by traditional views on the underpinnings of this condition (views that have never been empirically validated and are mostly erroneous) is evidenced most clearly in this bit of advice (it was number 11 of 12 “tips” for dealing with a narcissist):

Try to have compassion. This might be easier said than done, but remember: in spite of all the supposed self-confidence the narcissist displays, deep down, there is a severe lack of true confidence that requires the constant approval of others to subdue. Moreover, the narcissist does not have a full life because he or she shuts down a wide range of emotion.

While the above information isn’t completely false (There is, in fact, a small minority of narcissistic characters that lies on the more neurotic side of the neurosis vs. character disturbed spectrum) it’s very dangerous to promote these notions in our day and time.  In my book Character Disturbance I make the point that because of the nature of our times and certain dominant aspects of our culture (i.e. the rampant promotion of attitudes of entitlement and ego-centrism), most narcissists you encounter these days aren’t wounded children underneath who didn’t get enough love and affection from their parents, sufficient peer validation, etc., and who therefore unconsciously “defend” against and “compensate” for the pain of their low self-esteem with a false bravado.  Rather, most narcissists you’ll encounter today really do think they’re all that!  And it’s not that they need constant attention and approval to soothe the inner pain they bear but rather that they simply want it and feel entitled to demand it to boot. Moreover, most narcissists you’ll encounter aren’t caught in a neurotic trap whereby they unwittingly deny themselves access to full life because their underlying fears and anxieties cause them to shut down their emotions.  Rather, most narcissists simply never developed the kind or degree of empathy necessary to have the emotional responses most of have to the things that affect us in our relationships.  You needn’t feel sorry for them. And the reason I insist that harboring all the antiquated notions I’ve just mentioned is dangerous business is because such thinking is exactly what so often leads people to get into relationships with narcissists in the first place, despite warning signs, and to remain in those relationships despite suffering emotional abuse and neglect at their hands.

Now here’s another wonderful (I’m being sarcastic here) bit of advice from this same article (this tip was number 12):  

Trick them into overstepping themselves socially. If you are having a problem with a narcissist lying to your friends or family, or boss, try giving them a bit of rope to hang themselves in complimenting them on their oratorical expertise. Tell them they’re an amazing communicator, a true marksman in the art of verbal assassination. They will not register it as an insult, and will overstep themselves socially because of their self-confidence being inflated. Then others can see them more clearly.

Wow!  Imagine that.  The way to deal with a narcissist is to manipulate them! And because they just can’t help themselves, manipulating them is easy. How wonderful and paradoxical at the same time!  Expose the true odiousness of the narcissist’s character by displaying bad character yourself. But don’t worry, after you’ve succeeded in making the narcissist alienate him or herself from everyone else around you, you’ll be the hero and have tons of friends and admirers!

In my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I speak to the dangers of trying to out-manipulate character-impaired people of all persuasions. Manipulation is bad policy, period. And there’s a big difference between taking practical action and engaging in tactful behavior in your dealings with disturbed characters and trying to manipulate your way into a position of advantage with them.  Character matters.  And in the end, demonstrating good character has its own rewards.

In fairness, the article did give one fairly decent piece of advice (at least in the first part):  

Figure out your own needs.[1] If you are in need of someone who can provide mutual support and understanding, it is best to limit the time you spend with the narcissist in favor of others who can provide you with more of what you need. On the other hand, if the narcissist in your life is interesting or vibrant in other ways, and you do not need additional support, the friendship or relationship can work for the time being.

Remembering to take care of yourself, to know, understand, and to take responsibility for securing your own needs is never bad advice.  In fact, it’s probably the best advice the writers of this article give. But to stay involved with a narcissist just because he or she might be “interesting or vibrant” in some ways (or, perhaps, “charming”) and because you you can get by without other emotional support is fairly risky.  The more important variable when it comes to association is how seriously disturbed in character the person is.  A lot of psychopaths (the most malignantly narcissistic individuals on the planet) can be pretty darned charming, sometimes fatefully so.

There are “experts” everywhere these days on the subject of narcissism, largely because the condition is so common.  And there’s a lot of information available about this personality type.  But because there’s plenty of misinformation and outright bad information as well, I think the subject deserves greater treatment still. So look for a follow-up article on this same topic next week.  And I might have a few words to say about these matters on my Character Matters radio program this coming Sunday night (7 pm EDT, 4 pm PDT).

Can Character Disorders “Hit Bottom?” Do They Ever Change?

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and participants in other 12-step programs are well familiar with the term “hitting bottom.” That’s the term that describes when someone’s life has become so dysfunctional and unmanageable under the throes of a raging addiction that they’ve simply lost all ability to cope and have to admit personal defeat and “powerlessness.” And there is ample history to suggest that many individuals have found the hitting bottom experience (and subsequent surrendering or “turning over” of their lives and wills over to another governing force or “higher power”) the key to making significant turnarounds in their lives.  This causes many to wonder whether disturbed and disordered characters might not also have the potential to hit an emotional bottom when their lives have become a shipwreck, and perhaps as a result, find the motivation to chart a different course for their lives.

