Tag Archives: Cognitive-Behavior Therapy

The Inattentive Thinking of the Disturbed Character

This post is another in a series on the erroneous thinking patterns common to persons of disturbed or disordered character.  Persons with character disorders tend to think in ways that lead to problem social behaviors. Some of the thinking errors I’ve already posted on include possessive thinking (see: The Possessive Thinking of the Disturbed Character), egocentric thinking (see: Egocentric Thinking) and extreme thinking (see: The Extreme Thinking of the Disturbed Character).

Another problematic pattern of thinking common to disturbed characters is Inattentive Thinking.  One of the early researchers on character disturbance, Stanton Samenow, described the phenomenon I call inattentive thinking as a “mental filter” because he observed problem characters to selectively “filter” what goes on around them, paying attention and heed primarily to the things they’re concerned about and disregarding just about everything else.

Disordered characters hear what they want to hear, remember what they want to remember, and learn what they want to learn. They invest themselves intensely in the things that interest them but actively disregard the things they find dull, mundane, or boring. Most especially, they frequently pay little attention to the things that others desperately want them to be more concerned about.

Inattentive thinking frequently accompanies the responsibility-avoidance tactic of “selective attention” (to be discussed in a future series of posts). Although it is sometimes mistaken for biological attention deficiency, this tactic is a more of a deliberate attempt to “tune-out” someone who is trying to make a point, teach a lesson, or get the person to consider something most people regard as important. Disturbed characters will frequently only half-listen or not pay attention at all whenever they hear something they don’t like. Most of the time, the things they find themselves not wanting to hear involve other people’s efforts to get them to submit themselves to pro-social values and standards of conduct. That’s why this erroneous way of thinking is a major reason disordered characters develop a lackadaisical attitude toward accepting social obligations as well as other antisocial attitudes.

People in relationships with disordered characters often wonder how they can be so unthoughtful. The main reason they’re thoughtless is because they simply don’t concern themselves with the kinds of things most of us want them to be concerned about. At other times, people feel like they’re talking to a brick wall whenever they try to make important points or ask for something they need. The reason for this is that the disturbed character doesn’t want to submit himself to the societal expectations most of us obey and therefore tunes-out any perceived requests to do otherwise. In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Barnes & Noble], I give some direct advice on how to deal with a person who thinks inattentively and who uses the tactic of selective inattention. As a therapist, I use the techniques I advocate in all my work with disordered characters. The techniques can empower anyone in a relationship with a problem character and are absolutely essential to a therapist or counselor who wants to have the leverage to promote genuine change in their character-disordered clients.

The Extreme Thinking of the Disturbed Character

I’ve been posting a series of articles on the ways persons with disturbed characters tend to think. Prior posts have addressed their penchants for egocentric thinking and possessive thinking. (See: Egocentric Thinking and The Possessive Thinking of the Disturbed Character).  Disordered characters also tend to perceive things in terms of black-and-white or all-or-none. They might take the position that if they can’t have everything they ask for, they won’t accept anything at all. If someone doesn’t agree with everything they say, they will frame it as not being valued or listened to in any way. If they don’t see themselves as completely on top of a situation and in total control, they will cast their circumstance as being on the bottom and the victim of someone else’s oppression.

This all-or-none and black-and-white type of thinking is what prompts the disordered character’s behavior of carrying things to extremes. In other words, extreme thinking leads to extreme behaviors. Such thinking interferes with a person’s ability to develop any sense of moderation. It also promotes an uncompromising attitude that causes untold problems and fosters abusive, controlling relationships.

Now, extreme thinking is not the same as the manipulation tactic of deliberate exaggeration.  Sometimes disturbed characters deliberately make mountains out of molehills in a manipulative attempt to make others feel guilty or to cave in to their demands.  Rather, extreme thinking is a mindset reflecting an unwillingness to compromise, find middle ground, or develop any sense of balance.  It’s rooted in an inherent stubbornness, inflexibility, and extraordinary demandingness.  It’s also a hallmark feature of the disturbed character that this ridigness is mostly applied to expectations from others.  Disturbed characters rarely place the same demands on themselves that they do for others.  

Dealing with individuals prone to extreme thinking can be truly exasperating. You try to reach some amicable middle ground with them, but it’s next to impossible. Somehow you always end up feeling like they’re saying: “It’s my way or the highway.” There’s no room for negotiation or compromise, and it leaves you feeling like there’s no way to win.  The aggressive personalities (See:  Aggressive Personalities) are among the most prone to display this kind of thinking error.

Extreme thinking and the uncompromising attitude promoted by it are at the root of the obstinate and unyielding behaviors disturbed characters display that can easily decimate a relationship.  A person who thinks in extremes will not be prone to give ground, and giving some ground is essential to reaching compromises in life’s many conflicts.

In any kind of attempt at counseling the disturbed character, extreme thinking needs to be challenged directly and openly.  The purpose of this is not to get the disturbed character to “see” what he’s doing (he already “sees”), but to challenge him to find a more balanced perspective.