In my book Character Disturbance (as well as in In Sheep’s Clothing) I outline how different folks who are mostly impaired in character are from those who are mostly “neurotic.”  There are many dimensions on which these two groups differ.  And one dimension on which they differ significantly is how they respond to adverse consequences in their lives (see also: Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Responses to Adverse Consequences).

As a rule, neurotics try so hard to do right and to effect positive outcomes that they become anxious and upset quite easily when the endeavors they’re involved in go badly.  They are by nature hypersensitive to adverse consequences.  And if that hypersensitivity weren’t stressful enough by itself, they frequently bring additional stress upon themselves by making internal attributions about the reasons things might have gone wrong. When a neurotic office worker doesn’t get the “Good job!” comment he craves from his supervisor, he might well beat himself up with self-criticism, questioning how he fell short or obsessing about what more he might do to eventually secure the approval he desires. When the neurotic therapist doesn’t see the positive change she hopes for in the members of her therapy group, she might well start worrying that she is a sub-standard counselor who needs to learn a lot more and try a lot harder. Neurotics want things go well and for everyone to be happy.  And they take it hard whenever things go awry, all too readily blaming themselves for any failures. Because they have such a high level of social conscientiousness, neurotics often use their sensitivity and self-focus to propel themselves into action that might make almost any tenuous situation better.  Adverse consequences often prompt the neurotic individual to consider small “course corrections” or changes they might make in their ways of doing things.  They don’t completely alter their character, but they do modify their “style” a bit, trying to be a better person and perhaps becoming even more conscientious than they were before in the process.

By contrast, disordered characters are generally unfazed by adverse consequence. They have a characteristic imperturbability in their temperament that forms a significant part of their personality makeup and tend to remain relatively unnerved when it comes to dealing with adversity, especially when adverse circumstances are the direct result of their own behavior. So, when a judge reads the riot act to a three-time offender before sentencing, the criminal remains unflustered.  To complicate matters, unlike neurotics who tend to blame themselves, disordered characters are prone to making external attributions whenever anything bad does happen. They are quick to see others and circumstances as the source of problems. So, if they’ve lost another job, had another marriage fall apart, or even gotten in trouble with the law, they take it all in stride, blame everyone and everything else, and find little reason not to keep on behaving the same way they’ve always behaved, despite where it’s gotten them. Some of the most disturbed characters even pride themselves on the notion that they cannot be “beaten” and might even intensify their dysfunctional “style” of social behavior with every negative consequence that comes along.  They are both so comfortable with and married to their style of coping that they simply dig in their heels and try even harder in their same old ways to make things work (Some people would say this is the very definition of “insanity”).  They remain undeterred in their style of coping, even in the face of adverse consequences.

For significantly disturbed characters to have a hitting bottom experience sufficient to prompt them to reconsider their approach to life, two things must happen:   1) The experience must be of such devastating intensity that the disturbed character’s typical tenacity of spirit is at least strongly shaken if not broken; and, 2) There must be so many aspects of the experience that point so singularly to the culpability of the disturbed character that it’s virtually impossible (despite likely attempts) for him or her to blame anyone or anything else for the misfortune. And in such a rare circumstance there are two potential outcomes: 1) the ego-insult or narcissistic injury can be so great and the person’s motivation (and willingness) to do the work of self-reconstruction is so minimal that he or she simply gives up on life, possibly even preferring to opt out as opposed to stomaching the distaste inherently held for contrition, remorse, and the work of reparation (see also:  What Real Contrition Looks Like); or, 2) the person has the archetypal epiphany or “come to Jesus moment” where he or she faces the full truth about the true nature of problems and becomes “willing” for the first time (i.e. has the all-important change of heart) to both accept guidance and make essential course corrections. Many times, the guidance is provided by a faith system of some type.  And how genuine their “conversion experience” is can only be demonstrated with ample and consistent behavioral evidence over a significant amount of time (psychopaths are notorious for claiming they have found God or religion and for outwardly appearing to have changed their stripes while instead having only become even more stealthy, astute, and cleverly manipulative predators).  In The Judas Syndrome, I give examples of individuals who’ve either claimed (falsely) to turned their lives and wills over to the precepts of a faith system or sincerely embraced the principles advocated by some “higher power” that would make of them better persons.

Now I’ve written before (see, for example:  Disturbed Characters:  Can They Ever Really Change?) that some disturbed characters (especially those not severely disordered), can actually make significant changes in their typical modus operandi without having to hit an emotional bottom (especially if they’re exposed to the right kind of professional intervention). But for the most stubborn and prideful personalities, total defeat seems to be the only pathway to becoming a person of different and hopefully better character.

People With Character Disturbances: Openness Vs. Awareness

There’s a big difference between being “aware” (at least on an intellectual level) and being “open” or receptive to someone else’s input or viewpoint.  A person has to be in an admissive frame of mind and heart in order to process information at a level deep enough for it to have real meaning.  But disturbed and disordered characters are often so married to their ways of seeing and doing things that they can’t give due consideration to other perspectives.  They’re usually aware of how others want them to see and do things, but they’re also opposed to those ways. Naturally, this creates problems in their relationships.

The lack of openness in disturbed characters is rooted primarily in their arrogance (i.e. their “I understand your way but I think my way is superior” stance) as opposed to their ignorance (i.e. “I simply don’t know any other way”).  Another reason for their lack of openness has to do with their preference.  Most of the time, the ways they’ve come to look on things, think about things, and especially to conduct their affairs are compatible with various traits in their personality.  They may have even tried out alternatives but found the ways they eventually adopted a more comfortable, easy “fit”, especially with respect to their self-image, and, therefore, preferable.  And because they preferred these ways, they quickly became habitual and, in time, ingrained.  Finally, the disturbed character’s lack of receptiveness has to do with their core beliefs and the values they hold.  Now, many are quick to assert that disturbed, and especially disordered characters simply have no values.  But this is untrue.  They do indeed have values, as well as a hierarchy of importance they attach to those values.  What you have to remember, however, is that the values they hold are often significantly different from the values most others might like them to embrace.

Over the years, I’ve counseled many couples experiencing difficulties in their relationships.  Many times, one of the couple was more on the “neurotic” side of the spectrum whereas the other was more on the character disturbed side.  And as I’ve mentioned in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance as well as some prior posts (see, for example:  Neurosis vs. Character Disorder:  Levels of Awareness), neurotics and disturbed characters differ greatly with respect to their levels of awareness.  I’ve borne witness to many interactions between couples that demonstrate these differences, so I thought I might provide an example (the example is actually more of a “composite” with some minor deliberate distortions introduced and identifying information altered to ensure complete anonymity) from the case file:

Tom and Terri had been married for almost 11 years, and their relationship became rocky almost as soon as the “honeymoon” period ended soon after their now 7 year old child was born.  Initially, Terri verbalized three main complaints:  Tom seemed to have little to do with her except when he wanted sex; he seemed to be always “eyeballing” other women, even in her presence, which made her both jealous and mistrusting; and, he seemed oblivious to her concerns and never wanted to “talk” whenever she approached him about these or other things. Like so many others, she was hoping therapy might help improve their “communication.” Tom, on the other hand, didn’t see where there was any problem. He’d heard all these complaints before but believed them unwarranted. If he didn’t love Terri, he would have left her a long time ago, he insisted. It was as simple as that. But he agreed to come to therapy because he thought it would make her happy.  

The dialog that follows is from one of the sessions.  And you might glean a few important points from it with regard to issues of awareness and openness:

Terri:  Tom, when you look at other women the way you do, it really upsets me.  And then when you don’t want to do anything with me but pester me for sex all the time, it makes me think that’s all you want me for.

Tom:  I’m a man, okay!  I’m gonna look.  I think that’s perfectly normal.  Doc, that’s perfectly normal, isn’t it?  Besides, there’s no law against looking is there?  But it’s not like I’m out there running around all the time.  And okay, I admit, I flirt sometimes, too.  I’ll own that.  But that’s normal, too.  I just don’t see what the big deal is and why it bothers you so much.  I know that it does, but I don’t see why it should.

Terri:  Maybe I am over-reacting.

Tom:  And as for not wanting to do anything with you, well, you’re always wanting to do stuff like going to plays and crap like that.  I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those places.  No real man would.

Therapist:  Tom, you seem to have some pretty strong ideas about what it is to be a man.  One thing I would have to know is whether you are the kind of man who would refuse to try out some different things just because you might think them not manly enough and even if in the short run Terri might be pleased that you tried them and in the long run you might find some benefit in doing so as well.

Tom:  What did you have in mind?

Now here are some things I think are important to observe about this interaction:

  • Tom is certainly “aware” of a lot of things.  It’s not that he doesn’t know the behaviors Terri is concerned about and he’s clearly even aware of how much these behaviors emotionally distress her.
  • Tom couldn’t be more clear about his attitudes.  But the degree to which Terri allows herself to be “aware” of what those attitudes mean is another question.
  • Tom has a pretty narrowly defined view of manliness.   And there could be a whole host of reasons for this.  But all the reasons that could be there are really irrelevant to the major concern of whether he is “open” to modifying that view.
  • Tom’s views about women and the nature of relationships with them are as problematic as his views about men.
  • Terri is more “neurotic” than Tom but she has character issues of her own.  And her level of “awareness” about what drew her to Tom and the challenges Tom’s personality poses for the kind of relationship she wants seems fairly low.
  • Terri is under the misguided notion that awareness and communication are the keys to improving her relationship with Tom.
  • The fact that Tom is not swayed in his stance to even a small degree simply because of his full awareness of Terri’s pain is itself a red flag for character pathology (i.e. it signals some empathy deficiency).
  • But the fact that Tom even asks what I might want to ask him to do differently instead of stubbornly digging in with respect to his position suggests at least some degree of amenability on his part that could possibly be developed over time with much tact on my part with respect to the interventions I might plan.

Now, I mentioned earlier that this “case” is actually more of a composite.  I’ve known many individuals like Tom (and Terri), some of whose personality traits were of such intensity and inflexibility that they constituted a true “disorder.”  Others were not so inflexible or as severely disturbed.  And I can think of two cases that were identical with respect to the presenting issues outlined above but which had very different outcomes.  In one case, the attitudes “Tom” reflected in his statements about men and women were but the tip of the iceberg.  His protestations about the normalcy of “looking” and “flirting” and the attempts he made to manipulate his wife into feeling badly about complaining about these things were really a cover for the troubling beliefs (values) he held about the worth of women and the serial cheating he’d been doing the entire marriage.  All of this was flushed out in the regular confrontation I engaged in with respect to his attitudes and perspectives.  And while this particular Tom was fully aware of both his wife’s concern and her pain, he did not care at all.  Neither was he “open” nor motivated to change.  When his true character became fully evident to his wife, and she realized the kind of intimacy she’d always hoped for simply couldn’t be possible with a person like Tom, the marriage soon dissolved.

The “Tom” in another case was quite different.  While he wasn’t very “open,” especially at first, he wasn’t completely “closed” either.  Still, I had to be careful not to ask too much of him too soon.  But in the end, he was willing to try out some behaviors that he never imagined himself doing (This Tom eventually even attended a play!).  And while his capacity for empathy was impaired, it was not altogether absent, so it improved with careful nurturing.  Tom was intellectually aware of a lot of things.  But as allowed himself to do many of the things I asked him to do (i.e. tasks of incrementally more challenging character) he gained a different kind and level of “awareness” that can only come with the “corrective emotional and behavioral experience” I talk about in Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing.  This kind of awareness inevitably leads to a shift in perspective (Remember, not only do our attitudes and ways of thinking predispose our behavior but also our behavior and the consequences we experience from it shape our attitudes and ways of thinking). And when I confronted him on the attitudes and thinking patterns he displayed regarding women and manliness, the underlying “issues” giving rise to them came to the fore and were dealt with as well. 

In both cases, “Terri” came into the process hoping that improved “communication” would make all the difference. But she quickly came to appreciate how “cheap” talk is and how the different quality of relationship she’d always hoped for with her spouse could only be cultivated by initiating new behaviors, as opposed to talking. And she also reckoned with her own weaknesses of character. She learned that if she stopped backing down when she needed to maintain a firm stand, her self-image would steadily improve. As her self-image and strength of character improved, she began expecting more from her husband and their relationship.  And as she overcame her neurotic denial her level of awareness and ability to see things more objectively improved dramatically. As a result, not only did “Tom’s” full character became more clear to her but also it became clear what the future of the relationship would necessarily be. Terri also came into the process (as so many do) hoping that somebody would say just the right thing or put things in just the right way that Tom would “see” the error of his ways. But to her surprise, what she learned is that the kind of “awareness” she had been looking for was actually more linked to her husband’s “openness” to doing some things differently and eventually realizing the benefits.

Many years of experience have taught me the folly of expending verbally exhorting or otherwise expending any energy trying to get disturbed characters to “see” something.  Long gone are the days when I might have said something like:  “But don’t you see, Tom, that when you (blah blah blah), Terri feels (blah blah blah).”  Besides the fact that “seeing” is rarely the real issue anyway (and, most of the time, they already “see”), the more important question is whether a person has the motivation and willingness to embark on a different behavioral course. Most of the time, when we’re trying to get someone to “see” something, we’re really asking them if they might be willing to at least consider adopting a different point of view. And that’s why openness, not awareness, is the real key to change. And when someone is open and willing, and they try out new behaviors, it’s at least possible that they can come to “see” some things at an entirely different level.

SPECIAL NOTE:  The first Character Matters program is “in the can” as they say in the broadcast biz and you can hear it in it’s entirety by visiting the UCY.TV site. You can also download the podcast and listen to it anytime. And remember, the program is generally first aired live, so you can call in for real time discussion. I must admit to being quite nervous during the first broadcast. But the response so far has been very good, so I’m hoping that with time and some settling of the nerves, the program will only improve, and, hopefully, even expand.